In the wake of Russia's demonstrations of advanced electromagnetic spectrum and communications jamming capabilities, most recently displayed in their incursion into Ukraine, China also is upping its game in this space, demonstrating similar capabilities in the Pacific.
The U.S. Department of Defense, in an annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments, assessed that the country is placing greater importance upon EW, on par with traditional domains of warfare such as air, ground and maritime.
"The [People’s Liberation Army] sees EW as an important force multiplier, and would likely employ it in support of all combat arms and services during a conflict," the 2016 report asserts. "The PLA’s EW units have conducted jamming and anti-jamming operations, testing the military’s understanding of EW weapons, equipment, and performance. This helped improve the military’s confidence in conducting force-on-force, real-equipment confrontation operations in simulated EW environments."
According to the report, China’s EW weapons include "jamming equipment against multiple communication and radar systems and GPS satellite systems. EW systems are also being deployed with other sea- and air-based platforms intended for both offensive and defensive operations."
According to some outside experts, the Chinese merge cyber and electronic warfare into a singular discipline.
"Electronic warfare, which in our system, has tended to be hived off into thinking about jamming and various other aspects," Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said during a March 20 event at the think tank. "But for the Chinese has long been characterized as integrated network and electronic warfare. That the two are two sides of the same coin; one focusing on the data, the other on the electronic equipment."
Similarly, a report published by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, a think tank in Tallinn, Estonia, unaffiliated with the multination defense alliance, explained that units within the People’s Liberation Army that were responsible for EW are now assuming the task of computer network operations.
The PLA, in line with the Chinese historic understanding of information as the key to victory, the report stated, has focused on countering American C4ISR systems through GPS jamming, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System countermeasures and synthetic radar jamming. These capabilities would be coordinated with computer network attack tools for a more holistic and complete attack against an adversary's command networks, the report said.
When assessing the capabilities of certain actors in this space, it is important to distinguish their capabilities from how they are used. "Their technical capabilities aren’t limited to them because they’ll sell those technical capabilities to someone else, as will China, as will other folks," John Willison, director of the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center's Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate, told C4ISRNET over the summer on the sidelines of the TechNet Augusta conference.
"We’ve got to factor that in that those capabilities won’t be limited. Now the way they fight is a different perspective and the theater is a different perspective as well."
"When a lot of people talk about threats they talk about box on box — we’ve got a box and they’ve got a box; good starting point," Willison added. "How are those boxes deployed? What’s the quantity? What other things do they work with?"
Officials within the DoD declined to comment or offer many specifics regarding China’s capabilities in this domain or the threat that the United States says they pose to the region.
China does "have an electronic warfare capability that we respect and we train to it," Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the 7th Fleet, which is responsible for the Pacific regions, told C4ISRNET during a February conference.
He described China’s EW capability as all-encompassing, meaning they can employ effects from air-, ground- and sea-based mediums. "They’re growing their capability, but I feel confident that we also have very good capability and can be decisive if called upon."
From the air, China has touted EW payloads outfitted aboard unmanned systems that are capable of disrupting enemy fighter radars and missiles while jamming and spoofing communications between enemy bombers, airborne early warning and control aircraft, other unmanned aircraft and their datalinks between satellites, and land-based missiles below.
"We’re certainly concerned about [China's EW cababilities in the region]," Rear Adm. Nancy Norton, the director of warfare integration for information warfare and the deputy director of Navy cybersecurity, told C4SIRNET. "Even more so, what’s happening in the South China Sea and as they build up what used to be nothing are becoming pretty robust islands for a capability that just expands on the potential for electronic jamming from all of that island mass in the South China Sea."
Brig. Gen. (promotable) Patricia Frost, the head of the Army’s cyber directorate, which places cyber, electronic warfare and information operations under one hat, couched China's EW capabilities under the guise of multi-domain battle.
"What the Army is working on right now is the multi-domain battle concept. U.S. Army Pacific has the lead. So how would we organize and integrate the capabilities to do the [anti-access, area denial] fight to open opportunities for the joint fight," she told C4ISRNET following an appearance at an AFCEA D.C. chapter event on March 22. "How do you get the concept of operation; how do you maybe fight a little differently; and then what are the capabilities that you need that would open those windows of opportunity? So I think we’re still in that kind of conceptual stage."
China's efforts in the Pacific theater can be viewed under similar pretenses as Russia's projection of power and use of jamming capability.
Russia has not taken kindly to Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite state that historically has been under its orbit, drift closer to western arms — NATO and the European Union, for example.
Similarly, China has begun massive land reclamation endeavors in the Pacific Ocean, building man-made islands as a means of both asserting its territorial claims to areas classically under their sphere and projecting power.
These man-made islands further push China's defense perimeter, Scott Harold, associate director at the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at the think tank Rand, told C4ISRNET. The islands, he said, allow China to control the area while breaking regional U.S. alliance networks, and they give China a platform to operate forward.
It's important to recognize that EW and non-contact warfare, in Chinese lexicon, look to deny U.S. operations in areas that China historically regards as its own or, at the very least, valuable assets, Harold added. The U.S. aside, he said
China’s EW capabilities could be used against far less sophisticated nations such as Vietnam, India, Taiwan or Japan, and could complicate those nations' abilities to command and control their own forces.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.