The Department of Defense’s annual report on China’s military and security developments provides new details about how China’s military organizes its information warfare enterprise, an area that has been of particular interest to U.S. military leaders.
In 2015, the People’s Liberation Army created the Strategic Support Force, which centralizes space, cyber, electronic warfare and psychological warfare missions under a single organization. The Chinese have taken the view, according to the DoD and other outside national security experts, that information dominance is key to winning conflicts. This could be done by denying or disrupting the use of communications equipment of its competitors.
The 2019 edition of report, released May 2, expands on last year’s version and outlines the Chinese Network Systems Department, one of two deputy theater command level departments within the Strategic Support Force responsible for information operations.
“The SSF Network Systems Department is responsible for information warfare with a mission set that includes cyberwarfare, technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare,” the report read. “By placing these missions under the same organizational umbrella, China seeks to remedy the operational coordination challenges that hindered information sharing under the pre-reform organizational structure.”
As described in previous Pentagon assessments, Chinese military leaders hope to use these so-called non-kinetic weapons in concert with kinetic weapons to push adversaries farther away from its shores and assets.
“In addition to strike, air and missile defense, anti-surface, and anti-submarine capabilities improvements, China is focusing on information, cyber, and space and counterspace operations,” the report said of China’s anti-access/area denial efforts. This concept aims to keep enemies at bay by extending defenses through long range missiles and advanced detection measures, which in turn make it difficult for enemies to penetrate territorial zones.
Cyber theft and collective strategic importance
This year’s report includes two subtle changes from last year’s edition regarding China’s cyber activities directed at the Department of Defense.
While last year’s report documents China’s continued targeting of U.S. diplomatic, economic, academic, and defense industrial base sectors to support intelligence collection, the latest edition points out that China’s exfiltration of sensitive military information from the defense industrial base could allow it to gain a military advantage.
In recent years, China has been accused of leading major hacks on defense contractors and the U.S. Navy, leading an internal review by the Navy to assert that both groups are "under cyber siege,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Additionally, this year’s report points out that taken together, the cyber-enabled campaigns threatened to erode military advantages, a trope often heralded by top leaders.
New strategies and approaches from the U.S. military seek to be more assertive in the defense of U.S. interests from such cyber probes.