Chinese military forms new unit to prep for cyber, space war

A new Strategic Support Force stood up by the Chinese military casts light on the country’s burgeoning military prowess and includes expansion of power and influence regarding cyber, space, and information warfare both in peacetime and in a future war, a Pentagon-sponsored study notes.

The force, which Beijing stood up in late 2015, is not affiliated with the army, air force, navy, or missile force but it is under the direct command of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, the Washington Free Beacon noted, citing a National Defense University report.

The Strategic Support Force blended a number of elements from the People’s Liberation Army advanced warfare and intelligence capabilities under a single command for the first time. A great deal of information regarding the new unit is still unknown, however.

Free Beacon reported further:

The NDU report is one of the first public studies by the Pentagon on China’s use of combined space, cyber, information warfare capabilities and intelligence and espionage forces.

Publication of the report coincides with recent State Department sanctions imposed on Gen. Li Shangfu, deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force.

As director of the force’s Equipment Development Department, Li and the department were hit with financial sanctions Sept. 20 for their role in purchasing Russian jets from a banned state arms exporter. The sale violated a recent U.S. law aimed at pressuring Moscow over its illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The sanctions set off a series of retaliatory actions by the Chinese military including the canceling of U.S.-China military talks, the recall of a visiting PLA admiral and scuttling of a planned visit to China by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The report comes on the heels of new Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. A Chinese destroyer confronted and nearly collided with a U.S. Navy destroyer on Sunda.

“The PLA views cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare as interconnected subcomponents of information warfare writ large,” says the report, titled, “China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era.”

“Understanding the primary strategic roles of the SSF is essential to understanding how China will practice information operations in a war or crisis.”

The report goes onto say that China is rapidly changing its military doctrine from a land-based defense of territory to “extended power projection” throughout Asia and anywhere else Beijing has interests.

“As part of this transition, China’s leaders have expressed a growing desire to protect their country’s interests further afield in the ‘strategic frontiers’ of space, cyberspace, and the far seas,” the report said.

Analysis: China has put a lot of research and resources into developing asymmetric warfare capabilities as a way to overcome often wide technological gaps with the U.S. military. as competition in cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare between the great powers continues to grow.

Included in China’s bag of asymmetric warfare tools are information and political warfare as well, which Beijing can use to much greater effect against the U.S. than vice versa, given Chinese government control over media and the political process. 

The overarching objective of this new force is to effectively deny the U.S. or any Chinese adversary access to space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrums during a conflict. Doing so would negate U.S. technological advantages in delivering precision satellite-guided strikes against Chinese targets, but also by disrupting sensors and denying the U.S. military access to other targeting information.

For a future conflict, “long-range precision strike, far seas naval deployments, long-range unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance, and strategic air operations all rely to varying degrees on infrastructure over which the SSF now wields exclusive control,” the National Defense University report said.

Okay, but it’s not as though the United States has not been making advances in asymmetric warfare. The Army Asymmetric Warfare Group, for instance, provides “relevant observations and solutions to the tactical and operational point of need,” in order to assist U.S. forces in defeating asymmetric threats. And the Pentagon has studied the concept for years, employing solutions as they are found.

Still, the reality is, ‘asymmetric’ is the ability to find a weakness in an opponent’s defenses and exploit it. So what may be a solution today is no longer a solution a year from now (or less). And the fact that the Chinese have created what amounts to a separate military branch dedicated to exploiting U.S. defenses speaks to the importance Beijing is placing in such initiatives.

While that speaks well to American military ingenuity, it won’t mean much if, in a future conflict, all of our technology is negated by an asymmetric capability possessed by the enemy.

“China’s focus on irregular war represents a challenge to U.S. military doctrine, and necessitates new thinking about inherent vulnerabilities in the current American way of war,” the National Interest noted last year.



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