Cyber Defense

DOD report cites China's focus on cyber as a weapon of wartime

Tensions between the United States and China are heating up, not only in the physical domain but in cyberspace. In the maritime domain, China has pursued an aggressive posture in both the South and East China Seas, while the United States’ deployment of Special Operations Units and V-22 Ospreys to Japan as part of its “Asian pivot” will likely upset China, given its current deterrent build-up. 

Meanwhile, a new cyber partnership between China and Russia, both emerging as adversaries, has Congress concerned. DOD’s fresh cyber strategy, saying it “will further escalate tensions and trigger an arms race in cyberspace.” China said the United States should try to “promote common security and mutual trust, rather than ‘seeking absolute security for itself.’”

The Defense Department describes many of these threats and more in its annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015,” released earlier this month. Included in the report are details on China’s activities in four emerging areas: electronic warfare, space, cyber and unmanned vehicles.

Electronic warfare

The Pentagon expressed gravity toward China’s increasing capabilities in irregular warfare, specifically electronic warfare (EW). China has begun to incorporate EW within other existing and emerging systems such as aircraft and armored ground, according to the Pentagon. “The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Air Force is rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft, C2, to jammers, to electronic warfare (EW), to datalinks,” the report states. The PLA also is adding these capabilities to its wheeled and tracked armored vehicles.

The report warns lawmakers that China has been conducting information warfare capabilities along with EW and denial and deception. “China’s ‘information blockade’ likely envisions employment of military and non-military instruments of state power across the battlespace, including in cyberspace and space,” the report says. New EW, counterspace and cyberspace capabilities, along with its existing propaganda and other tools, are clear signs China is aiming for “information advantage,” according to the report.

The PLA’s EW strategy focuses on five main components—radio, radar, optical, infrared and microwave frequencies, along with targeting the computer and information systems of its adversaries. The PLA views EW as an “important force multiplier” using the “electromagnetic spectrum weapons to suppress or deceive enemy electronic equipment” and can be employed in support of combat arms, the report states. 

Space and cyber

China’s ramped-up space and cyber capabilities should come as no surprise. In the space domain, China has invested in robust satellite ISR and navigation capabilities, has conducted several tests aimed at developing its ability to conduct attacks on satellites. In 2007, the country blew up one of its old weather satellites and since has conducted test launches of missiles into geosynchronous orbit. China has developed capabilities “designed to limit or prevent the use of space-based assets by adversaries during a crisis or conflict, including the development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers.”

On the cyber side, attacks from China on U.S. government and commercial networks have long been a problem, but what most concerns U.S. military leaders is China’s augmentation of cyber operations with traditional military capabilities. In its report, DOD starkly describes how China is marrying the two and cited examples of simulations China has conducted to test its capabilities;

“The PLA conducts military exercises simulating operations in complex electromagnetic environments, and likely views conventional and cyber operations as a means of achieving information dominance. The GSD Fourth Department (Electronic Countermeasures and Radar) would likely use EW, cyberspace operations, and deception to augment counterspace and other kinetic operations during a wartime scenario to deny an adversary’s attainment and use of information. ‘Simultaneous and parallel’ operations would involve strikes against U.S. warships, aircraft, and associated supply craft and the use of information attacks to impact tactical and operational communications and computer networks. These operations could have a significant impact upon an adversary’s navigational and targeting radars.”    

Moreover, China’s cyber operations serve as a key component of using information systems aggressively.  “First, they allow data collection for intelligence and potential offensive cyber operation purposes. Second, they can be employed to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow response time by targeting network-based logistics, communications and commercial activities. Third, they can serve as a force multiplier when coupled with kinetic attacks during times of crisis or conflict.”

DOD’s report also raised alarms regarding Chinese operations in cyberspace directly against DOD networks. Networks and information was targeted on several occasions in 2014 and could have been used to benefit China’s defense and technology sectors.


DOD reported that China plans to produce upwards of 41,800 land and sea-based unmanned systems between 2014 and 2023, at the tune of $10.5 billion. China had already begun incorporating UAVs into its military exercises in the East China Sea and, in 2013, began developing additional plans for UAV procurement with precision strike capabilities. China has also placed a great deal of importance in stealth technology for future UAVs.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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