To Rule the Invisible Battlefield: The Electromagnetic Spectrum and Chinese Military Power
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We will show you our strategic strength, we are the pillar for the infinite battlefield.
Maneuvering troops miraculously as we pry open the heavenly eye,
Casting nets from heaven to earth with no places for enemy ties to hide
March forward, powerful Strategic Support Force,
Follow the Communist Party’s command, resolutely fight to win!
-“March Forward, Powerful Strategic Support Force”
Lyrics by Wang Xiaoling, Zhao Shixin, Composed by Wang Luming
The fight for electromagnetic spectrum superiority has been ongoing for over a century. The U.S. military’s domination of the spectrum has steadily declined over the past two decades. This is mainly because American defense planners and warfighters have been preoccupied with non-peer adversaries operating in a highly permissive spectrum environment. In the same timeframe, China has been making moves to strengthen its electromagnetic spectrum-enabled capabilities, and has brought itself to near parity with the United States. Five years ago, against the backdrop of broader structural reforms, the People’s Liberation Army took a major institutional step to fuse its previously disaggregated space, network, and electronic warfare elements by creating the Strategic Support Force. Washington views this as evidence of Chinese military leaders’ belief that “achieving information dominance and denying adversaries the use of the electromagnetic spectrum is necessary to seize and maintain the strategic initiative in a conflict.”
From radio waves to gamma rays, the electromagnetic spectrum covers the entire range of light that exists. Modern militaries use radars and other sensors to locate each other and the enemy, wireless computer networks to order supplies and coordinate operations, and jammers to degrade enemy radars or disrupt communications that are critical for effective command and control. The spectrum is what ties everything together. In the Department of Defense’s Electromagnetic Spectrum Superiority Strategy, released last year, the spectrum is identified as an enabler of military operations in other domains, not as an independent warfighting domain in its own right. China follows this development closely and likely shares this assessment at present. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the People’s Liberation Army is also likely crafting its own high-level spectrum strategy. Chinese military strategists increasingly prioritize the exploitation and domination of the electromagnetic spectrum in their evolving military doctrines. To deter China’s adversaries both militarily and psychologically, they advocate the deeper integration of computer networks into electronic warfare, with such capabilities to be used alongside precision kinetic strikes. Anticipating a fast-paced future battlefield, China also appears poised to apply advanced technology such as AI and machine learning to the task of strengthening its electronic warfare capabilities.
Speak the People’s Liberation Army’s Language
The People’s Liberation Army understands electronic warfare in a similar way to the U.S. military, despite a slightly different usage of terms. In their English translations, China uses the terms “electronic countermeasures” and “electronic warfare” interchangeably, which may cause confusion for western defense observers. People’s Liberation Army personnel specialized in all types of electronic warfare operations continue to be called “electronic countermeasures troops,” despite the fact that some of their responsibilities include proactive measures. This is likely a legacy issue — the People’s Liberation Army is a latecomer in acquiring key electronic technologies in military applications, and the term “countermeasures” was the name of the game when China first created this specialized discipline in the late 1970s. From the U.S. perspective, electromagnetic warfare (commonly known previously as electronic warfare) includes three divisions: electromagnetic attack, electromagnetic protection, and electromagnetic support. American electronic countermeasures employ active or passive techniques to impair enemy capabilities and may be used preemptively or reactively — falling under defensive electromagnetic attack. The People’s Liberation Army’s definition of electronic countermeasures covers a much wider scope of both defensive and offensive operations, and it is roughly the equivalent of the term “electronic warfare” in U.S. military doctrine, which refers to any military action involving the use of electromagnetic or directed energy to control the spectrum and attack the enemy. The “soft” and “hard” kill capabilities of electronic warfare discussed in the Chinese writings resemble U.S. doctrine. The term “soft” refers to operations causing disruptions to enemy’s electronic information systems, while “hard” mainly refers to the use of electronic weapons, such as anti-radiation missiles, high-energy lasers, and electromagnetic pulse weapons, to cause direct damage to enemy equipment.
Chinese strategists prioritize “national and military decision-makers” as key targets for strikes under its electronic warfare operations. Other targets include “national information infrastructure,” “strategic early warning systems,” “the military information system,” and “communications systems within the adversary’s national financial, energy, and transportation systems.” This at least partially explains the People’s Liberation Army’s obsession with concepts such as “networked electromagnetic warfare (网络电磁空间战)” or “integrated network and electronic warfare (网电一体战).” The “soft” exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, according to Chinese writers, enables the People’s Liberation Army to “paralyze” or “hijack” the adversary’s systems to achieve a holistic objective of influencing enemy decision-makers. And, by definition, this may be used in conjunction with other political, diplomatic, economic, science and technology, or cultural tools that are non-military in nature.
This does not mean that the People’s Liberation Army fails to see the deterrence value of “hard” electronic warfare means. Quite the contrary — “new-concept electronic countermeasures weapons” such as non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons or high energy lasers are frequently noted by influential military thinkers associated with the People’s Liberation Army as potentially disruptive means to paralyze an adversary’s military and entire society. In 2018, one Chinese military author wrote that “the trend of putting conventional electromagnetic bombs and strategic laser weapons into use has accelerated, which highlights the role of strategic countermeasures as a winning factor … providing military planners with new means for strategic deterrence.”
Active Defense or Offense?
People’s Liberation Army’s doctrine is founded on the concept of “active defense.” This represents China’s strategic defensive posture — integrating deterrence to prevent or minimize conflict, but encouraging both offensive and defensive measures to be taken in all phases of conflict, as well as in peacetime to deter undesired conflict. In the network and electromagnetic domain, the People’s Liberation Army appears to have a track record of taking actions that may be deemed proactive. Chinese strategists openly contend that seeing electronic warfare merely as an operational support function reflects “backward thinking.” The future information battlefield, characterized by the seamless integration of “sensor-to-shooter” operations, requires a mindset shift. Because information dominance is achieved through the control of “major combat front, key geographic location, and critical timing” of adversary operations, electronic warfare is a determining factor throughout the various phases of campaigns. Successful electronic warfare also hinges on an accurate understanding of the interconnectedness of the geographic and information domains. Chinese doctrine advises “imposing cross-domain effects (跨域施效)” on the adversary’s weapon systems that rely on unimpeded access to the spectrum. To achieve “reversed” cross-domain effects and information dominance, regional firepower strikes against critical targets at the right time are key, and should destroy the adversary’s “intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and early warning, navigation and positioning, command communications, and electronic countermeasures platforms.”
Citing American and Russian electronic warfare experiences, People’s Liberation Army researchers advocate the integration of “constant, controllable, and high-impact” network and electronic warfare with “high-intensity and fast-paced” precision strikes. Together, they may cause “irreversible damage and powerful destruction.” According to these Chinese writers, this is the only way to simultaneously “decapitate and blind (断首致盲)” the adversary while “crushing their bones and damaging their body (毁骨伤身)” to sustain the People’s Liberation Army’s advantage and accelerate the operational tempo. The “flexibility, controllability, and pervasiveness of such attacks” enable warfighters to consolidate their exquisite capabilities (聚优) to attack the enemy’s “center of gravity” and destroy key nodes of enemy operation systems to paralyze their combat capabilities. Such key nodes often include command hubs, critical information nodes, communications hubs, and critical networks. Creating advantages early in an assault is also important, and this needs to be achieved though the exploitation of vulnerabilities within the adversary’s operational system of systems. People’s Liberation Army strategists openly lament “the missed opportunity” for hackers from “Yugoslavia and other countries” during the Kosovo conflict. “If only aircraft and missiles were used to carry out strikes on U.S. carriers,” these authors wrote, “it could have been a very different outcome.”
Speed appears to be another key focus in the People’s Liberation Army’s discussions about future electronic warfare capabilities. The advancement of AI and machine learning can significantly accelerate the processing of thousands of unknown, new, and unusual emitters that exist in a complex and constantly changing electromagnetic spectrum battlefield. Although the research is of unknown quality, Strategic Support Force-affiliated academic Wang Shafei and his team reportedly have been focusing on cognitive electronic warfare for years. And, Maj. Gen. Lv Yueguang, one of the People’s Liberation Army’s foremost electronic warfare authorities, sits on China’s national AI strategy advisory committee.
When the Dark Arts Meet Chinese Stratagems
It gets darker. Deceptive stratagems are always at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party and its military. The dark arts of electronic warfare and the invisible, complex, and congested electromagnetic spectrum battlefield provide the People’s Liberation Army strategists almost the perfect test range to perfect their combat theories. Chinese strategists view the deployment of their “electronic countermeasures troops” as an act that is “highly technical, covert, and deceptive.” Although electromagnetic energy is invisible and intangible, as the authors note, it is also prevalent and measurable, while also sensible and controllable. This creates a broad space for the employment of stratagems. Chai Kunqi, likely affiliated with China’s hypersonic weapons program, describes electronic warfare as a “cat and mouse” game and “an exciting landscape of modern warfare that showcases the strategic wisdom of the opposing forces.”
Electromagnetic dominance is about people. Deception targets human decision-makers. Chinese military strategists have long been vocal about establishing spectrum dominance through electronic warfare against an adversary’s space assets to achieve the desired strategic effect. Notionally, the People’s Liberation Army could target satellite uplinks and downlinks supporting intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, early warning, and navigation systems. The consequences could be significant for a joint force air component commander’s planning, decision, and execution cycle, and complicate effective air, ground, and naval operations.
To achieve the above objectives, People’s Liberation Army’s electronic warfare theorists emphasize the deception strategy of “hide the real and inject the false,” affecting signals and information to mislead enemy operators and decision-makers. They also highlight the importance of surprise — as the perceived weaker side in a competition, Chinese authors advise employing asymmetric means to defeat the stronger rival, via a fast electromagnetic spectrum attack against a key vulnerability when least expected.
Publicly available real-world examples of electronic warfare deception remain scarce. But a personnel-centric approach is consistent with People’s Liberation Army’s computer network attack practices. As then U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr noted in his announcement of the indictment of People’s Liberation Army hackers in early 2020:
For years, we have witnessed China’s voracious appetite for the personal data of Americans, including the theft of personnel records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the intrusion into Marriott hotels, and Anthem health insurance company, and now the wholesale theft of credit and other information from Equifax.
Notably, the four hackers indicted in the Equifax case were affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army’s 54th Research Institute, which was subordinate to the Fourth Department of the former People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department. The Fourth Department was responsible for network and electronic countermeasures research. Today, the 54th Research Institute is likely part of the Academy of Military Science, the People’s Liberation Army’s top brain trust for strategy and doctrine development.
Furthermore, People’s Liberation Army thinkers continue to emphasize integrated electronic and network operations, with added emphasis on the application of intelligent technological means such as big data analytics, cloud computing, and deep learning. Electronic warfare is described as an “external disruption (外扰)” while computer network attack is considered “destruction from within (內攻).” Electronic warfare utilizes electromagnetic energy to isolate, obstruct, and destroy enemy’s electronic systems, confusing enemy sensors, disrupt command and control, and degrade joint operations. Computer network operations injects viruses and malware into enemy systems to achieve the same effect on enemy combat system of systems. In a 2017 discussion on space-based electronic countermeasures, an author possibly affiliated with China’s military space program noted that “integrated electronic and network attacks on an adversary’s networked information system can be achieved through satellite datalinks and spoofing … which will significantly improve the combat effectiveness.”
The Strategic Support Force and Beyond
The Strategic Support Force has been described as the most decisive and forward-looking high-end force, and metaphorically as a “hidden card that will deliver the ultimate victory.” The People’s Liberation Army propaganda system has kept the force’s exact mission vague. Most recently, during the National Day military parade in 2019, official Chinese sources described it as a well-trained force that enables the People’s Liberation Army to “achieve leapfrog development of critical disciplines.” It is a joint force, composed of personnel from multiple services. As the U.S. military pursues integrated all-domain operations that victories in future warfare hinge on, service identities, or even the concept of “jointness,” may need to be updated and perhaps replaced with a more function-driven future warfighting concept. The creation of the Strategic Support Force may show that the People’s Liberation Army has put that innovative concept into practice.
However, the Strategic Support Force is only one component of China’s own electromagnetic superiority strategy. A number of other powerful players exist. The People’s Liberation Army has significant stakes in the crafting, testing, and implementation of its electronic warfare doctrine. First and foremost, the role of the military’s spectrum management offices at the Central Military Commission and theater command levels deserves close scrutiny. Deconfliction of one’s own use of the spectrum is critical for success in modern military operations. Despite its awareness of the need for effective spectrum management, it was not until 2016 that the People’s Liberation Army reportedly shifted its focus from equipment testing to combat-oriented spectrum management. Electromagnetic spectrum is inherently dual use — how the People’s Liberation Army is working with its civilian counterparts to manage the spectrum is another understudied topic.
Second, senior level guidance for research support and force planning likely comes from the Central Military Commission’s Science and Technology Commission, the Systems Engineering Academy of the reformed Academy of Military Science, and the Electronic Countermeasures Academy of the People’s Liberation Army’s prestigious National University of Defense Technology. Different service research academies likely also provide input on the People’s Liberation Army’s electronic warfare doctrines. A number of civilian entities should be taken into consideration as well. For example, due to its connections to senior Strategic Support Force personnel, the Chengdu-based University of Electronic Science and Technology of China may also play an important part in providing intellectual support for doctrine development.
Finally, even at the operational level, the Strategic Support Force is not the only command involved with the People’s Liberation Army’s integrated network and electronic attack missions. The Joint Staff Department’s Network and Electronic Bureau (军委联合参谋部网络电子局) is possibly also playing a part. Similar staff functions likely exist at the theater command level as well. Another entity is the Joint Staff Department Network Electronic Countermeasures Group that is attached to the Central Military Commission’s Joint Operations Command and Control Center, which likely coordinates People’s Liberation Army Air Force, Army, Navy, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force electromagnetic spectrum operations. However, it remains unclear how exactly the People’s Liberation Army commands and controls its electronic warfare operations, and how the Strategic Support Force is integrated into theater command electromagnetic spectrum operations in wartime.
Almost every aspect of modern society is reliant on the electromagnetic spectrum. The U.S. military “faces almost impossible odds of winning future competitions if the electromagnetic spectrum domain is insufficiently dominated by western interests,” warned the U.S. Air Force Electromagnetic Defense Task Force in its 2019 study report. That is exactly why Chinese military thinkers are designing theories and practices to exploit the spectrum against the U.S. military — its number one role model and adversary — that it seeks to emulate, compete with, and, if deterrence fails, defeat on the battlefield.
As the Department of Defense moves towards joint all-domain command and control, steps should be taken to address the electromagnetic challenges posed by China. Gaps in electronic warfare capability should be closed. Greater awareness and a renewed spectrum mindfulness are needed at all echelons of the U.S. military. The Chinese electromagnetic spectrum strategy stems from an assessment of its own constraints and limitations, which requires further scrutiny by American observers. More importantly, as the Chinese military continues to modernize, its reliance on the spectrum for military operations will likely grow, so it is vital for U.S. military thinkers to exploit the People’s Liberation Army’s vulnerabilities and counter its advances.
Marcus Clay is an analyst with the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute. This article builds on the introduction chapter of an upcoming report on the People’s Liberation Army and electronic warfare (co-authored with Mark Stokes). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.