China’s New Info Warriors: The Information Support Force Emerges

Information Support Force

Xi Jinping has tried to remake the People’s Liberation Army, but he’s recently been forced to undo part of his own creation. In April, China’s military underwent its largest reorganization this decade when the Strategic Support Force was eliminated, and a new Information Support Force inaugurated. Xi has hailed the new force as a “strategic force and a key support for coordinating the construction and application of network information systems.” He added that it would help “smooth information links,” “strengthen information protection,” and “efficiently implement information support,” all of which would be crucial for the military to carry out multi-domain joint operations.

The latest reorganization hints at a combination of frustration and ambition for China’s leaders. The establishment of the Strategic Support Force was a key part of Xi’s 2015-6 military reforms and could have been part of his legacy as the leader of the largest peacetime transformation in the Chinese military’s history. Yet its elimination after only eight and a half years signaled that Xi was willing to trade that achievement for a new arrangement that would better prepare the Chinese military for regional conflicts, especially the high-intensity joint operations necessary to intimidate and, if needed, conquer Taiwan. Indeed, Chinese sources describe the reforms as helping to keep the People’s Liberation Army on track for its 2027 modernization goal, which focuses on preparations for a cross-strait conflict.



While the need for reform suggests a perceived problem, the concern is that structural changes could increase Xi’s confidence in his military’s prospects over the long term. The new force will be tasked with protecting China’s military information systems from cyber and electronic warfare attack and upgrading command-and-control systems to better leverage artificial intelligence, thereby improving the speed and accuracy of Chinese decision-making. Confidence that China’s military is now better organized, resourced, and led to pursue those improvements could complicate deterrence by weakening U.S. advantages in joint all-domain command and control and reducing U.S. abilities to hold at risk key Chinese systems. In response, new investments in U.S. capabilities and doctrine will be needed to ensure that Chinese leaders remain wary about their preparedness in 2027 and beyond.

Information Support

Chinese military doctrine has long contended that the outcome of high-intensity wars will be determined by a contest between opposing systems, sometimes called “systems confrontation” or “systems destruction” warfare. Prevailing in this contest requires the victor not only to be able to destroy their opponent’s critical systems, such as logistics, communications, command and control nodes, and aircraft carriers, but also to protect one’s own systems. Doctrinal writings since the early 2000s have therefore discussed the need to build a capable “information support system” that will enable a joint force to communicate effectively in wartime by maintaining battle networks, transmitting and processing data, and protecting critical information systems from adversary cyber and electronic warfare attacks.

In the 2010s, Chinese sources often discussed these requirements under the label of strengthening “network information systems.” The 2015 Science of Military Strategy, a key textbook for Chinese officers, called for the military to “continuously improve joint combat capabilities based on network information systems,” and to “give full play to the role of information technology.” A 2017 revision of this volume went a step further, describing “joint operations based on network information systems” as nothing less than the “basic form of combat.” This view was endorsed at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, which instructed the military to “increase joint combat capabilities based on network information systems,” a goal repeated at the 20th Party Congress five years later.

Over this period, the military experimented with how best to institutionalize the doctrinal emphasis on information support. Prior to the Xi era, responsibilities for information systems, communications, and command-and-control networks were held by the former General Staff Department’s Informatization Department. After the 2015–2016 reforms, this function moved to the new Joint Staff Department with the title Information Support Base. In another reorganization carried out in 2017–2019, this organization was transferred into the Strategic Support Force as the Information Communications Base — this outfit, according to J. Michael Dahm, controlled various information communications brigades within the five theater commands.

In another innovation, in 2017 a new “information operations group” was revealed at the military’s 90th anniversary parade. Led by a major general, the Strategic Support Force-affiliated group included an “information support team,” as well as electronic reconnaissance, electronic countermeasures, and uncrewed aerial systems formations. A Chinese analyst boasted that because of improving “combat information groups and electronic warfare capabilities, I think that in future local wars under high-tech conditions, we should win.” Nevertheless, references to this “group” receded, overtaken in the 2020s by a new “information technology force,” whose recruitment ads targeting students at elite universities disclosed that it was “mainly responsible for network information support and information security protection tasks.”

Impetus for Reform

Several factors might have contributed to the decision to establish a new Information Support Force. First, Chinese analysts paid close attention to upgrades in U.S. information support systems over the previous decade. Analysts were especially interested in the 2012 announcement that the Defense Information Systems Agency was pursuing a Joint Information Environment program to converge “communications, computing, and enterprise services into a single joint platform that can be leveraged for all Department missions.” They also observed the unveiling of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept in the late 2010s, under which the agency would provide decision-makers with “correct data to help them make informed decisions in real time,” and other innovations such as the use of drones to provide secure battlefield communications.

Second, Russia’s poor performance in the Ukraine conflict demonstrated the risks of failing to provide effective battlefield information support. One Chinese defense industry analysis explained that Russia was historically weak in this domain, dating back to World War II when Soviet tanks lacked communications gear and were easily isolated and destroyed by German anti-tank batteries. This weakness persisted in Ukraine, where the author notes that the Russian military did not destroy Ukraine’s civil communications infrastructure because it needed to rely on those systems to coordinate its own forces. This created serious vulnerabilities because Ukrainian defenders could monitor communications, including between senior Russian generals operating near the front lines, resulting in the loss of several of those commanders.

Third, in the context of U.S. improvements and Russian failures, Chinese analysts observed limitations in their own systems. A 2018 PLA Daily article alluded to “conceptual, organizational, and technical obstacles” hindering the operations of China’s network information systems. The military would need to focus more on “unifying data standards, key links, operating rules, and basic information.” As Samuel Bresnick writes in a new report, other Chinese sources noted difficulties in maintaining secure networks and maintaining “communications in future high-intensity conflicts.” A senior colonel commenting on the rationale for the 2024 reform noted the persistence of problems such as “incompatible software and hardware” between different services and poor information sharing between units. In his view, the new force would “build a solid line of defense in this area and ensure information superiority.”

Fourth was stronger direction for the People’s Liberation Army to prepare for high-end warfighting missions. Specifically, Xi reportedly instructed the military to be capable of defeating Taiwan by 2027 as part of an updated development strategy announced in 2020. Presumably, the need for Xi to announce this goal was based on the observation that its preparations were lagging. Reformers would have scrutinized areas where institutional and technical improvements were needed, including in the information support arena — whose functioning would be key to “information dominance” in any fight with Taiwan and the United States. Chinese commentary hailed the new force as an “important increment in increasing the military’s combat effectiveness” that would “definitely help” achieve the 2027 milestone “on schedule.”

System Improvements

As an institutional innovation, the Information Support Force could improve the leadership’s confidence in pursuing “systems destruction warfare” by further integrating joint combat capabilities “based on network information systems.” This is not a new goal, but the new arrangement could have advantages over its predecessors. No longer buried inside the general departments or the Strategic Support Force, the Information Support Force — along with other existing support forces, including the Cyberspace Force, which is responsible for offensive cyber and electronic warfare, the Space Force, and the Joint Logistic Support Force — is under direct Central Military Commission supervision and can receive guidance from Xi and his top brass. This helps resolve a self-described problem of excessive bureaucracy that prevented forces from “adapting to a readily changing environment.”

Changes in the new force’s status also gives it bureaucratic advantages. Unlike its predecessor, which was likely a grade lower, the force is a theater deputy leader-grade organization, like the other support forces. This means it is relatively senior in the military’s organizational hierarchy and, combined with its direct access to the Central Military Commission, means that it is in a better position to advocate for the resources it needs to complete its mission. Yet it is not too bureaucratically senior — it still ranks one level below the theater commands. As a result, it will be hard for the force to develop into a cloistered (and potentially corrupt) power center oblivious to higher-level directives, such as from the Joint Staff Department and theaters, who will need to coordinate its development and operations.

The new force’s mission to integrate joint combat capabilities will fall to its new leadership. The inaugural commander, Lt. Gen. Bi Yi, is a career ground force officer who spent most of his career in the Northern Theater Command. His qualifications stem mainly from his previous position as a deputy director of the Central Military Commission’s Training and Management Department, which is responsible for setting joint training requirements — putting him in an ideal position to understand the role information systems should play in joint exercises — as well as from his prior role as a Strategic Support Force deputy commander. The new political commissar, Gen. Li Wei, previously served in the Nanjing Military Region (responsible for Taiwan) and has the status of a theater command-grade officer, which gives him an advantage in lobbying on behalf of the force.

An Uncertain Future

The creation of the Information Support Force suggests that the Chinese military continues to study and update its organizations when it needs to. Xi appears not to be content with how the former Strategic Support Force was functioning and accepted military advice that eliminated an entire bureaucracy virtually overnight and created a new one, albeit not out of whole cloth. This decision paints a picture of frustration, on one hand, but also adaptability on the other. Part of Xi’s initial military reforms failed to achieve their goal, but new ideas — probably inspired by a combination of what the United States had been doing right, what Russia did wrong, and the specific needs of the Chinese military — were able to gain Xi’s support. Institutional adaptation, with a practical end in sight, was a higher priority to him than cementing one of his seminal 2015 and 2016 achievements.

If it succeeds at its missions, the force will position the Chinese military to compete more effectively in “systems destruction warfare.” Different services and branches will be able to coordinate more smoothly, adversaries will have fewer options to infiltrate and attack critical network information systems, and technical upgrades will allow commanders to leverage the power of artificial intelligence to make sense of and act upon massive amounts of data in a compressed timeframe. If it works, senior commanders and even Xi himself, sitting directly above this force, will have greater confidence in the military’s ability to succeed in a fast-moving contingency against a well-prepared adversary, thus avoiding the fate of their Russian brethren. The result could be a stronger conviction that China’s military forces have met the 2027 deadline to be better capable of war across the Taiwan Strait.

However, the force’s effectiveness will depend on several key uncertainties. First is its ability to deepen interoperability across the services, which has eluded previous reforms. Second is how well it can support end users. To prove its value, the force will need to work closely with supported commands, just as the Defense Information Systems Agency offers enterprise-level support to geographic and functional combatant commands through its field offices. Yet it remains unclear how the force will coordinate with the Central Military Commission, services, and theaters. It is also unclear whether and how well it will support global operations, which may include managing satellite communications and Beidou navigational satellites. Third is whether, amid competition from private companies, the force can recruit the civilian talent it needs to perform tasks such as software engineering, integrating artificial intelligence, and developing new communications and encryptions modes.

The final and most important variable is whether the People’s Liberation Army can keep pace with U.S. technical advances. For one, the reforms are a reminder that the quest for joint all-domain command and control is not occurring in a vacuum. Adversaries are designing and upgrading their own approaches. The side that is best able to leverage artificial intelligence and other new technologies could gain a decisive advantage — and have more confidence in using force in the first place. The U.S. side might have had a head start, but whether it can retain a lead cannot be taken for granted, and should therefore remain a priority for the Department of Defense as well as U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific (who are working to fashion a more capable combined joint command and control system).

There are also questions about whether the United States can sharpen deterrence. Holding at risk Chinese information systems could present Beijing with severe operational dilemmas and promote deterrence – this is central to how the U.S. military is thinking about implementing its own version of “systems destruction warfare.” The Department of Defense is making new investments in electronic warfare. Budgets for cyber operations are also increasing, supporting new arrangements such as U.S. Cyber Command’s China Outcomes Group. Nevertheless, stronger deterrence will mean, first, understanding the mechanics of China’s new system, which requires a deeper analysis into the communications links holding the system together. It will also mean further investments in the tools needed to target those systems, including the ability to rapidly reconstitute cyber and electronic warfare capabilities in a degraded environment. Finally, U.S. doctrine needs to adapt to a changing adversary structure, including by identifying the key vulnerabilities in the new system, and developing a campaign to reveal select U.S. capabilities that may be able to disrupt China’s ability to maintain resilient military information systems in wartime. Such moves will be needed to undermine any confidence that may have accrued to Xi and his senior general from the latest reorganization.



Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. He is on X at @jwuthnow. This essay represents only his views and not those of National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.