Why the PLA Revealed Its Secret Plans for Cyber War


Much has been made about China’s first public acknowledgement of cyber warriors within the People’s Liberation Army and their alleged capability to conduct offensive military operations in cyberspace.

“This is the first time we’ve seen an explicit acknowledgement of the existence of China’s secretive cyber-warfare forces from the Chinese side,” one expert asserted.

However, these revelations are not groundbreaking (e.g., see the revelations on China’s Blue Army a while back), nor do they constitute a formal strategic doctrine for cyber or military applications of information technology in the event of war. It has been declared Chinese doctrine since 2003 to develop capabilities for information war.

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Some experts note that the announcement could be a sign of a potential power struggle between military and civilian authorities in China, yet this is mere speculation at this stage.

The document in question is the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, a paper usually only published once a generation. The text is authored by high-ranking members of the Academy of Military Sciences, the highest-level research institute of the People’s Liberation Army, with close ties to the Central Military Commission and People’s Liberation Army General Staff Department.

This document, back in December 2013, for the first time dedicated an entire chapter to cyber war, outlining different types of military operations in cyberspace – network reconnaissance, network defense, network attack and network deterrence. In fact, the inaugural inclusion of a chapter on this subject in this latest edition of The Science of Military Strategy is evidence of how slowly the cyber war mission has penetrated such “teaching materials.”

Yet what is most interesting in studying the relevant chapter is not so much China’s (or rather the People’s Liberation Army’s) acknowledgement that it has the capability for offensive cyber operations, but rather the insights it yields in what appears to be a comprehensive Chinese “whole nation” approach to conducting cyber war, something that experts have suspected for many years.

The PLA, the document notes, does field regular cyber warriors or “specialized military network warfare forces” for the usual offensive and active defense operations, including probing networks of potential adversaries. The paper acknowledges that the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Security have also been “authorized by the military to carry out network warfare operations.”

Most interestingly, the document also mentions “external entities” outside the public sector “that can be organized and mobilized for network warfare operations” – a euphemism for the private sector and patriotic hackers.

The majority of cyberspace is created and maintained by the private sector and most cyber weapons have their origins in the non-state sector as well, including sophisticated cyber weaponry. As a consequence, in any cyber conflict, in order for a nation to be able to adequately project cyber power and conduct operations in cyberspace with the maximum impact, it needs the cooperation of the private sector.

The People’s Liberation Army has recognized this fact and consequently opted for a comprehensive “whole nation” approach, which includes elements of civil society (patriotic hackers, university students etc.) when mobilizing for cyber war. This approach may, perhaps more effectively than in Western countries, put civilian and non-state actor capabilities in the hands of senior military decision-makers who can more effectively channel and direct these resources for a variety of operations in cyberspace.

This is perhaps the most revolutionary revelation of the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy.

China has never publicly endorsed an official cyber war doctrine, nor, according to public sources, has it ever shared aspects of a doctrine with the United States. Conversely, the Pentagon briefed the Chinese military leadership on the U.S. military doctrine for defending against cyber attacks last year.

However, China’s Military Strategic Guidelines emphasize that the PLA is focusing on prevailing in “local wars under informatized conditions by 2050.” One way to accomplish this will be by exploiting asymmetrical advantages over its adversary.

Given the United States’ military emphasizes on network centric warfare, it is a fair guess that cyber weapons will be used to disrupt American command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) operations in the event of a conflict.

This is supported by a verdict of scholars from the Academy of Military Sciences Strategic Research Department, who already stipulated in 2005 that “a new pattern of cyberized war is going to appear” given the PLA’s asymmetrical warfighting doctrine.

In addition, the 2013 Defense White Paper notes China’s right to “protect… national security interests in outer space and cyber space,” while stating that “[w]e will not attack unless we are attacked; but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” However, the line between offensive and defensive operations in cyberspace is a blurry one.

Also, the question remains why is the PLA acknowledging the existence of cyber forces when a while back it still denied even the existence of a cyber command?  One explanation might be that it serves a deterrence purpose.

Successful operations in cyberspace depend on good cooperation between three distinct entities — the military public sector, the civilian public sector, and the private sector, which includes the larger civil society — the sum of which constitute a nation’s military power in cyberspace.

Consequently, while the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy does not specifically address China’s cyber war capabilities, the discussion of how the three pillars of cyber mobilization could collaborate in the event of a conflict serves as a clear signaling mechanism to other countries that Beijing is a cyber power to be reckoned with.

Thus, revealing the organizational structure of the PLA cyber forces may serve as a substitute for revealing specific cyber weapons and their capabilities. At the end of the day, China is still interested in pursuing strategic stability in cyberspace and the announcement could specifically be intended to signal the United States to reconsider it cyber war doctrine based on information dominance.

A version of this article was previously published at ChinaUSFocus.com.

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