By Steve Elwart
A recently published article in the semi-official “China Defense Daily” presents China’s point of view on what type of skills are needed for “a highly effective command system for cyberwar mobilization” and suggests that everyone in China is a potential cyberwarrior.
The author, Huang Chunping, 73, is a key player in China’s space and missile defense programs and is an expert in defense systems, having served as the director of science and technology for the Beijing Institute of Technology.
His position that every Chinese is a potential cyberwarrior is being taken very seriously by security analysts since the website is seen as an unofficial publication of the Chinese government. The article reveals Chinese military thinking as to what kinds of organizations and tactics will be needed to conduct offensive cyberwarfare operations against an adversary, primarily the United States or Russia.
The article states that military and civilian networks are interconnected and with the continuous development of network technology, cyberattacks can cause extensive physical damage to a strategic asset. Iran’s Bushehr nuclear plant, a victim of the Stuxnet computer virus, is held up as an example of a strategic asset suffering from a “web shock” – a large-scale computer virus attack.
The article goes on to state that computer networks can be compared to the human nervous system. A network permeates all facets of the “national body” and if it fails, paralysis will follow. To confront this threat, a country will need to employ new fighting methods as well use unconventional warriors in the execution of that war.
In the past, China always has used a national defense mobilization program, recruiting from all segments of Chinese society. In this new cyberwar, these same segments will be mobilized to fight off any computer-based threat but with different skill sets.
According to this new strategy, network war mobilization is an important element in national defense preparation and will be included in the scope of any national defense war plan.
As a rationale, China points to the United States not only setting up a national cyber command, but also frequently introducing strategic initiatives in cyberspace. (It is said in the cyberwarfare community that whenever there is a meeting in the United States planning cyberwarfare operations there is a parallel strategy session being conducted in Beijing.)
In addition, Russia, Israel, Britain, Korea, Japan and other countries are enhancing their own network security defense and organizing a “network army.” To face the new challenges, China sees itself as needing to set up a national defense mobilization network as well.
This fits in very well with the Chinese psyche. China traditionally has relied on its massive population for its national defense. China has one of the world’s largest military forces, with 2.3 million active members, a reserve force of 800,000, and a paramilitary force of 3.9 million, for a grand total of approximately 7 million. In the past, they could simply overwhelm any attacker by sheer force of numbers. The 20th century brought about a disruption to that defense strategy.
To destroy a factory in World War II, the Allied Forces would have to send over a squadron of 12 to 24 planes. During the Vietnam conflict, the United States would have to send over half a dozen planes. Today with modern weaponry, the United States only has to send one plane to thoroughly destroy a target. This has terrified Chinese war planners. Their numeric superiority had a greatly diminished strategic value.
Using a cyberwar strategy of recruiting millions of computer users to launch an attack would just be an extension of their traditional war-fighting philosophy. In 2005 (the most current year data is available); China reported almost 50 million online computers with 111 million Internet accounts (a good measure on online users). By 2015, the number of new users is expected to reach 500 million.
A Pew Research study shows that most Chinese web users are young, male, and live in major population centers. This means that there is a pool of at least 25 million people that have enough education to participate in cyberwarfare and live in an area with the network infrastructure to support such an attack.
Having this many users launch a denial-of-service (DOS) attack on an adversary could be potentially devastating. To achieve this, China would need a “vertical command hierarchy” that reached into all levels of society.
Huang outlines three things China needs to do to mobilize this massive army:
First, China must mobilize a strategic-level network warfare command structure. This structure would include a unified general command structure, a military services command and control structure, and integration and mobilization resources.
Second, each branch of the military would need to have its own cyberwarfare command and control (C&C) organization. The C&C structures for each branch would report to a central authority in the Chinese high command. These groups would need to carry out simulated combat operations and have the appropriate weapons, equipment and training to carry out realistic training exercises. The exercises would include collaborative strategic level network warfare command organizations within industrial sectors, and have especially strong ties to the information technology sector.
Third, China would need to establish the office of war mobilization. This department would be headed by a network coordinator who would have industry expertise and be able to work with the Defense Ministry’s network warfare team. Combat teams would have distant offensive and defensive capabilities that could change depending on the type of attack being waged.
Offensive capabilities would include launching computer viruses, EMP (electromagnetic pulse) bombs, and tunneling into an adversary’s infrastructures through computer and microchip backdoors. (Backdoors into the U.S. infrastructures are already in place).
Defensive capabilities would include the use of network scanners, network wiretapping devices (called “sniffers”), password cracking programs, EMP shielding, firewalls, and anti-virus software.
China calls this strategy, “Informationization” (xinxihua) and intends to use it as a means of improving the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to use the latest technologies in command, intelligence, training, and weapon systems.
When cyberwarfare breaks out, it is critical to accurately identify an adversary’s network defense technology and equipment sophistication, to marshal the country’s technical reserves and once gathered, catch the enemy off guard. While these offensive operations are being conducted, China would need to track the enemy, maintain their own network security, and protect against attack by the enemy. The ultimate goal would be to seize the initiative in the battle and control the enemy’s “power system network.”
The paper states that cyberwarfare is ultimately a test of professional and technical personnel and the country that has the larger number of network technology professionals will have a strategic advantage in the battle.
Huang concludes the article by saying that to implement this new cyberwarfare strategy, China needs to expand its standing professional and technical personnel. Chinese analysts and officials like to point out that it was the United States that first set up a Cyber Command and thus, in their view, militarized cyberspace. In order to respond to this perceived threat, China needs to learn from this practice and recruit professional and technical personnel, develop a technical training as well as grow a research and development organization to enhance their own combat capacity.
The “whole of society” approach to cyberwarfare, as outlined in the article, recognizes that to control cyberspace, a country needs to have a multi-faceted and widely dispersed warfare fighting capability.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate armed services committee, James Clapper, director of national intelligence, testified that China has made “a substantial investment” in cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering, saying it had a “very large organization devoted to it and they’re pretty aggressive”. He went on to state that China’s growing capabilities in cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering is a “formidable concern” to the United States.
He cited the incident of April 8, 2010, when state-owned China Telecom advertised erroneous network routes that instructed “massive volumes” of Internet traffic to go through Chinese servers for 17 minutes.
“This incident affected traffic to and from U.S. government and military sites, including sites for the Senate, the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as a number of Fortune 500 firms,” he said.
In response to Clapper’s testimony, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters. “I want to emphasize that Chinese law prohibits any cyberattacks including hacking of any form and fights against these types of crimes in accordance with the law,”
Security analysts believe that any country that takes this statement at face value is either very naive or very irresponsible.
Steve Elwart, P.E. is the Senior Research Analyst with the Koinonia Institute and a Subject Matter Expert for the Department of Homeland Security. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.