- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Controlling the Information Domain: Space, Cyber, and Electronic Warfare

Kevin Pollpeter


This chapter examines the implications of China’s advances in space, cyber, and electronic warfare technologies.

Main Argument

China’s rapid progress in space, cyber, and electronic warfare technologies holds important implications for Asian security. Chinese military observers and scholars argue that in order to guarantee victory in a modern war, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must first achieve superiority in the information domain, preferably by striking first. The PLA thus intends for its space, cyber, and electronic warfare operations both to gain an asymmetric advantage over the U.S. military and to fulfill its mandate under the “new historic missions” rubric in order to protect China’s interests in space and the electromagnetic sphere.

Policy Implications

  • Advances in these technologies will improve China’s capabilities to protect its national interests and to project power, not just in Asia but also globally.
  • Chinese emphasis on information warfare strikes at the heart of a U.S. military whose superiority is based in large part on networked forces. China’s progress in these areas raises the possibility that U.S. military forces could be delayed or disrupted while the PLA achieves rapid information dominance over a smaller, less advanced military.
  • PLA analysts’ tendency to accentuate the positive offensive outcomes of information warfare while ignoring its limitations and unintended consequences may lead Chinese leaders to use the full spectrum of space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities.

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Since the late 1990s, China’s military has been rapidly modernizing its forces. The increasing role of information in warfare has focused the attention of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on using information and denying its use to enemies. In particular, the role of space-based assets, the ubiquity of electronic systems, and their linkage to computers and computer networks to create systems and “systems of systems” have led to the identification of space operations, electronic warfare, and computer network operations as playing critical roles in information warfare. Chinese advances in these technologies reflect a military that is less focused on conducting a traditional “people’s war” campaign and more focused on using networked information systems to locate, track, and target an enemy while at the same time striking at enemy information systems to deny that enemy these same capabilities.

This chapter discusses Chinese advances in space, cyber, and electronic warfare technologies. It argues that the PLA views space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum as distinct domains that must be seized and defended, and is thus developing technologies and strategies to achieve information superiority. In each technology area China has made significant progress, and in at least two areas—space and cyberspace—the PLA has reached advanced technology levels. The chapter also finds that Chinese strategists advocate using these technologies in decisive first strikes in order to seize the initiative early in a conflict. For less advanced militaries, China’s advances in information warfare portend a PLA that is able to achieve rapid information dominance by using precision strikes against an enemy’s command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. For the most advanced militaries, China’s improvements in information warfare pose an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threat. Specifically, China could target critical systems to overcome U.S. defenses, disrupt offensive operations, and delay the entry of U.S. forces. Continued austerity measures in the United States will only exacerbate this threat.

This chapter first discusses Chinese writings on information warfare and the PLA’s “new historic missions” to gain an understanding of China’s information warfare strategy and its place within PLA operational planning. The chapter then discusses the PLA’s advancements in space, cyber, and electronic warfare technologies, as well as its strategies for their employment. This analysis is followed by a discussion of the likely consequences of such progress for potential contingencies in the western Pacific. Finally, the chapter offers conclusions on the overarching implications of the PLA’s advances in information warfare, based on the likelihood of the use of force by China and its consequences for the U.S. military and China’s neighbors.

Information Warfare

The PLA’s belief that space, cyber, and electronic warfare technologies do not just enable operations but are also separate domains that must be seized and denied to an adversary is rooted in the military’s view of modern warfare. The PLA has nearly shed its doctrine of people’s war and now focuses on fighting and winning “local wars under informationized conditions.” According to this concept, information operations are the most important operational method of modern wars. Chinese writings regard information collection, processing, and transmission, as well as the denial of those capabilities to an adversary, as vital to the successful prosecution of a modern high-tech war and the precondition for achieving supremacy in the air, at sea, and on the ground. [1]

The PLA bases its emphasis on the role of information in warfare on the performance of the U.S. military in multiple wars since the early 1990s. Conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia demonstrated the utility of networked forces using advanced information technology. Over the past twenty years, the U.S. military has become increasingly adept at the collection… [Free preview ends here. See purchase information above.]


[1] Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi, Zhanluexue [The Science of Strategy] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2001), 358.