Active Defense as a Chinese Military Strategy for Informatized Warfare

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in a speech in New York City on October 11, 2012 that “If we detect an imminent threat of attack that will cause significant physical destruction or kill American citizens, we need to have the option to take action to defend the nation when directed by the President.” This is known as active defense and its a strategy that China had adopted back in the mid-90’s when the PLA decided to mount a revolution in military affairs in order to confront the U.S. military’s new network-centric warfare doctrine.

Recent military writings published in the journal China Military Science continue to emphasize the need for an active defense:[1]
“While post-emptive moves are a self-defensive strategy of defense upon which our military must insist in the opening of war, it is not an effective way to seize the initiative on the informatized battlefield. To achieve the goal of seizing the initiative, the art of controlling war situations in the initial stage of combat must emphasize active offense, striving to dominate the enemy by capturing early moments of opportunities and conquering the enemy in early battles.”
“[O]ur military’s seizure of early moments of opportunities to dominate the enemy by conducting offensive operations cannot be separated from the basic requirements of active defense.”
According to Timothy L. Thomas[2], the author of many books on both Chinese and Russian Informatized Warfare, an informatized offense is part of China’s active defense plan. This is best described in a 2005 article published in Chinese Military Science “Systems of Military Strategy in the Information Age” about which Thomas writes:[3]
“The primary objective consists of paralyzing an opponent’s strategic command systems to introduce the deterrence function. The five steps to this process are striking at an opponent’s strategic command system, their economic foundations, that nation’s transportation infrastructure, the human resources of the country (especially reserve personnel), and the armed strength of the country in question.”
This 5-part strategy was refined in 2011 in a paper written by Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian, “How Do You Fight a Network War?”[4] wherein the authors detailed the following 5 operational forms:

  • Network intelligence
  • Network paralysis
  • Network defense
  • Network psychology
  • Network-electromagnetic integration

Finally, Major General Dai Qingmin, author of New Perspectives on War[5], wrote about the need to expand an information attack beyond combat systems to include the enemy’s critical infrastructure (financial, transportation, communication, and power).

System of Systems
In 2010, Chairman Hu Jintao used the phrase “System of Systems” in describing priorities in strategy and planning for the Peoples Liberation Army[6]. Unfortunately, the exact meaning of the phrase is difficult to determine. It isn’t a concept that’s unique to China. U.S. military writers used the phrase as early as the mid-90’s.[7] Tim Thomas dedicated a chapter in his book to exploring this important topic but wasn’t able to come to a clear distinction between what it means for the PLA versus the U.S. Armed Forces. Thomas quotes one PLA research fellow who said the difference came down to “capabilities and objectives” between the two nations.

In this author’s opinion, the phrase System of Systems as used by Chinese military theorists refers to an over-arching strategy that assumes network dependence by both sides and seeks to gain control over a greater system within which network-centric warfare is a subset. One example might be the dependence that critical DOD bases have upon the public power grid. The local energy provider will be a much softer target than the military base and the base is most likely entirely dependent upon it. Another example of a System of Systems strategy may be corrupting the supply chain that provides the integrated circuitry used in weapons systems. The bottom line is that when faced with a superior adversary, you don’t attack the adversary directly. You attack the systems which sustain him.

Active Defense Workshop at Suits and Spooks DC
This blog post comes from the research that I've been doing for my next book "Assumption of Breach" which will feature a chapter on Active Defense. I'll also be conducting a one hour workshop at Suits and Spooks DC on Feb 8-9, 2013 which examines active defense in Chinese and Russian military theory. Hopefully, Dr. Thomas will get approval from DoD to speak as well. He's been invited - confirmation is pending. Registration is limited so I encourage you to sign up early.

[1] Thomas, Timothy L., Three Faces of the Cyber Dragon, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth, KS, 2012, p. 144
[2] Lieutenant Colonel Timothy L. Thomas, U.S. Army, Retired, is a senior analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.A. from the University of Southern California

[3] Thomas, ibid, p. 151

[4] Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian, “How Do You Fight a Network War?”, Zhongguo Qingnian Bao Online, 3 June 2011

[5] Dai Qingmin, New Perspectives on War, PLA Publishing House, 2008, p.64 (quoted by Thomas, ibid)

[6] Li Huamin, Zhang Kejin, and Fu Wenwu “Fierce Tigers of Tashan Ask for Directions in Guagxi – Record of Actual Events about Group Army of Guangzhou Military Region Building Greater Capability for System of Systems Operations,” Jiefangjun Bao Online, 30 July 2010 (quoted by Thomas, ibid)

[7] Manthorpe Jr., W.H., "The Emerging Joint System-of-Systems: A Systems Engineering Challenge and Opportunity for APL," Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1996), pp. 305–310.