August 30, 2005
By Peter Brookes
Modern warfare is increasingly dependent on advanced computers,
and no country's armed forces are more reliant on the Digital Age
than ours are. This is both the American military's greatest
technological strength - and, regrettably, its greatest
Today, the Pentagon uses over 5 million computers on 100,000
networks at 1,500 sites in 65 countries worldwide. Not
surprisingly, potential adversaries have taken note of our slavish
dependence on cutting-edge, network-centric warfare.
Last year, the Department of Defense suffered a record 79,000
computer network attacks, including some that actually reduced the
military's operational capabilities. In the past, top-flight
military units such as the Army's 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions
and the 4th Infantry Division have been "hacked."
According to Pentagon sources, most attacks on America's "digital"
Achilles' Heel are originating from the People's Republic of China
(PRC), making Chinese information warfare (IW) operations an issue
we'd better pay close attention to.
IW, including network attack, exploitation and defense, isn't a
new national security challenge. Cyberwarfare was all the rage in
the late 1990s, but faded in importance since 9/11 in comparison to
the mammoth matters of Islamic terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan,
IW appeals to many state (and non-state) actors because it can be
low-cost, highly effective and provide plausible deniability to the
attacker. It can launch viruses, crash networks, collect
intelligence and spread misinformation, interfering with vital
friendly military and intelligence operations.
The PRC is serious about cyberwarfare, making the development of
IW capability a top national-security priority. China's military
planners recognize that the U.S. dependence on computers for
command, control, communications and intelligence is a potential
strategic weakness, ripe for exploitation.
China's military has incorporated cyberwarfare tactics into
military exercises and created schools that specialize in IW. It's
also hiring top computer-science graduates to develop its
cyberwarfare capabilities and, literally, create an "army of
According to the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security
Review Commission (USCC): "The Chinese realize that they cannot win
a traditional war against the U.S [in Asia] and are seeking
unorthodox ways to defeat the U.S. in any such conflict . . . while
building up their military power to eventually match or exceed U.S.
military capabilities in East Asia."
China's plan is to develop asymmetrical warfare weapons, including
so-called "assassin's mace weapons," that will allow the PRC to
balance America's military superiority in Asia. These weapons are
also intended to counter, if necessary, existing U.S. military
might by attacking perceived vulnerabilities, such as computer
Supporting these assertions, in 1999, two Chinese colonels
published a book called "Unrestricted Warfare" that advocated "not
fighting" the U.S. directly, but "understanding and employing the
principle of asymmetry correctly to allow us [the Chinese] always
to find and exploit an enemy's soft spots."
The idea that a less-capable foe can take on a militarily superior
opponent also aligns with the thoughts of the ancient Chinese
general, Sun Tzu. In his book "The Art of War," the strategist
advocates stealth, deception and indirect attack to overcome a
stronger opponent in battle.
Overlaying the still-influential Sun Tzu onto modern Chinese
military thought would lead one to see that the People's Liberation
Army (PLA) believes that a Chinese "David" could, in fact, slay an
American "Goliath" using an asymmetrical military option such as
According to the USCC, the PLA cyberwarfare target list is
expansive, including, "forward-based command, control,
communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) nodes, airbases,
aircraft carriers and sea- and space-based command and control
But even more troubling: Potential Chinese cyberattacks aren't
limited to military targets. "Chinese military strategists envisage
attacks on all American vulnerabilities, including civilian
communications systems or on the vital nervous systems of our
economic institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange's
computer system," according to a July 2002 USCC report.
Bottom line: China isn't necessarily America's next enemy, but its
IW efforts/activities provide a cautionary tale to U.S.
policymakers. Fortunately, both the government and the private
sector have devoted significant resources to cybersecurity,
including against terrorists and criminals.
But potential foes are seeking cyber-based, asymmetrical
advantages to overcome America's military might. And with attacks
on Pentagon computers up nearly 50 percent in 2004 over 2003, it's
likely that cyberwarfare will be as important as today's warfare
conducted at sea, on land and in the air/space.
A "digital Pearl Harbor" is by no means a certainty, but then
again, no one believed that terrorists would fly airplanes into
buildings, either. The time to take heed of the cyber threat -
Chinese or otherwise - is now.
Peter Brookes is
a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs and Director of the
Asian Studies Centre at The Heritage Foundation, and was former
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs
in the Office of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from
First appeared in the New York Post
Modern warfare is increasingly dependent on advanced computers, and no country's armed forces are more reliant on the Digital Age than ours are.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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