China Fights a War Without Firing a Gun
Using cyberwarfare to undermine the US
While experts in the United States are still debating whether cyberwarfare poses a real threat, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made cyberwarfare a fundamental part of its military strategy—one to win a war against an enemy who is militarily superior.
The Epoch Times interviewed former military and intelligence officials who have watched China’s cyberwarfare strategy, and other technological tactics, in different stages of development. Many of their observations agree with the Communist Party’s own military documents, as presented in threat analysis from the Department of Defense.
A battle in the snow-covered Amur Valley began a split between the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communist Party in 1969. When the smoke cleared, a stalemate left the Chinese leadership with a lesson that would underpin their military strategy to this day.
“Russia could not win because they didn’t have the manpower, and China couldn’t win because they didn’t have the technology. So it was mainly a stalemate,” said Terry Minarcin, a former Air Force cryptologist assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA), in a telephone interview.
“China learned a lot from that conflict,” Minarcin said.
Minarcin was trained as a Chinese linguist in the Air Force and intercepted communist communications for nearly 21 years. He retired in 1987, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, and has kept tabs on developments.
After the battle in the Amur Valley, the CCP took a different path from the Soviets and from the West in general in its military development.
While the West has focused on using technology to make combat operations more effective, the CCP has learned to use technology to make war without combat. As the lessons from the Amur Valley were absorbed, the CCP learned to adopt a new form of warfare.
The concept of warfare is often misunderstood as simply the destruction of military targets. Thus the significance of Chinese cyber-attacks and cyber-espionage against businesses and government are often written off.
“When John Arquilla coined the phrase cyberwar in 1993, he framed the concept primarily around nation-state military actors, unfortunately this isn’t the case in the 21st century,” said John Bumgarner, chief technology officer of the U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit, an independent research institute that studies cyber conflicts.
The concept of a military target is often misconstrued. “In the industrial defense era allied forces primarily bombed military and military-industrial targets, but in the cyberdefense era viable targets include civilian-operated critical infrastructures, which all militaries are dependent,” Bumgarner said.
The British even had an “Economic Warfare” military unit that existed in World War II. They are immortalized in a photo displayed at the Churchill War Rooms museum in London, according to Bumgarner.
A strategy to use cyber-attacks and other means to target and destroy the U.S. economy was outlined in “Unrestricted Warfare,” by two Chinese military colonels in 1999.
The document “is really a long-term strategy about how to erode your adversary’s will to fight through means other than armed conflict. One of the primary avenues of attack in this document is economics. Such attacks could take decades to be fully appreciated,” Bumgarner said.
“Economic warfare is really a big issue,” he said. “Eroding segments of another nation’s financial stability can be easily accomplished by stealing proprietary data about a widget, using that information to your advantage to manufacture the widget without incurring all the research and development costs and then selling the widget on the world market at a fraction of the cost. Continually repeating this cycle makes the target nation reliant on you for so many things. Eventually you hold the keys to the kingdom.”
He referred to an incident where the Chinese had stolen plans for furniture designs—many would wonder why a government would bother.“That’s because they can build the furniture cheaper thus shutting down any competitors, which means that everyone has to buy this furniture from China,” Bumgarner said.
Once China has conquered this sector of the furniture industry, its rivals have lost an important economic battle, but may not even realize that this battle is part of a long-range strategy.
There are plenty of individual actors and small organizations launching attacks online. Many of them are minor—the Iranian cyber-army defacing websites, cybercriminals writing malware, and breaches of networks by individual hackers.
A stalemate left the Chinese leadership with a lesson that would underpin their military strategy to this day.
Attacks from China are starkly different, however. They are highly organized, regimented attacks, and the sheer scale outdoes any other actor.
A 2007 Federal Computer Weekly article, citing a naval network warfare command official states that Chinese hackers are the “predominant threat” and are “constantly waging all-out warfare against Defense Department networks.”
Drew Berquist, a former U.S. intelligence officer, and author of “The Maverick Experiment,” told The Epoch Times that the intelligence community is well aware of the issue.
“They’ve been a threat for a while,” Berquist said in a phone interview.
“They’re someone we’ve had to really watch, and they get really involved in all the major cities around the globe,” he said. “They’ve got a strong presence with their intelligence officers right down to cities like Kabul in Afghanistan, as well as here in the United States—you name it. Whether it’s a big country or a third world country, they try to get their claws into it.”
He said that although the CCP has “other methods,” cyber-attacks are among its key focuses.
“When I think of them, I think of the battle that’s going on beneath the surface, it’s more of an infrastructure battle. It’s ‘how do we attack their computer networks, how do we attack their economy, and how do we go about [this with] different means’—not battles and conflicts,”he said.
An Integrated Strategy
From its clashes with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s the CCP learned that when fighting against a highly equipped enemy, the direct route is not the best.
From the late 1990s onward there has been a flourishing of theories of asymmetric warfare in Chinese strategic doctrine, using multiple nonmilitary attack vectors to achieve military outcomes, like the crippling of an enemy’s communications or financial infrastructure.
Cyberwarfare is a central element to the CCP’s asymmetric combat strategy. Much of the theory about modern warfare produced by Chinese military strategists a decade ago can now be seen playing out, and cyberwarfare is key.
The PLA Academy of Military Science text, the Science of Military Strategy, notes, “War is not only a military struggle, but also a comprehensive contest on the fronts of politics, economy, diplomacy, and law.”
A classified State Department report, uncovered by WikiLeaks, revealed that the Chinese regime’s military has launched continuous attacks against U.S. business and government networks since 2002, and that the intensity of the attacks is growing.
The latest, dubbed Night Dragon, used an assortment of vulnerabilities to target and harvest “sensitive competitive proprietary operations and project-financing information with regard to oil and gas field bids and operations,” according to McAfee, a software company that researched the operation.
Night Dragon added to China’s history of cyber-attacks, which have included Operation Aurora, targeting Google in December 2010, and the GhostNet attacks targeting the Dalai Lama, Western officials, and businesses that was uncovered on March 29, 2009.
Cyberwarfare is part of a broader nonkinetic, asymmetric warfare strategy adopted by the CCP against the United States, according to a declassified Department of Defense 2008 China Military Power report.
Included in this are important theoretical developments such as the concept of “Three Warfares,” approved by the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission in 2003.
The “Three Warfares” calls for the use of “Psychological Warfare,”meaning propaganda, deception, threats, and coercion, “Media Warfare,”referring to the campaigns meant to influence public opinion and garner popular support domestically and abroad, and “Legal Warfare,” which uses international and domestic judicial instruments to press for Chinese national interests.