“Blinding the Elephant:” Assessing PLA Systems Confrontation and the Fight for Information Dominance

In 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, China and the United States become embroiled in a conflict that centers on information dominance. Naval aviators are unable to communicate with their higher command, aviation control mechanisms are rendered inoperable, and sea cable disruption leads to a communication blackout. This contributes to the U.S. becoming “blind” throughout the conflict, leading to poor decision-making that transitions into a nuclear standoff. Known as “systems confrontation,” this theory of warfare focuses on paralyzing an adversary’s ability to communicate between command nodes and tactical elements. It aims to disrupt the cycle of recon, control, attack, and evaluation, and reduce the speed of an adversary’s target acquisition process. While fictional, the novel conveys the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategy currently being implemented in China’s military-strategic guidelines. It is prudent to understand how the PLA will fight its adversaries in an “informationized” war, and whether US efforts to counter PLA systems destruction warfare are adequate.  

In the early 1990s, following the Gulf War and Yugoslavia bombing campaigns, it was recognized that enemy annihilation was no longer a precondition for military success. The U.S., using precision strike and stealth technology, paralyzed command and control (C2) nodes in Belgrade and Baghdad, leaving their militaries relatively intact. The PLA recognized this drastic change in warfare and shifted its military-strategic guidelines from winning wars under high technology conditions to winning wars under conditions of “informationization.” This change featured a greater emphasis on information dominance – depriving an adversary of battlefield situational awareness – through increased cyber infiltration and targeted strikes on C2 networks.   

As illustrated by its refined strategy in the early ‘90s, the PLA aims to win under “informationized” conditions by emphasizing the theory of systems confrontation within its joint operations. Systems confrontation is a duel between opposing military operating systems, with the center of gravity being the information architecture. Through the destruction of key capabilities, weapons, and organized personnel, an enemy’s operating system can be paralyzed. An approach that integrates land, sea, air, cyber, electromagnetic, and space domains can render opposing information systems inoperable, thus achieving information dominance.

The PLA’s theory of victory centers on waging a successful campaign of systems destruction warfare. This entails joint operations that focus on paralyzing an enemy’s operational system and degrading its ability to resist. Strikes can be kinetic or non-kinetic – with targeting centered on the adversary’s information “bottlenecks.” These bottlenecks can be grouped into four target priorities.

First, the PLA will disrupt the flow of information. Within a military’s C2 system, each node relies on transmission sites that relay and retransmit information for situational awareness and target adjudication. Examples include satellites and ground terminals. A well-placed strike, cyber or kinetic, can render maneuverable units informationally isolated and unaware of enemy activity.

Second, it destroys and degrades the information collection capability of an operational system. These targeted components gather information and distribute it across systems. Destruction of these key nodes stops the source of information and renders the system informationally “dry.” Examples include the Air Force’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).  

Third, it will cripple the adversary’s operational targeting infrastructure. Examples can include precision strikes on key positions within the Army’s Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data Systems (AFATADS) network. This disruption can eliminate significant force multipliers within an area of operations and severely limit combat capability when additional fire support is unavailable.

Finally, it disrupts the sequencing and tempo of kinetic operations. Military targeting systems, in conjunction with weapons platforms, operate on a cycle of recon, control, attack, and evaluation (RCAE). Using the example of AFATDS, the destruction of nodes facilitating this process disrupts a commander’s decision-making process by putting him or her in a position where the preferred first option is unavailable. As a result, the commander must slow down, improvise, and identify another weapons platform to adjudicate a target.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) understands the importance of having an informational advantage and started the process of strengthening its information ecosystem by implementing Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). JADC2 eliminates the multi-day process of analyzing a theater of operations and issuing orders, through the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). This system allows for quicker decision-making within the RCAE cycle and provides a multitude of assets for target adjudication when the primary asset is unavailable. It functions within a cloud environment, collecting intelligence and data from sensors throughout a theatre campaign. Using artificial intelligence and advanced algorithms, JADC2 rapidly identifies targets and recommends which one will provide the ideal strategic effect, thus mitigating RCAE interdiction. Current systems, such as AWACS and JSTARS, do not provide the speed necessary for a near-peer conflict. Conversely, JADC2’s speedy integration across multiple domains can allow U.S. combat power to gain and maintain enemy contact, and quickly adjudicate strikes in the face of a systems destruction campaign where every second matters.

JADC2 is a promising solution to prevent PLA information dominance, but its continued reliance on vulnerable technology makes it a partial solution. JADC2 is a product of a technology addiction that plagues the US military. The US military decision process, during training and deployments, relies heavily on video teleconferences and lengthy PowerPoint presentations, and combat leaders rely on vulnerable handheld Global Positioning Systems and Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below software (FBCB2). Commanders, whom this technology benefits most, are increasingly reluctant to acknowledge their reliance, thus increasing their vulnerability to a crippling cyber infiltration. To counter systems destruction warfare, DoD, along with theater commands, must prioritize alternatives that provide immunity to such intrusions, while providing continuity with their headquarters. Rather than doubling down on vulnerable systems, DoD should look to history and prioritize proficiency in several proven low-technological skills and training.

For example, DoD, through the service chiefs, should audit units on their proficiency in implementing VHF, UHF, and other high-frequency communication within Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). High-frequency radios provide durable communication, without the risk of intrusion, and can prevent units from being informationally isolated from their chain of command. Similar examples are currently being implemented amongst Ukrainian citizens who fear Russian cyber attacks will cut off digital communications. 

Second, service chiefs, in conjunction with INDOPACOM, should advocate and prioritize training that centers around analog navigation and de-centralized operations. This can include incentives for graduates of military schools such as the Army’s Ranger School, Sapper School, and the Navy’s Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program (TOPGUN). These schools focus on training in austere conditions where communication is limited and being able to operate off of limited guidance is critical to success. Graduates of these schools should be prioritized for billeting in INDOPACOM operations, and, across the total force, commanders should prioritize these service members for company and platoon leadership.  Having warfighters trained in these schoolhouses, while incorporating JADC2 technology, will increase lethality and strengthen resilience.  

To win a systems confrontation, the US military need not default to its technological superiority. JADC2, while an enabler, is still vulnerable to a crippling cyber intrusion. 2034 illustrates this when an F-35, built with the most advanced information technology, is hijacked remotely through cyber infiltration, leaving a pilot helpless in controlling the plane. DoD planners should approach the fight for information from a different angle where technology and analog systems – in tandem – create strong contingencies since information isolation could be part of the standard operating environment. The U.S. possesses the tools and training from combat experience in World War II and the Global War on Terror to accentuate these initiatives and prepare combat leaders to continue their mission in these environments. Some may posit these experiences as irrelevant because they occurred too far in the past or are unrelated to near-peer conflict. I counter that these lessons are still enduring throughout US Professional Military Education and provide valuable experience in testing systems. This cannot easily be replicated by the PLA because they haven’t been involved in combat operations since 1979. The more warfighters are trained and qualified within these schools and tasks, the more prepared the US military will be in the fight for information dominance.

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