Cyber, space and electronic warfare challenges to the US in the Western Pacific
Compared to the extensive coverage on China’s traditional war-fighting capabilities (e.g. its ‘carrier killer’ anti-ship missiles) far less ink has been spilled on Chinese thinking on the critical systems and nodes (or C4ISR in military lexicon), which enable and enhance these advanced weapons. These systems expand the range, accuracy, and lethality of Beijing’s military power projection.
This war-fighting toolkit includes: long-range precision strike missiles for use in early and preemptive strikes; stealth jet fighters to bypass enemy air defenses, and destroy its command and control centers; anti-satellite missiles to take out critical space-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems; and other emerging technologies such as rail-guns, ‘stealth-defeating’ quantum radars, and autonomous systems.
A more integrated Chinese warfighting force could fundamentally alter the regional military balance, which is already rapidly moving in Beijing’s favor. According to the authors of a Chinese military magazine, China must prepare to fight to safeguard and secure its “central leadership” in the South China Sea.
To be sure, a fully networked fighting force would prove highly effective during a future amphibious assault in the Senkakus, an island blockade against Taiwan, or a blockade on critical trading sea-lanes in the South China Seas — which China’s neighbors would unlikely be unable to resist.
In 2015 as part of broader military reforms, the Strategic Support Force was created to form an “information umbrella” for future integrated joint force operations in the space, cyber, and electronic warfare on the future ‘informatized’ battlefield. A Chinese state-sponsored newspaper, recently claimed China would very soon be able to conduct operations as complex as the 2011 U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden. However, it remains to be seen whether the PLA is able to overcome its deep-seated inter-service rivalry, endemic bureaucratic stove-piping and a lack of combat experience with modern military hardware.
The World’s First “Quantum Power”?
Last year, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite (aka Micius) demonstrating Chinese rapid advances in quantum information science. Beijing is clear-eyed about the potential strategic implicationsquantum technologies will hold for future warfare. Some Chinese analysts have even compared the strategic impact of quantum power with nuclear weapons.
Worryingly for the Pentagon, Chinese strategists appear confident that quantum communications capabilities are already deployable for “local wars” in China’s “near-seas.” If China is able to leapfrog the United States to become the world’s first “quantum power” it will pose a serious challenge to U.S. military-technological superiority — especially to U.S. military stealth and intelligence gathering capabilities.
Underlying the gravity of this challenge, a White House official recently warned that the U.S. information-centric ways of war are increasingly “under siege” from Chinese quantum technology — analogous to China’s own “offset strategy.” China has reportedly already developed a range of disruptive quantum technologies with military applications, such as: “unhackable” quantum cryptography; sophisticated tools to decrypt military communications; and next generation stealth quantum radars.
Despite these challenges, the Pentagon has yet to commit meaningful resources to the development of quantum technologies. Apparently, the policy wonks have concluded that these systems would not significantly enhance military communication security. Instead of taking on this challenge head-on the evidence suggests U.S. funding into critical military technologies (i.e. cyber, space, and quantum) has actually decreased over the past five years.
Even with limited military use, Chinese quantum technologies could radically and irreversibly shift the future military balance in Asia. This paradigm shift could harbinger a far greater asymmetric challenge to the United States compared with China’s other so-called “Assassin mace” weapons e.g. anti-ship and anti-satellite missiles.
“New” Preemptive Strike and Coercive Options for China
Washington’s main fear is this: once the various technical and organizational shortcomings have been overcome, a fully networked war-fighting force will offer Beijing new options in the use offensive weapons for future preemptive and coercive missions in Asia. Specifically, to hold U.S. carrier strike groups and bases in the Western Pacific at risk through lethal cross-domain operations.
Equally worryingly, the possession of these capabilities may embolden Chinese leaders to behave more assertively and aggressively to defend and expand their unresolved (and widely disputed) sovereignty claims — especially in the South China Sea.
As if further proof was needed, a Chinese Ministry of Defense in response to reports that the Trump administration is crafting a new arms package for Taiwan asserted it would be “futile” and “doomed” for Taiwan to consider using military force to prevent unification with Mainland China. These comments clearly signaled to Washington a renewed sense of confidence and resolve; consummate with an increasingly credible warfighting force.
A destabilizing and highly escalatory dynamic is rapidly unfolding in Asia: China and the U.S. are both accumulating increasingly advanced military systems to enable and enhance their respective war-fighting tools, designed to deny the other side the upper hand in the use of these capabilities. During future conflict or crisis, this obsession will incentivize both sides to strike first, to deprive the other the chance of jeopardizing vulnerable battlefield “eyes, ears, brain and nervous systems.”
Unless Washington and Beijing can devise ways to mollify these destabilizing dynamics i.e. reduce the incentives to strike first, the policy implications for U.S.-China relations and future Asian stability will be huge. These deteriorating action-reaction dynamics will lead to downward spirals of uncertainty, insecurity, and instability. Actions and rhetoric taken for defensive purposes will be viewed as aggressive; leading to arms-racing and ultimately conflict.
Dr. James Johnson completed his Masters in Asia Pacific Studies in 2011, and successfully defended his PhD thesis at the University of Leicester in 2016. James has published research and presented conference papers in the following areas: Security Studies; U.S.-China Relations; Nuclear Strategy; Chinese Military Doctrine; and East Asian Security and has worked in the financial sector for 20 years.