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PLA’s Information Support Force would ensure secure and more efficient coordination

Pravin Sawhney

In a significant development with implications for modern warfare, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced its second set of reforms on 19 April 2024 with the Chairman, Central Military Commission (CMC) and the commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping handing over the flag of the new arm called Information Support Force (ISF) to his top commanders. The first set of reforms, also under Xi Jinping, were announced in 2015.

In the present set of reforms, a maverick organisation called Strategic Support Force (SSF) created under 2015 reforms was broken down into three arms—aerospace (space) force, cyber force, and ISF. The PLA now has four services—ground forces (army), air force, navy, and rocket force, and four arms, that is, aerospace force, cyber force, ISF, and joint logistics support force. All services and arms report directly to the PLA’s highest policy making body, the CMC. While the services interact at the level of theatre commands, the arms can interact at all levels of combat with Combined Arms Battalion (CAB) being the lowest unit.

A big outcome of making aerospace force and cyber space independent arms is that they can focus more on their strategic task involving whole-of-nation (war zone), as distinct from their battlespace (combat zone) tasks. The PLA wants to use cyber and space capability for strategic deterrence implying they would be in the category of nuclear weapons, but unlike them, readily usable.

Xi Jinping

Before proceeding further, a quick refresher on the SSF, which was created by the 2015 reforms. It was an original operationally useful idea where three inter-connected war domains were brought under one organisation reporting to the CMC. The war domains of cyber, EMS (Electro Magnetic Spectrum), and space under the SSF provided a continuum through which digital information travels. For example, if malware (malicious software) is inserted into cyber space, it uses one of the seven waves which comprise the EMS to transmit. Next, the electromagnetic pulses or signals connect with satellites, which in turn relate to ground stations and space-based sensors, thus making the whole continuum inoperative. This has two operational implications: one, since operations in air, land, sea, and space are dependent on information in cyberspace, it has become the controlling domain in all-domain warfare. The latter is called informatised warfare with Joint Integrated Operations (JIO) at its heart. Thus, commensurate with connectivity (networking) of domains, the criticality of defending cyberspace has grown. And two, since EMS is the foundation domain being the enabler of operations in every other domain (cyber, space, land, air, and sea), without dominance or superiority in this domain, war cannot be won. Combat in EMS is done by electronic warfare (EW). Moreover, to exploit the fog and confusion in enemy ranks owing to denial of information, the SSF had a fourth constituent responsible for conducting psychological war.

The SSF would have been ideal for combat between the PLA and Indian military as the PLA would have been able to exercise total war control resulting in a quick decisive war which would have been fought at the strategic and operational levels only, totally bypassing the tactical level of war. This is because the PLA would have dominated the cyber, EMS, and space continuum because the Indian military can only combat in three physical domains of land, air, and sea. With limited capabilities in cyber, EW, and space, the Indian military regards them as force multipliers to be used by the three services. A war domain implies offensive capabilities to combat, contest, and confront against a peer adversary, which Indian military lacks.

However, a war between peer adversaries like the PLA and the US military will be long drawn much like the ongoing war in Ukraine between Russia and Nato since neither side is able to exercise war control. Hence, they would fight at all three levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical. With comparable capabilities in all war domains, both sides would need to fight in highly contested and adversarial environment involving cyber and electronic fires (with lasers and high-powered microwave weapons which can amplify or disrupt an electromagnetic field, resulting in jamming, overpowering, and deceiving of information), as well as long range precision fires. The electromagnetic spectrum will be contested for both sides, while both will have round the clock situational awareness. This will render command and control, and communication hubs vulnerable. In such an environment, managing software networks through which information passes will be a key challenge for both sides. Hence, the need for the ISF.

The ISF, which will manage the EMS (comprising seven waves) and EW (electronic fires) will be responsible for securing information (drawn from datasets on ubiquitous sensors in all domains) and intelligence (drawn from information) with help from cyber force and space force. To be sure, cyber and electronic fires are two sides of the same coin meant to destroy data. While cyber fires employ software weapons to attack data, electronic fires attack the signals (electromagnetic waves) which carry data. Therefore, managing software networks which are the conduit for information flow by a massive SSF organisation, after extensive experimentation, realistic training and exercises done over nine years (2015 to 2024), was perhaps found to be too unwieldy to focus on networks which are at the heart of PLA’s modern warfare. The latter comprises Informatised warfare and Intelligentised war, which is use of Artificial intelligence (AI) in Informatised war. This implies integration of AI-enabled weapons, AI-enabled software systems (for quick viable options and decision making for commanders), AI-enabled drones (in all physical war domains), AI-enabled cyber, electronic fires (in virtual war domains), AI-enabled war concepts, and AI-enabled software networks which integrate all domains into Internet of Military Things (military version of Internet of Things). The software networks which collect, process, and transmit information with high degree of coordination, accuracy, and speed across all domains should be credible, formidable, and unbreachable by the enemy.

A bit on software networks needs to be understood. The PLA calls the software networks that move information (the PLA considers information as a strategic resource for modern war like hardware and software) across the sensors to shooters through the command hub as ‘operational systems’, while the US military calls them ‘battle networks.’ The Indian military, unfortunately, does not have them as its still follows US military’s war concept of the Eighties called ‘Air-Land Battle’, which focuses on tactical war. The operational networks consist of sensors, shooters, and software medium for automated information flow between the two. This helps the kill chain, a three-part process comprising understanding of situation, deciding on what to engage, and acting to destroy it. By aiding humans with a more effective kill chain—achieving better understanding, making better decision, and taking better actions—an operational system is at the heart of the war outcome.

The PLA follows system destruction warfare where the focus is not on attrition, but on destruction of enemy’s battle networks and communication nodes while protecting one’s own. By denial of information, the enemy would be rendered blind and deaf leading to command breakdown and end of the war in one’s favour. Therefore, while handling over the ISF flag to its commanders, Xi exhorted them, “To build a network information system that corresponds to the requirement of modern warfare and has PLA characteristics.”

The need for secure and resilient networks was also a lesson from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war where Russian EW had played havoc with US’ GPS guided precision ammunition with Ukraine Army. Since GPS signals were weak, they were rapidly overwhelmed by Russian jamming and spoofing resulting in inaccurate firing.

Xi JinpingIn addition to securing networks, both sides will face two more challenges: the need to close the kill chain faster than the other side. And how to manage command and control of physical and virtual war domains since the meaning of manoeuvre will change. Unlike the physical domains of land, air, and sea where manoeuvre depends on geography and domain, in the virtual domains of cyber, electronic, and space, the tempo of war which shapes manoeuvre at the speed of light for cyber and electronic fires and the speed at which satellites orbit will be different. Hence, the command and control cannot be built around geography and domains. It would instead need to be built around mission-sets. Mission-sets imply the need to focus on output rather than input; it would not matter which shooter from which domain is used so long as it delivers the desired result on the target. It would be applicable for both informatised and intelligentised wars. All this will not affect a war between the PLA and Indian military.

Next, closing the kill chain fast would present two challenges. One, edge computing which involves processing of data for information would be done at the source (sensor) itself, instead of data travelling to a central cloud for this task since it would consume more time. Moreover, given the lesson of the Ukraine war, the land battles, instead of higher orbit space capabilities where cyber and electronic fires will be pervasive, would depend on cloud. However, to obviate problem of distance with space assets, both sides are building a network of thousands of small satellites in low earth orbit. The US military has sought help from Elon Musk’s Star link which has been in use in the Ukraine war.

Meanwhile, regarding cloud, smaller would be better, as chances of adversarial attacks would be minimal. Hence, the need for data/information processing and communication to be available at the edge cloud (sensor), from where information could travel directly to the command centre for human commander to decide options (which will be presented by AI-enabled software system) for choosing the best shooter for optimal result.

Moreover, since intelligent network with software defined communications will be difficult to destroy, networks will not be owned by either side, instead they will be owned and contested by both. There will be an adversarial learning environment where the enemy would attempt to mislead the opponent’s machines with AI embedded malware. Across cyberspace, opposing malware will fight it out in the virtual networks; there could be good cyber agents fighting with bad cyber agents (malware). In short, the network itself will become a battlespace. This will put an end to networks as they are known today. It will be replaced by small cloud rather than big or enterprise clouds. The reason being that despite air gap on the cloud, cyber threats will minimise but not end as cyber vulnerabilities will continue to exist.

Thus, the ISF, responsible for security and resilience of intelligent networks will be able to meet four key operational objectives:

  • With data processing on the edge clouds and with help from AI-enabled software systems in the command hub, a commander will get options in quick time for the best shooter(s) to use on the target. This will help in closing the kill chain fast.
  • By quick information fusion at the command hub, a commander will get total situational awareness of the battlespace, as well as advanced indicators and warnings.
  • Reliable networks will help human commanders act intelligently in a dynamic battlespace where there will be humans and intelligent robots, and
  • Intelligent networks will help manage flash floods of battlespace information from innumerable sensors in all war domains.

Now, going back to what Xi Jinping said when unfurling the ISF flag. Xi spoke of the need ‘to build a network information system that corresponds to the requirements of modern war and has PLA characteristics.’ So, what are PLA characteristics distinct from how the US military would fight? While both would consider JIO in all-domain war, namely, PLA’s informatised war and US military’s Multi Domain Operations, the US military, at tactical level follows ‘mission command.’ The latter implies that authority is delegated to the commander at the lowest combat level to use his initiative and ingenuity to accomplish the given task(s). It is believed that the PLA, with a hugely centralised command system, would hesitate to delegate authority to low level commanders since they lack adequate combat experience. This may be true. Hence, for this reason, the PLA, instead of mission command, has been training extensively with ‘mission-sets’, which is about creating an all-domains strike package for desired effect on the target.

Furthermore, with the creation of new arms under the present reforms, the PLA will be able to do individual wars like cyber war, space war, electronic war, missile war, drone war, directed energy (laser and microwave weapons) wars and so on. The individual wars could be stand-alone, or they might be done to reinforce mission-sets. Moreover, PLA units would have cyber, electronic teams as well as software engineers imbedded with them who would be able to write algorithms on the move (not an easy task, but doable after extensive practice) to cater for operational surprises.

Clearly, even as Xi Jinping is focussed on expanding and sustaining his pet Belt and Road Initiative across the world, he has not lost sight of technological advancements in military sciences and the threat that the US poses to its ‘peaceful rise.’ Something that India should take note of. Instead of drawing lessons from ancient and medieval past, great nations look at the future.



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