On November 14, Defense News ran an interesting story by Asia correspondent Wendell Minnick about how the General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) manages cyber warfare activities. Minnick quoted Australian security expert Desmond Ball as speculating that the General Staff may have merged its offensive cyber and electronic warfare activities into an “integrated network electronic warfare” directorate within the General Staff’s Fourth Department. If this sounds too arcane to matter, guess again: the way major military powers organize their network defense, exploitation and attack efforts could decide the outcome of the next big global conflict.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Desmond Ball is right. By merging cyber warfare with electronic warfare in a single military department, the General Staff would be breaking down the bureaucratic barriers between two specialties that both are useful in degrading the command and communications networks of adversaries. Both approaches are “non-kinetic,” meaning they achieve their effects through techniques other than dropping bombs or blowing things up. In the case of electronic warfare, signals are generated that jam or confuse electronic systems operating on similar frequencies. In the case of cyber warfare, attackers use malicious computer code to penetrate information systems and manipulate or disrupt their operations.
These sound like similar kinds of operations, but they really aren’t. Electronic-warfare specialists may use advanced algorithms to attack enemy networks, but they remain outside those networks, modulating power levels and signal transmissions to achieve desired effects. Cyber warfare specialists actually get inside the enemy’s network and use its own software to hijack or deceive it. If cyber warriors are really good at conducting network exploitation or attack missions, adversaries may have no idea their systems have been compromised for years. That sort of delay in enemy situational awareness seldom occurs in electronic warfare, where the effects of an attack are usually obvious to operators within minutes.
It makes sense to understand both aspects of network attack when organizing an integrated war plan, because different wartime scenarios will demand divergent responses, and using both approaches in combination will sometimes produce the best effects. However, we are talking about two separate communities of specialists, one of which (electronic warfare) is relatively mature and the other of which (cyber warfare) is still in its infancy. If combining the two in an integrated organization resulted in the more mature specialty dominating development of the more fledgling specialty, that could be disastrous over the long run. Strategic bombardment probably could have ended World War Two much sooner if U.S. Army leaders had applied it without bias rather than bending it to the needs of ground forces (air power proponents wanted to attack refineries and electric grids rather than enemy forces).
Thus, what looks like an enlightened organizational move by the Chinese General Staff to combine all the methods of network attack in the same directorate actually could backfire by slowing development and application of new methods. We’ve seen some evidence in the U.S. that more traditional military communities would like to subsume emerging capabilities within existing institutional frameworks rather than letting them evolve in an open environment. Over the long run, that could undermine America’s ability to stay ahead of countries like China. The notion that institutional barriers and “stovepipes” are always a bad thing therefore needs to be reexamined. If the barriers protect an emergent skill-set from bureaucratic empire-builders who would retard or pervert its progress, then maybe they serve a useful purpose. We don’t need guys who operate jammers telling cyber warriors how to pursue their craft.
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