How China’s cyber command is being built to supersede its U.S. military counterpart

Servicemen of the People’s Liberation Army of China during the military parade in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. (Wikicommons)

 

As U.S. leaders contemplate a proper definition for “cyberwar,” their counterparts in China have been building a unit capable of fighting such a large-scale conflict.

China’s rival to U.S. Cyber Command, the ambiguously named Strategic Support Force (SSF), is quietly growing at a time when the country’s sizable military is striving to excel in the digital domain.

Though the American government is widely considered to be one of the premier hacking powers — alongside Israel, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom — China is rapidly catching up by following a drastically different model.

The SSF uniquely conducts several different missions simultaneously that in the U.S. would be happening at the National Security Agency, Army, Air Force, Department of Homeland Security, NASA, State Department and Cyber Command, among others.

If you combined all of those government entities and added companies like Intel, Boeing and Google to the mix, then you would come close to how the SSF is built to operate.

After two years in development, China’s SSF is now positioned to surpass its U.S. counterpart in capabilities — a position that seemed unattainable a decade ago.

Blurred weapons

Little is known about the Chinese military outfit, which combines the government’s desire to develop innovative asymmetric warfare capabilities and remotely collect intelligence stored on electronic devices.

“If successful in technological and defense innovation, the SSF could become a vital force for future military competition, as the [People’s Liberation Army of China] seeks to overtake the U.S. military in critical emerging technologies and within these strategic new domains of warfare,” said Elsa Kania, a national security analyst focused on Chinese military developments.

A recently released unclassified report by the Defense Department concerning the state of the PLA highlights the importance of the SSF in the scope of Beijing’s quest to challenge the U.S. in cyber and space weapons development.

“At this point, it’s difficult to come up with a credible estimate of the number of personnel in or budget for the SSF,” Kania said. “I would anticipate that both will be sizable — given the SSF’s apparent scope and scale, as well as the importance of these missions.”

China’s annual defense budget, including a description of resources dedicated to espionage, is kept secret. Chinese government officials have refuted claims in the past that the PLA hacks into foreign targets, although both U.S. lawmakers and private sector researchers have provided evidence to the contrary.

In September 2014, a comprehensive report authored by the Senate Armed Services Committee blamed China for a series of data breaches affecting U.S. Transportation Command contractors. The culprits were able to gain wide access to computers used by these contractors, allowing them to potentially acquire sensitive documents, flight details, credentials and passwords for encrypted emails. Then committee chairman and former Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., described the findings as “evidence of China’s aggressive actions in cyberspace.”

The sophisticated cyberattack on the contractors offers an example of the types of operations that would likely be undertaken by SSF personnel today, experts say.

“Historically, China has denied that they had cyber forces. The establishment of the SSF was an important public acknowledgement that they in fact did,” said Adam Segal, director of digital and cyberspace policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

While most cybersecurity researchers say that Chinese hackers are compromising U.S. government agencies and private businesses less frequently than in years past, the SSF’s progress is noteworthy.

“Chinese leadership has described the SSF as a ‘new-type’ force and force for innovation, incubating some of the [People Liberation Army]’s most advanced capabilities, meaning it will be earmarked significant resources,” said John Costello, a senior analyst with U.S. dark web intelligence firm Flashpoint.

A ‘unique fusion’

In Beijing, the original establishment of the SSF underscored an explicit and expansive reorganization directive with the goal of better integrating and capitalizing on the PLA’s diversity of existing cyber-espionage and disruption, information and space operations, explained Amy Chang, an affiliate of the Harvard Belfer Center’s Cyber Security Project.

“The SSF reflects a broader conception of cyber operations than that assumed by U.S. armed forces,” said Segal, specifically by Cyber Command. For example, information operations, also known as psychological warfare, is aligned with China’s offensive cyber mission because of the way Chinese military officials generally understand cybersecurity.

“Whenever information is shared online it becomes data… and data [manipulation] is cyber to them,” described Chang. “It’s different for the Chinese… They don’t think about ‘cyber’ the way that Americans do.”

Some of the differences that exist between China’s conception of a cyberwar fighting group and the U.S.’s approach come from a difference of military doctrine, domestic rule of law and cultural norms.

While the U.S. military is guided by the Constitution to answer to the American public, the PLA fundamentally supports the ruling party — generals and other top Chinese defense officials are recognized party members. The SSF is, as a result, an extension of The Communist Party of China; targeting dissidents, local hackers and anyone else viewed as a domestic threat is as much a part of its mission as is international espionage. 

A U.S. response

The maturation of the SSF was closely monitored by the Defense Department during the Obama administration, according to Eric Rosenbach, former chief of staff to Obama-era Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and represents the culmination of China’s decades-long effort to build a streamlined force capable of effectively leveraging space, cyber, electronic and other information warfare techniques.

Under Carter’s leadership, the Defense Department pursued the development of what it called its “Third Offset Strategy,” a subtly defined effort to acquire “next generation technologies and concepts to assure U.S. military superiority,” a significant part of which included digital warfare and cyber-espionage technologies.

Full article: How China’s cyber command is being built to supersede its U.S. military counterpart (CyberScoop)

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