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319 13 U.S. Offensive Cyber Operations in a China-­U.S. Military Confrontation adam segal Defense planners on both sides of the Pacific assume that offensive cyber operations ­ will be part of any military confrontation between the United States and the ­ People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Defense Department’s annual report on the ­ People’s Liberation Army (PLA) states that China is “focusing on counter-­ space, offensive cyber operations, and electronic warfare capabilities meant to deny adversaries the advantages of modern, informationized warfare.” It continues that Chinese “offensive cyberspace operations could support A2/AD (anti access/area denial) by targeting critical nodes to disrupt adversary networks throughout the region.” In addition, the PLA “would likely use EW [electronic warfare], cyberspace operations, and deception to augment counterspace and other kinetic operations during a war­ time scenario to deny an adversary’s attainment and use of information.”1 Chinese defense analysts hold similar assumptions about U.S. operations. In open-­ source articles, ­ PLA authors write extensively about how a technologically advanced competitor ­ will use cyber operations to degrade computer and communication networks and refer to purported uses of cyberattacks by the U.S. military in Iraq, Kosovo, and Af­ ghan­ i­ stan. The Science of Military 13-3547-2-ch13.indd 319 11/08/18 9:31 pm 320 Bytes, Bombs, and Spies Strategy, an authoritative study of the PLA’s strategic thought published by the Acad­ emy of Military Science, argues, “The side holding network warfare superiority can adopt network warfare to cause dysfunction in the adversary ’s command system, loss of control over his operational forces and activities, and incapacitation or failure of weapons and equipment—­ and thus seize the initiative within military confrontation, and create conditions for . . . ​ gaining ultimate victory in war.”2 Not surprisingly, how the United State might deploy offensive attacks designed to deceive, deny, disrupt, degrade, and destroy information and information systems within the PRC and what impact ­ these attacks might have on military and po­ liti­ cal goals is rarely discussed in public by U.S. officials or war planners. It seems a safe assumption, however, that during a conflict the United States is likely to consider striking two types of targets: tactical or operational targets that affect conventional military capabilities; and strategic targets directed at critical infrastructure or at the leadership and the po­ liti­ cal ­ will to continue fighting. Put another way, cyberattacks in a U.S.-­ China military conflict can be designed for denial or punishment. At first glance, attacks meant to block the PLA from using information systems are likely to be more effective and less escalatory than ­ those designed to impose po­ liti­ cal costs on the regime. This chapter argues, however, that the dynamic of Sino-­ U.S. military competition as well as Chinese conceptions of deterrence and crisis management mean that any use of tactical cyberattacks is likely to heighten instability and lead to escalation. U.S. and Chinese policymakers and warfighters would also have to be concerned that third parties would launch cyberattacks, further complicating signaling and escalation control. Moreover, strategic attacks on the leadership’s ability to control the flow of information are likely ­ either to be missed or to be interpreted as existential threats. In the case of the latter, Beijing would quickly assume that the United States was trying to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), thus significantly diminishing the chance that Washington could achieve more limited po­ liti­ cal goals. Despite ­ these significant risks, ­ there can be ­ little realistic expectation that­ either the PLA or the U.S. military ­ will abstain from offensive cyber operations in a military conflict. Instead, this chapter concludes that ­ these risks create shared incentives for preventing escalation from tactical to strategic attacks through dialogue and confidence-­ building mea­ sures. In par­ tic­ u­ lar, the two sides should work to expand discussions on operational planning, conceptions of deterrence and crisis management, and red lines. 13-3547-2-ch13.indd 320 11/08/18 9:31 pm U.S. Offensive Cyber Operations 321 Offensive Cyber Operations: Tactical Targets The potential opportunities and challenges of offensive cyber operations have been well mapped by ­ others. In comparison with conventional weapons platforms, offensive cyber tools may have lower research and development, maintenance, and operation costs. They can operate at high speed (“net speed”) and are versatile, employable across the range of military operations.3 Herbert Lin, for example, describes cyberattacks that threaten the integrity, authenticity, and availability of data...


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