A new report from the Defense Intelligence Agency provides insights in to how the Chinese military might deploy cyber capabilities in a future conflict.

The report, which provides an overview of China’s entire military, notes the People’s Liberation Army could use cyber capabilities to support military operations in three critical ways:

- Relying on cyber reconnaissance to better plan cyber attacks,

- Establishing information dominance in the early stages of a conflict to constrain an adversary’s actions or slow information warfare activities,

- Expecting that cyber will act as a force multiplier when coupled with conventional capabilities during a conflict.

The report also notes that China’s cyber capabilities could also focus on targeting links and nodes in an adversary’s mobility system.

In 2015, China reorganized and consolidated all of its information-related capabilities – think: cyber, space, electronic warfare, command and control and information operations – under a single entity called the Strategic Support Force centralizing them for overall better command and control.

DIA’s report, as well as other DoD reports on China’s military, note that the SSF marked the first steps in the development of a cyber force – similar to U.S. Cyber Command – by combining cyber reconnaissance, cyberattack and cyber defense capabilities into one organization. This move could help reduce bureaucratic hurdles and centralizing command and control.

A senior defense official, speaking to reporters, cautioned that it is difficult to determine how effective the Chinese military’s cyberattack capabilities could be.

Cyber espionage

The senior defense official also noted that DIA’s assessment focused on how the Chinese would intend to use cyber capabilities in wartime and how that would be different from the Chinese military using cyber for corporate espionage or the theft of intellectual property.

China’s use of cyber to penetrate companies around the world and steal trade secrets for the benefit of Chinese companies has drawn the ire of many nations. The U.S. government has indicted several Chinese, including members of the PLA, for their actions on this front since 2014.

Many cyber experts believe China’s activity has violated international norms. In 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement not to hack each other for the purpose of corporate espionage.

Several cyber threat intelligence organizations have found that the verbal agreement largely worked citing a decline in Chinese activity. However, many of these same firms now suggest that the Chinese has bolstered their activity in this area following the end of Obama’s term.

The report notes that the PLA does play a role in these cyber thefts. However, the report also states China maintains its government and military does not engage in cyber espionage.