WASHINGTON — The Chinese military is wrestling with shortcomings in fights where access to and control of the electromagnetic spectrum is hotly contested, according to a U.S. Department of Defense assessment.
The spectrum is a critical resource in modern conflicts, as its manipulation enables navigation, communication, deception and even weapons guidance. A dizzying amount of electronic jamming and spoofing is expected in a fight between world powers.
China is aware of its perceived deficiencies and is trying to remedy them, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters in a discussion about the 2023 China Military Power Report. The document is published annually and provides the public in-depth analysis of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and Beijing’s modernization goals.
“Some of the things that they talked about are how they can operate — or need to be better prepared to operate — in what they call a complex electromagnetic environment,” said the official, who declined to be named under rules set by the Defense Department. “They still talk about some of the challenges they’re involved in command and control and coordination, among others.”
The U.S. is reinvesting in electronic warfare and other spectrum-related capabilities after years of decline. China in 2015 established its Strategic Support Force, centralizing its space, information, cyber and electronic warfare efforts.
Further, the PLA is leaning into what’s known as systems destruction warfare. The premise, referenced in the 2022 and 2023 China Military Power reports, envisions warfare no longer solely focused on the decimation of enemy troops. Rather, wars are won by the side that can disrupt, cripple or outright ruin the other’s underlying networks and infrastructure.
The Defense Department has observed Chinese forces “continuing to try to improve their cyber and electronic warfare” arsenals, the U.S. official said.
Both the U.S. and China fold electronic warfare into military exercises. The latter uses the opportunities to test units’ understanding of jamming systems and procedures as well as evaluate research-and-development advancements, according to the report.
“The PLA really sees space, cyber and electronic warfare as very closely interconnected,” the official said. “They’ve written about a concept that they refer to as integrated network electronic warfare for many years.”
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.