Chinese Views on the Information “Center of Gravity”: Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 8

Chinese military experts view satellites as a crucial part of overall network warfare. (Credit: Xinhua)

This paper seeks to examine the intersection of Chinese thought on cyber, space and electronic warfare, particularly in the context of command, control, computers, communication, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (C4ISR) complexes and their use in the current military paradigm. Space warfare is still in a fairly nascent phase of use, just as space is still in its early stages of development and use as a major resource for humanity. The use of military long-range communications systems and the proliferation of complex, layered networks separate from the Internet backbone have only complicated the strategic implications of disruption and denial.

The Internet “Embargo”

An Internet defined by geopolitical lines and “cyber borders” serves China’s interests, both domestically and internationally. Establishing geopolitical boundaries is increasingly being viewed by regimes such as China, Russia and Iran as a mitigating step to subvert many of the strengths from the U.S.-dominated global Internet infrastructure. Tightening border security between national intranets and the wider global infrastructure will be a huge factor in these countries’ defensive protection. Chinese domestic policy regarding Internet businesses and censorship has fostered a de facto protectionist e-commerce: Chinese companies are, by law, required to serve at the behest of government sensors and monitoring apparatuses. Western companies have been banned or, unwilling to comply, have been unable to gain a foothold in the market. This has created an almost entirely separate internal cyber environment, within China spurred on by the participation of nearly 650 million Internet users. Chinese e-commerce has developed to the point where it does not fundamentally need foreign participation, and maintains a healthy business environment in a nearly isolated and independent setting. The Internet in China could be called an almost entirely separate commercial ecosystem: an Internet autarchy.

Chinese commentators and theorists, including Major General Ye Zheng, an Academy of Military Science academician and influential information warfare expert, and to a lesser degree, Lu Wei, the head of the General Office of the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, advocate for increased cyber border protection and defensive systems—if not to control internal dissent than to reduce foreign influence on the Chinese, a sort of “soft blockade” more akin to customs searches and seizures than a hard embargo (People’s Daily Online, July 22, 2014; Huffington Post, December 15, 2014). The technologies advocated, though, would allow China, or any nation with a similar infrastructure, the capability to effect an Internet, or information, “embargo.” As a defensive measure, any country that has created an Internet commerce system with a high degree of autarchy could execute this sort of hard Internet “embargo” without devastating loss.

This is a “nuclear” option, and war planners in China know that. Embargos, or their close cousin, economic sanctions, can be a casus belli for potentially aggressive states, escalate tensions or signal a forthcoming pre-emptive attack. Authoritative Chinese writings make clear that in a conflict scenario where hostilities are inevitable and both information and national security dispositions are strongly in China’s favor, a pre-emptive network attack would be the first salvo in a conflict. [1] To ensure complete cyber borders, China would erect a cyber “great wall” to diminish cyber cross-sections, vectors of attack and points of ingress into critical infrastructure, essentially embargoing incoming and outgoing data to minimize the risk of command and control (C2) implants or network sabotage. It would be likely that other countries, including the United States, would follow suit. It is unclear whether this would be accomplished by physical destruction of the greater Internet backbone, or strong firewalls, packet filtering and deep packet inspection.

Cyber Warfare: The “Nuclear Warfare” of the Information Era

With the rise of precision-guided munitions and the C4ISR complexes that enable them, modern warfare has undergone a transformative shift akin to the logistics innovations noted above. This shift toward extended communications lines, enabled by information networks and satellite assets, has made the principles of total war described by Carl von Clausewitz and Antoine-Henri Jomini extremely relevant today. Ye Zheng himself believes that what nuclear warfare was for the industrial era, cyber warfare will be for the information era. [2] This is not surprising. Nuclear warfare disrupted the concepts of strategic points, massive warfare formations and overwhelming force, upending the “total war” industrial mobilization that required an extensive and complex logistical network. Militaries of the world adapted, with logistics networks becoming streamlined to reduce exposure and platforms becoming more self-reliant and independent.

China’s Calculus For a Pre-emptive Strike

According to authoritative Chinese sources, information warfare and in particular, cyber warfare, operate under similar principles. A preemptive first strike is preferable as it sets the stage for the remainder of the conflict and puts the aggressor in a distinct position of advantage. For nuclear and kinetic warfare this constant preparation in the battlespace translates into constant intelligence preparation of the battlespace. Chinese military strategists, in particular Major General Ye Zheng, have confirmed what Western analysts have suspected for a long-time: The PLA advocates a cyber-posture that makes no differentiation between peace-time and war-time, and, in fact, advocates for a state of perpetual mobilization. In his Lectures on the Science of Information Operations, Ye Zheng notes: “Information attack actions do not distinguish between wartime and peacetime.” [3]

Secondly, Chinese strategy presupposes the use of a pre-emptive strike against a potential aggressor. As soon as cyber warfare becomes a reality in a conflict, potential avenues of attack close, enemy vulnerabilities are mitigated, defenses are drawn up and the covert and presumptive nature of secrecy that is take for granted in peace-time cannot be used as an advantage. The status quo changes and the power of cyber warfare over the Internet decreases considerably. The single greatest vector of attack is destroyed after the first salvos are fired, and the digital soldiers, scouts, spies and saboteurs are exposed or rendered irrelevant. With physical or network access limited by geopolitical borders, Internet embargos and increased cyber security under threat or reality of cyber-attack, the most promising avenue, then, is via the electromagnetic spectrum (for example, wireless radio) that connects these machines. In war-time, the Internet is no longer an option for cyber-attack. Information operations planners have to plan for a contingency where the electromagnetic spectrum is the only viable option.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The electromagnetic spectrum comprises all frequencies of all forms of electromagnetic radiation, which are used for communications, RADAR and optics, among others. It is the “air, land and sea” for extended communications, C4ISR complexes and information technology, forming the medium by which all electronic communication is transmitted. In the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, the editors and writers make clear that in Chinese strategic thought, the electromagnetic spectrum is a fundamental natural domain equivalent with the air, land and sea and they view its defense as a defense of national sovereignty. [4] Simply put, the electromagnetic spectrum must be corralled and defined by China’s geopolitical borders. Its ubiquity and power to transcend national boundaries makes it a potential liability for a nation that heavily censors most forms of media. Both Lu Wei and Ye Zheng, leaders in political and military realms, respectively, tie cyber defense and cyber borders to national defense against threats both internal and external.

Space and the “Information Center of Gravity”

To crouch it in the “supply lines” and “logistics” terminology used earlier, space-based assets, such as satellites, act as crucial strategic relay points, fulfilling the same role in information “celestial lines of communication” as depots and way-points do for terrestrial “lanes of communication,” namely trade, shipping and logistical supply.

The current military paradigm, of which the United States is the undisputed model, heavily relies on these space-based assets in order to wage war. Satellites are relays for long-range command and control. They transmit vital intelligence out of theaters of warfare to domestic intelligence processing facilities, planners and decision-makers. Some even act as strategic sensors, collecting and then transmitting intelligence to war-fighters and intelligence professionals alike.

These satellite assets have become integral parts of isolated battlefield networks and military intelligence networks. These are networks that are “air-gapped” and do not necessarily depend on wired communication for transmission but rather rely on a combination of heavy encryption and authentication measures transmitted over the electromagnetic spectrum to establish links with data nodes and users.

This extended enterprise of networked intelligent machines carrying vast amounts of information to tactical, operational and strategic users has fundamentally revolutionized warfare in what the Chinese would call the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” This shift in extended information supply and C4ISR complexes enabled by space-based assets mirrors the industrial warfare logistical innovations from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. As logistical lines of supply would comprise the key points in their physical centers of gravity, the “celestial supply lines” of networked machines transmitted over the spectrum and relayed by space assets are the strategic nodes of the “information center of gravity.” Major General Chang Xianqi, a professor at the Academy of Equipment and Command Technology, in his book Military Astronautics, further argues that the opening action of any future war will likely take place in space, due to its nature as a center of gravity. [5]

Space, Cyber and Electronic Warfare

The space-based assets that constitute the information center of gravity—those communications satellites and sensors—remain exclusively dependent on the electromagnetic spectrum. Electronic warfare exploits this key vulnerability and essentially affects a “blockade” of information, preventing receivers from being able to collect and process the intended signal.

Cyber warfare, limited in a war-time environment by “Internet embargos,” can still be heavily utilized over the electromagnetic spectrum. The massive resources required to execute this type of attack successfully make it potentially prohibitively difficult. Maintaining the intelligence framework and manpower to ensure the continued viability of an attack is a costly concern. The intended target would have to be important enough that resources dedicated to disrupting it would be well spent. This rings true not just for China, but for any technological advanced nation with an eye for dominance in the space domain. As space assets serve as the backbone of the information center of gravity, they would be a primary focus in developing these type of cyber-electronic weapons.

National Defense University researchers Xiao Wenguang and Li Yuanlei explain that military satellites do not connect with the Internet backbone and remain independent and isolated battlefield networks. Hackers can still invade and disrupt a satellite network or take control of the telecommand of the satellite itself. Essentially, Xiao and Li believe that if military technology is sophisticated enough, one can use electronic warfare to deliver a cyber-attack over satellite communications, using it as a “springboard to invade the enemy’s independent network systems.” [9]

Evidence suggests that Chinese hackers have already conducted an attack on satellite systems similar to what is described above. In its 2011 report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) alleges that Chinese hackers were able to take control of two NASA satellites in 2011, Landsat-7 and Terra EOS AM-1 (U.S.-China Commission, November 2011). The report states that “each experienced at least two separate instances of interference apparently consistent with cyber activities against their command and control systems.” While the vector of attack was not one delivered via electronic warfare, it does highlight the fundamental threat of cyber-attacks against satellite command and control.

Major General Ye Zheng explains in his lectures series Lectures on the Science of Information Operations that technological convergence has increasingly made integrated network and electronic warfare weapons viable on the battlefield. The idea of isolated battlefield networks is becoming a relic of the past, as more and more sophisticated systems pervade modern warfare. Effecting a network “invasion” via injection of malware over the electromagnetic spectrum is a priority, despite serious technological barriers. [10] In the face of these barriers, a simple and brutish electronic “blockade” would suffice and, failing that, a kinetic strike would be the weapon of last resort. It would be simple, effective and have a high degree of expected success.


Satellites are the hallmarks of entrenched powers. The high-cost, technological development and human capital required to field them mandate that only a nation-state with a high degree of development, a successful economy, an inherent military or commercial need and unified political will can develop and deploy them. It is clear that as the developing nations of the world take ever greater steps upward, space will become a hotly contested environment. Chinese predictions of space being the stage for the opening shots in a future conflict will likely be judged prescient. Technological convergence and the slowly enveloping net of information carried by wires, radio and networks will continue to extend into space and wrap these expensive nodes into the greater global information infrastructure. But these costly and immediately outdated satellites are prohibitively expensive to replace and impossible to upgrade. Once in orbit, they cannot keep up with the ever increasing offensive capability of cyber and electronic attack. Once deployed, their operations are at the mercy of their vulnerabilities, whose discovery is often-times not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when.”

The bloated and over-extended supply lines of industrial warfare were upended by the nuclear bomb. With the paradigm of military strategy disrupted by such a weapon, planners had to reckon with the new realities of a changing world. Supply lines were streamlined, overseas logistics bases were consolidated and strengthened and platforms were built to be larger and more self-sufficient. Strategically, the primary centers of gravity of military’s around the world needed to shift. A similar transformation is happening today. Chinese strategists have laid out a clear understanding of the realities of the “information center of gravity” and the role that space, cyber and electronic warfare play. The warning is clear—the very enabling technologies of great military powers could well be their own undoing.


  1. Ye Zheng, ??????? [Lectures on the Science of Information Operations], Military Science Press, 2011, p. 45.
  2. Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian, “??????????????????” [A Matter of National Survival: Looking at the Five Forms of Combat in Cyber Warfare], June 3, 2011.
  3. Ye Zheng, Lectures on the Science of Information Operations, p. 53.
  4. Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Studies Department, ????2013???[Science of Military Strategy (2013 Edition)], Military Science Press, 2013, p. 107.
  5. Chang Xianqi, ????? [Military Astronautics], (Beijing: National Defense Industry Press, 2005), pp. 259–60.
  6. Dai Qingmin, ??????? [An Introduction to the Theory of Integrated Network and Electronic Warfare], Beijing: Liberation Army Press, 2002, p. 33; Ye Zheng, Lectures on the Science of Information Operations, pp. 44–45.
  7. Qi Xianfeng, ?????????? [“Discussions on the Protection of Space Information Systems”], ?????????? [Journal of the Academy of Equipment and Command Technology], 5 (2007).
  8. Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian, “??????????????????” [A Matter of National Survival: Looking at the Five Forms of Combat in Cyber Warfare], June 3, 2011.
  9. Xiao Wenguang and Li Yuanli. “??????????”[Computer Networks and Future Warfare], ???? [Jiangsu Aviation] 1(2007).
  10. Ye Zheng, Lectures on the Science of Information Operations, pp. 91–94.