PLA Stratagems for Establishing Wartime Electromagnetic Dominance: An Analysis of “The Winning Mechanisms of Electronic Countermeasures”

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 3

PLA Army personnel from the Strategic Support Force conducting training for cyber operations.


As Chinese companies assume an ever-more prominent international profile, recent controversies surrounding Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei have rekindled discussions over information security. However, while public debates have mostly focused on peacetime communications security and alleged incidents of espionage, it is also necessary to explore the designs and stratagems of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for dominating the information sphere in a time of war. This article provides analysis of the PLA’s latest treatise for dominating the electromagnetic spectrum (电磁频谱), or EMS, a critical realm that serves as the main carrier of information for modern military forces.

A number of titles exploring “winning mechanisms for informationized warfare” (信息化战争制胜机理) have been published since PLA Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping first proclaimed a personal interest in the subject (People’s Daily, April 21 2016). The Winning Mechanisms of Electronic Countermeasures (电子对抗制胜机理) is one of the more prominent texts that have emerged during this rush to satisfy Xi’s concerns. [1]  

Most significantly, Winning Mechanisms is the only monograph since the initiation of the 2016 PLA reforms that systematically breaks down thinking among PLA strategists in regards to achieving a superior position in the EMS. Authored by a group of electronic warfare (EW) experts from the National University of Defense Technology’s Electronic Countermeasure Institute, Winning Mechanisms is a volume that expresses in detail the PLA EW brain trust’s ideas and stratagems on achieving electromagnetic dominance (制电磁权), which is defined as “guaranteeing the information activity needs of friendly forces in the EMS, while rendering the enemy’s information activities in the EMS ineffective.” The authors specifically champion the use of offensive electronic measures to achieve such goals. [2]

The significance of the EMS cannot be disregarded because it is the main carrier for information in all domains of war. Whoever controls the EMS, and has the ability to deny enemies from effectively utilizing this channel, will retain enormous advantages in securing victory. According to the text, “the winning mechanism” of EMS contests is described as “the inherent basis and path to realizing electromagnetic dominance through electronic offense and defense by way of electromagnetic energy, directed energy, sound energy, and other technical means.” [3]

The PLA’s game plan is divided into four principles and stages: 1) “gather one’s strengths and advantages to achieve a superior starting position” (聚优谋势); 2) pursue “multi-level integration” (多元集成); 3) employ “precise release of energy (精确释能); and 4) demonstrate “effects in multiple areas” (多域显效). The fourth and final stage is the most important one in securing victory, and it is the focus for the majority of EMS stratagems.

Gather One’s Strengths and Advantages to Achieve a Superior Starting Position

Per Winning Mechanisms, careful preparation is needed before launching any attacks, and pre-war preparations allow one to achieve an advantageous starting position. Bringing forward qualitatively and quantitatively superior forces is a must in any war preparations. While quantity can make-up for inferior quality in some cases, the text underlines the importance of quality—not only in terms of hardware, but also in terms of military personnel and their experience, training, and ability to quickly react to ever-changing battlefield conditions. [4] After identifying the forces needed, meticulous operational planning and force arrangement is needed to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses. Careful arrangements of quality forces could bolster one’s capability to speedily seize and keep the initiative. Moreover, having accurate intelligence and a comprehensive understanding of enemy capabilities ahead of battle will enable prompt assessment and decision-making. [5] Such diligent planning will ensure that the PLA will always be ahead of the enemy in conducting sustained offensive operations, and in keeping the enemy off-balance. [6]

The Importance of Multi-Level Integration

The multi-level integration stage focuses on supplying friendly forces with timely intelligence data. Platforms (平台), systems (系统), and “systems of systems” (体系) must be integrated to make sure that friendly forces can effectively move and fight as one. Information and intelligence tie these levels together, guiding the decisions of commanders and operators through the reconnaissance­­–target guidance–strike–assessment loop. In this stage, battlefield intelligence is collected from platforms in land, sea, air, and space through satellites, radars, electro-optical sensors, and electronic intelligence equipment. [7]

Besides integrating friendly forces with intelligence, information support systems encompassing reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, navigation, positioning, guidance, and control need to be strengthened in order to protect them from enemy electronic attacks. In addition, operations security must be further reinforced to prevent the leaking of critical information to enemy forces. [8]

Precise Release of Energy

The third principle involves the precise release of energy, which is important for both tactical and political reasons. The battlefield environment is fast changing; therefore, friendly forces cannot waste time and resources with imprecise attacks. The authors of Winning Mechanisms note that precise attacks avoid collateral damage against civilian electronic infrastructure, which could have negative legal and public opinion ramifications. [9]

Instead of imprecise attacks, friendly forces must identify and strike at “critical nodes” (中枢节点) in the enemy’s network, to be conducted at opportune moments prior to the launching of an all-out offensive. According to the authors’ calculations, destruction of ten percent of critical nodes will collapse the enemy’s information network. In contrast, the network would still remain intact even after 40 percent of “ordinary nodes” (普通节点) are destroyed. Strikes must be therefore be performed in a systematic fashion, and assessments are necessary in improving upcoming attacks. [10]

The attack methods employed—whether they be anti-radiation, directed energy, or electromagnetic pulse weapons—must correspond to the target’s characteristics in order to achieve the most desired effects. Winning Mechanisms divides the types of targets into five general categories: reconnaissance and early warning, wireless communication, guidance and fire control, navigation and positioning, and friend-or-foe identification. [11]

Demonstration of Effects in Multiple Areas

Precise strikes alone cannot secure victory. Winning Mechanisms lays out three broad areas—electromagnetic deterrence, deception, and destruction—as the main areas in which the PLA must confront the enemy. Notably, PLA strategists view winning with minimum use of force as the ideal scenario, and the first two categories (EM deterrence and deception) both incorporate a strong psychological component. The text indicates that, given modern armies’ heavy reliance on electronic equipment, EM deterrence will play a crucial role in forcing the enemy to submit or withdraw. By demonstrating the PLA’s sophisticated electromagnetic strike capability and willingness to employ such means without hesitation, EM deterrence will exploit the enemy’s fear of losing expensive, critical electronic assets. [12]

Per the text, increasing news reports and propaganda on PLA war games is one way of giving adversaries the impression that the PLA is adroit in EW. Intentionally leaking snippets of information regarding the PLA’s advanced “assassin’s mace” (杀手锏) electromagnetic weaponry will also intimidate adversaries. Furthermore, publishing works on EW theories and doctrine could show PLA know-how in striking vulnerable nodes in the enemy information network—thus compelling the enemy to think twice about an EMS face-off with China. [13]

Deterrence is especially effective when the enemy commander is weak-minded. When it is revealed that the PLA has state-of-the-art electromagnetic weapons (such as high-powered microwave weapons) ready and that it is prepared to use them if required, a weak enemy commander will be fearful and retreat—thus accomplishing the goal of winning without fighting. Even if the enemy commander does not fall back, it could create doubt in his or her heart that will make them opt for indecisive, timid actions that will place them in a reactive position. [14]

In conjunction with other methods, electromagnetic destruction will inflict substantive physical damage on enemy forces. Winning Mechanism recommends employing suppressive jamming and firepower simultaneously in order to increase damage to critical nodes in the early warning, communications, and “latent-potential warfare system” (战争潜力系统).  [15] Yet the argument here appears to runs counter to the aforementioned notion of not striking civilian infrastructure—instead, it suggests that civilian infrastructure must also be a target. The text recommends striking telecommunications systems in order to disrupt communications between enemy government and citizenry, foster popular discontent through disrupting the electric power system, and degrade transportation systems that support enemy troop mobilization and deployment. [16]

The authors specifically point out the differences between “deterrence” (威慑), “deception” (欺骗), “threats” (威胁), and “shock and awe” (震慑) tactics. Deterrence shows genuine military capability, and the resolve to use it. Deception presents fake information to the enemy with an intention to mislead; deception may be employed both against enemy personnel and against “smart” weapons. Threats force the enemy into courses of action that they never desired (as opposed to deterrence, which deters the enemy from implementing their original plans). Shock and awe employs one, or a small number, of precise strikes on high valued targets in order to demonstrate PLA capabilities and stun the enemy into submission. [17]

The Critical Importance of Deception

As explicated in Winning Mechanisms, deception has been used by armies throughout history, and remains an integral component of today’s wars. Military deception tactics seek to trick the enemy into taking actions against their own interest through a range of actions that feed the enemy false information. Military deception can be further divided into two types: “confusion deception” (迷惑型欺骗) and “misleading deception” (误导型欺骗). In the first instance, the target could become confused when confronted with a mixture of real and false information—such as the use of decoys to create the illusion of a large incoming force on enemy radars—that will lead to “vacillating decisions or a dispersion of forces” (举棋不定或是处处分兵). In the latter instance, the target is actively fed false information—such as rumors about the surrender of the enemy’s command elements—that could lead opposing commanders into misjudgments. [18]

Deception may be considered a success when the enemy partially or fully accepts the fake information, and acts accordingly. The authors suggest careful design of deception content to fit the enemy commander’s psyche: it must appear to be logical, fitting the enemy’s perception of PLA capability. Deception information must also be delivered in a continuous manner until the target is totally misled or confused. At times, those charged with deception must help the enemy cement his set mode of thinking—such as that substantive strikes will follow in the direction of incoming electronic attacks—in order to surprise the enemy by launching substantive strikes from a totally different direction. Such deception efforts will be most successful if enemy call signs and passcodes are obtained, which will facilitate the use of deceptive communications. [19]


All in all, The Winning Mechanisms of Electronic Countermeasures provides a number of insights regarding the thinking among the PLA’s EW top brass on how to establish electromagnetic dominance in a future conflict. While the book is detailed in outlining the stages and principles of EMS warfare, it nonetheless suffers in a few areas. First of all, the contents are quite abstract at times and lack specific details—especially in regards to examples from the PLA’s own experience. Most examples cited in the title come from wars conducted by the U.S. military. Secondly, as a collectively written volume, the writing is sometimes repetitive, and at times even contradictory (such as the inconsistency regarding whether or not to strike civilian electronic infrastructure). Lastly, the volume is too qualitative, and lacks quantitative data to support some of its claims.

Nevertheless, the treatise is illuminating. Leading PLA EW theorists advocate seizing the offensive initiative with careful planning, intelligence-led force integration, and the use of precision weapons, as well as deterrence and deception tactics to intimidate or confuse the enemy. In the foreseeable future, the electromagnetic spectrum will continue to serve as the main carrier of information, and the side that dominates the EMS will have the greatest chances to prevail in a conflict. This text, from an authoritative source, serves as a window into the thinking of PLA EW experts on how a post-reform PLA could achieve victory in the EMS. While having its share of flaws, Winning Mechanisms nevertheless offers the PLA and China-watching community a reference on how one of the world’s leading militaries plans to conducts itself during a future EMS conflict.

Zi Yang is a Senior Analyst at the China Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Follow him on Twitter @ZiYangResearch.


 [1] Shan Linfeng, Jin Jiacai, Zhang Ke. Dianzi Duikang Zhisheng Jili [电子对抗制胜机理] (“The Winning Mechanism of Electronic Countermeasures”), (Beijing: National Defense Industry Press, 2018).

[2] Ibid., p. 26, and p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

[4] Ibid., p. 48., and pp. 39-40.

[5] Ibid., p. 41, p. 46, p. 55, p. 63.

[6] Ibid., p. 55.

[7] Ibid., p. 67. p. 74, p. 87, p. 94.

[8] Ibid., pp. 83-84, p. 92.

[9] Ibid., p. 103, p. 117.

[10] Ibid., p. 106, p. 118.

[11] Ibid., p. 101.

[12] Ibid., p. 147.

[13] Ibid., pp. 180-181.

[14] Ibid., pp. 166-167.

[15] Ibid., p. 172.

[16] Ibid., pp. 158–159.

[17] Ibid., pp. 148-149.

[18] Ibid., p. 141.

[19] Ibid., p. 146, p. 163-164.