April 19, 2024

The PLASSF: A model for contemporary hybrid- and information warfare


The other new branch established during the 2015 reforms was the PLASSF, designed to adapt the PLA to the strategic-operational landscape of modern hybrid- and information warfare. Its four branches – Cyber Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Space Warfare, and Psychological Warfare – are meant to propel the PLA into the world’s leading informationatized fighting force as well as to create a one-stop-shop intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) apparatus between other branches, thereby breaking historically prevalent communication stovepipes during joint-operations.

Cyber warfare conducted by the PLASSF’s Network Systems Department (NSD) is a cornerstone in the PLA’s strategy. The units under the NSD focus on offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Its primary objective is to safeguard the PRC’s domestic civilian and military networks from external threats while enabling and orchestrating offensive operations when deemed necessary. The cyber warfare branch engages in activities such as hacking, data manipulation, and network exploitation, contributing significantly to the PLA’s ability to navigate the complex landscape of modern warfare. The PRC today engages in the highest number of cyber attacks out of any nation, with regular reports of Chinese hackers targeting sensitive data facilities across the US and Allies, successfully attacking infrastructure, and capturing data with ransomware.

Another pivotal component of the PLASSF are its units focused on electronic warfare. These units specialize in utilizing the electromagnetic spectrum to disrupt or disable an adversary’s electronic systems, including communication networks and radar systems. Equipped with cutting-edge current-generation, and experimental next-generation tools, the EW units of the PLAASF play a crucial role in countering and manipulating the electronic environment on the battlefield. The strategic use of EW enhances China’s overall military capabilities by providing a distinct advantage in disrupting the technological infrastructure of adversaries and ensuring effective A2/AD. On the contrary, the Electronic Countermeasures Brigade is designed to defend the PLA’s forces from adversarial EW activity.

The Space Systems Department (SSD) of the PLASSF focuses on leveraging space capabilities to enhance the PRC’s military strength. As space becomes an increasingly critical domain for military operations, this unit is tasked with protecting the PRC’s civilian and military satellites from potential threats. Additionally, the SSD engages in offensive operations, aiming to disrupt the space-based capabilities of adversaries. By ensuring control and security in space, this unit contributes to the PRC’s comprehensive approach to information dominance, further solidifying the country’s standing in the global strategic arena. Given the space domain’s infrastructurally integral role to the cyber domain, and to information warfare in the four terrestrial domains, the PLASSF’s possession of experimental anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons led the US Congress to warn about threat to American satellites as early as 2016.

The psychological warfare units within the PLASSF play a unique and crucial role in shaping perceptions and behaviors on the global strategic landscape. Engaging in information operations, this unit influences domestic and international audiences through tactics such as propaganda dissemination, social media manipulation, and the spread of disinformation. By controlling the narrative and shaping public opinion, the PLASSF aims to create a favorable environment for the PRC’s strategic objectives. This psychological aspect adds an additional layer to the PLA’s capabilities, highlighting the multifaceted nature of the PLASSF. These units are nebulous, with little open-source data available on them. However, it has been speculated that the PLASSF’s relevant units have been behind instances of election interference in western democracies as well as bot operations on social media.

The PLASSF’s holistic approach to modern warfare is also illustrated by the various training centers and military universities of the PLA having been reorganized under the PLASSF. In line with the concept of ‘civilian-military fusion’ these centers are meant to ensure that a steady flow of STEM-educated young people embark on military careers, cultivating institutional memory and implementation of the strategic-operational concepts of the PLA on the NCO- and junior officer levels of all branches. These universities are also conducive to the fundamental and applied research undertaken in the PRC, facilitating technology sharing between institutions and serving as a framework and catalyst for R&D, platform- and capability development, and force modernization.

Global A&D

Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
Robyn Pirie
Manager Boston
Mark Kipphut
Senior Advisor Dallas
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