The Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this year bore the earmarks of an operation carried out by China's Strategic Support Force (SSF), a little-known hybrid branch of the People's Liberation Army that combines elements of cyber, electronic, space, and psychological warfare, VOA reported.
The SSF, established on the last day of 2015 as part of an armed forces restructuring introduced early in Chinese leader Xi Jinping's rule, has no exact counterpart in any other country, according to Dean Cheng, a senior adviser on China at the US Institute of Peace and longtime observer of China's military.
In a telephonic interview given to VOA, Dean Cheng said, "The Strategic Support Force brought together China's electronic war forces, Chinese network war forces, which include but is not limited to cyber, and elements of China's space forces. These have been in different bins, if you will, within the PLA."
He added, "Interestingly, it also brings in Base 311, which is responsible for political warfare."
He also said, "Taken together what you have is a force dedicated to making sure that the enemy's information flow is obstructed, and, at the same time, China's own information flow is left relatively unimpeded."
According to a report published in VOA, Larry Wortzel, a China expert, is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council and a regular contributor to the publications of the United States Army War College. Even before the SSF was established, he witnessed China's combined cyber and information warfare.
While Wortzel believes the computer attack was meant to keep some Chinese capabilities hidden from public view, he claims this is not always the case. He said, "Sometimes they do want the outside world to know what they're doing," adding, "Because they want to either deter give a warning to the US and other countries: Look, this is what we're capable of, be careful."
Wortzel compares the SSF to "sort of wrapped in[to] one organization" the US Cyber Command, National Security Agency, US Space Force, and US Strategic Command.
The SSF, according to Wortzel, is trained to carry out systemic attacks, adding that these planned attacks frequently involve gray zone warfare, such as penetration of US and ally organizational structures and operating systems with the goal of weakening or bringing them down.
Wortzel explains, "Their new term is systems destruction warfare, or systems confrontation warfare. Instead of having one force trying to attack another, they recognised that whether it's Japan or the United States, we tend to organise systematically, where we have a command and control, we have intelligence and reconnaissance systems."
According to John Costello and Joe McReynolds in a study published on SSF by the US military's National Defense University in 2018, SSF was launched as part of the PLA revamp as Chinese authorities sought to pivot from land-based territorial defence to extended power projection in emerging domains and beyond their borders, according to VOA.
Wortzel claimed that the new posture and strategy were foreshadowed in writings by some of China's military strategists, including the authors of a book titled "Unrestricted Warfare" released in the late 1990s and a later volume titled "Long-Distance Operations." "The need to target an adversary's homeland and bring the threat to an enemy's civilian population," Wortzel wrote in an analysis published by the United States Army War College, is one of the main concepts advanced in "Long-Distance Operations."
Wortzel told VOA that the author of "Long-Distance Operations," Jiang Yamin was a senior colonel assigned as a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, the PLA's preeminent military studies and strategy institution. He added that Jiang was later promoted to major general and served as deputy director of the military academy's Combat Theory and Regulations Research Department.
Observers increasingly see "long-distance operations" as a suitable description of how Chinese agents, including the SSF, are conducting political warfare in distant lands, attempting to shape the political environment in each country and society in their favour.
Micronesia's president, David Panuelo, recently accused China of waging precisely this type of warfare against his country. Panuelo laid out "engrossing details" in a letter to fellow politicians in his country about how Beijing used spying, bribery, and a personal assault against him to force his government to support Chinese interests.Recently, Canadian security officials were reported to have warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government that the Chinese government was attempting to influence the 2019 and 2021 general elections against parliamentary candidates it did not like, including through disinformation campaigns in cities with large ethnic Chinese populations.
The Chinese frequently refer to political combat as "intense but smokeless wars." The lyrics of a song performed with great fanfare on the 70th anniversary of China's Communist takeover point to the force's combined goal in space and stealth theatres.
According to information later released by the PLA recruitment centre, state media played up a short recruitment film in January, highlighting 5,000 "civil" positions that needed to be filled with the SSF, including engineering positions and posts in a special medical science centre within the SSF.
McReynolds, who has been tracking the SSF, told VOA that the advertisement was intended to draw civilian technical talent to work with the PLA.
In an essay published by the Jamestown Foundation, John Costello, a cyber and Asian security expert, wrote that China "is committing itself completely to information warfare, foreign nations should take note and act accordingly."
Notably, China's newly appointed defence minister, Li Shangfu, served as the deputy commander of SSF when the force was first launched, VOA reported. (ANI)