China’s New Way of War

“Chinese thinkers have clearly stated that the core operational concept of intelligentized warfare is to directly control the enemy’s will. The idea is to use AI to directly control the will of the highest decision-makers, including the president, members of Congress, and combatant commanders, as well as citizens.” — Colonel Koichiro Takagi, senior fellow of Training Evaluation Research and Development Command, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, War on the Rocks, April 13, 2022.

“War has started to shift from the pursuit of destroying bodies to paralyzing and controlling the opponent. The focus is to attack the enemy’s will to resist, not physical destruction” and to cause “the brain to become the main target of offense and defense of new concept weapons… To win without fighting is no longer far-fetched.” — Bill Gertz, describing a report written in 2019 by China’s People’s Liberation Army, in the Washington Times, December 29, 2021.

“The PLA plans to employ all available tools to the overarching objective of reducing an enemy’s will to resist.” — Ben Noon, research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute and Dr. Chris Bassler, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Defense One, September 17, 2021.

“Influencing human cognition requires a large amount of detailed personal information to identify influential individuals or to conduct influential operations according to the characteristics of subgroups of people. China has already collected a massive amount of personal information on government officials and ordinary U.S. citizens…. China has even succeeded in identifying CIA agents operating in foreign countries using such data. These activities are particularly aggressive and coercive in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which the Chinese government considers its territory. Attempts to use digital means to influence elections have also been seen in Taiwan’s recent presidential election.” — Colonel Koichiro Takagi, War on the Rocks, April 13, 2022.

While cognitive warfare may sound like science fiction to most people, experts have cautioned that the US needs to take the threat seriously.

“They should also designate the cognitive arena as a new operational arena, along with land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace, to raise awareness and invest resources. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider how to win the ‘battle of narratives’ to counter the manipulation of public opinion in wartime.” — Colonel Koichiro Takagi, War on the Rocks, April 13, 2022.

Since 2019, China has been pursuing a new concept of war, known as “intelligentized warfare.” The idea is to operationalize artificial intelligence (AI) and the use of unmanned platforms (such as drones) in a way that subdues the enemy, ultimately without having to resort to conventional “hot” warfare. According to the 2019 Annual Report to Congress, “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” written by the Office of the Secretary of Defense:

"The PLA is ... exploring next-generation operational concepts for intelligentized warfare, such as attrition warfare by intelligent swarms[1], cross-domain mobile warfare[2], AI-based space confrontation[3] and cognitive control operations[4]. The PLA considers unmanned systems to be critical intelligentized technologies, and is pursuing greater autonomy for unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater vehicles to enable manned and unmanned hybrid formations[5], swarm attacks[6], optimized logistic support[7] and disaggregated ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] among other capabilities." [Emphasis added.]

What sets China apart in its pursuit of “intelligentized warfare” is not its focus on AI and drone swarming – the US Army, Air Force, and the Navy are all pursuing drone swarm projects and the U.S. Marine Corps is working on so-called kamikaze drone swarms – but the cognitive aspects of intelligentized warfare. According to Colonel Koichiro Takagi is a senior fellow of Training Evaluation Research and Development Command, Japan Ground Self-Defense Force:

Chinese thinkers have clearly stated that the core operational concept of intelligentized warfare is to directly control the enemy's will. The idea is to use AI to directly control the will of the highest decision-makers, including the president, members of Congress, and combatant commanders, as well as citizens. 'Intelligence dominance' or 'control of the brain' will become new areas of the struggle for control in intelligentized warfare, putting AI to a very different use than most American and allied discussions have envisioned.

According to Takagi, Chinese military theorists believe that war as we know it is about to change.

"Chinese theorists, however, are looking further ahead. They believe that the development of information technology has reached its limits, and that future wars will occur in the cognitive domain. The Ardennes Forest of future wars that the Chinese People's Liberation Army intends to exploit is a pathway of direct attack against human cognition, using AI and unmanned weapons. The French builders of the Maginot Line could not imagine the assault of German armored forces from the Ardennes Forest. Likewise, to those of us who have been accustomed to almost three decades of information-age warfare since the Gulf War, intelligentized or cognitive warfare seems a strange and unrealistic way of thinking."

Ben Noon, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, and Dr. Chris Bassler, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, wrote in September 2021:

"PLA theorists argue that intelligentization will center upon a 'cognitive space' that privileges complex thinking and effective decision-making. On battlefields where advanced AI technology enables better decisions, they write, the side that can better integrate human creativity and robotic calculating capacity will hold the crucial edge...

"Above all, intelligentization will aim to achieve advantages in psychological warfare. Theorists describe a 'cognitive confrontation,' in which PLA leaders will psychologically dominate opposing commanders through better and faster decisions. The PLA plans to employ all available tools to the overarching objective of reducing an enemy's will to resist."

In December 2021, the US Commerce Department imposed sanctions on 12 Chinese research institutes and 22 Chinese technology firms, chief among them China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and its 11 research institutes. The reason for this was that they “use biotechnology processes to support Chinese military end uses and end users, to include purported brain-control weaponry,” the Commerce Department said.

According to three reports written in 2019 by the People’s Liberation Army and obtained by the Washington Times, China has been doing brain-control or brain warfare research for several years as part of its work on developing intelligentized warfare.

“War has started to shift from the pursuit of destroying bodies to paralyzing and controlling the opponent”, one of the Chinese reports, which was published in the official military newspaper PLA Daily said, according to the Washington Times.

"The focus is to attack the enemy's will to resist, not physical destruction" and to cause "the brain to become the main target of offense and defense of new concept weapons... To win without fighting is no longer far-fetched."

The PLA reports revealed that China is also working on integrating humans and machines to create enhanced human physiological and cognitive capacities.

“Future human-machine merging will revolve around the contest for the brain,” one of the PLA reports said.

"The two combatant sides will use various kinds of brain control technologies and effective designs to focus on taking over the enemy's way of thinking and his awareness, and even directly intervene in the thinking of the enemy leaders and staff, and with that produce war to control awareness and thinking."

According to the Washington Times:

"Among its various research focuses are 'brain control technologies, such as measuring neuronal activity in the brain and translating neuro-signals into computer signals, establishing uni-directional or bi-directional signal transmission between the brain and external equipment' and 'neuro-defense technology such as 'leveraging electromagnetic, biophysical, and material technologies to enhance human brain's defense towards brain-control attacks'".

Takagi has pointed out that cognitive warfare requires vast amounts of information, but that China already has access to such amounts.

"Influencing human cognition requires a large amount of detailed personal information to identify influential individuals or to conduct influential operations according to the characteristics of subgroups of people. China has already collected a massive amount of personal information on government officials and ordinary U.S. citizens, ensuring a foundation for influencing people's cognition. This includes the confidential data of 21.5 million people from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the personal information of 383 million people from a major hotel, and sensitive data on more than 100,000 U.S. Navy personnel. The Chinese government has then allowed Chinese IT giants to process this large amount of data, making it useful for intelligence activities. In this way, China has accumulated an enormous amount of data over the years, which could be weaponized in the future. China has even succeeded in identifying CIA agents operating in foreign countries using such data. These activities are particularly aggressive and coercive in Taiwan and Hong Kong, which the Chinese government considers its territory. Attempts to use digital means to influence elections have also been seen in Taiwan's recent presidential election."

While cognitive warfare may sound like science fiction to most people, experts have cautioned that the US needs to take the threat seriously.

“The United States and its allies should analyze intelligentized warfare more to avoid surprise attacks in future wars,” Takagi warned.

"They should also designate the cognitive arena as a new operational arena, along with land, air, sea, space, and cyberspace, to raise awareness and invest resources. Furthermore, it is necessary to consider how to win the 'battle of narratives' to counter the manipulation of public opinion in wartime."

Takagi is not the only one to take China’s research in cognitive warfare seriously. According to Noon and Bassler:

"The United States military should work to better understand Chinese conceptions of intelligentization and the PLA's efforts to integrate it into its model of future warfare. Taking advantage of some of the possible weaknesses of the PLA's approach should be a top priority and would also help the United States military to shore up some of the weaknesses in its own vision and efforts."

Among other things, Bassler and Noon suggest that the US military should not repeat past mistakes, when the US sat on its hands while China accumulated threatening capabilities, often by stealing massive amounts of whatever it could, for instance here, here , here, here and here.

“The United States military should be more public in its discussions about the PLA’s intelligentization efforts,” Bassler and Noon wrote.

"With other notable PLA efforts, the United States military has been content with sitting on classified awareness while losing valuable time for mobilizing a response. Several years were lost during the South China Sea island building campaign. Most recently, U.S. Strategic Command's vague and scant public details about the rapid growth of the Chinese nuclear program did little, only for open-source investigators to finally sufficiently expose the efforts several years later. In the case of intelligentization, the U.S. military should not repeat this mistake yet again. Instead, it should more clearly highlight the nature of the PLA's efforts as they continue to develop."

Check Also

Sadr Throws Iraqi Politics into Turmoil

The decision by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to withdraw his large bloc from parliament clouds …