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[] MSNBC 20.8.01: The U.S.-China Information War,
August 20, 2001

The U.S.-China Information War

?Machine-to-machine? battles a backdrop to EP-3 incident 

By William Arkin and Robert Windrem, Special To MSNBC

When the Navy?s ill-fated EP-3E spy plane flew its last mission off the Chinese coast in April, the Pentagon defended it as a routine surveillance flight. But interviews with dozens of senior government and military officials reveal that the plane?s mission went well beyond "surveillance." In fact, according to these officials, the confrontation over the South China Sea reflected a much larger struggle between the United States and China for supremacy in the emerging realm of information warfare.

The EP-3E ? code-named "Peter Rabbit" by the Navy ? did in fact monitor the mainland?s voice communications and radar signals, just as the Pentagon described. But the plane?s receivers also keyed in on a new form of data code named "Proforma," a source of electronic intelligence that blurs the traditional lines between surveillance and preparations for warfare.

As modern-day computer networks pass data, those data are laced with a dial tone of protocols and link-ups that determine the paths and speeds of the transmission. The dial tone is known as Proforma, and it can be used to manipulate, deceive and disable the sophisticated computers that modern military forces now rely upon. In essence, this is the dawn of "machine-to-machine" warfare in which one side manipulates data, thus penetrating the inner reaches of the enemy?s central command and control systems. 

In a world where technologies change overnight, Proforma is just the tip of the information warfare iceberg. A senior official who has been involved in the development of information warfare explains: "It?s not a MiG-21 from the Cold War," where the United States obtained a Soviet warplane, took it apart and exploited the technological knowledge for years. "Information technology changes too quickly," he said.

More Than A Hack

Information warfare goes well beyond the popular notion of "hacking" that most people associate with computers. "When I hear people talk of frying hard drives and inserting viruses, I know they are amateurs," says a military officer who has been in the center of the development of U.S. capabilities.

In fact, information warfare, or IW, is part of a larger category the military calls "full spectrum information operations," which combines old-fashioned psychological, electronic and covert warfare techniques. In the ideal scenario, all of this data manipulation is coordinated with the traditional weapons of the military. The combined effect would not only allow the United States to out-think an enemy; it would also allow the United States to essentially program what the enemy is thinking about America?s forces.

Internal Defense Department documents obtained by describe IW as the process of compelling an adversary to take particular actions rather than to impose a military defeat. Information warfare, the document continues, "must be carefully integrated into the overall military strategy and closely coordinated with the associated diplomacy and international public information activities."

Mapping The Opponent

Acquisition of these new information warfare signals is a key building block in this new arena. Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, commander-in-chief of U.S. Space Command and the senior IW officer in the U.S. military, says: "First of all, you have to map the networks."

Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, director of the National Security Agency, said at an intelligence symposium earlier this month that intercepted signals "that used to be in the air are now in the ground, and what used to be in the ground is now in the air. We are turning our national SIGINT [signals intelligence] system on its head chasing after the new telecommunications environment."

This turns unassuming aircraft like the Navy EP-3 into cutting-edge weapons. They are able to get closer to intelligence targets than satellites or land stations, positioning themselves in what one signals intelligence expert calls the "antenna alleys" and "side-lobes" of adversary systems ? that is, the areas where microwave and other signals traverse the air and might be able to be intercepted.

For now, the United States is the only country with the computer capabilities and resources to put all of the pieces together.

China: Info-War Superpower

But the virulent Chinese reaction to the EP-3 incident, officials say, is a sign of just how critically important information warfare has become to China.

Throughout the 1990s, information warfare theory grew in China, and its People?s Liberation Army (PLA) began shifting its focus from the Mao Zedong model of the "People?s War," a protracted, large-scale conflict, to smaller-scale "local wars under high-tech conditions."

On the offensive side, according to the Defense Department?s annual report to Congress on Chinese military power: "China appears interested in researching methods to insert computer viruses into foreign networks as part of its overall [information operations] strategy." Some reports suggest the Chinese military plans to elevate IW to a separate service on par with its army, navy and air force. This would include detachments of network warriors organized into "shock brigades," says Timothy Thomas, an analyst at the U.S. Army?s Foreign Military Studies Office.

Many Western specialists on China are more concerned about the pace of information warfare than the growth of Chinese nuclear or conventional weapons modernization. At a 1995 Chinese military forum, more than 30 high-ranking experts called for the development of weapons that can "throw the financial systems and army command systems of the "hegemonists" ? i.e., America ? "into chaos." U.S. intelligence has since monitored China?s own integrated IW effort, including, the Defense Department says, stepped-up "attempts to penetrate foreign information systems" and the development of high-powered microwave and other directed-energy weapons to attack information systems.

China?s emerging IW capability was first detected during an October 1998 exercise conducted in the Lanzhou Military Region in the far west of China, where an electronic "confrontation" was simulated, including reconnaissance, interference and destruction. Chinese engineers are also known to have conducted experiments in introducing viruses into adversaries? computer systems from long distances via wireless means.

Prelude To A No Contact War?

Today in China, secure communications, computer networks and a nationwide fiber-optic network reflect China?s commitment to information warfare, both offensive and defensive. Fiber-optic cables, in particular, are enormously effective because they transmit data that cannot be remotely intercepted, the way radio or microwave communications can. In the 1998 exercise, the Beijing Military Region used its new fiber-optic "military information superhighway" for the first time on a large scale. Intelligence sources say these and other exercises have demonstrated that China?s capabilities in "information denial" are now some of the best in the world.

A Defense Department assessment of these efforts concludes that "many officials in the PLA view the Kosovo conflict as the first example of a purely ?no contact? war, in which control of aerospace and information systems were the deciding factors."

In fact, the U.S. intelligence community?s assessment of the EP-3 incident is that China viewed it as part of a larger, ongoing struggle in which Beijing?s resolve and capabilities are constantly being probed and tested by the United States. Among the events that make up this Chinese perception: the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the Kosovo war, Chinese success in obtaining secret nuclear and ballistic missile secrets from Washington, and the frictions surrounding the Wen Ho Lee case.

Rude Awakening

For China, integration into the global economy poses enormous tradeoffs. The proliferation of Microsoft and Intel technology in China?s national security network, for example, has been identified by Beijing as a cause for concern. China became aware of its vulnerability to computer failures in 1992 when 12 national railroad computer systems failed and wreaked havoc on its transportation system. It was "a rude awakening for China?s leadership," says Mark A. Stokes, a Chinese intelligence expert and former U.S. air attaché in Beijing.

Today, more than 90 percent of computer users in China depend upon Microsoft Windows products, leading many in the Chinese military and national security institutions to worry about foreign attempts to insert viruses into their information systems. Within the military, there are efforts afoot to decrease dependence on external sources of software and integrated circuits. Chinese newspapers, too, have jumped into the debate, fanning "rumors" of cyber "Trojan horses" embedded in Windows software. The newspapers alleged that these backdoors sent user information back to a huge database at Microsoft headquarters, the Workers? Daily newspaper said last year. A spokesman for Microsoft denied the rumors at the time.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC News.)

For the time being, a high-ranking U.S. intelligence official says, U.S. info-war capabilities far outstrip those of China or any other potential adversary.

"The countries who would pose the greatest threat to us in terms of information warfare are increasingly dependent on the same systems we use," said the official. "Something like 90 percent of China?s military computer systems use Windows and Intel chips. They know if they attack us, we have an even greater capability at NSA [the National Security Agency] to go after them. No one has been working on offensive info-war longer than we have."

But as in many things ? from economic reform to military modernization to population control ? China?s planning appears to focus on the distant horizon, and experts agree that their activity to date has put them on the info-war map in a very big way.

Coming next week: Kosovo ? the first information war.

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