Beijing's 'Bitskrieg'

How China is revolutionizing warfare.

As the Pentagon's annual report to Congress, released last week, makes abundantly clear, China is on something of a long march in cyberspace. While most attention is being drawn to the report's assertions about Chinese snooping into sensitive classified areas and theft of intellectual property from leading American firms -- and others around the world -- there is some intriguing analysis of Beijing's broader aims as well. Indeed, the Pentagon sees a clear progression in Chinese strategic thought that, viewed as a whole, begins to elaborate what might be seen as an emerging military doctrine enabled by advanced information technologies. Just as the radio made skillful coordination of tanks and planes possible, introducing World War II-era blitzkrieg, so today the computer may be opening new vistas for cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, and other smart weapons.

What's coming from Beijing is, in a word, "bitskrieg." The Pentagon report describes this as a three-phase process. First, there is a "focus on exfiltrating data" so as to gain vital information needed about military command and control systems as well as the points in our critical infrastructure that are vulnerable to disruption by means of cyberattack. It is believed that the Chinese have been engaging in this sort of intelligence gathering for many years -- intrusions that Washington first openly acknowledged 10 years ago, giving them the code name "Titan Rain." It has been raining steadily for the past decade.

With all these data in hand, the second step -- per the Pentagon report -- is to use the same intrusive means that mapped our defense information systems to disrupt them with worms, viruses, and an assortment of other attack tools. The goal at this point is to slow the U.S. military's ability to respond to a burgeoning crisis or an ongoing conflict. Think of what might happen, say, on the Korean Peninsula, if our small contingent there -- a little over 25,000 troops -- were to lose its connectivity at the outset of a North Korean invasion by its million-man army. Without the ability to operate more nimbly than the attacker, these forces would be hard-pressed from the outset. Cyberattacks on mostly automated force-deployment and air-tasking systems could also slow the sending of reinforcements and greatly impede air interdiction operations. In the first Korean War, the Chinese intervened with massive numbers of troops. In the second one, they might only have to send electrons.

The real payoff for Beijing, though, is in what the Pentagon report describes as China's envisioned third phase of cyber-operations. This is the point at which the information advantage -- that is, the ability to coordinate one's own field operations while the adversary's have been completely disrupted -- is translated into material results in battle. The Pentagon describes cyberattack at this point as amounting to a major "force multiplier." Gaining such advantage means winning campaigns and battles with fewer casualties relative to those inflicted upon the enemy. In this respect, computer-driven "bitskrieg" could, it is thought, generate results like those attained by mechanized blitzkriegs -- which also aimed at disrupting communications. In the Battle of France in 1940, for example, where the Germans had fewer troops and tanks, the Allies lost more than four times the number of soldiers as the Wehrmacht.

When my long-time research partner David Ronfeldt and I introduced our concept of cyberwar 20 years ago, the second and third phases of cyberattack that the Pentagon report describes are what we had in mind. In our view, striking at an enemy's ability to maintain information flows, while keeping one's own communications secure, would be the key to gaining a war-winning advantage in conflicts to come. But this would only hold true, we affirmed, if senior leaders recognized that cyberwar poses "broad issues of military organization and doctrine."

The point being that technology alone doesn't create or sustain the advantage. In the case of blitzkrieg it was concentrating tanks in panzer divisions and closely linking them with attack aircraft that made the difference. To succeed at cyberwar, it will be necessary both to scale down large units into small ones and "scale them out" across the battlespace rather than mass them together. In this fashion -- spread out but completely linked and able to act as one -- the sweeping maneuvers of blitzkrieg will be supplanted by the swarming attacks of bitskrieg, characterized by the ability to mount simultaneous strikes from many directions. The guiding organizational concept for this new approach flows closely from technologist David Weinberger's thoughtful description of online networks: "small pieces, loosely joined."

Thus should the Pentagon annual report to Congress be delved into more deeply -- for the document reflects a clear awareness of, and takes a subtle, layered approach to thinking about, the Chinese cyber threat. One can only hope that the U.S. military analysis of Beijing's looming capacity for bitskrieg is mirrored by introspective views and similarly nuanced considerations of American capacities for waging cyberwar. For the three phases described in the Pentagon report -- so consistent with the original vision Ronfeldt and I described two decades ago -- reflect the kind of conflict that is coming.

The militaries of most advanced countries think of cyberwar as a new form of strategic attack on power grids and such. The Chinese view differs, seeing this mode of conflict as much less about turning off the lights for a while in some other country and much more about defeating an opposing military grown dependent upon sustained, secure, and ubiquitous flows of information. Lights can always be turned back on. Soldiers' lives lost amid the battlefield chaos caused by a bitskrieg can never be reclaimed. Thoughtful reading of the Pentagon report should affirm this -- and appropriate action, along the lines of scaling down and "scaling out" our forces, and encouraging them to "swarm," must follow.


National Security

The Case for Slow War

History shows that wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am rarely works out for the best.

Military maxims often emphasize the need to seize fleeting opportunities swiftly and maintain momentum, but there can also be great value in studied slowness. In major military campaigns, however, the primary focus has almost always been and remains aimed at having a capacity for extremely fast-paced maneuvers, like the armored "thunder run" to Baghdad 10 years ago -- itself a distant echo of Hitler's blitzkrieg. Yet, in this case, the effects of the speedy advance soon faded in the face of a nettlesome Iraqi insurgency that was only countered, after years of hard going, by the patient, thoughtful creation of a network of small outposts and an information strategy designed to convince insurgents to switch sides. In many respects, the "outpost and outreach" approach that turned the tide in Iraq resembled the most effective aspects of some British counterinsurgent campaigns of the past half-century -- most notably in Northern Ireland, where an outpost network (with some positions sited atop high-rise buildings) along with skillful negotiations brought a peaceful, equitable end to the decades-long "Troubles."

Beyond the challenge posed by many of Britain's irregular conflicts in the modern era, it is notable that a tendency to conduct conventional campaigns at a moderate tempo has been a consistent feature of British strategic culture for centuries. Perhaps the most deliberate, unhurried campaigner of them all was Jeffrey Amherst -- for whom the American college is named -- who brought an end to the French empire in North America with his three-pronged march on Montreal in 1760. Yes, James Wolfe had won the battle for Quebec the previous year, but that hardly ended the war. The odds were still fairly even when Amherst set out and, as historian Lynn Montross put it in his classic book, War Through the Ages, "an offensive distinguished more for precision than thrills...laid the cornerstone of the world's greatest empire since the fall of Rome."

And when, half a century later, this great empire found itself engaged against swift-moving French forces in Iberia -- early on led in the field by Napoleon, later by some of his best marshals -- the answer once again was to operate with great deliberation, at a pace that was, most of the time, achingly slow. This time, it was the Duke of Wellington who operated with the same kind of stately precision that had been Amherst's hallmark. Wellington's special talent was to march his army to a threatening position that forced a French response, then stand on the tactical defensive so as to decimate the attackers. He won victory after victory in this way, even occasionally following up his successes with retreats. The French, shackled to their doctrine of mounting rapid pursuits, exhausted themselves and were harried by Spanish partisans. Wellington followed this pattern for a few years, eventually going over to a sustained, war-winning offensive that took him all the way across Spain and into France.

Fast-forward 125 years, and history repeats itself. The most famous British soldier of World War II was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, a man almost never to be hurried. His forte was the set-piece battle in which, after much lengthy preparation, he regularly inflicted far greater damage on enemy forces than were suffered by his own troops. Much fun was made of him in the great war film, Patton, but the fact remains that he used his meticulous methods to rout one of the very best German generals, Erwin Rommel, at El Alamein in North Africa, then inflicted mortal damage a second time against forces "the Desert Fox" led in Normandy. Montgomery's only stumble came as his troops neared Germany, when he, uncharacteristically, drafted a bold, swift plan to use airborne troops and an armored blitz to seize a series of bridges leading to and over the Rhine. He lost this "bridge too far" battle, then reverted to his slow, steady style -- which was emulated by Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower -- and the war was won. More slowly, but also more surely.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given America's strategic culture, this "English patience" at war got only brief traction with the U.S. military. Just five years after the end of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur tried to win a quick knockout on the Korean Peninsula with a bold amphibious left hook followed by rapid armored advances. He ended up being swamped by a Chinese counteroffensive, and the war ground on to an indecisive truce in 1953. A few years later, when nuclear weapons were becoming more plentiful, a so-called New Look -- championed by then-President Eisenhower -- enticed the Army to think in terms of swift victory with fast-moving tanks backed by atom bombs. The idea collapsed of its own weight, as Gen. Maxwell Taylor predicted it would in his critique, The Uncertain Trumpet -- when the Russians made it known that they could irradiate battlefields, too. And when the helicopter came into its own the following decade, the big idea of the day was to use it to "vertically envelop" Vietnamese insurgents from the air -- the brainchild of Gen. William Westmoreland, what historian Michael Maclear called "Westy's way of war." Needless to say, thousands of Bell-Hueys didn't garner a swift victory; indeed, thousands were shot down. U.S. leaders grew weary of the long slog that ensued and simply abandoned the war.

It is this sort of aversion to protracted conflicts that bedevils American military strategy today. It is a turn of mind clearly seen in the willingness to leave Iraq to its fate, despite the massive investment in blood and treasure made there. Antipathy toward long, slow warfighting has also put the pressure on to leave Afghanistan. But in this case, it seems that at least some senior military leaders like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno see the virtue of "slow persistence," which is manifesting itself in the call to keep a small, highly-skilled force in place for an indefinite period.

Thus the plan for the emerging Afghan endgame emanating from the White House, which calls for about 10,000 troops to remain indefinitely, appears a bit like the patient approach the British have employed in Northern Ireland. As to Britain's own experience in Afghanistan, it should be noted that Englishmen fought long and hard there during the 19th century, eventually reversing the effects of terrible early defeats with deliberate, ever more skillful tactics. A bit of this sort of English patience would go a long way today, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the long twilight struggle now unfolding around the world against networks affiliated with or inspired by al Qaeda.

Proceeding slowly, mind you, is not always preferable to rapid, decisive operations -- but history shows that this method's overall track record is far better than that of flashy, fast-paced blitzkriegs. This should be kept in mind as the international community considers deeper involvement in the Syrian civil war. We live in a new age of conflict, where technology and firepower allow for quick, stealthy, and relatively bloodless incursions. But, likewise, our adversaries expect and are prepared to counter rapid, decisive operations, perhaps even to "pull a Wellington" of their own, attacking briefly, then retreating time and again. Defeating them will require a willingness and an ability to fight slowly, skillfully, and for the duration.

Louisa May Alcott may have said it best when she noted that, to achieve a worthy goal, "it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way."