China creates 'Information Support Force' to improve networked defence capabilities

A day after FBI boss warns Beijing is poised to strike against US infrastructure

China last week reorganized its military to create an Information Support Force aimed at ensuring it can fight and win networked wars.

President Xi Jinping formally established the Information Support Force (ISF) by handing a flag to its commanders at a ceremony last Friday and, according to an account of his speech posted on the Ministry of Defence website, declared the new entity is necessary if the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is to be capable of "winning modern wars." The ISF will therefore "build a network information system that meets the requirements of modern warfare and has the characteristics of our military and promote the accelerated improvement of the system's combat capabilities with high quality."

The establishment of the ISF gives both the cyber space and aerospace capabilities of China's current Strategic Support Force a new shared home.

Beijing has positioned the establishment of the ISF as essential modernization. Xi has previously said 2027 will be a milestone year for China's military, as it will mark the 100th anniversary of the PLA itself.

The ISF will be managed by China's Central Military Commission – of which Xi is chair.

It's no accident that Xi is overseeing the new force: his doctrines call for China to develop military strength in all domains.

Just what the ISF will do wasn't discussed – as you'd expect.

Militaries around the world have long realized that communication is critical on the modern battlefield, so this development is hardly surprising. On the other hand, China is already regarded as very comfortable using networks to hurt its rivals.

FBI director Christopher Wray last week labelled China a "broad and unrelenting" threat, on grounds that its cyber operatives constantly target US infrastructure.

China has "the ability to physically wreak havoc on our critical infrastructure at a time of its choosing," he told the Vanderbilt Summit on Modern Conflict and Emerging Threats in Nashville.

"China's hacking program is larger than that of every other major nation, combined," Wray warned. "And that size advantage is only magnified by the military and intelligence services' growing use of artificial intelligence – built, in large part, on innovation and data stolen from us – to enhance its hacking operations, including to steal yet more tech and data," the director added.

Wray revealed that the FBI's response to China’s activities sees it work with the US's own military entity devoted to information warfare – the Cyber Command.

"As part of those operations, we're often sharing targeting and other information with partners like US Cyber Command, foreign law enforcement agencies, the CIA, and others – and then acting as one. When it comes to both nation-state and criminal cyber threats, we plan operations with our sights set on all the elements we know from experience make hacking groups tick."

The director said partnerships with the private sector, friendly governments, and other agencies are "the very foundation of our work confronting Beijing."

He also sees orgs that fall victim to Chinese attacks as important partners.

"When something goes awry, we need victims to reach out to us immediately because that first victim who reports an intrusion can supply the key information that will enable us not just to help them recover, but also to prevent the attack from metastasizing to other sectors and other businesses," Wray explained.

"We've seen the best outcomes in situations where a company made a habit of reaching out to their local FBI field office even before there was any indication of a problem, because that put everyone on the same page and contributed to the company's readiness," he added.

"In fact, Volt Typhoon was taken down thanks, in part, to help from the private sector – to companies coordinating with us." ®

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