Central cyber warfare command for PLA

Planned move would boost the Chinese army's ability to fight and win modern wars

BEIJING • China's military chiefs are seeking to unify the country's cyber warfare capabilities as they build a modern fighting force that relies less on ground troops.

The plan is part of a broader shift towards a unified military command similar to that of the United States, to meet President Xi Jinping's goal of transforming the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a force that can "fight and win modern wars".

It will be discussed at a meeting of the top leaders next week, according to sources.

A move to a centralised command reporting to the Central Military Commission, chaired by Mr Xi, would better organise China's cyber warfare capabilities, which are scattered across a variety of units and ministries. It would further elevate the role of cyber forces within a PLA that has long prioritised the army over the navy and air force, two branches that require a high level of computerisation skills.

It could also worry the US if it accelerates the transformation of cyber forces as a military tool, given tensions over allegations that China carried out significant hacking of US networks and companies.

A unified command would be "a pretty big deal" in organising domestic cyber forces to "win informationised local wars", according to Council on Foreign Relations cyberspace programme director Adam Segal, citing a goal enshrined in China's first white paper on military strategy, released in May.

"It would be an official sign that cyber attacks would be used in a military conflict," he said.

"Theoretically, it would allow them to concentrate resources in one place and create specialised forces, and might make it easier to plan joint operations."

The main agenda for the Communist Party gathering in Beijing that starts on Monday, known as the Fifth Plenum, is to review and approve a blueprint for China's economic and social development for the next five years. But the session, attended by more than 350 top officials, also provides a platform for the vetting of government and military reforms.

The PLA's first specialised information unit was set up in July 2010, not long after the US Cyber Command went operational.

"China already is a cyber power, and this will make them more powerful," said Mr James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Central cyber warfare command for PLA'. Print Edition | Subscribe