The Future of China’s Cognitive Warfare: Lessons from the War in Ukraine

With the growth of AI, neuroscience, and digital functions like social media, senior officers and strategists in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) declare that, in the future, it is going to be attainable to affect the enemy’s mind to have an effect on human cognition straight. Doing so creates the risk of subduing the enemy and not using a struggle, both by technical or informational means. Will the classes of the conflict in Ukraine change their pondering on this topic — and thus alter their plans for attainable future invasions of Taiwan?

Russia’s conflict on Ukraine just isn’t merely kinetic: It entails a fierce wrestle over the leaders’ will and public opinion amongst the individuals of Ukraine, Russia, and the worldwide neighborhood. In this cognitive battle, the dissemination of data by means of digital means has grow to be a big issue shaping the conflict’s possible final result. However, the conflict in Ukraine exhibits the limits of cognitive warfare in offering an impartial strategic benefit. If Chinese strategists consider the human mind to be the subsequent battlefield — and there’s some proof they do — Russia’s expertise in Ukraine suggests warning in investing too closely in that concept. Cognitive warfare alone can not win wars. Western analysts ought to equally watch out to not assume China will depend on cognitive or different non-physical measures to subdue Taiwan. Though influencing enemy cognition has lengthy been a outstanding topic of dialogue amongst Chinese army theorists, they might not be drawing the similar classes from Ukraine’s resistance that Western commentators suppose they’re.



What Is Cognitive Warfare?

A Chinese theorist describes cognitive warfare as utilizing public opinion, psychological, and authorized means to attain victory. In line with Sun Tzu’s dictum that supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance with out preventing, China has lengthy thought of that defeating the enemy with out bodily fight is good. The PLA Political Work Regulations, when revised in 2003, outlined the “three battles” to be carried out by the PLA. The three battles consist of public opinion warfare to affect home and worldwide public opinion, psychological warfare to shock and demoralize enemy troopers and civilians, and authorized warfare to realize worldwide help by means of worldwide and home legislation. Thus, all three battles are intently associated to cognitive warfare.

Several papers revealed by Chinese strategists in the early 2000s said that future data warfare would co-occur in three domains: the bodily, the informational, and the cognitive domains. These strategists predicted that over time the significance of the cognitive area will enhance, ultimately changing into the pivotal level in warfare. Since then, a lot work revealed by Chinese strategists over the previous twenty years has been primarily based on the concept that conflict takes place in the bodily domains of land, sea, air, and house; the data area of communication networks and knowledge in it; and the area of human cognition, which consists of each the chief’s will and public opinion.

Chinese strategists centered on data and communication expertise in the 2000s. In current years, they’ve centered on developments in synthetic intelligence and what they consult with as “brain science,” in addition to digital applied sciences reminiscent of social media. For instance, Guo Yunfei (郭云飞), President of the Information Engineering University of the PLA’s Strategic Support Forces, argued in 2020 that of the bodily, data, and cognitive domains, it’s the cognitive area that shall be the final area of army confrontation between main powers. Fighting in the cognitive surroundings straight impacts the mind, influencing feelings, motives, judgments, and actions and even controlling the enemy’s mind. As the engine of cognition, the mind may grow to be the predominant battlefield of future warfare. The capacity to manage the mind is the key to fight in the most crucial cognitive domains of future warfare.

Guo Yunfei additional said that operations in the cognitive area embody the concept of defeating the enemy with out preventing, versus operations in the bodily and knowledge area. Qi Jianguo (戚建国), the former deputy chief of employees of the PLA, additionally said that in future wars, those that management the cognitive area of their opponents would be capable to subdue them with out preventing. Thus, senior officers of the PLA argue that operations in the cognitive area embody Sun Tzu’s assertion of breaking the enemy’s resistance with out preventing.

This idea of cognitive warfare is additional bolstered by its integration with “intelligentized” warfare, which is China’s new army technique, referred to in 2019, in addition to its present army technique of “informationized” warfare. Intelligentized warfare focuses on utilizing synthetic intelligence and is characterised by 4 key options: elevated information-processing capabilities, fast decision-making, the use of swarms, and cognitive warfare.

Chinese strategists have said that human cognition is the focus of intelligentized warfare, and that strategic goals will be achieved by means of direct motion on enemy cognition. Qi Jianguo, former deputy chief of employees of the PLA, has said that those that achieve the higher hand in creating new-generation synthetic intelligence applied sciences will be capable to management the lifeline of nationwide safety: human cognition. Chinese strategists additionally argue that straight interfering with or subconsciously controlling the enemy’s mind can induce psychological harm, confusion, and hallucinations in the enemy, forcing them to put down their arms and give up.

It just isn’t sure how China intends to make use of future expertise to manage an enemy’s mind. In the case of presently out there expertise, the PLA appears to be contemplating intimidation by means of army actions and the use of disinformation. Intimidation contains the maneuvering and deploying of troops to particular places, the preparation for operations of strategic nuclear weapons items, and endeavor army workouts for intimidation functions. Disinformation could possibly be disseminated by way of the web and tv broadcasts. It additionally contains deception of enemy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance actions by electromagnetic or cyber means to mislead the commander’s judgment.

In addition, Pang Hongliang (庞宏亮), an advocate of intelligentized warfare, has mentioned a variety of U.S. technological achievements reminiscent of the use of small unmanned methods for surveillance, and has additionally talked about the significance of utilizing the newest expertise to affect human cognition. For instance, he states that unmanned methods reminiscent of social media bots working in our on-line world can manipulate public opinion, and that in the future ultra-compact unmanned methods resembling small animals may secretly enter the rooms of a president or different chief decision-maker to intimidate or kill them, thereby subduing the enemy’s will and management it.

Yet is it attainable to make use of cognitive warfare to safe victory with out bodily fight, as many Chinese senior officers and strategists declare? How do the classes of the conflict in Ukrainian change these theories? The second half of this text will look at the feasibility of this concept and the potential for future modifications in this concept, primarily based on the classes discovered from the conflict in Ukraine.

The Limits of Cognitive Warfare: A Ukrainian Demonstration

The PLA’s senior officers and strategists have but to debate in public the classes of the conflict in Ukraine. However, a quantity of research in the United States have pointed to the risk that the classes of the conflict in Ukraine could change the course of China’s plans for a possible invasion of Taiwan. One article predicts that the value of a direct army invasion of Taiwan could be excessive, and China will wait patiently for Taiwan’s eventual give up. Another research predicts that, having seen the resistance to Russia’s invasion, China will search to inflict a psychological blow on Taiwan and break its will to withstand by means of the following means: obstruction of U.S. intervention by means of nuclear threats, bodily isolation by means of the encirclement of Taiwan by naval forces, and assassination of Taiwan’s political and army leaders. Another paper factors out that China may conduct a broader operation previous to the assault, together with fomenting division in Taiwanese society, disseminating disinformation, and blocking communications between Taiwan and the outdoors world.

These predictions are all affordable analyses, provided that the PLA’s senior officers and strategists have said that human cognition is the focus of warfare and have referred to the significance of subduing the enemy with out preventing. Chinese theorists would concentrate on the human cognitive facet of the conflict in Ukrainian. But will China rely greater than ever on cognitive warfare in invading Taiwan, as many analyses state?

As described by Chinese strategists, cognitive warfare utilizing synthetic intelligence and “brain science” makes use of future expertise that has not but been developed. Although the cognitive struggle in Ukraine doesn’t function the futuristic ideas of a direct impact on the mind utilizing such new applied sciences, it’s price analyzing the impression of human cognition on the conflict’s final result. In explicit, the ongoing conflict illustrates important classes about conventional Chinese ideas associated to human cognition: public opinion warfare, which influences home and worldwide public opinion to realize help, and psychological warfare, which shocks and demoralizes the enemy’s army and civilian inhabitants.

In its 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia waged a intelligent battle in the area of human cognition. When army items with out markers indicating their affiliation — the so-called “little green men” — instantly occupied the Crimean Peninsula, President Vladimir Putin instantly made a press release denying Russian involvement. Within hours, his remarks have been revealed in the Washington Post, BBC, and different Western media. The function of Putin’s assertion was to govern worldwide public opinion by deceptive individuals’s cognition and stopping the worldwide neighborhood from interfering throughout the vital interval of the pseudo-referendum to annex the peninsula.

Russia additionally used public media and troll factories to disseminate a strategic narrative of “repression of the Russian population in Ukraine” in a classy method. This strategic narrative was meant to present the look of legitimacy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and create a false notion in the worldwide neighborhood that Ukraine was at fault. For instance, Russia concurrently launched pretend information tales about “Ukraine’s massacre of pro-Russian residents in Odesa” and “U.S. media cover-up of Odesa massacre.” These pretend information tales overlapped to present the impression that the reality was being coated up, planting false perceptions in the worldwide neighborhood.

Russia doesn’t have an idea of cognitive warfare and makes use of as a substitute an idea of data and psychological confrontation. However, this technique of utilizing digital means to affect individuals’s ideas and values is just like what China calls cognitive warfare. And Russia was profitable in 2014 with respect to such warfare.

Russia, nonetheless, is falling quick of reaching its goals in the present conflict, not solely in the bodily realm but additionally in the realm of human cognition. Claims of a particular army operation to rescue the oppressed Russian inhabitants are like the strategic narrative they used in 2014, which can have been meant to claim legitimacy to the worldwide neighborhood. However, whereas this strategic narrative has labored inside Russia, it has not influenced worldwide public opinion because it did in 2014.

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remained in his capital metropolis of Kyiv, undaunted by Russian threats. Supported by the president’s braveness, the Ukrainian authorities was in a position to disseminate correct data, preserve the unity of the Ukrainian individuals, achieve a excessive stage of help from the worldwide neighborhood, and safe bodily help from quite a few nations. The Ukrainian authorities has additionally used data from open sources and intelligence supplied by the United States to fight the Russian army and to show Ukrainian braveness and Russian army atrocities to the worldwide neighborhood.

U.S. help has performed a pivotal function in this cognitive warfare. The United States used a prebuttal technique, quickly disclosing labeled data to publicize Putin’s determination to invade Ukraine earlier than the conflict started. Many articles have praised this technique: It diminished the credibility of the Russian strategic narrative in advance and fostered an surroundings of higher cohesion amongst democracies, which led to materials help for Ukraine. In addition, the safety supplied by U.S. cyber forces and the help of high-tech corporations has performed an important function in sustaining Ukraine’s data and communications infrastructure, thus enabling Ukraine to disseminate data to the world rapidly.

Thus, in the quick time period, Ukraine and the democracies led by the United States have a transparent benefit in the public cognitive enviornment. This dominance brings materials help from the worldwide neighborhood that’s important for Ukraine to proceed preventing. However, it was Ukraine’s bodily forces, armed with drones and Javelins, that defended the capital metropolis of Kyiv from the thrust of Russian armored items and recaptured elements of Russian-occupied territory, not cognitive warfare. Ukraine calls for extra bodily belongings, together with artillery, tanks, fighter planes, and anti-aircraft weapons, to organize for a extra protracted battle.

In the future, there is no such thing as a assure that Ukraine will preserve its superiority in cognitive warfare. In this age of the web and social media, worldwide public opinion is unstable. If this conflict continues for years, Western help is prone to wane as home politics start as soon as once more to dominate native narratives. If materials help from democracies diminishes, Ukraine will discover it troublesome to proceed the bodily preventing. Meanwhile, Russia is strengthening its repressive regime, imposing jail sentences of as much as 15 years for spreading data that differs from official authorities pronouncements. This repressive regime is a good issue in home cognitive warfare. It allows Russia to take care of the help of its personal individuals, which is the minimal requirement for persevering with the conflict.

In the conflict in Ukraine, Ukraine and Russia have made and can proceed to make numerous efforts to win the help of the worldwide neighborhood and their residents — and, in the future, it could get tougher for Ukraine to win out in this regard. The conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the significance of strategically disseminating data to affect individuals’s perceptions and win the help of home and worldwide public opinion in the digital age. However, Ukraine can not regain its jap and southern territories misplaced to Russia solely by means of cognitive warfare. Fighting in the bodily area will decide the final result of the conflict.

Thus, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict exhibits that cognitive warfare alone can not win wars. Claims by Chinese theorists that they are going to win a conflict utilizing cognitive warfare with out direct fight are merely not possible with the present science and expertise. In different phrases, towards many analyses, China will be unable to deliver Taiwan to its knees solely by oblique means, reminiscent of psychological blows by means of nuclear threats, blockade, decapitation, disinformation dissemination, and blocking of communications.

Do Emerging Technologies Alone Confer a Strategic Advantage?

This is bolstered by the expertise of cyber warfare in Ukraine. In the previous decade, many authorities officers and cyber consultants have warned of devastating cyber assaults that would kill individuals and destroy vital infrastructure. Before this 12 months’s Russian invasion, consultants additionally predicted a cyber assault on Ukraine’s energy grid that will have left thousands and thousands of Ukrainians with out warmth in the bitter chilly, and psychologically subdued.

With the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russia launched cyber assaults towards the laptop methods of the Ukrainian authorities, army, and demanding infrastructure, inflicting some methods to malfunction. The KA-SAT utilized by Ukraine’s army and intelligence companies additionally ceased to operate because of cyberattacks. However, cyber warfare was not as decisive as anticipated earlier than the conflict, and Russia didn’t achieve a strategic benefit from cyber warfare alone. The conflict in Ukraine exhibits that cyber warfare doesn’t obtain a strategic impression by itself however is finest used as a instrument to help land, sea, and air operations.

Thus, the conflict in Ukraine revealed that cognitive warfare and cyber warfare — which use digital means and are carried out in non-physical domains — don’t alone present strategic benefits. If the PLA’s senior officers and strategists come to the similar realization, they are going to proceed to emphasise operations in the present bodily domains in addition to in the non-physical domains. Indeed, they acknowledge the coexistence of mechanized, informationized, and intelligentized warfare and can proceed to take action.

Neither Sun Tzu, who idealized subduing the enemy with out preventing nor British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, who advocated the oblique strategy technique, gave particular recommendation on the right way to put it into follow. And in the lengthy historical past of warfare, it has been bodily battles that subdued the enemy’s will.

Recommendations for the United States and Its Allies

Given these classes, China, whereas specializing in cognitive warfare, will proceed to take a position in present bodily domains and improve the coordination between them. In countering China, the United States and its allies want to investigate China’s idea of cognitive warfare whereas additionally finding out the coordination of operations in the cognitive, informational, and bodily domains.

The United States and its allies, as democratic nations, want to reinforce their very own theories of cognitive warfare. Influencing the cognitive area in different nations requires understanding their tradition, figuring out targets, and creating strategic narratives tailor-made to these targets’ traits. In cognitive warfare, data is ammunition, and the proper bullet should be fired at the proper time and place. Since 2014, Russia has demonstrated the effectiveness of spreading disinformation by means of digital means. The conflict in Ukraine, nonetheless, has proven that the finest weapons of a democratic society are correct publicity and the fast disclosure of data.

The conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the significance of home and worldwide public opinion. Cognitive warfare, nonetheless, is only one approach to achieve a strategic benefit, and the feasibility of defeating the enemy and not using a struggle is questionable. This doesn’t make cognitive warfare ineffective: relatively, it must be seen as one instrument amongst many. Cyber warfare has additionally seldom achieved an awesome strategic benefit by itself. Still, it has been built-in into land, sea, and air operations and grow to be an important half of trendy warfare.

In the similar approach, cognitive warfare must be successfully built-in into operations in the land, sea, air, house, and cyber domains. Coordination between cognitive warfare and different operations is important as a result of the means of influencing an opponent’s notion embrace not solely the transmission and disclosure of data but additionally intimidation and deterrence by means of the actions of bodily belongings, in addition to the digital dissemination of data. To incorporate cognitive warfare into present operations, concentrating on procedures will be useful and will allocate a number of means to have an effect on the enemy’s cognition.



Colonel Koichiro Takagi is a visiting fellow of the Hudson Institute. All views in the article are his personal. He is a former Deputy Chief, Defense Operation Section, 1st Operations Division, J-3, Joint Staff Japan, and has designed joint operation plans and orders in the extreme safety surroundings of East Asia.

Image: Taiwan Presidential Office

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