Air Force Space Command Network Operations

Air Force Space Command Network Operations (Source:

By now, many may have seen the widely reproduced Adam Segal post on Huang Chunping’s article in China Defense Daily about a cyber-mobilization structure during warfare. Those following the evolution of Chinese information warfare (IW) thought–particularly readers of Timothy Thomas’ various books will find little of particular novelty. I am struck, however, by the continued emphasis in some Chinese IW works on the idea of a total war in cyberspace.

The idea of total war, while dating back to the French Revolution, is mainly an outgrowth of World War I. The German military writer Erich Ludendorff and Soviet theorist Alexander A. Svechin, from opposite sides of the military divide, both saw the need to mobilize every sector of society and utilize every conceivable resource to win the fight. Ludendorff, in particular, as observed in the Michael Geyer essay “German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare” took the traditional German occupation with the tactical and operational levels of war to its logical limit by making national policy feed war, taking control of the war effort. Later on, in his book The Total War, Ludendorff explicitly advocated for the mobilization of the entire state.  Svechin, though an explicit Clausewitzian, also devoted significant amounts of intellectual energy to thinking about how to ensure that the “strategic rear” met the moral, material, and human needs of the war effort.

Mao faced a similar problem when he formulated his theory of protracted war, although always with vastly less resources then either the Germans or Soviets. The Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War should be understood less as a guerrilla campaign and more as the result of the CCP’s ability to wage an industrial-era total war in a predominately agrarian state. As Ka Po Ng wrote, Chinese strategy at the height of Mao’s power set strategic war of all against all as a default doctrine. Even though Chinese strategy has since moved into a different phase (Local Wars Under High-Tech Conditions and Local Wars Under Informatized Conditions), Ng emphasizes that some aspects of Maoist strategy still hold sway among some military intellectuals.

Hence, ponder these bullets from Segal summary of the article:

• Military and civilian networks are interconnected, and the resources needed for cyber war permeate society; military units, social organizations, and even individuals “will all possibly become combat forces during a cyber war.”

• Given this diffusion of resources, there is a need for a cyber war mobilization command system with a “vertical command hierarchy” that reaches into all of society.

• Need to enlarge specialized cyber troops, recruiting computer network experts. The PLA should also reach out to all segments of society and create cyber reserves and people’s militias.

Segal notes that is unclear just how much sway that the author (an aerospace and nuclear expert, not a cyber specialist) actually holds. Regardless, the article is an interesting application of total war ideas to the cyber realm. In contrast, American cyber thought and practice doesn’t really emphasize a “whole of society” approach due to the scarcity of computer network operations skillsets and the prevailing model of an all-volunteer military force. That being said, it seems that most states developing cyber capabilities will inevitably have to reach out to skilled civilians if they ever do find themselves employing cyber means as part of a conventional military campaign, just as the US intelligence community and contractor ecosystem is currently combing hackerspaces for cyber specialists.

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Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in strategic theory. His articles on subjects ranging from grand strategy to cartel tactics in the Mexican drug war have been published in The Atlantic, Small Wars Journal, Defense Concepts, and OpenDemocracy. He is currently pursuing graduate study in Georgetown and lives in Washington D.C, is an Associate Editor at Red Team Journal, an Associate at Small Wars Journal's El Centro, a Technology Research Analyst at CrucialPoint LLC. All opinions are his own.
Adam Elkus has 5 post(s) on Asia Security Watch