Tac Talks: How will the employment of information effects affect the force posture in the South China Sea in the next decade?

Tac Talks No. 14
Tac Talks No. 14

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LEUT Matt Westwood

The Supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
- Sun Tzu



Information operations have been conducted by militaries since the earliest days of warfare. Sun Tzu wrote of the importance of information supremacy to the military commander and of the importance of controlling information within the battle space. In the 21st century military, our reliance on information and the effective exchange and assurance of information, is paramount to the successful deployment of any force. Information exchange requirements are discussed at the very earliest stages of military planning and the assurance of information exchange occupies an entire staff within a military headquarters. The compromise of information can have serious consequences at not just the tactical but also national strategic levels.

The dispute in the South China Sea is complicated and enduring in nature. A number of our regional neighbours claim sovereignty of various, often overlapping areas of the Sea (Elleman 2018 & US State Department 2014). The United States maintains a strong presence and frequently conducts freedom of navigation exercises in the region by both sea and air (Lee & Lee 2017). The region is a hot bed of information operations from the tactical to the strategic. As we move towards the deployment of fifth generation weapons and platforms in to theatres of war around the world, defending against these types of operations becomes paramount.

HMA Ships Ballarat and Parramatta conduct a replenishment-at-sea with HMAS Sirius as they sail through South China Sea. Photographer: LEUT Sarah Lucinsky.
HMA Ships Ballarat and Parramatta conduct a replenishment-at-sea with HMAS Sirius as they sail through South China Sea. Photographer: LEUT Sarah Lucinsky.

Fifth generation weapons are unique in their information requirements, relying heavily on computer processing and potentially computer decision making in order to gain a tactical advantage (McInnes 2017). They are networked to allow collaborative engagement at far greater speeds and ranges than any single weapon system, and they are stealthy to avoid detection (Harrington & Marosko 2016). However, this interconnectedness can leave them vulnerable to information attacks.

This paper will discuss how the employment of directed information operations within the South China Sea (particularly in the immediate vicinity of the Spratly and Paracel Island groups) affects the force postures of the nation’s operating in the area now and in the immediate future. Information operations attack the electromagnetic spectrum, cyberspace and the human element, decreasing the combat effectiveness of a target unit and can influence government policy from the tactical to strategic level. Weissmann (2015) asserts that a major kinetic conflict within the South China Sea is extremely unlikely. I will propose that the soft effects of information operations will lead to a shift in force posture towards units capable of countering or mimicking these effects to achieve their tactical objective.

China’s Economic Reliance on the South China Sea


The dispute in the South China Sea is a relatively recent occurrence, in spite of what some of the claimants assert. The first recorded dispute over any of the islands occurred in 1909 when China bought out a Japanese merchant operating out of Pratas Island in the north of the South China Sea (Hayton 2017). The area is important economically, with over 33% of world trade traversing the sea at some point in its logistics life time.

China, being a net importer of both food and oil, relies extremely heavily on the sea lines of communication to maintain their strong economic growth. These two simple facts mean that China’s reliance on the South China Sea to support the most basic of human needs is great. Because of this the Chinese Government places huge strategic importance on the region (Elleman 2018).

The arrival of Chinese Luhu Class Destroyer (DDG112) to Sydney Harbour.
The arrival of Chinese Luhu Class Destroyer (DDG112) to Sydney Harbour.

However, it is not just China who has a strategic interest in the South China Sea. The sea bears some military strategic value to other nations as it provides the most expeditious sea route from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean (Lee & Lee 2017). The strategic value of the island groups themselves however have been largely disregarded for many years. (Elleman 2018, Hayton 2014 pp 237, Tønnesson 2006). The islands so hotly contested by countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and China, carry extrinsic value solely based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (1982) and historic claims to the region.

The UNCLOS (1982) decrees that a reef fringing an island can produce a baseline, increasing a nation’s maritime boundaries and access to the resources contained within the sea bed or water column within those boundaries, however, it also declares that a man-made island or structure cannot produce a baseline. Developments in seabed mineral and oil exploration have meant that resources that were once un-obtainable are now economically viable to harvest. This has fuelled the desire of the Chinese Government to pursue legitimate claims to large areas of the South China Sea in order to secure the country’s economic growth (Elleman 2018).

When the two points above are analysed together it becomes immediately apparent why China maintains such a strong interest in control of the South China Sea. Increasing their domestic oil and food production through the sea ensures that should the sea lines of communication become untenable for whatever reason, China will maintain some ability to feed and fuel their economy (Elleman 2018). Through this we can see the importance of the South China Sea to the countries which border it, and particularly to China whose only access to sea based world trade is through the contested region.

Chinese Information Operations in the South China Sea


The Chinese reliance on the South China Sea lines of communication can be gauged by its military presence on seemingly insignificant reefs many hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland. One need only watch the news to see that the Chinese force posture in the area is extensive and covers air, land and of course sea based weapon systems. What is not immediately obvious however, is the information war that is likely already being fought in and around these reefs. The war in cyber space, the satellite war, the war on the electromagnetic spectrum can be assumed to already be taking place in the region as each side prepares for a kinetic war that is unlikely to occur (Weissmann 2015). The United States Department of Defense (DoD) report to Congress on the Chinese Military (2018) notes that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) considers information operations to be essential to conducting traditional kinetic warfare in the modern battle space. From this we can assert that if China is preparing its force to defend what it sees as the strategically important South China Sea, that it’s information warfare units would be preparing to, or indeed may have already deployed (physically or virtually) to the region.

DoD (2018) indicates that the PLA is developing support structures such as hangars and other storage facilities in the Spratly, and Paracel island groups. Again, this could be an indication of the coming deployment of sensitive electronic warfare equipment to the area. The development of infrastructure on the islands could indicate the intent to deploy equipment that may need added protection from the harsh salt air environment or the prying eyes of coalition intelligence organisations. The deployment of such units has the ability to alter the way coalition operations are conducted in the sea from the moment they deploy, reducing radar detection ranges or preventing radio communications from being received. The DoD (2018) along with comments made by representatives of the United States intelligence community have fuelled speculation amongst the media that these operations have already begun. Speculation that, given the discussion above appears reasonable.

It is generally very obvious when a traditional military force deploys. Utilising modern surveillance techniques and information sharing networks, tracking a large maritime task group or other significant military formation can be done in near real time. Indeed, this can even be part of the initial information operation for a large deployment. If your adversary knows a carrier battle group is on its way to its region, it can produce a national strategic effect that has the potential to influence diplomacy and policy decisions by its mere presence. The deployment and employment of cyber, or electronic warfare effects, is far more discrete. Recent satellite imagery released by the United States DoD, appears to show newly erected antennas on a number of reclaimed islands within the Spratly group (Digiglobe 2018).

HMA Ships Anzac and Ballarat sail together in the South China Sea. Photographer: ABMPO Rikki-Lea Phillips.
HMA Ships Anzac and Ballarat sail together in the South China Sea. Photographer: ABMPO Rikki-Lea Phillips.

The images are pixelated and to the untrained eye appear to be no more than a black smudge on a white background. However, the assertion by the United States intelligence community is that the smudges are electronic warfare equipment capable of jamming radio communications and radar systems of coalition units. This assertion is presumably based on further analysis conducted at a higher classification level. It is unlikely that the PLA would deploy this capability without the intent to use it (Elleman 2018). We can therefore surmise based on the presence of these units in the South China Sea that the information war has already begun. If the information war on the electromagnetic spectrum has begun, then we need to look for evidence that the cyber war has also begun, in order to fully understand the breadth of information operations taking place within the South China Sea.

The problem with investigating cyber operations is the issue of attribution. This is a problem that has been discussed at length by many military and academic writers and so I will only briefly touch on it here. Advanced cyber operations such as those carried out by state sponsored actors, are nearly impossible to attribute due to the global nature of cyberspace (Guitton 2017). Just because an attack comes from an internet protocol (IP) address hosted in China does not mean that the operator on the keyboard is in China. Indeed, an advanced threat will route through multiple IPs, hosted across the planet before hitting their intended target, thus rendering attribution a long and complicated process (Guitton 2017). However, it is possible, and a number of cyber-attacks against other South China Sea claimants have been attributed to China in recent past. These attacks have seemingly come in response to provocative action taken against China by its neighbours and have specifically attacked Vietnamese and Philippine Government, military and critical infrastructure networks (Piiparinen 2015).

There are two notable examples of Chinese cyber-attacks against opposing claimants of territory within the South China Sea. In May 2014, following widespread deadly protests and non-lethal military interaction triggered by the arrival of a Chinese oil rig within waters claimed by Vietnam, a spear-phishing campaign was launch against Vietnamese military organisations (Piiparinen 2015). The emails contained weaponised files which ultimately led to the breach of the Vietnamese intelligence network and the compromise of sensitive documents relating to Vietnam’s security strategy for the South China Sea.

This attack continued for many months making Vietnam the most attacked country in cyberspace that year, surpassing even the United States. Prior to this, in 2012 following an altercation at Scarborough Reef involving Philippine and PLA-Navy (PLA-N) vessels, cyber actors from both sides launched attacks. The end result of these attacks was the compromise of Philippine military networks and the loss again, of extensive documents relating to the South China Sea dispute (Piiparinen 2015).

Personnel from the Fleet Cyber Unit compete in the NetWars International Services Cup at Defence Plaza in Sydney Photographer: LSIS Ryan Tascas.
Personnel from the Fleet Cyber Unit compete in the NetWars International Services Cup at Defence Plaza in Sydney. Photographer: LSIS Ryan Tascas.

These attacks occurred many years ago and can be considered vintage in the quickly evolving world of cyber operations. From the two operations above and the increasing tempo of cyber-attacks over the last ten years, combined with the increase in tensions in the region over the same period of time, it is safe to assume that this information campaign is still occurring.

The information campaign in the South China Sea is affecting the force posture of the militaries operating in the region, ensuring that more cyber enabled powers maintain a strategic advantage. By having access to adversary security documents China, would have been able to alter their force poster in the region to affectively counter Vietnamese and Philippine military actions and maintain an advantage. It is of course important to approach this with an open mind and understand that public information on this type of capability can be very difficult to come by and can be speculative at best. By cross referencing strategic, media, think tank and official military documents however, we can begin to piece together just exactly what capabilities are regularly deployed to the region with some degree of certainty.

Effect of Information Operations on Force Posture


It is well known that the PLA-N maintains a strong presence in the South China Sea with the South Sea Fleet conducting apparent sea denial or sea control operations within the area (Elleman 2018). The majority of the surface combatant fleet of the PLA-N consists of small missile and patrol craft; however recent modernisation projects have seen the numbers of modern frigates and destroyers increase in number (Saunders 2015). There is little information available at the unclassified level as the strength of the submarine force however Saunders (2015) puts the number of active submarines at 63 boats (compared to the United States Navy’s 72). The United States 7th fleet maintains an overt presence in the area with frequent freedom of navigation exercises conducted (Lee & Lee 2017).

Although not a permanent presence, it is not uncommon for carrier battle groups to conduct operations within the South China Sea in order to demonstrate the United States’ position that the water way is international waters and not subject to Chinese control. It is interesting to note however, that at least publicly, the United States rarely (the last acknowledged was in 2016 (Lee & Lee 2017)) transits within 12 miles of Chinese claimed islands. This is most likely to avoid unnecessary military confrontation and less an acceptance of Chinese claims within the area. Any incursion into these waters by military units could be viewed as an invasion by China and thus legitimise the use of lethal force in retaliation. The United States has long been an opponent of Chinese claims in the Sea stemming primarily from their significantly different view of the legitimacy of Chinese reclaimed islands (Lee & Lee 2017, Hayton 2017). Vietnam and the Philippines maintain considerably smaller naval forces as one would expect, however the capability certainly exists to maintain their presence within the area. Of note, Vietnam operates six Kilo class conventional submarines from Cam Ranh Bay with easy access to the South China Sea (Saunders 2015).

China and the United States conduct extensive maritime air patrols in the South China Sea with the United States acknowledging the deployment of P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) in the region (Lyal 2014). This is significant as it represents a generational shift in military deployment in the area. Whilst the P-8 is not strictly a fifth-generation aircraft, its information handling capacity and reliance is a step ahead of previous MPA. China operates a number of MPA and electronic warfare air platforms in the region and has deployed fighter and strike aircraft as a capability demonstration to newly developed air bases on reclaimed islands within the South China Sea (DoD 2018). This lends further credence to the speculation of creeping militarisation of the South China Sea by the Chinese Government (Elleman 2018).

Potential Information Operations Threats


All modern military units utilise multiple sensors and communications bearers allowing them to pass information within the tactical and in some cases the strategic sphere (Saunders 2015). Disruption of any of these sensors or communications channels can render the unit ineffective and thus remove it from the fight without the corresponding loss of life that kinetic effects often have. For example, modern aircraft (in most cases) no longer embark a dedicated navigator, and indeed, dedicated aviation navigators are no longer trained by many air forces around the world. This is primarily due to the ease of navigation utilising the global positioning system (GPS).

It is known that the PLA possess the capability to jam the GPS signal (RAND 2015) and it is known that jamming platforms have deployed to the Spratly Islands (Gordon & Page 2018, Martini 2016). Whilst not a total denial capability in the maritime domain, use of GPS significantly reduces the workload and hence fatigue levels of operators on warships thus reducing mistakes due to fatigue. By conducting this type of information operation, the PLA could slightly reduce the effectiveness of coalition ships operating in the area and thus gain an advantage. In the unlikely event of kinetic confrontation, the jamming of GPS signal can also reduce the effectiveness of some weapons employed by coalition forces. For a more significant example, we can look to the deployment of fifth generation weapons.

In March 2018 the US Navy deployed US Marine Corps Joint Strike Fighters (F35B) to the South China Sea on-board United States Ship Wasp (Commander Pacific Fleet 2018). This deployment is significant in that it was the first real world test of the aircraft in a contested and congested electromagnetic battlespace. The F35B relies heavily on its sensors in order to maintain a tactical advantage, if those sensors are jammed and the aircraft is unable to find its target they very quickly become an ‘invisible’ non-factor in the fight. Whilst it is true that the power required to jam radar at a distance can render the jamming unit highly visible to electronic support units and thus counter fire, if there is no conflict then there is no justification to neutralise the jamming unit and therefore no way to prevent it (Martini 2016). This example can be translated across many bands of the electromagnetic spectrum and produce the same outcome. But it is not just the electromagnetic spectrum that is vulnerable. The modern battlespace is reliant on networks of computers which can be vulnerable to cyber-attack if strong cyber security measures are not maintained.

In 2016 and 2017 a number of US Naval vessels were involved in collisions at sea. Ultimately the collisions were attributed to poor training and loss of situational awareness of the ship’s Command teams, however, not before the possibility of a cyber-attack was investigated. A cyber-attack against a warship may seem unrealistic and in the end the investigations mentioned above found (at least at the unclassified level) that there was no cyber intrusion on the ships involved (Winkler 2018). That does not mean that this is not a threat that shouldn’t be prepared for and mitigated against.

Whilst many people will espouse the invulnerability of air gapped computer networks, we need only look to the Stuxnet attack on Nantez to see that an air gap isn’t a guarantee of security (Sagers 2011). Most personnel deployed on naval vessels have access to the internet for the purpose of conducting their day to day jobs and maintaining morale. This greatly increases the cyber threat posed to the ships by significantly increasing the attack surface available for exploitation, for example, by an email phishing campaign (RAND 2015 & Winkler 2018). This type of cyber-attack could be used to deliver a malicious payload to a ship’s systems without being detected. According to FireEye (2016) 84% of civilian organisations targeted by email phishing globally in 2015 saw some network intrusion as a consequence. It would be naive to think that a warship at sea is immune to this. Once malware is implanted within a ship’s network it could then, in theory be transferred to and infect the industrial control systems which control a vessel’s propulsion, steering, power, and life support systems in a similar method to the Stuxnet attack, with similar impacts to the system (RAND 2015, Sagers 2011).

Force Posture Effects


These information effects are very difficult to respond to in a traditional military sense. In a brief delivered to the Defence Advanced Signals Operations Course (2018), Major General Marcus Thompson, Deputy Chief Information Warfare, noted that often the most effective way to stop a cyber-attack is to drop a bomb on the operator. This is of course not an option in a situation such as the South China Sea dispute. What we have seen in response to the increase in information weapons is the increase in other forms of information weapons. Both the Coalition and China now possess fast, dedicated electronic attack aircraft capable of embedding with a flight of strike aircraft to provide dedicated airborne electronic attack and support. This is significant as it demonstrates the importance both sides place on the information war and the acknowledgment that the control of information can be just as crucial to the exercise of area control or denial as the threat of violence.

In the South China Sea, the only way that either side is likely to gain an advantage over the other is by controlling the information domain. In the next decade it is likely that we will see China continue its military creep into the South China Sea utilising air, land, sea and cyber platforms specifically designed to control the information space. Preventing or degrading communication and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems will give the Chinese a sense of area control allowing them to ensure access to the economically crucial resources of the South China Sea (Elleman 2018). Any forces that are deployed to the area must be equipped to operate without the usual glut of information that many Commanders are accustomed to and must also be prepared to face the threat of cyber-attacks on their platforms in the form of phishing or spear-phishing campaigns.



The information war in the South China Sea has been fought for many years and is unlikely to ever cease. In the next ten years it is likely that the trends we observe now will continue. China is likely to continue to develop a strong cyber capability and continue to deploy electronic warfare units to the South China Sea. They will also continue to utilise cyber operations as a means of influencing their traditional force posture as well as that of their adversaries in the region. This is in line with Chinese policy position of information operations as a crucial part of modern military manoeuvre (DoD 2018). In response, the US will likely increase its presence in the area, deploying large formations of kinetic and platform-based information weapons such as the F18-G. Vietnam and The Philippines will need to assure their information systems against the threat of Chinese cyber-attacks if they are to maintain some freedom of manoeuvre in the Sea.

The information war in the South China Sea presents a new challenge for those operating there. The subtle use of information weapons to produce tactical and strategic effects will continue to have significant influence on the requirements of platforms deployed to the region and will ultimately dictate the force posture of the militaries operating in the area in the next decade and beyond.



Lieutenant Matt Westwood joined the RAN in 2010 as an Maritime Warfare Officer (MWO) and has completed numerous sea and shore postings in this time. Lieutenant Westwood is an MWO CIW (Communications and Information Warfare) currently working in the J6 cell of Headquarters Joint Operations Command (HQJOC). In 2021 Lieutenant Westwood will undertake Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) course with the view becoming an Information Warfare Officer (IWO) of a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD).