PLA System Warfare

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 1: People’s Liberation Army Fundamentals > PLA System Warfare

1-67. The PLA appears to recognize domains in the same way as the U.S. DOD, and it is actively seeking to enhance multi-domain capabilities and cross-domain integration. The organization applies all of its basic military philosophies and principles of active defense, deterrence, and deception to operations in all domains. The overarching PLA theoretical framework for its multi-domain effort is called system warfare. The system warfare concept seeks to identify critical or vulnerable system components, then degrade or destroy the effective use of larger systems through targeted attacks on these vulnerabilities. The primary principle of system warfare is the identification and isolation of critical or vulnerable subsystems or interdependence of these subsystems. The PLA believes that if key threat systems are rendered ineffective, the threat’s ability and will to resist will crumble.

1-68. System warfare is the most recent PLA effort to operationalize the principles of force concentration and asymmetric attack as outlined by Sun Tzu and Mao, while accounting for the lethality, cost, and complexity of modern weapons systems. The PLA classifies all capabilities, ranging from ballistic missiles and strike fighters to cyber operators and special operations forces, as military systems. Each system has inherent strengths and weaknesses. System warfare involves—

  • Bypassing enemy systems’ areas of strength, thus gaining a combat advantage by approaching them asymmetrically.
  • Developing systems that excel at exploiting perceived weaknesses in enemy systems, thereby offsetting their strengths by undermining the systems’ ability to perform assigned missions. 

The most common examples of system warfare are actions such as targeting networks instead of shooters, sensors instead of aircraft, or command and communication nodes instead of maneuver forces. The PLA expands system warfare to include diplomatic efforts undermining international alliances, offensive cyber operations disabling air or seaport operations, or special operations forces undermining civilian morale through covert operations.

1-69. Many of the systems with which the PLA intends to prosecute system warfare are not standing capabilities, but rather purpose built in times of conflict. During times of war, the PLA intends to build task-organized suites of capabilities designed to strike specific weak points of its opponent’s key systems. These suites of capabilities are called operational systems. Each operational system consists of five main subcomponents: the command system, the strike system, the information warfare system, the intelligence system, and the support system.

1-70. At the tactical level, system warfare centers largely on targeting high-value battlefield systems such as radars, command and communication nodes, and field artillery and air defense systems, and it can include selective armored vehicles and critical logistics support means. Examples of tactical system warfare include using heavy rocket artillery to defeat or destroy enemy radars and artillery systems, EW to suppress or neutralize enemy command and communication networks, and deception operations to target enemy leadership’s situational understanding and state of mind. Tactical system warfare is discussed in greater detail in chapter 4.

1-71. The PLA’s employment of system warfare supports the development of several traditional military strategies, such as preclusion, isolation, and sanctuary, throughout all domains and at all levels of war. Preclusion is achieved by keeping enemy commanders and forces off balance through asymmetric means, such as deception and information warfare, while simultaneously denying use of wide geographic areas through long-range reconnaissance-strike capabilities. Isolation is achieved by jamming or manipulating communications between units, employing psychological warfare to confuse and segregate enemy units from one another, then rapidly maneuvering to physically isolate them. Sanctuary is achieved through a mix of protection, defensive planning, information warfare, and deception operations. Sanctuary includes not only safety from physical attack, but safety from enemy information operations.


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