Ship collisions raise specter of Chinese electronic warfare
China’s military has developed advanced electronic warfare capabilities capable of disabling ships, aircraft and missiles and there are signs the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to use exotic electronic attacks in a future conflict with the United States.
Two recent collisions between US Navy warships and commercial ships have raised the specter that China was behind the accidents, using electronic means to disrupt or fool radar or navigation systems into creating deliberate collisions, according to military experts.
China has developed some of the world’s most advanced military electronic warfare weapons, including jammers, disruptors and cyber tools that can cause electronics to malfunction mysteriously, or to operate in ways that can cause them to self-destruct.
On July 30, the PLA showed off some of its new electronic warfare gear at an annual military parade in Inner Mongolia. Among the hundreds of armaments on display at the event was equipment used to disrupt enemy radar and communications in air defense and ground combat.
“Electronic warfare has now become a key means of combat in modern warfare,” Wu Yafei, head of the electronic confrontation formation at the parade, told Xinhua. “The enlisting of the new electronic warfare equipment in the PLA has significantly enhanced its capability in this field.”
Among the systems shown were two electronic warfare reconnaissance vehicles, Y-8 electronic jamming aircraft, and drones capable of paralyzing and suppressing command and control communications.
Chinese military writings for years have discussed the use of electronic warfare and in late 2015 the PLA upgraded its electronic warfare troops and cyber warfare force into a new military service called the Strategic Support Force.
Literature on the subject includes a 2012 report, published in the journal Shipboard Electronic Countermeasure, on the PLA’s development of the “Wolf Group at Sea,” described as a distributed electronic warfare system that will be used to attack battle groups at sea.
A 2011 report by a research Institute at China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., one of Beijing’s main arms manufacturers, outlines an “anti-Aegis defense system” for use against American Aegis battle management-equipped warships. Most of the US Navy’s missile and missile defense ships, including both the McCain and Fitzgerald, are Aegis warships. Japan and South Korea also operate Aegis warships.
The report calls for using a combination of large numbers of maneuvering hypersonic missiles along with electronic means to attack Aegis ships that are equipped with powerful electronic defenses.
“It is very difficult to attack [Aegis] effectively,” the report said. “However, with rapid development of precision guidance technology and missile penetration technology, [the] Aegis defense system becomes imperfect. Attacking method is discussed from the view of information countermeasures.”
The report concludes: “The Aegis system has integrated various types of advanced weapons [with] various integrated combat operational capabilities, such as anti-air, anti-missile, electronic warfare capabilities, and so forth, and defense measures that incorporate both defense and offense capabilities.” It adds: “From a practical perspective, there has never been any shield which cannot be penetrated.”
Strategically, China – in recent decades – has been seeking hegemony over all waters close to its coasts. In doing so it wants to drive the US Navy out of Asia, claiming that the South China Sea, East China Sea and other waters in the region are Beijing’s sovereign maritime territory.
In fact, 10 years ago a Chinese admiral proposed to the commander of the US Pacific Command at the time, Adm. Tim Keating, that the United States and China divide up the Pacific into spheres of influence. Under the plan, China would take control of the western Pacific while the US would control the eastern part. Keating rejected the plan, insisting the US Navy would protect freedom of navigation throughout the ocean.
On the warship collisions, Navy officials have voiced doubts that the two destroyers’ electronics were compromised by hackers but have not ruled out such interference. Investigators’ primary theory about the cause is that a mechanical failure or crew error is to blame.
The US Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, said that with regard to the most recent collision investigators would also examine whether electronic defenses were disrupted or fooled in an intentional act.
Both guided-missile destroyers were rammed from the side. The USS John S. McCain was hit by an oil tanker on August 21 in the Straits of Malacca, a busy shipping route, near Singapore. The USS Fitzgerald was rammed by a container ship in waters near Japan June 21. A total of 17 sailors died in the accidents, and the commander of the US Seventh Fleet was fired as a result of these and two earlier mishaps.
Suspicions were raised in the case of the Fitzgerald, based on indications the freighter that hit the warship was being guided by its electronic autopilot at the time. An interim Navy report issued on August 11 offered no explanation for the cause of the accident. The report said Fitzgerald was operating as a “darkened ship” with running lights on but with minimal interior lighting. It noted that the “moon was relatively bright” with “unrestricted visibility.”
The fact that both onboard radar and watch officers failed to see the freighter in time to avert the collision has raised the possibility of electronic interference. One theory is that the freighter’s autopilot was hacked and a collision course set.
Similarly, in the case of the McCain, the ship was rammed by an oil tanker despite use by the crew of several types of radar and round-the-clock watch officers on the bridge.
Further raising suspicions in the case of the McCain is the fact that, days before the incident, the destroyer took part in a freedom of navigation operation by sailing within 12 miles of the disputed Mischief Reef, in the nearby Spratlys Islands, in a bid to challenge China’s claims to the reef, one of three increasingly militarized islands close to the Philippines. China protested the warship passage.
After the McCain collision, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, echoing earlier state-run media comments, criticized the US for hazardous seamanship.
“Many people are very concerned about the harm posed by the frequent activities of the US forces in the relevant waters to the freedom and security of navigation,” she said. “We hope that the United States can take this issue seriously and properly handle it.”
“It is ludicrous to assert that China does not have any motivation to try to hack or otherwise cause accidents that militarily or politically damage US military forces in Asia. Whether or not China played any role in these incidents, the immediate campaign in Chinese state media to exploit these accidents to tar the US Navy as ‘incompetent’ and ‘dangerous,’ laid bare the Chinese government’s abject hostility to the US Navy and desire to sweep US power from Asia.”
Navy investigators’ suspicions of Chinese electronic interference in the McCain collision are also being fueled by the proximity of a Chinese vessel shortly before the incident occurred. Commercial maritime tracking data used to monitor international ship movements revealed that the Chinese vessel was shadowing the freighter that rammed the McCain and veered away shortly before it took place.
David Benson, a professor of strategy and security studies at the Air University in Montgomery, Alabama, doubts China would risk conducting an electronic attack on the warships.
“There is no obvious motive for China, or any other actor, to hack Navy vessels in such a fashion,” Benson stated in a recent blog posted on the website War on the Rocks.
“Cyber capabilities are extremely perishable, and if an actor has the ability to interfere with a destroyer’s operations, doing so during a time of relative peace is costly,” he noted. “While damaging a couple of destroyers might impose costs on the United States in the short term, it is nowhere near sufficient to offset the risk of losing or exposing a capability that could be priceless in a war.”
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center who closely tracks Chinese military developments, disagrees.
“It is ludicrous to assert that China does not have any motivation to try to hack or otherwise cause accidents that militarily or politically damage US military forces in Asia,” Fisher said. “Whether or not China played any role in these incidents, the immediate campaign in Chinese state media to exploit these accidents to tar the US Navy as ‘incompetent’ and ‘dangerous,’ laid bare the Chinese government’s abject hostility to the US Navy and desire to sweep US power from Asia.”
Even if the investigators conclude that the accidents show the need for a greater top-down emphasis on naval professionalism and new investment in training, military planners should not be deterred from adding cyber and insider-traitor threats to a China threat matrix that includes new submarines, anti-ship ballistic missiles and future nuclear carrier battle groups.