War on the Rocks

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

Japan Chair Fellow (Nonresident)
 Taiwanese civilians in tactical gear and replica weapons taking part in an urban warfare workshop on June 18 in Linko district, New Taipei City. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)
Taiwanese civilians in tactical gear and replica weapons taking part in an urban warfare workshop on June 18 in Linko district, New Taipei City. (Photo by Sam Yeh / AFP)

With the development of AI, neuroscience, and digital applications like social media, senior officers and strategists in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) claim that, in the future, it will be possible to influence the enemy’s brain to affect human cognition directly. Doing so creates the possibility of subduing the enemy without a fight, either by technical or informational means. Will the lessons of the war in Ukraine change their thinking on this subject — and thus alter their plans for possible future invasions of Taiwan?

Russia’s war on Ukraine is not merely kinetic: It involves a fierce struggle over the leaders’ will and public opinion among the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the international community. In this cognitive battle, the dissemination of information through digital means has become a significant factor shaping the war’s likely outcome. However, the war in Ukraine shows the limits of cognitive warfare in providing an independent strategic advantage. If Chinese strategists believe the human brain to be the next battlefield — and there is some evidence they do — Russia’s experience in Ukraine suggests caution in investing too heavily in that theory. Cognitive warfare alone cannot win wars. Western analysts should similarly be careful not to assume China will rely on cognitive or other non-physical measures to subdue Taiwan. Though influencing enemy cognition has long been a prominent subject of discussion among Chinese military theorists, they may not be drawing the same lessons from Ukraine’s resistance that Western commentators think they are.

What Is Cognitive Warfare?

A Chinese theorist describes cognitive warfare as using public opinion, psychological, and legal means to achieve victory. In line with Sun Tzu’s dictum that supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting, China has long considered that defeating the enemy without physical combat is ideal. The PLA Political Work Regulations, when revised in 2003, outlined the “three battles” to be conducted by the PLA. The three battles consist of public opinion warfare to influence domestic and international public opinion, psychological warfare to shock and demoralize enemy soldiers and civilians, and legal warfare to gain international support through international and domestic law. Thus, all three battles are closely related to cognitive warfare.

Several papers published by Chinese strategists in the early 2000s stated future information warfare would co-occur in three domains: the physical, the informational, and the cognitive domains. These strategists predicted that over time the importance of the cognitive domain will increase, eventually becoming the pivotal point in warfare. Since then, much work published by Chinese strategists over the past two decades has been based on the idea that war takes place in the physical domains of land, sea, air, and space; the information domain of communication networks and information in it; and the domain of human cognition, which consists of both the leader’s will and public opinion.

Chinese strategists focused on information and communication technology in the 2000s. In recent years, they have focused on developments in artificial intelligence and what they refer to as “brain science,” in addition to digital technologies such as social media. For example, Guo Yunfei (郭云飞), President of the Information Engineering University of the PLA’s Strategic Support Forces, argued in 2020 that of the physical, information, and cognitive domains, it is the cognitive domain that will be the ultimate domain of military confrontation between major powers. Fighting in the cognitive environment directly affects the brain, influencing emotions, motives, judgments, and actions and even controlling the enemy’s brain. As the engine of cognition, the brain could become the main battlefield of future warfare. The ability to control the brain is the key to combat in the most critical cognitive domains of future warfare.

Guo Yunfei further stated that operations in the cognitive domain embody the idea of defeating the enemy without fighting, as opposed to operations in the physical and information domain. Qi Jianguo (戚建国), the former deputy chief of staff of the PLA, also stated that in future wars, those who control the cognitive domain of their opponents would be able to subdue them without fighting. Thus, senior officers of the PLA argue that operations in the cognitive domain embody Sun Tzu’s statement of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.

This concept of cognitive warfare is further reinforced by its integration with “intelligentized” warfare, which is China’s new military strategy, referred to in 2019, in addition to its existing military strategy of “informationized” warfare. Intelligentized warfare focuses on using artificial intelligence and is characterized by four key features: increased information-processing capabilities, rapid decision-making, the use of swarms, and cognitive warfare.

Chinese strategists have stated that human cognition is the focus of intelligentized warfare, and that strategic objectives can be achieved through direct action on enemy cognition. Qi Jianguo, former deputy chief of staff of the PLA, has stated that those who gain the upper hand in developing new-generation artificial intelligence technologies will be able to control the lifeline of national security: human cognition. Chinese strategists also argue that directly interfering with or subconsciously controlling the enemy’s brain can induce mental damage, confusion, and hallucinations in the enemy, forcing them to lay down their arms and surrender.

It is not certain how China intends to use future technology to control an enemy’s brain. In the case of currently available technology, the PLA seems to be considering intimidation through military actions and the use of disinformation. Intimidation includes the maneuvering and deploying of troops to specific locations, the preparation for operations of strategic nuclear weapons units, and undertaking military exercises for intimidation purposes. Disinformation could be disseminated via the internet and television broadcasts. It also includes deception of enemy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities by electromagnetic or cyber means to mislead the commander’s judgment.

In addition, Pang Hongliang (庞宏亮), an advocate of intelligentized warfare, has discussed a wide range of U.S. technological achievements such as the use of small unmanned systems for surveillance, and has also mentioned the importance of using the latest technology to influence human cognition. For example, he states that unmanned systems such as social media bots operating in cyberspace can manipulate public opinion, and that in the future ultra-compact unmanned systems resembling small animals could secretly enter the rooms of a president or other chief decision-maker to intimidate or kill them, thereby subduing the enemy’s will and control it.

Yet is it possible to use cognitive warfare to secure victory without physical combat, as many Chinese senior officers and strategists claim? How do the lessons of the war in Ukrainian change these theories? The second half of this article will examine the feasibility of this theory and the potential for future changes in this theory, based on the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine.

The Limits of Cognitive Warfare: A Ukrainian Demonstration

The PLA’s senior officials and strategists have yet to discuss in public the lessons of the war in Ukraine. However, a number of studies in the United States have pointed to the possibility that the lessons of the war in Ukraine may change the course of China’s plans for a potential invasion of Taiwan. One article predicts that the cost of a direct military invasion of Taiwan would be high, and China will wait patiently for Taiwan’s eventual surrender. Another study predicts that, having seen the resistance to Russia’s invasion, China will seek to inflict a psychological blow on Taiwan and break its will to resist through the following means: obstruction of U.S. intervention through nuclear threats, physical isolation through the encirclement of Taiwan by naval forces, and assassination of Taiwan’s political and military leaders. Another paper points out that China could conduct a broader operation prior to the attack, including fomenting division in Taiwanese society, disseminating disinformation, and blocking communications between Taiwan and the outside world.

These predictions are all reasonable analyses, given that the PLA’s senior officials and strategists have stated that human cognition is the focus of warfare and have referred to the importance of subduing the enemy without fighting. Chinese theorists would focus on the human cognitive aspect of the war in Ukrainian. But will China rely more than ever on cognitive warfare in invading Taiwan, as many analyses state?

As described by Chinese strategists, cognitive warfare using artificial intelligence and “brain science” uses future technology that has not yet been developed. Although the cognitive fight in Ukraine does not feature the futuristic concepts of a direct effect on the brain using such new technologies, it is worth analyzing the impact of human cognition on the war’s outcome. In particular, the ongoing war illustrates essential lessons about traditional Chinese concepts related to human cognition: public opinion warfare, which influences domestic and international public opinion to gain support, and psychological warfare, which shocks and demoralizes the enemy’s military and civilian population.

In its 2014 takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia waged a clever battle in the domain of human cognition. When military units without markers indicating their affiliation — the so-called “little green men” — suddenly occupied the Crimean Peninsula, President Vladimir Putin immediately made a statement denying Russian involvement. Within hours, his remarks were published in the Washington Post, BBC, and other Western media. The purpose of Putin’s statement was to manipulate international public opinion by misleading people’s cognition and preventing the international community from interfering during the critical period of the pseudo-referendum to annex the peninsula.

Russia also used public media and troll factories to disseminate a strategic narrative of “repression of the Russian population in Ukraine” in a sophisticated manner. This strategic narrative was intended to give the appearance of legitimacy to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and create a false perception in the international community that Ukraine was at fault. For example, Russia simultaneously released fake news stories about “Ukraine’s massacre of pro-Russian residents in Odesa” and “U.S. media cover-up of Odesa massacre.” These fake news stories overlapped to give the impression that the truth was being covered up, planting false perceptions in the international community.

Russia does not have a concept of cognitive warfare and uses instead a concept of information and psychological confrontation. However, this method of using digital means to influence people’s thoughts and values is similar to what China calls cognitive warfare. And Russia was successful in 2014 with respect to such warfare.

Russia, however, is falling short of achieving its aims in the current war, not only in the physical realm but also in the realm of human cognition. Claims of a special military operation to rescue the oppressed Russian population are like the strategic narrative they used in 2014, which may have been intended to assert legitimacy to the international community. However, while this strategic narrative has worked within Russia, it has not influenced international public opinion as it did in 2014.

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remained in his capital city of Kyiv, undaunted by Russian threats. Supported by the president’s courage, the Ukrainian government was able to disseminate accurate information, maintain the unity of the Ukrainian people, gain a high level of support from the international community, and secure physical assistance from numerous countries. The Ukrainian government has also used information from open sources and intelligence provided by the United States to combat the Russian military and to display Ukrainian courage and Russian military atrocities to the international community.

U.S. support has played a pivotal role in this cognitive warfare. The United States used a prebuttal strategy, rapidly disclosing classified information to publicize Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine before the war began Many articles have praised this strategy: It reduced the credibility of the Russian strategic narrative in advance and fostered an environment of greater cohesion among democracies, which led to material support for Ukraine. In addition, the protection provided by U.S. cyber forces and the support of high-tech companies has played an essential role in maintaining Ukraine’s information and communications infrastructure, thus enabling Ukraine to disseminate information to the world quickly.

Thus, in the short term, Ukraine and the democracies led by the United States have a clear advantage in the public cognitive arena. This dominance brings material support from the international community that is essential for Ukraine to continue fighting. However, it was Ukraine’s physical forces, armed with drones and Javelins, that defended the capital city of Kyiv from the thrust of Russian armored units and recaptured parts of Russian-occupied territory, not cognitive warfare. Ukraine demands more physical assets, including artillery, tanks, fighter planes, and anti-aircraft weapons, to prepare for a more protracted battle.

In the long run, there is no guarantee that Ukraine will maintain its superiority in cognitive warfare. In this age of the internet and social media, international public opinion is volatile If this war continues for years, Western support is likely to wane as domestic politics begin once again to dominate local narratives. If material support from democracies diminishes, Ukraine will find it difficult to continue the physical fighting. Meanwhile, Russia is strengthening its repressive regime, imposing prison sentences of up to 15 years for spreading information that differs from official government pronouncements. This repressive regime is a favorable factor in domestic cognitive warfare. It enables Russia to maintain the support of its own people, which is the minimum requirement for continuing the war.

In the war in Ukraine, Ukraine and Russia have made and will continue to make various efforts to win the support of the international community and their citizens — and, in the long run, it may get harder for Ukraine to win out in this regard. The war in Ukraine demonstrates the importance of strategically disseminating information to influence people’s perceptions and win the support of domestic and international public opinion in the digital age. However, Ukraine cannot regain its eastern and southern territories lost to Russia solely through cognitive warfare. Fighting in the physical domain will determine the outcome of the war.

Thus, the Russo-Ukrainian war shows that cognitive warfare alone cannot win wars. Claims by Chinese theorists that they will win a war using cognitive warfare without direct combat are simply not feasible with the current science and technology. In other words, against many analyses, China will not be able to bring Taiwan to its knees solely by indirect means, such as psychological blows through nuclear threats, blockade, decapitation, disinformation dissemination, and blocking of communications.

Do Emerging Technologies Alone Confer a Strategic Advantage?

This is reinforced by the experience of cyber warfare in Ukraine. In the past decade, many government officials cyber experts have warned of devastating cyber attacks that could kill people and destroy critical infrastructure. Before this year’s Russian invasion, experts also predicted a cyber attack on Ukraine’s power grid that would have left millions of Ukrainians without heat in the bitter cold, and psychologically subdued.

With the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russia launched cyber attacks against the computer systems of the Ukrainian government, military, and critical infrastructure, causing some systems to malfunction. The KA-SAT used by Ukraine’s military and intelligence agencies also ceased to function due to cyberattacks. However, cyber warfare was not as decisive as anticipated before the war, and Russia did not gain a strategic advantage from cyber warfare alone. The war in Ukraine shows that cyber warfare does not achieve a strategic impact on its own but is best used as a tool to support land, sea, and air operations.

Thus, the war in Ukraine revealed that cognitive warfare and cyber warfare — which use digital means and are conducted in non-physical domains — do not alone provide strategic advantages. If the PLA’s senior officials and strategists come to the same realization, they will continue to emphasize operations in the existing physical domains as well as in the non-physical domains. Indeed, they recognize the coexistence of mechanized, informationized, and intelligentized warfare and will continue to do so.

Neither Sun Tzu, who idealized subduing the enemy without fighting nor British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, who advocated the indirect approach strategy, gave specific advice on how to put it into practice. And in the long history of warfare, it has been physical battles that subdued the enemy’s will.

Recommendations for the United States and Its Allies

Given these lessons, China, while focusing on cognitive warfare, will continue to invest in existing physical domains and enhance the coordination between them. In countering China, the United States and its allies need to analyze China’s concept of cognitive warfare while also studying the coordination of operations in the cognitive, informational, and physical domains.

The United States and its allies, as democratic countries, need to enhance their own theories of cognitive warfare. Influencing the cognitive domain in other countries requires understanding their culture, identifying targets, and creating strategic narratives tailored to those targets’ characteristics. In cognitive warfare, information is ammunition, and the right bullet must be fired at the right time and place. Since 2014, Russia has demonstrated the effectiveness of spreading disinformation through digital means. The war in Ukraine, however, has shown that the best weapons of a democratic society are accurate publicity and the rapid disclosure of information.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates the importance of domestic and international public opinion. Cognitive warfare, however, is just one way to gain a strategic advantage, and the feasibility of defeating the enemy without a fight is questionable. This does not make cognitive warfare useless: rather, it should be seen as one tool among many. Cyber warfare has also seldom achieved an overwhelming strategic advantage by itself. Still, it has been integrated into land, sea, and air operations and become an essential part of modern warfare.

In the same way, cognitive warfare needs to be effectively integrated into operations in the land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains. Coordination between cognitive warfare and other operations is essential because the means of influencing an opponent’s perception include not only the transmission and disclosure of information but also intimidation and deterrence through the actions of physical assets, as well as the digital dissemination of information. To incorporate cognitive warfare into existing operations, targeting procedures can be helpful and may allocate multiple means to affect the enemy’s cognition.

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