Citation: B.A. Friedman, “Finding the Right Model: The Joint Force, the People’s Liberation Army, and Information Warfare,” Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs 6, no. 3 (March–April 2023): 1–17.
This article discusses the similarities and differences between the US military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China in their approach to information advantage and decision advantage. The article argues that despite major differences in approach, both militaries are seeking to model and conceptualize information advantage and decision advantage. Interestingly, the PLA’s use of the American concept of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop provides a key to understanding their organizational approach to information warfare. The article suggests that modeling information warfare on the OODA Loop, as intended by its creator USAF colonel John Boyd, could provide a clear path to achieving decision advantage. The article highlights the need to unify offensive and defensive information warfare, recognizing that everything a military force does takes place inside the information environment and must be planned and coordinated as such. The article concludes that the United States has so far seemingly mastered the information age warfare that the PLA aspires to, and the joint force can retain this comparative advantage only by constant refinement and integration of information warfare throughout the force. The article suggests that while the PLA’s concepts and doctrine may offer potential vulnerabilities, the United States should also be wary of blindly adopting the PLA’s approach, as it may fall short of the leap from industrial to information age warfare.
The information dimension or aspect of warfare may become increasingly central to the outcome of battles and engagements, and therefore the strategy and tactics of establishing information superiority over one’s adversary will become a major focus of operational art. Clearly one might wish to be more effective, more skillful in the acquisition and communication processing, the using of information with respect to targets or with respect to the intentions and moves of an opponent. Indeed, in the early stages of an engagement, one would take measures to widen this advantage through the protection of one’s own information systems while partially destroying, disrupting, manipulating, or corrupting the information processing and gathering of the opponent. This full range of activities which may become an integrated area of military strategy and operations could be called information warfare.
—Andrew W. Marshall
Thirty years later, Marshall’s statement has proven to be accurate. Although the platforms and munitions of the precision-strike regime often receive the most attention, advanced military capabilities are now dependent on information acquisition, analysis, and dissemination. It is not unexpected then that the militaries of the twenty-first century are investing heavily in information-related capabilities (IRC), particularly the two most technologically advanced military forces, the US military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
While investing in the physical components of IRCs is crucial, it is equally important to consider the concepts of operations that govern their use. These concepts illustrate how a military force intends to integrate and coordinate the use of IRCs alongside and in support of other military capabilities. They represent the narratives that military organizations create about the tactics of the future. While these concepts may or may not become reality, analyzing them can provide insights into a force’s intended approach to warfare. This article conducts such an analysis by examining information warfare–related concepts for both the US military and the PLA, which have very different visions for the future of information warfare.
This article uses the term information warfare as an overarching term derived from Marshall’s aforementioned description to denote the competition between two military organizations engaged in a conflict to acquire, analyze, disseminate, and exploit information. The term offensive information warfare is employed to describe the actions taken by one side in that contest to disrupt, deceive, deny, or destroy the adversary’s ability to acquire, analyze, disseminate, and exploit information. On the other hand, the term defensive information warfare denotes the actions taken by one side in that conflict to protect, preserve, and enhance its ability to acquire, analyze, disseminate, and exploit information.
The People’s Liberation Army and Information Warfare
To understand the role of information warfare in PLA concepts, it is first important to understand the PLA’s strategic concepts, including its understanding of strategy itself.
One analyst has referred to the PLA’s definition of strategy as “objective-subjective strategy,” which reflects a Marxist-Leninist perspective of strategy. According to this notion, strategy represents a nonlinear dialectic between objective reality and subjective initiative. It is the task of strategy (and the strategist) to assess objective reality—i.e., the existing strategic environment—and then employ subjective initiative to alter that reality in a manner that aligns with the strategy’s objective. The synthesis of objective reality and subjective initiative results in a new, more-advantageous objective reality. The strategist’s subjective initiative can target any information concerning objective reality, including the political inclinations and aspirations of local populations in regions where military operation are feasible or likely.
The construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea serves as an illustrative example of this mode of thinking. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) sought to expand its political control over the South China Sea, but the objective reality did not allow for such control due to the absence of suitable islands capable of accommodating military infrastructure. To address this, Beijing’s subjective initiative involved the development and militarization of artificial islands. The implementation of this subjective initiative established a new objective reality, bolstering the PRC’s capability to govern the South China Sea.
The concept of objective-subjective strategy, originally presented in a 2002 article by Academy of Military Science professor Wu Chunqui titled “Dialectics and the Study of Grand Strategy: A Chinese View,” continues to be enshrined in the PLA’s doctrine as evidenced in the 2020 Science of Military Strategy.
Since the 1980s, the PRC has employed a military and defense strategy known as active defense, building upon its largely defensive approach since 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consolidated its control. The core principle of active defense is that the PRC will only use force in defense of its own territory or interests, but may employ offensive means to deter, defend against, and respond to perceived external aggression. For example, the PRC may consider an invasion of Taiwan as a “defensive” action because the CCP views Taiwan’s existence as a democratic country as a threat, thereby justifying a PLA invasion as an act of self-defense.
The policy of active defense is implemented through the use of strategic guidelines, sometimes called military strategic guidelines. The Chinese consider these strategic guidelines to be the “core and collected embodiment of military strategy.” Strategic guidelines consist of four components: (1) identification of a strategic opponent; (2) a primary strategic direction, such as a region or cardinal direction; (3) the “form of warfare” or “pattern of operations” that future warfare will consist of, such as informatization; and (4) operational principles for the use of military force against the strategic opponent, in the strategic direction, and in accordance with the form of warfare chosen. The Central Military Commission issues the strategic guidelines, which then inform force design, doctrine (or regulations), and operational planning within the PLA.
Since the initial conception of active defense, the guidance issued to the PLA has become both more ambitious in terms of the goals that the PLA must endeavor to reach and more focused on maritime and aerospace power, at the expense of land power. Over the years, the PLA has been expected to project power further and further from China, and in more advanced ways, through maritime and aerospace environments, as evident in at least nine distinct strategic guidelines issued to the PLA since the 1950s.
The PLA has a different classification of warfare than the United States. While the US generally distinguishes between conventional and unconventional warfare, the PLA categorizes warfare based on the main form of forces and their technological sophistication in four stages: “swords and spears, firearms, mechanization, and informatization.” The current stage of warfare is informatization, in which, unsurprisingly, information warfare is a core component. The PLA believes the stage of the future is intelligentization, where artificial intelligence will be the defining component of warfare.
The PLA began contemplating the concept of informatized war following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, although the terms informatized or informatization were not formally adopted until 1999. Informatized warfare is characterized by digital networks that enable modern precision-guided munitions, platforms, and IRCs such as electronic and cyber warfare. In warfare between two informatized forces, the side that can more effectively acquire, analyze, and disseminate information through networks will have the advantage. Informatized warfare places a central and critical emphasis on information superiority.
The 2013 Science of Military Strategy (SMS), compiled by the PLA’s Academy of Military Science’s Military Strategy Studies Department, explicitly describes the idea that informatization has fundamentally influenced and changed the mode of generating combat power. According to the SMS, “Informatization has fundamentally influenced and changed the mode of generating combat power.” It describes combat power as being composed of three elements: (1) material, such as weapon systems and platforms like tanks, artillery, and aircraft; (2) energy, in the form of fuel sources for platforms and ammunition like rockets and missiles; and (3) information, the communication systems necessary to coordinate the actions of material and the provisioning of energy. However, in modern warfare, “Informationization has caused a fundamental change in the traditional relationship among material, energy, and information in war. . . . Information has transformed from being an assisting essential factor to being a dominant essential factor that commands material and energy.”
This concept has spurred a comprehensive reform initiative across the PLA to fully leverage the centrality of information. The PLA now believes that the “mechanism of gaining victory in war” has changed. In the past, victory was achieved by neutralizing the adversary’s material means of fighting. However, in informatized warfare, victory can be achieved by disrupting the adversary’s information means to paralyze, rather than destroy, its material capabilities. This includes targeting “leadership institutions, command and control centers, and information hubs.” The primary means of conducting informatized warfare is by “integrating information and firepower” through the use of reconnaissance and sensors linked by networks to long-range precision-strike munitions. The 2020 edition of the PLA’s SMS states, “In information warfare, the effectiveness of military power is more dependent on the application capability of information technology.”
In the 2020 edition of the SMS, informatized war is alternately referred to as informationized war, information warfare, and information-based warfare. Its place in PLA thinking has only become more central. Whereas Western thinkers tend to view information warfare as a discrete form of war that occurs in an information space or as an additional set of capabilities that complement traditional military capabilities, the 2020 edition portrays all modern warfare as information warfare, even referring to modern warfare as information-led. The document asserts that winning information warfare is “the fundamental function of our military, and it is also the basis for the ability to accomplish diversified military tasks.” The PLA believes that no matter what type of warfare or military activity, the foundation is information warfare.
The PLA’s current goal is to “accelerate” the development of its informatization efforts and further mechanization by 2027. These efforts are an ongoing process, and the PLA is pursuing them while continuing to develop mechanized forces. Mechanized forces are those normally associated with industrial-age warfare, such as armored vehicles, tanks, and artillery. Informatized forces are characterized as those involved with reconnaissance-strike complexes: long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and precision-guided munitions.
The acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of information is decisive in informatized warfare as it fuels the advanced reconnaissance-strike and precision-strike complexes that define informatized forces. Additionally, the PLA has developed two concepts of operations for how to fight in a state of informatized warfare: systems confrontation warfare and systems destruction warfare.
Systems confrontation warfare, also known as system-of-systems warfare, describes how the PLA intends to organize and operate as an informatized force on an informatized battlefield against another informatized force. It outlines how the PLA intends to organize its command relationships to accomplish “integrated joint operations” during “local war under informationized conditions.” At the core of this approach is the acquisition, analysis, and exploitation of information domination, which is equivalent to the American concept of decision advantage. The PLA’s aim is to make information warfare the centerpiece and driving force behind all combat operations, rather than simply integrating it with combat operations.
Both forms of systems warfare are organized into three major components: types of systems, command levels, and component systems. The first component is types of systems, which includes tixi, a large, integrated system that contains multiple types of xitong systems. A tixi system is capable of performing multiple functions. A xitong system, on the other hand, performs a specific or discreet function, and may or may not be a subcomponent of a tixi system. Lastly, a fenxitong is a subsystem of a xitong system that performs a single function, which enables the xitong system to function.
These components are task-organized into command levels. The highest command level is an element. An element is a tixi system—a multifunctional system—that is tasked with multiple but related purposes. The second command level is a structure, which is a matrix-style networked structure of multiple xitongs, single-function systems that are collectively assigned a single mission or purpose. The last command level is an entity, which is a fenxitong, a single-function system that is a subcomponent of a xitong. This sounds complex, but it is not fundamentally different than US command relationships that are mix of different command and task forces.
Finally, there are five major component systems in systems warfare: a command system, a firepower strike system, an information confrontation system, a reconnaissance intelligence system, and a support system. These are structures: a network of multiple xitongs united in purpose.
The command system focuses on the command-and-control links that network and connect the component systems. It encompasses commanders, political officers, communications officers, and other personnel responsible for maintaining situational awareness and directing operations. The firepower strike system focuses on delivering kinetic fires across multiple domains—i.e., air, sea, land, and includes the various fires units themselves, as well as support and command systems required to make them effective. The information confrontation system is designed to achieve information dominance and includes a wide range of information-related capabilities, such as electronic warfare and cyber operations. The reconnaissance intelligence system is responsible for gathering intelligence and building situational awareness for PLA forces. This system includes a variety of sensors, detectors, and collectors across every domain. Finally, the support system includes logisticians, maintainers, engineers, and other personnel responsible for sustaining the other component systems.
To apply these terms to relatable examples, in the USAF, an aircraft, its pilots, and its maintainers are an element (fenxitong). Multiple aircraft and types of aircraft organized together for one purpose to form a wing would be a structure (xitong). That wing would be assigned to a joint task force, which would equate to a tixi. Intervening command levels that are present in the US system (such as squadrons) may or may not be present. If they are not, the purpose of avoiding them is to keep chains of command as short as possible to foster speed and detailed, centralized control of subordinate units.
Systems confrontation warfare is a modular, flexible, and innovative method of organizing military forces. The specific capabilities and systems organized along these lines will vary depending on the mission, allowing for task organization. Since a structure is united by function rather than service, it can easily shift from one tixi to another and perform the same function. Additionally, the system features a significant amount of redundancy. For example, each component system has its own intelligence fenxitongs, allowing each xitong to collect, analyze, and act on information independently. The same is true of firepower strike systems: the information confrontation system, for example, may have its own firepower strike capabilities, reducing reliance on the firepower strike system. This method of organizing combat forces is relatively unique in history, with the closest analog being the Navy’s composite warfare concept.
While systems confrontation warfare describes how the PLA is organized to fight as an informatized force, systems destruction warfare envisions how the PLA organized on such lines can defeat an opposing informatized system. It is predicated on attacking the critical subcomponents of an opposing system to disable its ability to function as a cohesive unit, resulting in paralysis. This can be achieved by destroying critical capabilities through kinetic means, denying critical capabilities through nonkinetic means, depleting the opponent’s will and desire to fight through psychological means, or a combination of these. The PLA believes that significant attrition of enemy forces is unnecessary to achieve paralysis.
There are four types of targets that the PLA seeks to strike, through kinetic or nonkinetic means, to achieve paralysis. First, the PLA will target “the flow of information in the adversary’s operational system,” which likely refers to communications and sensors. Second, the PLA will attack the “essential elements of the adversary’s operational system,” which likely includes “command and control, reconnaissance intelligence firepower, information confrontation, maneuver, protection, and support forces.” Third, the PLA will target the “operational architecture” of the opponent, which may refer to the infrastructure required to deploy and employ combat forces. Finally, the PLA will aim to “slow down” the enemy system in a temporal sense, whether slowing down its decision making or its movement and reaction times.
The PLA recently published an article that discusses “degradation operations” in the context of systems confrontation warfare. The goal is to achieve “capability degradation” by taking actions whereby “the opponent’s system-of-systems operational advantages are constantly being degraded, preventing the connection of each element, unit, and system from the bottom up.”
Systems destruction warfare is designed to defeat a force that has a technological advantage over the PLA and is dependent on that technology for the acquisition, analysis, exploitation, and dissemination of information. Currently, the US military is the only force that fits this description.
The PLA believes that achieving information dominance is crucial to subsequent operations aimed at attaining air and naval dominance. Once information and air dominance have been established, the PLA can exploit them and maritime dominance to gain dominance on land, depending on the operational environment. This approach is known as comprehensive battlefield dominance, which emphasizes that information dominance is the key to establishing and maintaining the initiative in any conflict. PLA documents explicitly describe IRCs such as psychological warfare, space-based systems, and cyberwarfare as essential means of achieving initiative through information dominance. Comprehensive battlefield dominance can be seen as akin to multi-domain or all-domain operations, except that the domains are prioritized and exploited sequentially against each other.
The use of information warfare to achieve dominance or superiority in other domains has been a longstanding strategy in modern PLA thought. In The Science of Campaigns (2006), the chapter titled “Important Campaign Activities” places information warfare as the first operational activity, referred to as “the foremost mission” and “the precursor of modern campaign activities.” The chapter discusses both offensive and defensive information warfare, but places a stronger emphasis on offensive information warfare—referred to as information attack. The Science of Campaigns describes four forms of offensive information warfare: electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, psychological warfare, and physical destruction (kinetic strikes against enemy command posts and network infrastructure). The four defensive means include electronic and cyber warfare, physical protection of friendly command posts and network infrastructure, and what the United States refers to as operational security—counterreconnaissance, counterespionage, and so forth. This preference for “information first” is not only present in official PLA documents like the SMS but also in articles published by PLA officials and academicians.
The PLA’s integrated network and electronic warfare (INEW) concept is a departure from US-influenced thought on information warfare, as described by scholars John Costello and Peter Mattis. INEW merges electronic and cyber warfare into a singular system, with the view that cyberwarfare is more relevant to strategy and electronic warfare is more relevant to tactics. By combining the two capabilities, their weaknesses are mitigated. PLA National Defense University lectures describe this cross-domain concept as the “core” of information warfare and state that INEW strikes should be the “main operational pattern” of a joint island-landing campaign, such as an invasion of Taiwan.
This concept may have been the impetus behind the creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force in 2015. This force combines electronic- and cyber-warfare capabilities, among others, at the service level. The integration demonstrates that the PLA has moved away from the traditional model of separate domains dominated by singular service branches, as the older model is at odds with the PLA’s emphasis on the importance of information warfare.
The Joint Force and Information Warfare
The PLA’s vision for information warfare, particularly its objective-subjective view of strategy, differs sharply from that of the US Joint Force. The American theory of strategy revolves around aligning military means in appropriate ways to achieve political ends, taking an inherently linear approach where tactical victories lead to operational victories, which in turn lead to strategic victory. This approach is inherently mechanical, linear, and apolitical. In contrast, objective-subjective strategy is nonlinear, dialectic, and political. The difference in approaches is important because both militaries start from very different viewpoints when considering the potential of information warfare. The US approach to strategy often prioritizes technology and platforms at the expense of political and social factors and, therefore, tends to ignore information warfare’s ability to affect those factors. This is also influenced by the US military’s nonpartisan tradition, which is not shared by the PLA as an arm of the CCP.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, the US military held a narrow perspective on information warfare, viewing it primarily as operations intended to disrupt and degrade the adversary’s information-processing system—command and control (C2)—and protect friendly information-processing systems. Information warfare entailed not only IRCs but also physical destruction as a means of affecting C2 systems. This reached its peak with the publication of JP 3-13.1 Command and Control Warfare in 1996. The United States’ joint- and service-level doctrinal publications during this period all reflected this view and had a profound impact on the development of the PLA’s doctrine.
Beginning in the late 1990s the US military shifted its view of information warfare to include a soft-power connotation in joint and service doctrine. IRCs became a means to influence neutral parties and public narratives rather than solely a means to attack and defend C2 systems. The led to a divergence between information warfare and more traditional forms of warfare, a divergence that is not reflected in PLA texts. This shift has resulted in modern information-related concepts across the Department of Defense (DOD) that are inherently defensive. However, conceptions across joint and service doctrine are fractured and contradictory, with each service pursuing individual ideas and the Joint Staff pursuing another. In 2017, the DOD attempted to increase focus on information warfare by adding “information” as a seventh war-fighting function in 2017. but, this risks further severing information warfare from its inherent connections with intelligence and C2. The conceptualization of information as a combination of influence, psychological, and cognitive means offers a compelling opportunity that the US military has yet to fully address outside of the special operations community.
The Strategy for Operations in the Information Environment. issued in June of 2016, is the highest conceptual document for Joint Force information warfare. Its goal is, “through operations, actions, and activities in the IE [information environment], . . . to affect the decision-making and behavior of adversaries and designated others to gain advantage across the range of military operations.” The term operations in the information environment implies that information warfare is subset of operations, some of which may occur outside the information environment.
The strategy defines the information environment as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, processes, disseminate, or act on information.” IRCs are defined as “tools, techniques, or activities employed within a dimension of the information environment to create effects and operationally desirable conditions.” The definition of information operations is “the integrated employment during military operations of information-related capabilities, in concert with other lines of operation to influence, disrupt, corrupt, or usurp the decision-making of adversaries and potential adversaries while protecting our own.”
The strategy outlines several tasks aimed at expanding the Joint Force’s IRCs and their effective utilization. The emphasis on the importance of information in modern warfare resulted in significant changes, such as the inclusion of information as the seventh joint war-fighting function in JP 3-0 Operations.
Despite this addition, there is still no clear boundary between the information function and other functions. JP 3-0 defines the information function as encompassing “the management and application of information and its deliberate integration with other joint functions to change or maintain perceptions, attitudes, and other elements that drive desired behaviors and to support human and automated decision-making.” While the destruction and disruption of adversary communications networks is mentioned, the explicit targeting of the adversary’s decision making is not emphasized. The common operating precept is to “inform domestic audiences and shape the perception and attitudes of key foreign audiences as an explicit and continuous operational requirement.”
The current description of the information function in JP 3-0 lacks clarity in distinguishing it from other functions such as C2, fires, force protection, and intelligence. For example, C2 and intelligence would fall under information as described but are instead broken out as separate functions in and of themselves. The C2 function is also described as being used to “communicate and ensure the flow of information across the staff and joint force.” Some IRCs are discussed not in the information section but rather in the fires and force protection sections. The intelligence function is described as a way to both “produce information” and a way to enable “the JFC to act inside the enemy’s decision cycle,” but lacks a description of ways to affect the adversary’s decision cycle.
Service doctrine tends to use joint definitions but presents them in different ways. For example, the USAF Operating Concept for Information Warfare reiterates the definitions of key terms from joint concepts. It lists eight Air Force capabilities as IRCs: cyberspace operations, electromagnetic spectrum operations, information operations, ISR operations, public affairs, weather, international affairs, and operations research. In contrast, Air Force Doctrine Publication 3-13 Information in Air Force Operations goes further than joint doctrine, explicitly identifying decision advantage as the goal of information warfare. The Joint Concept for Operating in the Information Environment provides no definition for either term.
Decision advantage, as the goal of information warfare, has the following components: “(1) data collection about the environment (sensing); (2) situational understanding (sense-making); and (3) the ability to communicate decisions and exchange information (acting).” However, these definitions do not mention efforts to defeat or disrupt the adversary’s efforts at decision advantage.
The joint force and the US Air Force have acknowledged the significance of information warfare; however, there is no clear consensus on the model for the role of information warfare or how friendly and adversarial efforts to achieve decision advantage interact. The DOD currently employs multiple competing visions, sometimes within the same document, which makes it difficult to determine if significant progress will be made without sufficient consensus. A collaborative, cooperative, and interdependent form of joint warfare requires consensus building to achieve success.
The US military and the PLA differ significantly in their views on the centrality of information warfare. The PLA views information advantage as the key driver of military victory, while the US military sees it as important but not central to winning. This fundamental difference in strategic conception is reflected in concepts, doctrine, and structure. The US approach to information warfare is far less comprehensive than that of the PLA.
While the PLA acknowledges the central role of information warfare, it has not decentralized its approach to information warfare or operational aspects. The PRC prefers centralized C2 and even reorganized its senior staff to support information-driven operations, reflecting the centralized nature of its government. This predilection for centralized control is an inherent aspect of the PRC’s system of government, by no means limited to the PLA.
The US military asserts a preference for decentralized C2, but its hierarchical chains of command and legacy staff systems are designed to facilitate information flow in one direction—primarily from the bottom up. Despite the conceptual emphasis on decentralized C2, the US military remains structured for highly centralized C2.
Another significant difference is the approach to domains between the US military and the PLA. While the US military is pursuing multi-domain or all-domain capabilities, the PLA is more intentional in selecting which domains to focus on and how operations in one domain can contribute to others. The PLA believes that achieving domination or advantage in the information domain is crucial for achieving the same in the air and space domains. Subsequently, PLA forces can leverage air and space dominance to gain decisive advantages in other domains. This deliberate approach to exploiting the relationship between domains is not currently reflected in any US doctrine.
Additionally, the PLA is not limited to nonkinetic means of IRCs and is willing to employ long-range strikes to physically destroy C2 nodes; information-related platforms, such as sensors, undersea cables, satellites, or data centers; and adversary headquarters. In fact, such strikes are considered a central component of the PLA’s systems destruction warfare doctrine.
But turn-about is fair play. As the PLA’s main focus is on using information warfare to gain air and space control as a prerequisite for further military operations, the US Air Force and Space Force have the opportunity to take the initiative early in a conflict by preventing the PLA from achieving this goal. This could prove to be a decisive factor in any conflict with the PRC. Denying the PLA air and space control would enable the USAF, USSF, and other joint forces to exploit the advantages of air and space control, particularly the US Navy’s ability to establish sea control around the first and second island chains. Given the PLA’s view that information warfare is the foundation of modern warfare, achieving information superiority may be enough to undermine Beijing’s willingness to continue the fight.
The Right Model?
Despite these major differences, it is evident that both the US military and the PLA are striving to conceptualize and model information advantage and decision advantage. Ironically, it may be the PLA’s implementation of an American concept that holds the key to success.
As mentioned earlier, systems confrontation warfare is composed of five high-level components: the reconnaissance and intelligence system, the information confrontation system, the command system, the firepower strike system, and a support system.
What is striking about the component system of staff organization is that, with the except of the support system, it mirrors USAF colonel John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) Loop. This is not a coincidence, as the PLA has referenced Boyd and the OODA Loop in its texts. Rather, it should be viewed as deliberate effort by the PLA to structure high-level staffs around the OODA Loop to facilitate quicker and more efficient exploitation of information.
Figure 1. John Boyd’s OODA Loop
The OODA Loop, according to Boyd, provides a compelling, perhaps the most compelling, model for how military forces can exploit information advantage to produce decision advantage. Indeed, this is exactly as Boyd intended it. Contrary to popular belief, the OODA Loop is not solely about speed, nor is “outlooping” the opponent simply about making decisions faster. Rather, as Boyd stated, “Orientation is the Schwerpunkt (or focal point). It shapes the way we interact with the environment—hence orientation shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act.” The point of the OODA Loop is to “Magnify adversary’s friction and stretch-out his time (for a favorable mismatch in friction and time)” and “deny adversary the opportunity to cope with events/efforts as they unfold.” Friction is “generated and magnified by menace, ambiguity, deception, uncertainty, mistrust, etc.” These are all fundamentally perceptions of information. Orientation, then, is where information gained through observation is analyzed and contextualized, and where information warfare is won or lost. The goal of the OODA Loop is not just to decide faster but to decide faster and better so that the adversary is continually making decisions based on poor and outdated information, further corrupting their decision making with each cycle. In other words, it not just about defensive information warfare—preserving the integrity of the friendly OODA Loop—but also about offensive information warfare, corrupting the integrity of the opponent’s OODA Loop. Modeling information warfare on the OODA Loop as it was intended offers a clear path to achieving decision advantage. Outlooping an adversary is not the end but the means to achieving decision advantage. It is concerning that this model seems to be much more prominent in PLA concepts than in American concepts, which lack a clear description of decision advantage and what it actually means.
What would adopting the OODA Loop as the foundation of information warfare entail? It would first mean ending the divergence of kinetic and nonkinetic IRCs and unifying offensive and defensive information warfare. Commanders at any level must be able to employ all the tools available to attack the adversary’s OODA Loop embodied in their C2 system. Boyd emphasized that “operating inside adversary’s OODA loop means the same thing as operating inside adversary’s C&C [command and control] loop.” This means recognizing that everything a military force does takes place within the information environment and must be planned and coordinated accordingly. It means recognizing that information warfare is less about influencing audiences and presenting narratives and more about shaping the environment to disadvantage of the opponent’s ability to assess and manipulate it. In short, it is about what Marshall said it was about: destroying, disrupting, manipulating, or corrupting the information processing and gathering of the opponent—while protecting our own.
It remains uncertain which of these two visions is superior. The PLA’s belief in informatization as the dominant form of warfare, at least until intelligentization emerges, appears to be more extensive and sophisticated than the US approach, which has simply incorporated information warfare alongside other more conventional concepts. Nevertheless, it is risky for a force with no prior experience of the preceding form of warfare, mechanization, and no inclination toward decentralization of C2 to achieve the tempo anticipated by advocates of informatization—to try to advance too quickly. The performance of the Russian Armed Forces in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine serves as a cautionary example. Russia invested heavily in IRCs and long-range precision fires while shortening its chain of command but failed to decentralize C2 and leadership and to maintain adequate manpower. These reforms proved ineffective, leading Russian forces to resort to more rudimentary tactics. The PLA could face a similar challenge in transitioning from industrial to information age warfare, while the United States continues to gradually refine its approach.
The United States appears to have mastered information age warfare, which the PLA aspires to. The PLA has even used the US military’s combat performance as a yardstick. However, the DOD must continue to refine and integrate information warfare throughout its joint force to retain this comparative advantage. While not necessarily for emulation, the United States can examine the PLA’s concepts and doctrine for potential vulnerabilities. It is worth noting that the PLA was recently designated as the DOD’s pacing threat, indicating the need for continued vigilance and improvement. µ
Mr. Friedman is a strategic assessment analyst for Headquarters Air Force/A5SM (Strategic Assessments) and a retired US Marine Corps officer. He is also the author of several books including On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017) and On Operations: Operational Art and Military Disciplines (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021).