Chinese Military Studying ‘Cognitive Attacks’ Against U.S. Military

In what marks a significant shift in warfare strategies, Chinese military researchers are delving into psychological warfare techniques aimed at causing disarray and a sense of defeat within foreign adversaries, particularly the United States.

At a recent hearing before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on February 1, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, reported that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are intensifying their “cyber-enabled influence operations” against the US.

The tactics in question, known as “cognitive domain operations” (CDO), target the psychological aspect of warfare—manipulating an adversary’s mental state to the point of surrender without reliance on traditional kinetic military action. This method often involves AI-generated deepfakes, misinformation and other technologically powered forms of propaganda.

Beauchamp-Mustafaga disclosed that PLA researchers are investigating the use of what they call “synthetic information” to carry out “precision cognitive attacks” targeted not at the general populace, but at narrow groups or individuals. These precision attacks are thought to be more effective than broader propaganda efforts.

Part of the PLA’s strategy includes fostering “information cocoons” or echo chambers within American society. These cocoons function to heighten polarization, undermining mainstream Western values and isolating individuals, both ideologically and psychologically.

While it’s challenging to assess how extensively these scholarly propositions have been employed, Mr. Beauchamp-Mustafaga cautioned that the execution of such strategies may still be nascent and contained to specific academic factions within the PLA.

Nevertheless, these findings align with broader analyses documenting the CCP’s elevation of their influence operations. Reports from cybersecurity entities such as Recorded Future highlight a move toward specialized messaging, crafted for well-defined audiences and based on detailed demographic data.

In concurrence, a declassified intelligence report concerning the 2022 US midterm elections revealed the pervasive presence of CCP-influenced campaigns. These initiatives included reprisals against certain US politicians, dissemination of polarizing content, and imitation of American citizens online.

Corroborating reports from social media giants such as Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft indicate that Chinese entities surreptitiously utilized social media, proxy websites, hired influencers and PR firms to sway American public opinion in China’s favor.

In its 2022 China Military Power Report, the Pentagon defined the CCP’s CDO activities as emboldened psychological warfare aimed at influencing cognition, decision-making, and behavior. According to the report, the PLA’s ultimate goal is to establish “mind dominance”, using pro-China propaganda to manipulate public opinion and potentially decrease resistance to PLA activities.