Chinese Buglers: Front Line Information Warriors?

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One of the most interesting news about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flashed recently by Xinhua is return of buglers in the PLA. Quoting, Sgt. Zhang Gaosen, of the Jinan Military Area Command the report stated that, “Being a bugler was not a promising career in the past,” but things are changing and buglers are much in demand he claimed. Some may believe that buglers may be, “on call” for the Beijing Olympics less than a year away. However, there are deeper operational reasons for the PLA reviving the art of bugling.

In the years gone by, buglers would rouse an army to battle or simply soldiers from their sleep at the break of dawn. Identification of a bugle call was one of the first lessons in training young recruits for unless one recognized the call correctly one could be missing an important routine or order of the day. The bugle call of Retreat at the end of the day was especially significant as it not just signified preparations for the night but also was a tribute to the innumerable martyrs who had laid down their lives for the country and the state or the King as the case may be.

However, over the years as alarm calls, sirens, hooters and networked wireless megaphones have proliferated the buglers have taken a back seat in the armed forces. However as the favorite maxim goes, the more things change they continue to remain the same and buglers have made a triumphant come back in the PLA. Therefore, what has been the reason for revival of the art of bugling in the Chinese PLA which as many claim is on a modernizing spree. It is plain and simply the threat of jamming of electronic systems in the thick of a modern battle; electronic and information warfare.

Such fall back on old systems to beat modern technology in Armed Forces has many precedents. As the world was moving on to transistorized communications, some observers were surprised to find that the then Soviet Army persisted with valve radios on their critical communication equipment. Obviously, the Soviets were protecting themselves from the Electro Magnetic Pulse that would have neutralized the transistors but not the valves. The Chinese seem to drawing similar lessons based on a much more antiquated yet reliable tradition of armies of the World, bugling to beat break down of radios by the enemy.

The PLA is no novice to organizational innovation. It has the unique ability of maximizing its strengths. Thus, it was People’s War when Mao’s Army lacked big guns, or human wave attacks in Korea or an anti satellite strike in 2007. Information warfare has been the PLA’s key focus over the years. In the 1990’s, two Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui of the PLA Air Force Political Department published a seminal work, “Unrestricted Warfare” which revealed the PLA’s thinking on new methods and techniques for gaining political advantage against possible adversaries. Information warfare was a key concept propagated then.

Today PLA is reportedly having full-scale information warfare capability with an offensive and defensive component. Recent reports in the media indicate that possibly one or many cyber attacks were carried out by the Chinese military on US military’s computer system.

These Cyber attacks were reportedly carried out in June and US officials claim that these have been by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One such attack even led to shutting down of computers in the offices of Robert Gates, the US Defense Secretary. While official comments were guarded, as it is always difficult to trace out such attacks and a number of states as well as non state entities are reported to be carrying out such attempts regularly, yet alarm bells are already reading in information security circles across the globe.

Another report speaks of hacking by Chinese into German government systems including computer networks at Chancellor Merkel’s office. This issue was reportedly raised during the meet between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Beijing recently. One would have imagined that the networks of the German Chancellor and Secretary Gates would be virtually penetrable. Yet the all pervasiveness of information warfare perhaps provides opportunities for penetrating even such highly secure systems.

Therefore, what do we do with Chinese buglers when they give their calls to the PLA soldiers, “counter bugler warfare”, may increasingly engage the hyperactive security specialists across the globe.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.