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Smart gains: Chinese military's expanding use of OSINT

The PLA has been enhancing capabilities to gather and analyse open-source intelligence to support military operations including information warfare. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The proliferation of publicly available data since the information revolution in the mid-1980s has rapidly increased the role of open-source intelligence (OSINT) in shaping strategic and military decision making.

The expanding opportunities to leverage OSINT for military gains were highlighted by the US think-tank, the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP), in a report it published in September 2022 about China's growing competitiveness with the US. The report said US intelligence community experts estimated that more than 80% of the information required to support military operations, public diplomacy, and other policy initiatives is available in the public domain.

For China, the potential military benefits of OSINT have also long been recognised. “The form of war is becoming increasingly information-oriented,” China's Defence White Paper said in 2002. Two years later the White Paper spoke of a need for China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to transition from “mechanization to informationalization”, while the 2006 policy stated a requirement for the PLA to “win local wars under conditions of informationization”.

China's most recent White Paper, published in 2019, pointed to some progress in “informationization” but also indicated a requirement to evolve further by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI), big data, Internet of Things, and associated technologies. “War is evolving in form towards informationized warfare, and intelligent warfare is on the horizon,” said the 2019 White Paper. China's 2021–25 14th Five Year Plan similarly outlines a priority for the PLA to accelerate towards intelligentisation.

Two factors have helped the PLA to strengthen OSINT capabilities as it prepares for intelligentised warfare contingencies.

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