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The Cyber Defense Review

Beyond Capabilities: Investigating China’s Military Strategy and Objectives in Cyberspace

By | December 03, 2016

Samuel Klein --


In 2012, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned of a cyberattack against the US that “would cause physical destruction and the loss of life.”[1] Referring to such an attack as a “cyber-Pearl Harbor,” Panetta explained how this scenario might look: the derailment of a passenger train or one loaded with lethal chemicals, the contamination of a major city’s water supply, and the shutdown of a power station effecting large parts of the country. Overall, Panetta warns that these kinds of cyberattacks could ultimately “paralyze and shock the nation and create a new, profound sense of vulnerability.”[2]

Secretary Panetta is not wrong in warning of such devastating cyberattacks. However, his justification for predicting a cyber-Pearl Harbor is not comprehensive; he relies solely on the existence of cyber capabilities without considering an adversary’s military strategy or objectives. In particular, Panetta draws attention to China, arguing they are not only “rapidly growing its cyber capabilities” but already has some “advanced cyber capabilities” as well.[3] He uses this proof of capabilities to predict the potential for a Chinese cyberattack that will “cause panic and destruction and even the loss of life.”[4] However, his prediction of a cyber-Pearl Harbor fails to consider how adversaries, such as China, view cyberwarfare; how they incorporate information operations into their overall military strategy; and, what they consider to be the best avenues for leveraging their cyber capabilities.

Predicting the potential for a Chinese cyberattack along a one-dimensional perspective that only considers the country’s cyber capabilities is a poor way to predict attacks. When formulating policy, a failure to put China’s cyber capabilities within a broader context of the country’s strategy and objectives leads to a distracting game of ‘what-if’ and creates misplaced fear: What if they shut off electrical grids? What if they disrupt transportation networks? What if they interfere with public works systems? Policymakers are left considering a large number of potential attacks that technically fall within the scope of China’s capabilities but may not subscribe to the country’s overall military strategy or may not work to achieve the county’s objectives. Policymakers and those responsible for US national security must take a more holistic approach to attack prediction, one that invests time and money into developing a better understanding of not just China’s capabilities but also its strategy and objectives.

Focusing on an adversary’s strategy and objectives has significant implications for conceptualizing, implementing, and carrying out policy responses. If an adversary’s strategy is misunderstood or its objectives are misidentified, then monetary, personnel, and equipment assets might be misallocated when preparing for and responding to attacks. This article seeks to bring balance to the current discussion on Chinese cybersecurity threats by focusing on China’s overall strategy in cyberspace and the objectives its political and military leaders hope to accomplish through this strategy. Current threat assessments need not just answer the question: what can China do in cyberspace (a capabilities-based approach), but also: what does China want in cyberspace (an objectives-based approach) and how do they plan on achieving their goals (a strategy-based approach). Overall, China’s capabilities must be placed within a broader context of objectives and strategy. By following such an approach, policymakers can increase their current knowledge of China’s cyber capabilities, more accurately determine which cyberattacks will happen, and allocate resources accordingly.



This article relies on both primary Chinese sources and secondary scholarly articles analyzing these sources. The Chinese sources include military reports, such as China’s Defense White Paper (published biennially beginning in 2004), to gain a better understanding of the Chinese government’s own characterization of its cyber strategy and objectives. Scholarly articles written by Western experts on China help put the primary sources in historical context and provide details about Chinese government and political leaders. Although secondary sources often focus directly on China’s strategies and objectives in cyberspace, each source highlights different components. By pulling from analytical secondary sources, this paper seeks to collect, combine, and ultimately distill Chinese cyberspace strategies and objectives. Research conducted by the Congressional Research Service, Congressional testimonies recorded by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, and policy papers written by several think tanks provide additional observations, analysis, and conclusions relating to China’s cybersecurity strategy and objectives. Overall, this article looks to these sources to provide a big-picture view of the Chinese cybersecurity threat facing the US.


Informationalization: Applying Information Technologies to the Battlefield

Lessons Learned

Initial Chinese discussions about information warfare and computer network operations stem from the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) observations of Operation DESERT STORM in 1991. Broadly stated, this operation made China aware of information technologies (IT) use during war. The PLA not only observed the operational effectiveness of using IT to connect different fighting forces involved in warfare, but also learned about exploiting potential vulnerabilities within this new system . Operation DESERT STORM sparked new doctrinal thinking within the PLA leadership, including the drafting of new strategies for fighting high-tech warfare.

The US invasion of Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War highlighted the powerful role IT can play in warfare and showcased the effectiveness of ‘jointness’ (integration of different military branches). The US military leveraged IT to create sophisticated information systems that connected soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, enabling them to conduct joint operations. For China, this was a major wake-up call. The Department of Defense (DoD’s) 2004 Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China notes that Operation DESERT STORM was a “watershed event in terms of Chinese observations of future warfare.”[5] The PLA were frightened, yet fascinated, with how IT could be deployed to plan, coordinate, and execute military operations. The DoD’s 2004 report notes that Chinese military strategists studying the first Persian Gulf War observed “how quickly the [US], equipped with high-tech weapons systems, defeated the Iraqi force, which ‘resembled the PLA in many ways’.”[6] In particular, top-level Chinese military officials watched the US military utilize IT to enable ground troops to communicate with fighter aircraft to coordinate precision strikes and rapidly secure operational objectives.

As PLA officials studied the US military’s implementation of technology on the battlefield during Operation DESERT STORM, they began to reconsider their own military strategies and operations.[7] At the time, PLA strategists focused their planning on fighting “local wars under modern or high-tech conditions.”[8] This strategy had been adopted during a time of decreasing US-Soviet tension and improved US-Sino relations, when China’s perceived threat of becoming involved in a massive land war had diminished. This led to reductions in the PLA paralleled with increased investments in navy and air force programs. However, after Operation DESERT STORM, PLA leaders realized the “potential for … enhanced information warfare, networks of systems, and ‘digitized’ combat forces.”[9] In particular, the PLA discussed the need to modernize their armed forces and develop a strategy for fighting information warfare. They referred to this new strategy as “fighting local wars under conditions of informationalization.”[10]


The Need for an Information Warfare Strategy

“Informationalization” (xinxihua) is an awkward English word resulting from an imperfect translation.[11] The most literal interpretation of the original Chinese would be: “To make or become informational.” However a comparison helps better translate the word: Informationalization is the information age equivalent of industrialization. Industrialization refers to the process of inventing and adopting new industrial technologies. Similarly, informationalization refers to the process of inventing and adopting new information technologies. With regards to the Chinese usage of the term, it often refers to the military’s development and adoption of information technologies.

China’s 2004 Defense White Paper first introduced the term “informationalization.”[12] Produced every two years, these publications provide the Chinese central government’s perspective on national security topics, including current threats facing China, new strategies and operations, future plans for force development, and anticipated budget allocations. Most notably, in the 2004 publication China recognizes “the forms of war are undergoing changes from mechanization to informationalization.”[13] Given this change, the document repeatedly calls for modernizing China’s armed forces and recommends building “a strong military by means of science and technology.”[14] The document further states a need for China to transform “the military from a manpower-intensive one to a technology-intensive one,” or in other words to “transition from mechanization and semi-mechanization to informationalization.”[15] Ultimately, China aims to “win local wars under conditions of informationalization.”[16]

In particular, the 2004 Defense White Paper calls for “building military information systems and information infrastructure,” as well as “emphasizing training for informationalization.”[17] However, China does not seek to completely do away with its current military resources. Rather, it hopes to gradually introduce “computers and other information technology equipment … into routine operations” as well as “integrate military and civilian efforts to promote the informationalization process.”[18] Ultimately, China plans to overlay advanced information systems on much of its current force structure to create a fully networked command and control infrastructure.[19] “This infrastructure would then be capable of coordinating military operations on land, at sea, in air, in space and across the electromagnetic spectrum.”[20]

China’s informationalization doctrine also demands a wholesale transformation of strategic military thinking to account for information technologies and its increasingly important role in warfare. In addition to making its current personnel, infrastructure, and equipment more technologically advanced and interconnected, China also recognizes a need to “develop new military theories and operational theories.”[21] For China to adapt its current fighting capabilities to the high-tech battlefield of the twenty-first century requires the conceptualization and creation of an information warfare (IW) strategy. The next section of this article dives deeper into the development of China’s IW strategy and investigates how the country plans to leverage information technology in warfare.


Integrated Network Electronic Warfare: the PLA’s Information Warfare Strategy

The PLA’s IW strategy calls for preemptive operations that disrupt enemy information systems and create opportunities to launch conventional strikes.[22] China refers to this strategy as Integrated Network Electronic Warfare (INEW). The PLA military leaders adopted the word ‘integrated’ because the IW strategy calls for “a combined application of computer network operations and electronic warfare used in a coordinated or simultaneous attack on enemy C4ISR networks and other key information systems.”[23] Ultimately, the PLA’s INEW strategy intends to “weaken and disrupt the entire process by which battlefield information systems acquire, forward, process, and use information.”[24]

The author of the INEW strategy, Major General (Retired) Dai Qingmin, was a prolific and outspoken supporter of modernizing the PLA’s IW capabilities.[25] He first described the combined use of computer network operations and electronic warfare in articles as early as 1999 and in a book entitled An Introduction to Information Warfare, which he wrote while on faculty at the PLA’s Electronic Engineering Academy.[26] There are three main components to the INEW strategy: (1) disrupting information systems and deceiving military personnel, (2) conducting preemptive information warfare operations and combining them with conventional strikes, and (3) securing information dominance. By better understanding this strategy, policymakers can more clearly predict how China will use its cyber capabilities.


Disruption and Deception

The PLA’s INEW strategy concentrates on disrupting information systems and deceiving military personnel. Regarding disruption, Chinese IW literature “focuses on disrupting logistics and communications.”[27] The PLA’s targeting of communication and logistics information systems for disruption does not make overt distinctions between information systems used by the military and those used by civilians. Rather, when discussing potential logistics or communication systems to disrupt, the PLA focuses on the “key nodes … which are most likely to support the campaign’s strategic objectives.”[28] Instead of simply distinguishing between military and civilian systems, the PLA chooses to distinguish between those systems whose disruption would have an impact on an enemy’s military capabilities and those systems whose disruption would not necessarily impact an enemy’s military capabilities. In other words, potential systems worth disrupting are identified based on the impact such a disruption would have on military capabilities—identification is not made based on military versus civilian usage of the systems.

Such targeting might imply that critical civilian infrastructure will indiscriminately come under Chinese cyberattack, however this is not necessarily the case. While the PLA discusses targeting “the hubs and other crucial links in the system that moves enemy troops … such as harbors, airports, [and] means of transportation,” it is important to remember the PLA’s narrow objective: disrupting enemy military capabilities.[29] PLA operations want to disrupt certain civilian infrastructure because of its impact on military capabilities. For the PLA, the goal of targeting civilian infrastructure is not to impact civilians, but to impact the US military, which often indirectly relies on civilian infrastructure. The PLA refers to airports, harbors, and ports as potential civilian targets for information operations, but then justifies those targets because of their involvement in transporting troops. The PLA does not plan to target civilian infrastructure such as electric grids or public water works, as this infrastructure does not play a direct role in possible US military operations. Railroads fall into a gray area. On the one hand, they technically could be used to transport troops and would therefore be a potential target for Chinese cyberattacks. However, on the other hand, the derailment of railcars (as is often alluded to in cyber-Pearl Harbor predictions) fails to understand the PLA’s strategy, which is to disrupt and delay, not destroy.

Despite a seemingly indiscriminate focus on both military and civilian networks, there is reason to believe that the PLA will not solely attack civilian networks—especially those networks unrelated to military operations. Major General Dai and others suggest that the INEW strategy only intends to target enemy nodes that will most deeply affect enemy decision-making, operations, and morale.[30] This focus on creating disruptions that impact an enemy’s military capabilities is key to understanding where and how a potential cyber-Pearl Harbor attack may materialize. The INEW strategy aims only to attack the “key nodes” that enemy information and logistics pass through; attacks on an adversary’s information systems are “not meant to suppress all networks, transmissions, and sensors or to affect their physical destruction.”[31]

James Mulvenon, an expert on the birth, development, and evolution of Chinese IW strategy, makes an important observation. He argues that the Chinese INEW strategy “focuses on disruption and paralysis, not destruction.”[32] This analysis is fundamental for better predictions about the future of Chinese cyberattacks. Understanding what INEW’s objectives are—and more importantly are not—can help policymakers better focus their attention on patching the vulnerabilities of key military logistics and communications nodes, rather than generally warning of potential attacks targeting critical civilian infrastructure.

In addition to disrupting information systems, China’s IW strategy calls for deception as well. Two senior PLA colonels acknowledge military deception and psychological warfare as major components of IW.[33] Deception tactics can also have a similar impact on the disruption of logistics and communication networks and can delay an adversary’s military mobilization. Deception from an IW standpoint involves compromising the integrity of an adversary’s information and information systems, forcing that adversary to reevaluate what’s fact and what’s fiction—a process that can take considerable time.


Preemptive Usage to Enable Conventional Strikes

While INEW’s strategic objective intends to disrupt enemy information systems and deceive military personnel, this is not the goal in and of itself. The PLA believes INEW can create an “opportunity for other forces to operate without detection or with a lowered risk of counterattack”[34] The Chinese want to wage information warfare to technologically paralyze an enemy and then exploit this paralysis with missile attacks or other conventional firepower. PLA writings show that CNO would be conducted first in a military campaign, often as a surprise attack against enemy information systems. This would delay the enemy’s ability to mobilize first or launch counterattacks. Compared to China, the US is both stronger and better equipped to wage all forms of warfare, but in particular conventional operations. Given this reality, the PLA developed an IW strategy that could leverage a unique feature of IW: its asymmetry. According to one PRC author, IW was “one of the most effective means for a weak military to fight a strong one.”[35] Chinese military analysts looked to IW to slow down a technologically superior adversary, allowing PLA conventional forces to mobilize and prepare for the main attack. Policymakers must understand that China’s IW strategy calls for the use of computer network operations in tandem with conventional military.


Secure Information Dominance

INEW seeks to secure information dominance, which can be likened to the classic military concept of ‘gaining the high ground.’ Mulvenon, defines information dominance as “the ability to defend one’s own information while exploiting and assaulting an opponent’s information infrastructure.”[36] According to PLA writings, information dominance involves “attacking an adversary’s C4ISR infrastructure to prevent or disrupt the acquisition, processing, or transmission of information in support of decision-making or combat operations.”[37] Seizing control of an enemy’s ability to send and receive information is seen as one of the highest priorities in a conflict, more important than gaining air or naval superiority even.[38]

Securing information dominance ties back into the PLA’s focus on targeting communication systems. Both those communication systems used by the military as well as those used by civilians may be targeted, as the military often relies on civilian communication networks and infrastructure. This setup has been referred to as an “Achilles Hill” and drastically opens up the military to exploitable vulnerabilities.[39] The DoD’s NIPRNET provides an excellent example. By its very nature, this computer network must be unclassified and connected to the Internet. Not only does the type of information traversing the network—such as force deployments, for example—appeal to the PLA, but also its unclassified nature makes it easier to break into than its classified counterpart, SIPRNET.[40] US military dependence on civilian nodes to send and receive information increases the likelihood that China could secure information dominance.

INEW is a comprehensive military strategy that can be leveraged early on in a conflict to blind an enemy so that China can mobilize and attack. In a sense, the PLA’s INEW strategy is nothing new for the Chinese. Much of the strategy’s discussions about launching a preemptive strike, exploiting a superior adversary’s weakness, and gaining a strategic advantage are all military concepts that can be traced back to the military writings of Sun Tzu in his classic book The Art of War.[41] While INEW might require sophisticated information technology and highly trained cyber warriors to carry it out, its fundamental concepts are typical of how Chinese military strategists think about and approach warfare.



Since the early 1990s, China has taken a more aggressive approach to modernizing its military forces and incorporating information technologies into its military strategies. The country’s overarching military doctrine seeks to establish a highly interconnected fighting force that can launch joint operations. Within this general doctrine of creating a technologically advanced military are more specific strategies for fighting information warfare. China has taken a unique approach to this new form of warfare by integrating both computer network operations and electronic warfare into a single, unified strategy. In particular, this strategy is based on three key pillars: disrupting logistics and communication networks while deceiving enemy personnel, preemptively conducting computer network operations to prepare for conventional strikes, and gaining information dominance.

China does not view computer network operations “as a standalone capability to be employed in isolation from other war-fighting disciples.”[42] Given this perspective, isolated attacks on civilian energy grids, telecommunication networks, and transportation systems become counterintuitive to Chinese objectives. This is not to say that US civilian IT infrastructure will never be targeted; in fact, the US military often relies on civilian IT infrastructure for logistics and communications reasons, making them a direct target. However, according to China’s IW strategy, the PLA will only target such civilian infrastructure within the context of a broader military campaign.

Secretary Panetta was not wrong in warning of a cyber-Pearl harbor. However, his prediction that such an attack would focus on civilian critical infrastructure fails to account for China’s cybersecurity objectives and strategy. A cyber-Pearl Harbor attack will most likely manifest as a preemptive attack targeting military communication and logistics nodes. While such an attack would have some impact on critical civilian infrastructure, given the inevitable linkages between military and civilian systems, the main focus of the attack would be on delaying a US military response to Chinese military aggression. US policymakers and military leaders should be aware of how such a preemptive Chinese cyberattack targeting the US military could be a precursor to a more sustained military campaign and ultimately war, instead of solely focused on the threat to civilian critical infrastructure.

Further research on China’s strategy and objectives in cyberspace can expand to include areas other than the military sector. While this article focuses on cyberspace from a military perspective, further research can investigate China’s strategy for dealing with the political, economic, and social ramifications of cyberspace. For instances, China has recently announced new requirements for companies seeking to do business in China, one of which being that they provide the government with backdoor access into their software.[43] In addition, China is known for requiring Internet users to provide proof of identity prior to creating social media accounts. The Chinese government extended this regulation to the popular social media website, WeChat, in August 2014.[44] Future research focused on China’s economic strategies or social objectives in cyberspace can shine a light on China’s overall behavior in cyberspace, which goes well beyond the military domain. Such research could even work to strengthen the research in this article; a better understanding of how China seeks to control economic exchange and political dissent in cyberspace could have consequences for their military strategy in cyberspace as well.


About the author

kleinSamuel Klein earned a Bachelor of Arts from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He majored in International Affairs with a concentration in Security Policy and minored in Chinese Language and Literature. This past summer he interned at GW’s Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute conducting research focused on information privacy, data handling policies, and privacy engineering. Previously, he received a Fulbright GPA Scholarship to conduct education policy research in China and was a Congressional intern on Capitol Hill.



[1] Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, “Remarks by Secretary Panetta on Cybersecurity to the Business Executives for National Security, New York City,” (speech, New York, October 11, 2012), US Department of Defense,, accessed March 20, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2004 (Washington: US Department of Defense, 2004), 19.

[6] Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2003 (Washington: US Department of Defense, 2003), 18.

[7] Annual Report to Congress, 2004, 19.

[8] Vinod Anand, “Chinese Concepts and Capabilities of Information Warfare,” Strategic Analysis 30 (2006): 781.

[9] Annual Report to Congress, 2003, 18–19.

[10] “China’s National Defense in 2004,” Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, accessed March 19, 2015,

[11] The term derives from a combination of the Mandarin Chinese word for information (xinxi) with a suffix used to signify the occurrence of change or transformation (hua). Often times, the suffix –hua corresponds to the English suffix -ization. However, Mandarin Chinese adds the -hua suffix to a wider variety of nouns than English does with -ization, resulting in words that do not have a direct English counterpart—such as “informationalization.”

[12] To make matters more confusing, English translations of China’s Defense White Papers after 2004 switch from using “informationalization” as the translation to “informationization.”

[13] “China’s National Defense in 2004,” Information Office of the State Council.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Capability of the People’s Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation,” (Northrop Grumman Corporation, 2009), 10.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “China’s National Defense in 2004,” Information Office of the State Council.

[22] It is important to realize the distinction between IW and Information Operations (IO) when discussing such topics. IO refers to the operations implemented under the direction of an IW strategy. Also known as Computer Network Operations (CNO), IO incorporates Computer Network Attack (CNA), Computer Network Defense (CND), and Computer Network Exploitation (CNE). These are all concepts at the operational level, whereas information warfare is a concept at the strategic level, referring not just to IO/CNO but also other military operations.

[23] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 13.

[24] James C. Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations: Scenarios, Doctrine, Organizations, and Capability,” in Beyond the Strait: PLA Missions Other Than Taiwan, ed. Roy Kamphaus et al. (Carlisle: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2009), 261.

[25] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 14.

[26] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 14.

[27] James C. Mulvenon, “The PLA and Information Warfare,” in The People’s Liberation Army in the Information Age, eds. James C. Mulvenon and Richard H. Yang (RAND Corporation, 1999), 177.

[28] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 15.

[29] Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations,” 260.

[30] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 15.

[31] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 15.

[32] Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations,” 258.

[33] Anand, “Chinese Concepts and Capabilities,” 786.

[34] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 15.

[35] Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations,” 257.

[36] Mulvenon, “The PLA and Information Warfare,” 180.

[37] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 12.

[38] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 11.

[39] Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations,” 269.

[40] Mulvenon, “PLA Computer Network Operations,” 269.

[41] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles (The Project Gutenberg eBook, 1994).

[42] United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 23.

[43] Paul Mozur, “New Rules in China Upset Western Tech Companies,” New York Times, January 28, 2015, accessed March 28, 2015,

[44] Dan Levin, “China Moves to Rein In Messaging for Mobile,” New York Times, August 7, 2014, accessed March 28, 2015,

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