This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 1 January 2015.
“The PLA’s special forces: secrets revealed,” promised Want China Times, a Taiwan-based English-language website. The article describes China’s “10 major special operations forces, each with its own unique characteristics and code names” and was based on a translation of an earlier blog posting on the PLA Daily website with photos and descriptions of several People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and People’s Armed Police (PAP) special operations units.
In fact, little in the article was new and no real secrets were revealed. Over the past decade, the official Chinese military media, both in Chinese and English, have paid copious attention to Chinese special operations forces (SOF). Based on this evidence, much more can be said about these units, their missions, and capabilities.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese SOF units are quite different from their U.S. counterparts and demonstrate most often capabilities similar to those of U.S. Army Ranger units. In particular, Chinese SOF units lack many of the dedicated special mission support capabilities found in the U.S. military.
Unfortunately, by the repeated use of the terms “special operations” and “SOF” some foreign readers might assume Chinese SOF units are like ours. In other words, readers might assume Chinese SOF are tasked to perform the ten Title X SOF core activities defined by the U.S. Congress (direct action, strategic reconnaissance, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, civil affairs operations, counterterrorism, military information support operations [formerly known as psychological operations], humanitarian assistance, theater search and rescue, and activities specified by the president or secretary of defense). According to publicly available PLA doctrine, many U.S. SOF Core Activities are not included among PLA SOF missions.
This essay outlines the structure and doctrine of the Chinese armed forces involved in special operations and discusses their capabilities in each of the ten core activities based solely on information from Chinese sources. But first it is necessary to put the Chinese armed forces into the context of the entire government security structure.
The Chinese Security Apparatus
A variety of Chinese government entities are tasked with domestic security and external defense missions. These forces include the civilian Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Ministry of State Security, and the Chinese armed forces consisting of the PLA, PAP, and militia. While some functions of these individual entities overlap, their primary and secondary missions and chains of command differ.
As a “party-army,” the Chinese armed forces pledge their loyalty first to the Chinese Communist Party. While all PLA officers are party members, the party is led by a civilian: the general secretary, who also is president of the People’s Republic of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission, currently Xi Jinping.
The MPS and the Ministry of State Security fall under the leadership of the government’s State Council, led by the premier. The MPS blue- or black-uniformed civilian police force is responsible for domestic law enforcement. Approximately 1.9 million police officers work at MPS headquarters and in local public security bureaus throughout the country. Special police SWAT (a term they also use) teams conduct domestic anti-terrorist and anti-riot operations in at least 36 cities. The Ministry of State Security is the government’s main domestic and international intelligence organization, performing functions similar to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The PLA is composed of 2.3 million active duty members and 510,000 personnel in reserve units. Its three services are the Army, with an estimated strength of about 1.6 million active duty personnel, the Navy with 235,000, and the 398,000-strong Air Force. An independent branch, the Second Artillery, consists of approximately 100,000 personnel and commands most conventional, nuclear ballistic, and cruise missile units. The PLA is primarily responsible for defending China from external threats, but by law has a secondary mission of supporting domestic security operations.
The Central Military Commission commands the PLA through the four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armaments). Army combat units are distributed among seven military regions, while Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery units report to their service headquarters but may be assigned to military regions for operations. The PLA has no national-level special operations headquarters responsible for all SOF activities.
Chinese SOF units are a relatively “young” force with roots in earlier reconnaissance units. The PLA and PAP formed their first special operation unit quietly in the late 1980s and gradually expanded the force through the 1990s and into the new century. SOF units are considered “new type” units receiving priority for development on par with development of helicopter, light mechanized, and “digitalized” units.
SOF units are found in every military region, the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery, amounting to an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 personnel (roughly one percent of the entire PLA). Many Chinese SOF personnel are two-year conscripts and lieutenants on their first assignments. In 2012 the PLA established a dedicated Special Operations Academy in Guangzhou to prepare junior officers for assignments in SOF units. Significantly, PLA SOF units are not augmented by the sort of extensive infrastructure of special mission aircraft and support found in the U.S. SOF community.
The 660,000-strong People’s Armed Police force is not part of the PLA and has a dual command structure: the Central Military Commission and the State Council through the MPS, with the latter directing its domestic security work. Its largest component is the internal security branch with units (zongdui) in every province. Anti-terrorist and anti-riot units are found in PAP internal security units as well as in border security units.
The Chinese government recognizes its enemies may not only be advanced, high-technology forces, but also sees itself facing traditional and non-traditional security threats, especially from what they call the “three forces” of terrorism (domestic and international), separatism (minorities looking to break away from China, mostly related to Taiwan, Tibet, and Uyghur and other Muslim populations in western China), and extremism (religious extremism of all types, not only Islamic extremists).
Tasks and Doctrine
Despite its early history as a guerilla organization, the PLA does not include irregular and unconventional warfare among the types of campaigns the force may be assigned. Special operations are an “important campaign activity” to be integrated into operations along with information warfare, firepower, maneuver, and psychological warfare capabilities. “Campaign special operations” are defined in the textbook The Science of Campaigns as
irregular operational activities conducted by specially formed, trained and equipped crack units (and small units) using special warfare to achieve specific campaign and strategic goals. The main purpose of its objectives are to assault enemy vital targets, paralyze enemy operational systems, reduce enemy operational capabilities, and interfere, delay, and disrupt enemy operational activities to create favorable conditions for main force units.
SOF units concentrate on special reconnaissance, raids, sabotage, and harassment while other non-SOF units conduct most special technical warfare tasks such as computer network attack.
Units and Organizations
By the end of the 1990s, each military region was assessed by foreign analysts to command an Army SOF group or regiment (both considered equivalent organizational levels) each estimated with about 1,000 personnel, for a total of seven SOF groups/regiments. At the same time, the PAP had at least two dedicated anti-terrorist organizations of roughly similar size.
Over the following decade the Navy established a SOF regiment in the South Sea Fleet and the Air Force 15th Airborne Corps formed a SOF group in one of its three divisions. The Second Artillery also created a SOF unit (budui), probably a group or regiment. Small SOF units (fendui, battalion, company, or platoon) also have been established in the two Navy marine brigades and in some Army divisions and brigades.
The PAP’s two main anti-terrorist units, the “Snow Leopards” and “Falcon Commando Unit,” are stationed in Beijing. An additional number of special, small PAP units have been organized in internal security and border security units for local anti-terrorist and anti-riot operations. All of these units work with the MPS and its anti-terrorist/SWAT teams to execute domestic operations.
In the last two to three years, all but one of the original seven Army SOF regiments/groups have been expanded to brigade size, each probably with somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 personnel. Moreover, over the past decade command of Army SOF brigades/groups/regiments has been pushed down from Military Region level to selected group army (corps-equivalent) headquarters, indicating a more tactical and operational orientation for these units. An SOF group/regiment also has been formed in both the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Districts (also corps-equivalents). Recently, at least two new SOF brigades have been formed from pre-existing infantry divisions or brigades and assigned to group armies. Eventually all group armies may be assigned SOF brigades.
In summary (see chart), the Army is assessed with eight SOF brigades and three SOF groups/regiments in nine group armies and two military districts, plus numerous smaller SOF units in some division and brigades. When SOF units in the other services are included, the number of SOF personnel has roughly doubled over the past 15 years.
Major PLA and PAP SOF Units
|Military Region/Service||Subordination||SOF Brigade, Group, or Regiment, Fendui|
|Shenyang||16th Group Army||Brigade|
|Shenyang||39th Group Army||Group|
|Beijing||38th Group Army||Brigade|
|Lanzhou||21st Group Army||Brigade|
|Jinan||26th Group Army||Brigade|
|Nanjing||12th Group Army||Brigade|
|Nanjing||31st Group Army||Brigade|
|Guangzhou||42nd Group Army||Brigade|
|Chengdu||13th Group Army||Brigade|
|Navy||South Sea Fleet||Regiment|
|Navy||Two Marine Brigades||Fendui|
|Air Force||15th Airborne Army||Group|
|Second Artillery||N/A||Regiment or Group|
|PAP||Beijing Zongdui, 13th Zhidui||“Snow Leopards” Group|
|PAP||PAP Special Police Academy||“Falcon Commando Unit”(Brigade)|
However, without the specialized support infrastructure necessary to transport and support SOF units in long-range operations, most SOF units appear to be highly trained light infantry, with capabilities are similar to those found in U.S. Army Ranger units. They are capable of insertion behind enemy lines, but not too far from friendly units. Some units could attempt limited, short-duration operations at strategic depths, but at much greater risk.
Equipment and Training
Chinese SOF units are provided the most modern weapons and equipment in the PLA and PAP for experimentation and operations, including advanced electronics and communications, unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision and target designators, and an array of light vehicles and small boats. They can be inserted by air, land, and sea (surface and subsurface).
PLA SOF are supported mainly by helicopter units, consisting of about 750 airframes of all types for the Army and probably less than 100 each in the Navy and Air Force. Helicopters are used for delivering troops by parachute, air-landing, and fast-roping or rappelling. This small force supports not only SOF operations but all PLA operations. All parachute-qualified personnel initially take jump training in fixed-wing aircraft, primarily the Yun-5 biplane (a locally-produced version of the Soviet An-2 Colt), which also can be used for SOF operations. The PLA’s shortage of long-range, heavy transport aircraft means Air Force airborne units receive priority for jump training using these assets.
Most major Chinese media focus on the physical toughness of SOF personnel and their ability to perform under austere conditions. Indeed, a large amount of SOF training entails individual and small team survival, camouflage, weapons proficiency, land navigation, communications, and methods of insertion along with physical fitness training and close combat skills. SOF units spend considerable time training on their own to establish their functional proficiencies and are increasingly integrated into larger combined arms and joint training. Sniper training and room-clearing drills in “kill houses” are perennial favorites of the Chinese media.
Many reported SOF training missions show helicopter insertions, raids, ambushes, sabotage, long-range sniping, hostage/prisoner rescue, and tactical or operational reconnaissance. These actions often occur in conjunction with conventional force maneuver and assault.
SOF units also may be involved with “special missions,” including information, cyber, and electronic warfare operations. However, the General Staff Department’s Third and Fourth Departments oversee the majority of cyber and electronic warfare operations performed by specialized (but non-SOF) PLA units. Information warfare includes the “Three Warfares” of media (public opinion) war, psychological operations, and legal war. The General Political Department is in charge of the “Three Warfares” at the national level and political officers and their staffs in units throughout the PLA perform operational and tactical aspects of these functions. As a result, in addition to the many other non-combat functions it performs, the General Political Department and its associated personnel now contribute directly to the PLA’s warfighting capabilities.
Chinese Special Operations Capabilities Compared to U.S. Title X Core Activities
PLA SOF units and capabilities are not a black box to outside observers as Chinese SOF units frequently interact with foreign counterparts. For example, PLA and PAP SOF personnel and units have participated in numerous training exercises with foreign militaries, special operations competitions, and in-country training at foreign schools. Chinese SOF teams often have had excellent results in international competitions. As a result, Chinese SOF units have demonstrated their capabilities in many types of small unit commando-type direct action and reconnaissance missions, the first two Title X core SOF activities.
Though most analysts assume Chinese SOF would be used in Taiwan contingency operations (including support to and by “Fifth Column” fighters already on the island), there is little open source evidence that SOF units are organized or trained to conduct Title X unconventional warfare activities. Likewise, though the PLA provides training for foreigners in its system of schools in China, it does not appear to have recent experience in overseas foreign internal defense activities. No PLA SOF units are known to be organized and tasked similar to U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Beret”) units.
The PLA also does not have units equivalent to U.S. Civil Affairs units. Most national-level civil affairs operations conducted by the PLA requiring intergovernmental coordination fall under the purview of the General Staff and General Political Departments and are domestically oriented. PLA headquarters are part of the local government structures from the provincial to the county levels of government and commanders and staffs of these headquarters routinely work with their civilian counterparts. However, when it comes to governance functions, local civilian government and party officials are in control while local PLA officers focus on military matters. SOF units would not be involved in these functions.
PLA, PAP, and MPS SWAT units frequently conduct counterterrorism (or anti-terrorism) exercises. Domestically, the MPS takes the lead in these operations while the PLA may provide support not found in civilian agencies, as seen during the 2008 Olympics. However, much anti-terrorist training is conducted in conjunction with anti-riot training, opening the potential for the conflation of these two missions, i.e., the use of anti-terrorist methods against protesters. The majority of combined training with other militaries generally revolves around counterterrorism scenarios, but often devolves into conventional assaults against dispersed terrorist locations. In addition to honing skills, public demonstrations of anti-terrorist capabilities seek to deter internal instability.
Most military information support operations likely would be conducted by personnel from the PLA political system led by the General Political Department in the form of “Three Warfares” and external propaganda activities. Psychological warfare, in particular, is conducted by small elements within the PLA Political Department system, not SOF units. SOF units may assist some larger information support operations, but would not be in the lead.
Humanitarian and disaster assistance is an important function for all PLA, PAP, and militia units working with local civilian authorities. Within China, local units, whether active duty, reserves, PAP, or militia, are “first responders” in natural disasters and sometimes are augmented by out-of-area reinforcements. SOF personnel may provide reconnaissance and communications support in isolated areas, but are not leading actors.
Theater search and rescue capabilities are limited, mostly found in a few Air Force helicopter units. SOF units do not have any organic helicopter or fixed-wing formations.
SOF units may be directed to conduct a variety of actions not discussed above when ordered by the Central Military Commission. For example, about 70 Navy SOF personnel have deployed with each of the 19 task forces sent to the Gulf of Aden to conduct escort missions since 2008.
Implications for the United States Military
Perhaps most importantly, the inclination to project U.S. military special operations capabilities and intentions on the Chinese should be avoided. Chinese SOF units are much younger than U.S. forces, organized and supported differently, and have minimal real world operational experience. Nonetheless, at the individual and small team level they have proven themselves to be tough and technically competent in international competitions. Their abilities in larger, more complex joint operations remain untested in actual combat.
Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming of SOF units, shared with the rest of the PLA, is a lack of long-distance airlift, specialized close air support aircraft, and long-range sustainment capabilities. Additionally, the Chinese government’s ability to gather the type of timely intelligence necessary for overseas special operations is likely insufficient with the important exception of the Taiwan scenario. Within China and close to its periphery (within a few hundred miles) these shortfalls are less pronounced.
Doctrinally the PLA does not appear to have been assigned unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense missions, except for the Taiwan scenario. There is little if any credible open source reporting of the PLA preparing for such missions in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, or Latin America. Such activity in Southeast and East Asia might be more feasible due to cultural affinities and the presence of overseas Chinese.
If the PLA or PAP were ordered to conduct anti-terrorist operations, based on the scenarios observed in exercises with Russian and Shanghai Cooperation Organization militaries, it seems likely that they would be more brute force-oriented than U.S. operations, potentially resulting in relatively high levels of casualties. Nonetheless, special operations will continue to receive a high degree of support from the PLA senior leadership. The Army, in particular, understands that SOF units are one of the few ways it has to participate in campaigns conducted outside of China which are likely to be dominated by naval, air, and missile forces.
The PLA leadership recognizes the strengths and limitations of its overall capabilities, especially in joint and special operations. It probably would prefer for additional time to allow the force to mature and the necessary supporting capabilities to be developed before being tested against a hostile, thinking enemy. But, if ordered by the party leadership, the Chinese armed forces will attempt to achieve the objectives assigned with the capabilities on hand. Senior PLA leaders probably consider their SOF units to be more expendable than do their western counterparts. Moreover, many Chinese soldiers likely would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the defense of their homeland. Therefore, a limited number of high risk, long-range, but probably small-scale SOF missions are to be expected if China finds itself at war.
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. He served as an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1992-1996; in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and Korea; and in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Headquarters Department of the Army (Office of Special Operations).
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