People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force – A Comprehensive Look

anil chopra, air power asia, PLA Strategic Support Force, SSF

Red Echo, a hacker group affiliated with the Chinese government, repeatedly targeted the control rooms that manage India’s critical power grids in a massive campaign that could have caused widespread blackouts. The Chinese hackers, however, failed to break into the systems, and no data breach was detected because of the attacks, India’s power ministry said on Monday in response to a story published in The New York Times that linked last year’s grid failure in Mumbai to the Chinese cyberattacks. Earlier India seems to have acknowledged that the Chinese PLA used Microwave Weapons against Indian soldiers in Ladakh. The Indian Ministry of Defence in its year-end review has mentioned the use of “unorthodox weapons” by the People’s Liberation Army along the LAC, where the two militaries were locked in a standoff.

PLA SSF Emblem. Image Source: Wikipedia

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced major reforms in December 2015. These changed the organisational structure, war-fighting approach, and military culture. A part of this was the creation of the Strategic Support Force (SSF) bringing PLA’s space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare under one umbrella. It meant shifting from land-based territorial defence to outward power projection into space, and cyber-domain, so as to fight and win informationised wars. The major mission of the SSF is to give support to the combat operations so that the PLA can gain regional advantages in the space warfare and cyber warfare domains, and to ensure smooth operations. SSF was created to build new synergies between disparate capabilities that enable specific types of strategic information operations (IO) missions expected to be decisive in future wars. The SSF reports to the Central Military Commission (CMC) and oversees co-equal semi-independent branches: the Space Systems Department, and the Network Systems Department. It has been a “brick by brick” approach. Organisation has not been built from scratch. Existing organizations have been renamed and re-subordinated, and their component parts redefined under the new structure. The SSF has two primary roles: strategic information support and strategic information operations.

PLA SSF Batch. Image Source: Wikipedia

The PLA reforms are being compared to U.S. reforms after the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act of 1986, which were similarly aimed at transforming a peacetime military structure toward one more optimized for joint warfare. The SSF will enable more rapid adaptation as China shifts from reliance on asymmetric capabilities as a weaker power to contending with adversaries. Force integration at lower organisational and administrative layers is challenging, also SSF’s coordination with theatre commands and other entities. The SSF will have to change the historical emphasis on top-down control and distrust of bottom-up decision-making. The SSF’s structure is first and foremost intended to create synergies between disparate information warfare capabilities in order to execute specific types of strategic missions that Chinese leaders believe will be decisive in future major wars. The PLA views cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare as interconnected.

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Broad Structure

The SSF reports directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC). Functionally and structurally, the Strategic Support Force operates like the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. The SSF is formed from the existing units responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare in the former General Staff Department. These include the cyber-espionage capabilities of the former Third Department, the electronic support measures from the former Fourth Department, the space-based ISR systems and Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau and Satellite Main Station, General Political Department, General Armaments Department including the launch, telemetry, tracking, and control facilities and research and development organisations. The SSF’s strategic information support role entails centralizing technical intelligence collection and management, providing strategic intelligence support to theatre commands, enabling PLA power projection, supporting strategic defence in the space and nuclear domains, and enabling joint operations. Confusion is whether it is a “strategic” force or a “supporting” one. Identifying the Military Unit Cover Designators (MUCDs) that have been assigned to the SSF, is a block of numbers between 32001 and 32099. These designators are used as a cover mechanism for open-source references to PLA units.

Space Systems Department

The PLASSF Space Systems Department is the consolidation of all PLA’s space-based C4ISR systems. These include the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center; Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center; Xichang Satellite Launch Center; Wenchang Aerospace Launch Site, Space Telemetry; Tracking, and Control, Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center; Xi’an Satellite Control Center; Telemetry, Tracking, and Control Stations; China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department; Aerospace Research and Development Center; Astronaut Corps; Network Systems Department, among many others.

Network Systems Department

The PLASSF Network Systems Department is the integration of all PLA information and cyber warfare capabilities and is believed to have taken over many of the capabilities previously held by the Third and Fourth Departments of the PLA. There are numerous military bases spread around China. In addition, there are many departments in the military academies.

Information Operations

The SSF’s strategic Information Operations (IO) role involves the coordinated employment of space, cyber, and electronic warfare to “paralyse the enemy’s operational system-of-systems” and “sabotage the enemy’s war command system-of-systems” in the initial stages of conflict. It integrates multiple disciplines of information warfare into a unified force, integrating cyber espionage and offensive, unifying information warfare campaign planning and force development, and unifying responsibilities for command and control of information operations. Elements of the PLA’s psychological and political warfare are also embedded.

Cyber and Electronic Warfare

There is a new force-wide structure for managing cyber and electronic warfare missions. This thus integrates network and electronic warfare. The SSF espionage and offense-oriented cyber operations are included. The SSF has been entrusted with technical reconnaissance capabilities supporting operations. It gives the PLA more latitude to move away from its army-dominated past and direct intelligence resources toward critical operational needs. The integration will require developing a new strategy and doctrine on the use of force in cyberspace.

The SSF in Historical Context

China’s approach to the interrelated space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains—the main functional and warfighting areas for the Strategic Support Force—has undergone considerable evolution over the past three decades. In the 1990s, China identified and absorbed lessons from the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which in its view demonstrated that “the new revolution in military affairs had moved from theoretical exploration into the phase of implementation . . . drawing back the curtain on informationised warfare.” The lessons China took from the Gulf War fundamentally changed the way that its military planners viewed the future of warfare as well as an understanding of its own vulnerabilities, prompting a decades-long upheaval in Chinese thinking on the strategic role of information in warfare. China drew two primary lessons from the Gulf War. First, the war proved that the widespread integration of information technology in warfare could confer overwhelming military superiority. The PLA recognized and adopt operational concepts as “network-centric warfare.”The operational use of space-based command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) were required for informationised warfare. The PLA thus successfully fielded a regional constellation of Beidou navigation satellites, space-based surveillance platforms, and dual-use communications and relay satellites. Taken together, they formed the foundation of a nascent Chinese C4ISR system to enable regional surveillance, reconnaissance, and precision strikes.

China’s military cyber forces attracted global attention from the mid-2000s onward due to a series of high-profile cyber intrusions that demonstrated both growing sophistication and the rapid progress. China also demonstrated a counter-space capability with the development of a direct-ascent anti-satellite system, which destroyed an obsolete satellite in a January 2007 test.

The advancement of the technical capabilities of Chinese space, cyber, and EW forces stood in stark contrast with the PLA’s stagnant operational structure, which finally saw reorganisation in 2015. The key organizations responsible for space, cyber, and EW missions finally were realigned into a unified force. The Strategic Support Force’s creation comes at an inflection point for the PLA. China has accelerated the ongoing shift of its military posture from land-based territorial defence to extended power projection, not only in the East and South China seas but also beyond them. China’s 2015 Military Strategy White Paper similarly describes the three as “critical domains” and echoes their importance to China’s national interests. The SSF’s design is a logical fit for improving China’s access to the space and cyber domains in peacetime and contesting them in wartime. The SSF’s “remote operations” in the far seas and beyond are aimed at achieving strategic national objectives through counter-intervention and power projection through integrated network-electronic-psychological warfare force.

The closest conceptual forerunner for the Strategic Support Force comes from U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM). Due to USSTRATCOM’s broad responsibilities for space, cyber, strategic EW, and strategic information support, it was chosen as a model for the SSF.

The SSF and PLA Reforms

The SSF’s space mission is formed primarily from units under the former GAD and select elements of the GSD responsible for space-based C4ISR. The SSF’s information warfare mission comes largely from the former Third and Fourth departments of the GSD, which had respectively held the responsibilities for technical reconnaissance and offensive cyber operations. The elements of the GPD responsible for psychological operations were also incorporated into the SSF, in keeping with the PLA’s conceptualization of cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare as interconnected subcomponents of information warfare. The psychological domain constitutes a core element of the PLA’s concept of the “Three Warfares” for the coordinated use of psychological operations, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare.

SSF Organization

SSF’s structure will have a major impact on how its forces can be effectively employed during a conflict. The SSF is a theatre command leader grade independent military force under the direct command of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Administratively, the SSF operates similarly to the former PLA Second Artillery Force, which was also a force that functioned like a service and consolidated strategic capabilities under the direct command of the CMC. The SSF has a standard four-department administrative structure that includes the SSF Staff Department, Equipment Department, Political Work Department, and a Logistics Department. The force also maintains headquarters for its space and information warfare forces in the Space Systems Department (SSD), and Network Systems Department (NSD). The official phrase “CMC leads, theatres fight, and services build”. In theory, this would imply that subordinate SSF elements would be under the operational command of the five theatre commands. In practice, however, much like the PLA Rocket Force, which serves as the cornerstone of China’s nuclear deterrent, the SSF’s capabilities have been deemed sufficiently strategic that it reports directly to the Central Military Commission for operations.

SSF Structure and Components

Organizationally, the Strategic Support Force’s operational forces are split into two co-equal, semi-independent branches: the Space Systems Department (SSD), which heads up a force responsible for space operations, and the Network Systems Department (NSD), which heads up a force responsible for information operations. The SSD and NSD act as largely independent, administrative headquarters for their respective forces, to independently develop their own officer corps, tailor training to force needs, and prioritize their own capabilities development while allowing the Central Military Commission to integrate their operations in situations where their missions overlap, such as in certain strategic intelligence and counter-space missions. SSF units have been assigned MUCDs, the numerical codes between 32001 and 32099. The new designator gives a fair indication that their structure, grade, and command relationships, and that they are likely to remain static throughout the course of the remaining reforms.

Finally, many SSF forces appear to be organized as “bases,” a form of corps leader grade unit that is distinct to the PLA. A newly designated unit called the “Strategic Support Force 35th Base” now appears to be responsible for some of the space force’s space-based survey, mapping, and navigation missions, including the management of military Beidou satellites. There may be more space-related numerical bases in the offing. Additional bases might also be responsible for supporting the space information support and survey, mapping, and navigation missions. SSF regional bases are still in the process of being created. The loose and geographically dispersed confederation of cyber, EW and psychological warfare forces are being reorganised.

The SSD and China’s Space Forces

The Strategic Support Force’s space mission falls under the Space Systems Department. The reorganization of China’s myriad space capabilities into a coherent, unified space force is a response to organizational challenges that arose from space forces being dispersed throughout the military. The SSD has now subsumed nearly every aspect of PLA space operations that were formerly controlled by the GAD and GSD, including space launch and support; space telemetry, tracking, and control; space information support; space attack; and space defence. The office overseeing China’s manned space missions has stayed with the CMC Equipment Development Department, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the appearance of militarizing China’s manned space mission. The GSD Satellite Positioning Main Station, responsible for managing the PLA’s use of China’s Beidou navigation satellite constellation, has moved over to the SSD as well.

It is unclear if the SSF has a role in the related discipline of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and anti-satellite operations. These missions may be assigned to the PLA Rocket Force, which already has a role in missile operations, or the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), which has already demonstrated a limited capability in both anti-satellite missiles and BMD. In August 2017, the DN-3 anti-satellite missile was launched from the SSF’s Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, which may indicate that the SSF has responsibility for testing or fielding these systems.

There is also a broader question as to whether the SSF’s primacy in space and space-based C4ISR will preclude other services from independently developing, operating, or maintaining their own space infrastructure for operations.

The NSD and China’s Cyber Forces

SSF’s cyber mission is with the Network Systems Department (NSD), also called the “cyberspace force”. The NSD missions include cyber warfare, EW, and potentially psychological warfare. Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Wuhan are the key locations. The bulk of China’s strategic cyber espionage forces were previously contained within the technical reconnaissance-focused GSD Third Department, which has been moved en masse into the NSD. The former GSD Research Institutes, for research, development, and weaponisation support have also moved to the NSD. The PLA Information Engineering University and Luoyang Foreign Language Institute have also moved to the NSD.

The former PLA’s computer network attack forces have been transferred to the SSF to integrate with the cyber-espionage elements.

The SSF and EW

China’s strategic electronic warfare mission has always been concentrated almost entirely within the former GSD. There were dedicated units for radar and computer network attacks. The new joint force Network-Electronic Bureau (JSD-NEB) will oversee the management of the cyber and EW missions across the entire Chinese military, including the SSF, theater commands, and services. PLA’s GSD 54th Research Institute, responsible for research and development of operational electronic and network countermeasures, has moved over to the Strategic Support Force, under the Network Systems Department.

EW units have been reassigned to the SSF, as “electronic countermeasure brigades.” A long-held PLA view of how best to fight information warfare known as integrated network and electronic warfare, which envisions the close coordination of cyber and electronic warfare forces in both capabilities development and operational use. Cyber and EW forces “cannot be mutually exclusive, with each [force] fighting [its] own battles.” SSF thus creates a unified force for war-fighting in the network and electromagnetic space, for conduct of both espionage and offense operations, a recognition of the ways in which the two disciplines often reinforce and depend on one another on the modern battlefield.

The SSF and the Three Warfares

The SSF also appears to have incorporated elements of the military’s psychological and political warfare missions. Before the reforms, the former General Political Department had primary responsibility for carrying out military political warfare. The Three Warfares, meant coordinated use of psychological warfare, public opinion warfare, and legal warfare, to advance Chinese interests and undermine those of an opponent. The integration appears to remove organizational impediments to coordination across the information operations disciplines, integrating them in peacetime to ease their transition into a wartime structure. Integrating with the SSF’s space, cyber, and electronic missions empowers psychological operations forces with cross-domain intelligence and helps maximize the impact of information operations on an adversary’s psychology.

Joint Command and the SSF

The CMC’s new Joint Staff Department (JSD) may have responsibility for relaying CMC operational decisions to the SSF. The JSD serves as a notional joint command headquarters, and as administrative headquarters for strategic missions and units. JSD bureaus oversee various aspects of a military command, including operations, intelligence, cyber and electronic warfare, communications, and battlefield environment support.

Operational Command in Wartime

The SSF will likely constitute the core component of an information operations group (IOG), a joint force wartime construct dedicated to waging information warfare. In wartime, the PLA would stand up an IOG commanding all aspects of information warfare activity. Its missions would be organized as a series of subordinate elements, referred to as “groups”, for mission sets including cyber warfare, EW, psychological warfare, air defence electronic countermeasures, and information support. As operations groups are further differentiated at the strategic, theatre, and tactical levels of war-fighting, it is plausible that any IOGs would be similarly tiered with national-level, campaign, and/or theatre-level iterations. The creation of the theatre commands may have obviated the need to shift the PLA into a wartime structure for regional campaigns, but the need may still be present at the national level. The SSF appears to serve both operational and administrative roles. The SSF may not be a direct analog to a wartime IOG, but rather a force that is optimized for seamless transitioning to a more operational footing.

Intelligence and Technical Reconnaissance

The reforms also substantially reorganized the intelligence responsibilities and centralizing the strategic-level technical collection organizations under the Strategic Support Force. This change institutionalizes the PLA’s longstanding distinction between “intelligence”, which encompasses all-source analysis supporting command decision making, and “technical reconnaissance”, which refers to technical intelligence collection directly supporting military operations. The new Joint Staff Department Intelligence Bureau incorporates intelligence from the theatre commands, each of which in turn has its own bureaus responsible for operational and tactical intelligence analysis. Theoretically, the establishment of a separate ground force headquarters and the incorporation of the Intelligence Bureau into the joint staff give it more latitude to move away from its army-dominated past and direct intelligence resources to critical missions based on operational needs.

Network and Electronic Warfare

The JSD’s Network-Electronic Bureau creates a new force-wide structure for the management of the cyber and electronic warfare missions in the SSF, theatre commands, and other services. The PLA is maintaining a dual-echelon structure for cyber and EW, with the SSF’s cyber force assuming responsibilities for strategic national-level operations, while the services and theatre commands continue to be responsible for cyber and EW operations at the operational and tactical levels. Responsibilities of the JSD-NEB include oversight and integration functions such as issuing operational guidance, de-conflicting areas of responsibility, and establishing rules of engagement. The reforms have also established a national joint Network-Electronic Countermeasure set-up. These organizations have a force-wide network of electronic countermeasure centres (ECM centres). The ECM centre’s mission appears to have focused on electronic support measures, electronic intelligence, and targeting in the electromagnetic domain.

Information and Communications

The new Joint Staff Department’s Information and Communications Bureau has inherited responsibilities for force-wide management of information systems, communications, and support for high-level war-fighting command and control. The JSD-ICB includes the PLA’s Information Support Base, which has similarly moved over to the JSD. However, the SSF’s control of critical ground-based satellite communication infrastructure and primacy in operating space-based data relays may indicate it is a primary organization responsible for routing and supporting information flows through outer space, which would imply an overlap with what we understand to be the JSD-ICB’s responsibilities.

The SSF’s Strategic Missions and Roles

The SSF demonstrates China’s evolving understanding of how information serves as a strategic resource in warfare. The PLA recognizes that harnessing outer space, the cyber domain, and the electromagnetic spectrum, and denying their use to adversaries, are paramount needs if the PLA is to attain superiority in a conflict. These three domains are the primary conduits by which a military force collects, processes, transmits, and receives information. If a force is denied use of these domains, the informationised system-of-systems infrastructure that underpins modern military operations cannot properly function. The creation of the SSF unifies these responsibilities for fielding critical systems in these domains and conducting operations to dominate each domain’s battle-spaces. The missions of “information support” and “information warfare,” align in large part with the composition of the SSF’s subordinate space and cyber forces. This unity of will improve the PLA’s ability to achieve information superiority in a conflict.

Strategic Information Support

The first commander of the SSF, General Gao Jin, said that the SSF provides vital “support for safeguarding and raising up an ‘information umbrella’ for the military system, which will be integrated with the actions of our land, sea, and air forces and rocket forces throughout an entire operation, and will be the key force for victory in war.” The SSF’s space force contains what is referred to as the “strategic brace support” of space-based intelligence and communications, both of which are the primary role for space forces in the foreseeable future. SSF’s role in strategic information support largely derives from the plethora of intelligence and communications assets under its space force, the cyber force also maintains a deep bench of technical collection capabilities that are consequential even beyond offense and espionage operations within the cyber domain. SSF information support missions offer to centralise technical intelligence collection and management, providing strategic intelligence support to theatre commands, enabling PLA power projection, supporting strategic defence in the space and nuclear domains, and enabling joint operations.

Enabling PLA Power Projection

The SSF enables and sustains the PLA’s ability to project power in the East and South China seas and into areas beyond the first island chain. The SSF is said to field assets that cover the entirety of the “information chain,” including space-based surveillance, satellite relay and communications, and telemetry, tracking, and navigation, all of which are necessary to support these types of remote operations. Long-range precision strike, far seas naval deployments, long-range unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance, and strategic air operations all rely to varying degrees on infrastructure over which the SSF now wields exclusive control. Conventional strike, the most critical component of both the PLA’s nonnuclear deterrence posture and its “counter-intervention” strategy, is a prime example. Despite being conducted primarily by the PLA Rocket Force, the PLA’s long-range conventional strike mission depends heavily on the SSF to support operations, from initial detection, identification, and targeting, to guidance and battlefield damage assessment.

The SSF will also provide more foundational “battlefield environment support.” Placing China’s growing fleet of maritime surveillance satellites, dual-use oceanographic and hydrological satellites, and expanding constellation of Beidou navigation satellites under the SSF in a primary position to provide this type of information.

Strategic Information Operations

In addition to its strategic information support role, the SSF is the primary force for information warfare in the Chinese military, responsible for achieving “information dominance” in any conflict. The coordinated employment of space, cyber, and electronic warfare as strategic weapons to “paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems” and “sabotage the enemy’s war command system of systems” in the initial stages of a conflict while protecting its own. This emphasizes the importance of information dominance, underscoring it as a prerequisite to victory on the battlefield.

The SSF’s will run an “information warfare campaign.” This campaign is likely to be a complex, multidimensional set of operations that incorporates kinetic, space, cyber, electronic, and psychological actions through all phases of conflict, and with each discipline of information operations. Psychological and electronic warfare, are key in the pre-crisis period to raise the political and military risks associated with aggression. EW has the potential to be a key signalling mechanism for the PLA, due to its ability to bridge the gap between cyber operations, which have a high opportunity cost in terms of blown access when used for signalling, and kinetic strikes, which mark a transition to open warfare. Electronic warfare is the workhorse in Chinese information operations and is frequently portrayed as inherently defensive, doubling as both a tool of coercion and information denial. China’s evolving concept of “cyber-electromagnetic sovereignty” raises the possibility that the PLA will one day declare the right to deny or degrade satellite reconnaissance aimed at its territorial claims and space-based platforms, which could indirectly be understood as holding its assets at risk, complicating U.S. efforts to project power in the region.

The relative prominence of the information warfare disciplines shifts once again after the threshold of war is breached and protracted conflict ensues, with cyber warfare losing importance compared to electronic warfare and kinetic strike. Electronic warfare will be a key standoff weapon in any conflict that China is likely to fight, offering the potential to significantly diminish the intelligence collection and information processing capacity of an adversary even as enemy units come within range of the growing web of air, submarine, surface, and missile threats that China is extending out along its periphery. Once outright conventional warfare begins, kinetic strike once again becomes dominant, and psychological operations serve as a tool to maintain the populace’s resolve, weaken the enemy’s will, and shape diplomatic and political narratives in order to better enable the successful conclusion of the conflict on terms favourable to China.

Information operations are offense-oriented. Chinese believe information dominance is the core of the “three dominances” of information, air, and space that, when achieved, and allow Chinese forces to rapidly achieve battlefield dominance, and victory. Cyber and intelligence operations in particular are sensitive to changing circumstances, and rely on techniques and access methods that lose much of their power once they have been put to use and the element of surprise is lost. Cyber accesses that enable these effects are frequently more effective in the initial stages of a conflict. Information advantage can be traded for space and time on the battlefield. An information domain advantage can effectively be traded for physical space and time in conflict in order to enable the achievement of China’s strategic objectives.

US and Chinese Approach

One of the key differences between USCYBERCOM and the SSF’s cyber force lies in their respective scopes of responsibilities. The SSF appears to be responsible for “all” of information warfare, overseeing the employment of a broad spectrum of tools for kinetic, cyberspace, electromagnetic, and psychological domains. The PLA has continuously emphasized the link between space and cyber networks, viewing them not in isolation but as extensions of one another through their common use of the electromagnetic spectrum as a transmission medium. At the strategic level of war, China’s plans for the defence of these three domains converge to the degree that combining them not only creates natural efficiencies but also verges on being a requirement for an effective force. The comparative lack of emphasis on operational cohesion among cyber, space, and electronic warfare in the United States can be understood as a manifestation of differing strategic priorities and threat perceptions. The US treats cyber, space, and electronic warfare as separate, complementary disciplines without a demand for convergence at the strategic level.

Another key point of divergence between the SSF Cyber Force and USCYBERCOM is in the inclusion of psychological operations within the former’s remit. China has long understood cyber operations to be a primary vehicle for psychological manipulation. The United States tends to view cyber warfare in terms of destruction and denial, with a particular focus on the potential for cyber-attacks with kinetic effects and the destruction and manipulation of data in a conflict. Chinese leaders, on the other hand, view manipulation of information more broadly as their chief vulnerability and worry about the societal effects.

SSF Challenges Ahead

The SSF fully integrates its myriad components. There are still many organizational tensions at play, diffusing them and balancing the cyber mission between civilian and military components is important. The SSF’s dual responsibilities for both “force construction” and operations and to transition operational responsibilities away from the services to joint force theatre commands needs smoothening. The USSTRATCOM supports U.S. combatant commands. While the PLA created joint, regional theatre commands analogous to U.S. geographic combatant commands, the PLA stopped short of creating functional combatant commands. Instead, the SSF was created as a service-like force that serves a PLA-wide functional role. It appears that the current arrangement is transitional, and the PLA intends to eventually create some form of joint functional combatant commands in the future. In all circumstances, responsibilities for nuclear, space, and information warfare may have been deemed sufficiently strategic that the CMC elected to keep both operational and force construction functions contained within a single service, where their use and development could be more easily controlled. The decision to construct the SSF as a separate force rather than a joint force construct was driven by lessons learned from observing foreign militaries where the distribution of strategic support across the different services resulted in redundancies in force development and a counterproductive rivalry for funding and resources.

The centralization of new-type force development and cutting-edge missions, such as space, cyber, and electronic warfare, seems to run counter to the objective of modernizing the PLA force-wide. The consolidation of these capabilities under the SSF, either for resource conservancy, desire to control strategic capabilities, or desire to more closely guide their development, may act as a limiting factor for other services, preventing the development of space, cyber, and information capabilities in their own missions. This raises further questions about the future of both the space and cyber missions, which in the former case may be shared with the PLA Rocket Force and PLA Air Force and in the latter case shared with the theater commands and other services. The creation of functional services like the SSF and PLA Rocket Force appears to be a compromise, allowing theatre commands access to these capabilities without ceding operational control, diffusing force development across other services, or risking the adoption of an unfamiliar joint force construct like USSTRATCOM by a PLA already acclimating to a new organizational model.

The PLA’s cyber operational challenges go beyond the civilian-military divide. Even under the new structure, the PLA faces crucial challenges in its ability to credibly field a modern cyber force. For one, it remains unclear how the PLA will integrate the SSF’s cyber operations, which appear to be overwhelmingly focused on espionage and offense, with the PLA’s cyber defence mission. It is unclear how the SSF will work with the JSDICB to help secure PLA networks from cyber threat, or how its broader space information support mission will integrate with the JSD-ICB’s role as a service provider to the PLA writ large. Even less clear is what responsibility, if any, the SSF will have for cyber defence of private, civilian, and critical infrastructure networks. It is also not clear how any SSF cyber defence and protection mission would conflict or be coordinated with the Ministry of Public Security and Cyberspace Administration of China, both of which are charged with maintaining the security and defence of China’s critical information infrastructure.

The PLA, like many other militaries, will have to answer critical questions about peacetime and wartime targeting, escalation in situations where the divide between peacetime and wartime is not always clear. Although the PLA has developed its own theories on the strategic use of cyber operations in a conflict, these ideas have not yet been tested against the hard reality of operational and organizational implementation.

SSF reinforces China’s growing military strength, and readiness for “local informatised war” and shifting the PLA’s horizons to projecting power farther from China’s shores through reliance on information systems. China certainly has the technical and operational capability to use its strategic resources, but its ability to do so at scale in a sustained way will have to be seen in due course.

A significant part of the information has been sourced from “China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era” by John Costello and Joe McReynolds. Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, dated October 2018.

The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force, Leadership and Structure, By Rachael Burton and Mark Stokes dated September 25, 2018, for Project 2049 Institute.

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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