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China's Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era

By John Costello and Joe McReynolds China Strategic Perspectives 13

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Executive Summary 

China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era
China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era
China Strategic Perspectives 13
Photo By: NDU Press
VIRIN: 181002-D-BD104-005

In late 2015, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated reforms that have brought dramatic changes to its structure, model of warfighting, and organizational culture, including the creation of a Strategic Support Force (SSF) that centralizes most PLA space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities. The reforms come at an inflection point as the PLA seeks to pivot from land-based territorial defense to extended power projection to protect Chinese interests in the “strategic frontiers” of space, cyberspace, and the far seas. Understanding the new strategic roles of the SSF is essential to understanding how the PLA plans to fight and win informationized wars and how it will conduct information operations. 

  • The SSF combines assorted space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare capabilities from across the PLA services and its former General Departments. 
  • In addition to expected efficiency gains from this approach, the 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. 
  • Despite a lack of transparency and the fact that the SSF is still in transition, a coherent picture has emerged of how the SSF’s components fit together and the strategic roles and missions they are intended to fulfill. 

The SSF reports to the Central Military Commission (CMC) and oversees two co-equal, semi-independent branches: the Space Systems Department, which leads a space force responsible for space operations, and the Network Systems Department, which leads a cyber force responsible for information operations. 

  • The Space Systems Department is largely built around elements of the former General Armament Department and now controls nearly every aspect of PLA space operations, including space launch and support; telemetry, tracking, and control; information support; and space warfare. This appears to resolve previous PLA bureaucratic power struggles over responsibility for space missions. 
  • The Network Systems Department is built around the former General Staff Department 3rd Department and incorporates all strategic IO units in the PLA, including those responsible for cyber warfare, electronic warfare, psychological warfare, and technical reconnaissance. This centralization addresses longstanding challenges in operational coordination between the PLA’s cyber espionage and cyber attack forces. Below the strategic level, the Network Systems Department shares operational- and tactical-level missions with units under the services and regional theater commands. 
  • The PLA has thus far pursued a “bricks, not clay” approach to the creation of the SSF. Instead of building the organization from scratch, the PLA has renamed, resubordinated, or moved existing organizations and their component parts and then redefined their command relationships. 

The SSF has two primary roles: strategic information support and strategic information operations. 

  • The SSF’s strategic information support role entails centralizing technical intelligence collection and management, providing strategic intelligence support to theater commands, enabling PLA power projection, supporting strategic defense in the space and nuclear domains, and enabling joint operations. 
  • The SSF’s strategic IO role involves the coordinated employment of space, cyber, and electronic warfare to “paralyze the enemy’s operational system-of-systems” and “sabotage the enemy’s war command system-of-systems” in the initial stages of conflict. 
  • The SSF improves the PLA’s ability to conduct information operations by integrating multiple disciplines of information warfare into a unified force, integrating cyber espionage and offense, unifying information warfare campaign planning and force development, and unifying responsibilities for command and control of information operations. 
  • The SSF also appears to have incorporated elements of the PLA’s psychological and political warfare missions, a result of a subtle yet consequential PLA-wide reorganization of China’s political warfare forces. This may portend a more operational role for psychological operations in the future. 

The PLA reforms have substantially altered the command context for many of the missions now under the SSF, redefining longstanding organizational relationships and creating new responsibilities across the PLA command bureaucracy. 

  • The reforms dissolved the four general departments and created an expanded Central Military Commission, including a new Joint Staff Department (JSD) with responsibility for supervising joint operations. The CMC now oversees a dual command structure where services are responsible for force construction and five theater commands are responsible for conventional joint operations in their respective regions. The SSF and Rocket Force fall outside this bifurcated arrangement, maintaining responsibility for both their own force construction and strategic operations. 
  • The PLA has created a new force-wide structure under the JSD for managing cyber and electronic warfare missions. Along with the creation of the SSF, this framework aims to institutionalize the PLA’s longstanding goal of “integrated network and electronic warfare.” The exact division of responsibilities between the JSD and SSF remains unclear, including how the PLA will integrate SSF espionage and offense-oriented cyber operations with CMC management of the PLA’s cyber defense mission. 
  • The SSF has been entrusted with technical reconnaissance capabilities supporting operations, but not with intelligence capabilities supporting strategic decisionmaking. In context, this reform gives the PLA more latitude to move away from its army-dominated past and direct intelligence resources toward critical operational needs. 

The PLA reforms can be compared to U.S. reforms after the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which were similarly aimed at transforming a peacetime military structure toward one more optimized for joint warfare. The SSF is partly modeled on U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), with modifications reflecting China’s unique approach and challenges. 

  • The PLA’s decision to construct the SSF as a separate service rather than a joint force construct like USSTRATCOM was ostensibly driven by lessons learned from observing foreign militaries and is intended to avoid redundancies in force development and counterproductive rivalries for funding and resources. 
  • Unlike U.S. Cyber Command, the SSF’s Network Systems Department (the closest comparable organization in the PLA) is responsible for a much broader range of operations, including kinetic, cyberspace, space, electromagnetic, and psychological operations. 
  • Questions remain about how the SSF will integrate its cyber espionage and attack missions, which have historically been separated. Integration will require developing new strategy and doctrine on the use of force in cyberspace without the benefit of substantive operational experience or robust real-world case studies. 

The creation of the SSF heralds a new era for China’s strategic posture, both in terms of the PLA’s preparations for fighting and winning informationized wars and its shift to projecting power farther from China’s shores. 

  • The SSF embodies the evolution of Chinese military thought about information as a strategic resource in warfare, recognizing both the role it plays in empowering forces and vulnerabilities that result from reliance on information systems. 
  • The SSF’s responsibility for both information support and information operations is prescient, enabling more rapid adaptation as China shifts from reliance on asymmetric capabilities as a weaker power to contending with adversaries on more symmetric terms as a near-peer competitor. 
  • The consolidation of information operations under the SSF could act as a limiting factor for the development of service space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities necessary for tactical warfighting needs. 
  • It remains an open question how the SSF will manage conflicting or overlapping responsibilities between its space and cyber forces. Force integration at lower organizational and administrative layers is challenging, and deficiencies in integration may impede the SSF’s ability to integrate its in-house space and cyber missions as well as its coordination with theater commands and other entities. 
  • The SSF’s ability to execute its envisioned roles will depend in large part on the PLA’s ability to address weaknesses in its broader organizational culture, including a historical emphasis on top-down control and distrust of bottom-up decisionmaking.
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