Special Operations Forces
In PLA’s terminology, “special forces” or “special operations forces” (SOF) refers specifically to a group of small, highly-trained, elite ground forces units tasked with specialised operations such as special reconnaissance, counter terrorism, and direct action. The PLA has assigned one SOF unit to each of its seven military regions. Additionally, the Air Force (in its airborne corps) and Navy (in its marine corps) also have their own SOF elements. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) also has special counter-terrorism units known as “Special Police Units” (SPU).
Although the PLA did not have dedicated SOF until the late 1980s, it was no stranger to the special forces warfare. As early as the WWII and the 1940s Chinese Civil War, carefully selected soldiers from ordinary units were formed into temporary composite units, given specialised training and weapon equipments, and tasked with special missions such as long-range penetration, tactical reconnaissance, raid on vital enemy positions, etc. After the mission was accomplished, these units were normally disbanded and soldiers returned to their original units.
Between the 1950s~1980s, the PLA relied on specially-trained reconnaissance units within its ground forces for some special missions. Each military region (MR) had a regiment-sized reconnaissance group directly organic to the military region headquarters (MRHQ). Army corps and division also had their own subordinated reconnaissance units (battalions or companies). Although these reconnaissance units were not “special forces” in modern term, their missions covered the spectrum of special operations tasking.
The Sino-Vietnam border conflicts that took place in 1979 and the 1980s was the first wake-up call to the PLA in its lack of dedicated SOF. During the conflicts, Vietnamese SOF operating in small groups caused the PLA some considerable causalities and losses. Towards the end of the conflicts, the PLA quickly learned from its lessons and began to send its own SOF units, mostly composed of personnel from army reconnaissance units, to operate behind enemy lines for raid, ambushing, kidnapping, reconnaissance, and other special operations.
Soon after the end of the conflict, the PLA began to create its own dedicated SOF. In 1988, the first “special mission, rapid reaction” unit was formed in Guangzhou Military Region. The unit, known as “Special Reconnaissance Group”, was given new weapons and equipments which were not available to regular army units. Its members of the unit received specialised training in field surviving, swimming with full gear, parachute jumping, helicopterborne assault, etc. By the end of the 1980s, the reconnaissance groups directly organic to the military region headquarters were all transformed into dedicated SOF units.
Inspired by the actions of the U.S. special forces during the First Gulf War in 1990/91, and also as a response to the growing tensions between China mainland and Taiwan since the mid-1990s, the PLA’s SOF had a major expansion in the late 1990s, with high-technology being introduced as a new key element in the SOF development. The name of these units were also changed from “Special Reconnaissance Groups” to “Special Operations Groups”.
Each of the PLA’s seven MR has a “Special Operations Group”, which is the size of Army regiment with about 1,000~2,000 men organised into three battalions. Each battalion has its own headquarters and support unit. Their operations are usually in company strength (70~100) or smaller teams. Each of the SOF unit has a unique codename. For examples, the SOF unit of the Guangzhou MR is known as “Sharp Sword of Southern China”, and that of the Nanjing MR “The Flying Dragons”.
Officially, the PLA does not have a unified command like the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for special operations, but the Intelligence Department (2nd Department) of the PLA General Staff Department may serve as a general director for SOF and special forces warfare doctrines development. The SOF units are also believed to be closely associated with the intelligence department of the seven MRHQs.
One important move since 2003 in the PLA SOF development is that the command of the SOF units has been transferred from MRHQs to the headquarters of some group armies (GA). For example, the SOF unit of the Beijing MR is now directly organic to the headquarters of the 38th Group Army. The SOF unit of Chengdu MR is now directly organic to the 13th Group Army.
Table: PLA Special Operations Forces Units
Organic to Group Army
||Established in the early 1990s
||Tigers of Northeast
||Tigers of the Night
|| Flying Dragons
||Established in late 1992.
||Sharp Sword of Southern China
||Established in 1988 as the PLA’s first dedicated SOF unit, and was later expanded in 2000 to become the first PLA SOF unit capable of air-, sea-, and land-operations
||Falcons of Southwest
||Established in 1992. Experimental unit for digitised army and airborne mechanical troops technologies
Unlike the U.S. SOF, the PLA focuses the roles of its SOF very much on direct action (DA), special reconnaissance (SR), and counter-terrorism (CT). PLA SOF units are not trained for unconventional warfare (UW) and civil affairs (CA) like their American counterparts. This is because the PLA only intends to use the SOF for a high-intensity, lightening-fast regional conflict that is over in short amount of time. They are not going to be involved in long-duration, low-intensity operations in foreign countries, like what the U.S. SOF did in Southeast Asia in the 1960s/70s.
Direct Action (DA) - The most important mission for PLA SOF, involving short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions by SOF to seize, destroy, capture, recover or inflict damage on designated personnel or material. For example, prior to the outbreak of major hostilities between the PRC and Taiwan, PLA SOF will infiltrate the Taiwan island using powered parachutes, helicopters, or other methods, and launch a pre-empty strike against key enemy personnel and command & control elements, to paralyse the enemy C3I network and leave the enemy troops leaderless. This strategy is sometimes being referred to as “Decapitation Operation”.
Other DA operations may include capturing enemy airfields and seaports for the upcoming airborne and amphibious landing troops; sabotaging enemy equipments and systems; attacking vital civilian infrastructure; ambushing enemy forces; spreading rumours to cause enemy confusion and misjudgement, etc.
Special Reconnaissance (SR) - SR involves reconnaissance and surveillance actions to obtain or verify vital intelligence and information, by using visual and other hi-tech collection methods. This is very much like what SOF units of the Coalitions Forces did during the two Gulf Wars. Small teams consisting 2~4 people will be dispatched to behind enemy lines to collect intelligence concerning the capabilities, intensions, and activities or enemy forces. It may also involve locating and designating targets for precision strikes.
Counter-Terrorism (CT) - PLA SOF units are receiving training in offensive counter-terrorism operations to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism. As a result of the growing separatist activities in China’s remote regions such as Xijiang, PLA SOF have became increasingly involved in the counter-terrorism role. In October 2002, a PLA SOF unit took part in the joint China-Tajikistan counter-terrorism exercise. A recent report by the Chinese state media also confirmed that counter-terrorism had been added to the basic Special Forces training subjects under the renewed PLA doctrines.
Other Roles - In some occasions, PLA SOF are also acting as “Blue Army” (opposing force) in exercise to test the ability of regular army unit against special forces.
Selection – PLA SOF are composed of highly-trained, skilled and motivated professional soldiers, who are carefully selected from officers and non-commission officers (NCO) serving in active service. These members must pass highly strict and demanding multi-phase selection and screen process before they are accepted.
Basic Training – PLA SOF, like their counterparts around the world, emphasise superior physical fitness and small-arms proficiency in their members. All SOF members are trained in martial arts and field survival skills.
Specialised Training – Depending their specific roles, PLA SOF members have specialised training in one or more of the following areas: urban warfare, sniper tactics, amphibious operations, demolitions, communications, computers, or foreign languages.
Infiltration – The ability to infiltrate undetected behind the enemy lines is one of the most essential skills required for PLA SOF. Members of PLA SOF are said to undergo “highly intensive and comprehensive multi-course training in complex terrain, including in-depth infiltration and covered reconnaissance behind
the enemy line.”
PLA SOF adopts a “three-dimensional, all-weather” infiltration
approach, using sea (submarine, high-speed boat, open-water swimming
and scuba diving), air (airborne, powered parachute and helicopter) and
land (long-distance movement and rock climbing). Chinese media has reported that PLA SOF were able to penetrate through defensive positions that use night-vision equipment, anti-infantry radar, and other hi-tech surveillance equipments.
Mountain Training – The potential operating theatres of PLA SOF including Taiwan, Tibet and central Asia all feature mountainous terrains. Therefore, PLA SOF are routinely trained in some high mountain areas in Western China that offer extremely harsh weather conditions.
Field Survival Training – Chinese media frequently report various field survival skills training for PLA SOF, carried out on small islands, in jungle or mountainous regions. Sometimes these training courses were also carried out in harsh weather conditions. Students will learn to catch wild animals; to identify and gather edible plants; to find, extract and purify water; to make fires by any means; to make shelters and resist rain and insects; etc.
Firearms – The small arms used by PLA SOF include standard issue weapons such as QBZ95 automatic weapons, QBU88 sniper rifle, QSZ92 pistol, and PF89 80mm individual rocket launcher. They also has specialised weapons including Type 64 silenced pistol, Type 85 silenced submachine gun, and explosives. Crew-served weapons include QYJ88 general machine gun, QLZ87 35mm automatic grenade launcher, W99 82mm automatic mortar, PF98 120mm rocket launcher.
FHJ84 Rocket Launcher – PLA SOF has been spotted using the FHJ84 twin-62mm rocket launcher in the exercise. The rocket was designed to launch rocket-propelled incendiary and smoke grenades. A high-explosive (HE) air burst steel balls round was also introduced for SOF.
Satellite Positioning Receivers – PLA SOF are currently equipped with PDA sized device that can receive both the U.S. GPS and Russian GLONASS signals. This could provide 10~50m class accuracy positioning data. China is also developing its own COMPASS satellite positioning system, which could provide military class positioning data in East Asia region as early as 2010.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – PLA SOF is equipped with a variety of UAV for reconnaissance and surveillance roles. These UAV can be launched by handheld or from a small vehicle-mounted launcher.
All-Terrain Vehicles (ATV) – PLA SOF has been widely using ATV for travelling in the battlefield. These vehicles can be carried by helicopters for airborne operations.
Light Utility Vehicles – PLA SOF has been using light utility vehicles such as BJ2020SJ and EQ2050 for travelling.
Fast Attack Vehicles (FAV) – The FAV originally developed for the airborne forces is also equipped by PLA SOF.
Powered Parachute (PPC) – PLA SOF has been investing heavily in the use of PPC for air infiltration and assault. The small size of the PPC means that it is very difficult to be detected by conventional radar and other surveillance equipment.
High-Speed Boat – These are used for operations in water regions and sea infiltration operations.
Surveillance Equipment - Night-vision goggles (NVGs), low-light TV (LLTV), handheld laser rangefinders.
Communications – PLA SOF are equipped with manpack tactical radio and video-voice-data communication equipment.
Digitised Army - The SOF unit in the Chengdu MR has been experimenting with the use of digitised army systems similar to those in the U.S. Land Warrior project
Last update: 30 August 2008