Several Chinese government entities perform activities that fall under the rubric of special operations. China’s primary anti-terrorist forces are elements of the civilian Ministry of Public Security (MPS) police and paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP). People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Special Operations Forces (SOF) also are trained for anti-terrorism tasks along with other missions.
MPS special police teams (similar to SWAT teams in other countries) are found in every province to conduct anti-terrorist, anti-drug, anti-riot, and other criminal law enforcement activities. They are usually clad in black (identified as special police) and equipped with a variety of special-purpose armored vehicles and helicopters in some locales. Civilian police forces can be reinforced by PAP Special Operations units from internal security and border security units. In addition, the PAP has two special anti-terrorist units, the “Snow Leopards” and “Falcon Commando Unit,” located in Beijing. PAP SOF units may be equipped with armored vehicles (often painted white or camouflage and marked as PAP) and increasingly are supported by helicopters. Training conducted by these units and “oath swearing ceremonies” are frequently covered by the Chinese media to serve as deterrents to domestic terrorist or extremist activities. Often anti-terrorist training is conducted as a part of anti-riot training, potentially conflating what usually is two very different types of threats.
PLA SOF units are found in all services and may be used in anti-terrorist operations, but they also perform a variety of other combat missions, such as direct action (patrols, raids, and ambushes), reconnaissance, and sabotage, in support of conventional force operations. Based on open source reports of their training, most PLA SOF missions are conducted relatively near their own front lines at the tactical or operational level of war in support of group army, division, or brigade operations. No single national-level headquarters commands all PLA SOF units.
PLA SOF units are frequently supported by helicopter units or fixed wing transport aircraft; however, the PLA does not have the numerous types of special-mission aircraft (long-range helicopters, aircraft, etc.) that are important force multipliers for U.S. Special Operations Forces. SOF units are provided with the most modern weapons and equipment, including advanced electronics and communications, unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision devices and target designators, and an assortment of light vehicles, small boats, ultra-light aircraft, and specialized parachutes. A large amount of SOF training entails physical fitness training, close combat skills, individual and small team survival, camouflage, weapons proficiency, land navigation, communications, and methods of insertion by air, land, or sea (using surface or subsurface means).
The first Army SOF units were established in the late 1980s and early 1990s; the first PAP anti-terrorist unit was created in 1982. Over the past two decades, the number and size of PLA SOF units have expanded, as they now are considered among several “new types of combat forces” given priority for development. Within the past few years, two new SOF brigades were created from former infantry units.
Based on Chinese media reports, I estimate the Army to control nine SOF brigades and two SOF regiments; the Navy and Air Force each have one SOF regiment (or group); and the Rocket Force its own regiment (or group), used mostly to replicate enemy forces in training. Smaller SOF units, from platoon to battalion size, are found in some brigades and divisions, including the two Marine brigades in the Navy. Army SOF brigades/regiments are assigned to nine (of 18) group armies and the Tibet and Xinjiang military districts. Because SOF units do not have heavy equipment, they are smaller than other types of infantry brigades or regiments. The Chinese government has not divulged the size of the total force; my current estimate for the number of SOF personnel in all PLA services ranges between 30,000 to 40,000. (All the above numbers are subject to change as new units are identified or new details revealed.)
Though both PLA and PAP SOF units have a core of highly trained and seasoned officers and noncommissioned officers, a large bulk of SOF units are composed of newly enlisted conscripts/recruits and junior lieutenants on their first assignment. As a result of this, doctrinal employment methods, and the lack of special-mission support aircraft, most PLA SOF units are more like highly trained light infantry or commando units than elite multi-purpose counter-terrorist organizations found in many other countries (though some of the most elite members of SOF units can perform those specialized functions). Moreover, according to the military press, “some [conventional unit] commanders” do not employ SOF (and other “new types of combat forces”) properly in training.
Chinese SOF personnel and units have trained with many other militaries since the PLA began participating in training exercises with foreign countries in 2002. For example, SOF/anti-terrorism training exercises/exchanges have been held with forces from Belarus, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Jordan. Most bilateral exercises with Russia and multilateral exercises with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization militaries also include SOF participation. Individual PLA SOF soldiers and teams have participated in training and competitions in Israel, Turkey, Estonia, Colombia, and Venezuela. Navy SOF personnel have taken part in each of the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy escort missions.
Though PLA SOF units do not have as long a history as SOF units in other countries, they have been given priority for development and could see further expansion as the PLA reorganizes. They have yet to be tested in combat missions outside of China.
By: Dennis Blasko