The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) was created on 31 December 2015 as a newest branch of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Introduced as part of China’s military organisational reform, the PLASSF is not a full service branch, but an independent service arm under the direct leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Its personnel wear the green uniform of the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF), but with the force’s own emblem, badge, and arm patch.
The creation of the PLASSF is the most significant change in the organisational structure of the PLA, which had been organised into three full service branches (Army, Navy and Air Force) and an independent service arm (Second Artillery) since the 1960s. The spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Defence described the PLASSF as a combination of all support forces. Essentially the force was created from components of operational elements previously under the direct control of other military organisations, and acquired most of their responsibilities, personnel, and assets.
Previously the CMC exercised its control over the PLA indirectly through the four general headquarters – the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armaments Department (GAD). The 2016 military reform led to the abolishment of these four general headquarters, and the creation of 15 internal departments within the CMC to assume their functions and responsibilities. A key difference between the previous general headquarters and the internal CMC departments is that the latter are purely administrative organs with no direct control of operational forces. As a result, the various operational elements previously under these general headquarters were consolidated into various new PLA branches.
In the initial announcements, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Defence and Chinese state-run media described the PLASSF as a combination of all support forces. Other than the names of its Commander and Political Commissar, the exact composition and structure of the force was not publicised. However, various Chinese media suggested that the force would include high-tech operations elements intended to help the other four service branches of the PLA to gain advantage in space, cyber, and electromagnetic spheres.
Based on the above descriptions, it can be concluded that the PLASSF is composed of the various operational elements previously under the direct subordination of the GSD and GAD responsible for electronic intelligence and warfare (ELINT/EW), cyber warfare, and space operations. So two branches have been identified within the PLASSF’s order of battle: the Military Space Force (军事航天部队) and Network & Information Operations Force (网络和信息战部队). In addition, it is safe to assume that the PLASSF follows well-established PLA organisational practices to include the standard components in its headquarters, such as a Headquarters Department, a Political Department, a Logistics Department, and an Equipment Department, as well as the Party Committee and Discipline Inspection Commission.
Military Space Force
The PLASSF has taken over the PLA units involved in China’s missile and space activities, under the control of a military organisation known as the China Satellite Launch and Tracking Control General (中国卫星发射测控系统部, CLTC). Established in 1986, the CLTC has served as a command and control centre for the space-related operations of the PLA. It consisted of planning and development departments, liaison and logistics departments, as well as a department dedicated to the primary task of telemetry, tracking, and control. The CLTC director was also the Chiefs of Staff of the PLA General Armaments Department (GAD)’s Headquarters Department (总装备部司令部参谋长).
Headquartered in Beijing, the CLTC controls and manages all of China’s space launch and tracking assets, including the four space launch sites (Jiuquan, Xichang, Taiyuan, and Wenchang); Xi’an Satellite Control Centre, which manages a network of domestic and overseas ground tracking stations; China Satellite Maritime Tracking Control Department, which operates the Yuanwang fleet of space tracking ships; and the Beijing Aerospace Control Centre (BACC). In addition, it was believed that the CLTC was also responsible for providing warnings and notifications of incoming and passing rockets and spacecraft.
The PLASSF has created two space-related organisations within its order of battle: the Space System Department (航天系统部, SSD) and a branch known as the Military Space Force (军事航天部队, MSF). It is possible that the SSD is the new identity for the CLTC, and also serves as the headquarters for the MSF, which incorporates all space launch and tracking units of the PLA.
The first MSF Commander is Major General Shang Hong (尚宏), who served as CLTC Director until September 2013, when he was reassigned to become the Commander of the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. He was then appointed the MSF Commander in December 2015. The first political commissar of the MSF is Major General Kang Chunyuan (康春元), formerly a Deputy Political Commissar of the Lanzhou Military Region.
It is worth noting that elements relating China’s human spaceflight programme did not go to the PLASSF, but have been retained by the newly formed CMC Equipment Development Department (军委装备发展部), which replaced the former GAD. They include the Manned Spaceflight Office (载人航天办公室, also known as the 921 Office) and the Beijing Institute of Space Medicine and Engineering (507 Institute, also known as the Astronaut Centre of China), which manages the China Astronaut Group (中国航天员大队).
PLA Military Space Force Order of Battle:
- Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre (Base 20)
- China Satellite Maritime Tracking Control Department (Base 23)
- Taiyuan Satellite Launch Centre (Base 25)
- Xi’an Satellite Control Centre (Base 26)
- Xichang Satellite Control Centre (Base 27)
- China Aerodynamics Research and Development Centre (Base 29)
- Beijing Aerospace Control Centre (BACC)
- Beijing Institute of Tracking and Communication Technology
- Space Research and Development Centre
- Engineering Design Research Institute
Network & Information Operations Force
The PLASSF has also taken over most of the functions and assets of the now abolished Technical Intelligence Department (技术侦察部, also known as the Third Department) of the GSD, which was responsible for signal intelligence (SIGINT), including the interception, processing, and dissemination of communications transmissions from foreign entities. It is widely believed that the GSD Third Department was analogous to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) in role and function. Some analysts also asserted that as a collateral mission the Third Department also monitored internal PLA communications as well as foreign communications.
According to Mark A. Stokes, a renowned analyst of Chinese intelligence activities, the Third Department “has direct authority over 12 operational bureaus, three research institutes, and a computing centre. Eight of the 12 operational bureau headquarters are clustered in Beijing. Two others are based in Shanghai, one in Qingdao, and one in Wuhan. Ten additional technical reconnaissance bureaus (TRBs) provide direct support to the PLA’s seven military regions (MRs), while another six support the Navy, Air Force, and Missile Force”.
The PLASSF has created two IO-related organisations within its order of battle: the Network System Department (网络系统部, NSD) and a branch known as the Network and Information Operations Force (网络和信息战部队, NIOF). It is possible that the NSD is the new identity of the Third Department, and also serves as the headquarters for the NIOF, which incorporates all information warfare and SIGINT units of the PLA. An organisation identified under the direct subordination of the NSD is the 56th Research Institute, based in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
The first NIOF Commander is Major General Zheng Jujie (郑俊杰), former director of the GSD Third Department. The force’s first political commissar is Major General Chai Shaoliang (柴绍良), who previously served as a Deputy Political Commissar of the GAD.
Some organisations that may have been taken over by the PLASSF from the former Third Department include:
2nd Bureau. Among the 12 operational bureaus of the Third Department is the 2nd Bureau, also known as “Unit 61398” in its military unit cover designation (MUCD). In 2013, the U.S. cyber security firm Mandiant published a report identifying the 2nd Bureau / Unit 61398 as the source of Chinese cyber espionages targeting the United States. On 19 May 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a Federal grand jury had returned an indictment of five Unit 61398 officers on charges of theft of confidential business information and intellectual property from U.S. commercial firms and of planting malware on their computers.
According to Mark A. Stokes, the 2nd Bureau is one of the largest among the 12 operational bureaus of the Third Department. The bureau’s headquarters and most subordinate elements were relocated to Shanghai in 1986. In addition to its internal departments and offices, the 2nd Bureau ran a technical reconnaissance network with interception work stations located in Heilongjiang, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guangdong, and Hainan, allowing it to intercept emails, computer files, mobile phone calls, and text messages of targets of interest on Taiwan, in the United States, and elsewhere in the world.
4th Bureau. The bureau is one of the 12 operational bureaus of the Third Department, relocated from Beijing to Qingdao, Shandong Province in the 1980s.
8th Bureau. According to a May 2000 Washington Post article, the 8th Bureau of the Third Department is “…the unit in charge of intercepting electronic communications from the former Soviet Union,” and it also has targets in the Central Asia republics. According to the Hong Kong-based newspaper Ming Pao, the 8th Bureau carried a unit cover designation of 61786 Unit.
12th Bureau. The bureau is believed to be responsible for intercepting electronic communications from the United States and its overseas installations, and operate interception work stations both within Chinese territory and overseas.
Tactical Electronic Warfare and Countermeasures
Another former GSD department that has possibly been taken over by the PLASSF is the GSD Electronic Countermeasures & Radar Department (总参电子对抗雷达部, also known as the Fourth Department), which managed the PLA’s tactical ELINT and Electronic Warfare (EW) portfolio. According to Mark A. Stokes, the Fourth Department was “established in 1990 and has overall responsibility for electronic warfare, including electronic intelligence collection and maintenance of threat libraries and electronic order of battle. Besides coordinating PLA electronic warfare doctrine and strategy, GSD Fourth Department units provide electronic defence of strategic targets, such as the PLA command bunkers in the Western Hills (Xishan) of Beijing”.
In addition to providing ECM to defence key national assets, the Fourth Department, according to some analysts, had oversight of all PLA EW units down to the division level. Moreover, this department was also believed to have managed and directed SIGINT and EW operations for the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force.
The GSD Communications Department (总参通信部), which was the headquarters of the PLA Signal Corps as well as a national-level organisation responsible for all aspects of military and strategic-level communications and automation. According to some Western analysts, the Communications Department was responsible for “developing, constructing, operating, and maintaining the PLA’s China-wide operational military command and control system, and the PLA’s administrative communication system; Installing, manning and maintaining the C4I systems in the PLA’s national command and control centre in the Western Hills district of Beijing, and; Working with civilian ministries at the national and provincial levels to enhance China’s national communications infrastructure”.
As part of the 2016 military reform, the GSD Communications Department was abolished and replaced by the Information and Communications Bureau under the newly established CMC Joint Staff Department. However, unlike the previous GSD Communications Department, the Information and Communications Bureau is only responsible for maintenance of the PLA’s national-level C4I system, and does not have the responsibility for overseeing the PLA’s communications and automation. As a result, some of these elements may have been transferred to the PLASSF.
Last updated: 1 January 2017