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The Creation of the PLA Strategic Support Force and Its Implications for Chinese Military Space Operations

  • Published
  • By RAND Project Air Force for CASI

This report explores the missions and organization of China’s military space enterprise. It focuses on the organizational structure of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF). Created on December 31, 2015, as part of a major reorganization of China’s military, the SSF is charged with developing and employing most of the PLA’s space capabilities. Tasked with integrating space more closely into operations, the creation of the SSF signifies an important shift in the PLA’s prioritization of space and portends an increased role for PLA space capabilities. Indeed, Chinese military strategists see military space capabilities and operations as vital in at least three different ways. First, they are a key component of strategic deterrence. Second, they are critical to enabling the PLA to fight informatized local wars and counter U.S. military intervention in the region. Third, they are essential when it comes to supporting operations aimed at protecting China’s emerging interests in more-distant parts of the world.

Although little official information exists on the SSF, it does not appear to be a service, nor does it appear to be equivalent to a PLA theater command or a U.S.-style unified command. The SSF appears to be composed of former General Staff Department (GSD) and General Armament Department (GAD) units. Sources indicate that it is composed of a Space Systems Department responsible for the launch and operation of satellites and a Network Systems Department responsible for cyber and electronic warfare (EW).

The main function of the SSF’s space component appears to be the launch and operation of satellites to provide the PLA with command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. This includes space-based reconnaissance, communications, and navigation capabilities. Less certain, however, is the scope of the force’s counterspace mission. Based on its launch and satellite-operations functions, the SSF’s Space Systems Department appears to be responsible at least for the co-orbital counterspace mission. The SSF’s Network Systems unit also suggests that the force is responsible for jamming satellite communications and Global Positioning System (GPS) signals, as well as computer network operations against space facilities and satellites. Other counterspace capabilities, like direct-ascent capabilities, may have been retained by other parts of the PLA, although it is also possible that such capabilities have been transferred to the SSF without public announcement. All of these functions also give the SSF an important role in China’s approach to strategic deterrence, which encompasses nuclear, conventional, space and counterspace, and cyber warfare capabilities.

The relationship of the SSF to other components of the PLA remains somewhat unclear. For example, China has not publicly announced which unit the SSF reports to or how the SSF coordinates with the services. One possibility is that the SSF reports to the Central Military
10 Commission (CMC) Joint Staff Department during peacetime, while its units would be attached to a theater command during wartime. It is also as yet unclear how the SSF coordinates with the other military organizations and civilian agencies that perform space missions. This suggests that some sort of joint organization focused on space would have to be set up under a theater command to coordinate and lead the space forces involved in a military operation.

The designation of the SSF to carry out major portions of the space mission indicates that space will be further integrated into PLA warfighting through the development of capabilities, doctrine, and personnel. The establishment of an organization charged with the information- warfare mission suggests that principles need to be established to guide its peacetime development and wartime use. It also suggests that the PLA will need to develop avenues for the promotion of information warfighters and their integration into theater command operations. By integrating space, cyber, and EW, the establishment of the SSF gives China a military space and information-warfare organization that is different from those that handle these missions for the United States and its allies. Although many questions remain unanswered, the creation of the SSF suggests that information warfare, including space warfare, long identified by PLA analysts as a critical element of future military operations, appears to have entered a new phase of development in the PLA, one in which an emphasis on space and information warfare, long- range precision strikes, and the requirements associated with conducting operations at greater distances from China has necessitated the establishment of a new and different type of organization.

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