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How special are PLA special forces?

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Asia | January 30, 2020 12:11:23 PM IST
Special forces such as the American Green Berets long ago attained a kind of mythical status, and most militaries around the world now field proficient special forces. The same is true of the People''s Liberation Army (PLA), the world''s largest military, which boasts special operations units across all four of its services.

Actually, the PLA was a relative latecomer to the party as it did not possess any special forces until around 1988 when the first "special-mission rapid reaction unit" was established in the Guangzhou Military Region in southern China. Reconnaissance units typically formed the core of these new SOF units that were being established.

It is useful to ask just how special PLA special forces are, since their profile and function are kept relatively low even within China itself.

To begin answering that question, it is helpful to understand their organization. Each corps in the PLA ground forces, of which there are 13 after a major restructuring announced in April 2017, has its own special forces brigade. In addition to that, the PLAN Navy (PLAN), Air Force (PLAAF) and Rocket Force (PLARF) all have their own special forces, as does the People''s Armed Police (PAP) that is responsible for internal security and counterterrorism within China. The PAP leads counterterrorism efforts at home, but Chinese SOF would be liable to conduct this type of mission overseas.

An accurate and up-to-date order of battle of PLA SOF units is difficult to obtain, but the following units are believed to exist according to research by Peter Wood, a defense analyst at TextOre, a US-based open source intelligence company. The locations of each unit given below are approximate.

- Eastern Theater Command: 71st Corps ("Sharks" in Jiangsu); 72nd Corps ("Thunderbolts" in Zhejiang); and 73rd Corps ("Dragons of the East Sea" in Fujian);

>- Southern Theater Command: 74th Corps (an unidentified unit in Guangdong); 75th Corps ("Sword of the South" in Guangdong); a battalion in the Hong Kong Garrison; and the "Lions" company in Macau;

- Western Theater Command: 76th Corps ("Sirius" in Ningxia); 77th Corps ("Cheetahs" in Sichuan); Tibet Military District ("Snow Leopards of the Plateau" in Lhasa); and Xinjiang Military District ("Snowy Owls" and "Sharp Blade of the Kunlun");

- Northern Theater Command: 78th Corps ("Tigers of the Northeast" in Jilin); 79th Corps ("Lions" in Liaoning); and 80th Corps ("Falcons" in Shandong); and

- Central Theater Command: 81st Corps ("Sacred Sword of the East" in Hebei); 82nd Corps ("Whistling Arrows"in Beijing); and 83rd Corps ("Ferocious Tigers of the Central Plain" in Henan).

Turning to the navy, it has a number of smaller SOF units amongst the PLAN Marine Corps, as follows:

- North Sea Fleet: the 5th and 6th Marine Brigades have a special forces element;

- East Sea Fleet: the 3rd and 4th Marine Brigades possess a special forces element;

- South Sea Fleet: the 1st and 2nd Marine Brigades have a special forces element, plus the PLAN itself boasts the "Sea Dragons" unit located on Hainan. Personnel from the "Sea Dragons" have deployed on every PLAN task force to the Gulf of Aden since 2008.

The PLAAF features the "Thunder Gods" SOF unit among the Airborne Corps based in Hubei, this unit only being created in 2011. The PLARF also has the "Sharp Blade" special forces unit located in Qinghai to protect Base 64 and to act as an enemy blue force for peacetime training.

A special forces brigade is estimated to have a strength of approximately 2,000 personnel, although one well-known American expert on the Chinese military, Dennis J. Blasko, a former defense attache stationed in Beijing, commented: "Nonetheless, despite their growth in recent years, the number of SOF personnel also is relatively small for such a large army and their missions are mostly focused on commando-style operations."

In an estimate offered several years ago, Blasko believes Chinese special forces total 20,000-30,000 personnel. It is likely that that number has risen since then, though. Regardless, it will be considerably smaller than the close to 70,000 SOF troops contained within the US military''s Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

For its part, the US Department of Defense notes: "China has prioritized development of these forces for the past 20 years and this has resulted in a special-purpose force that is equipped with advanced technology, contains highly trained personnel, and is capable of being mobilized in the early stages of conflict to attack key personnel and infrastructure targets and to secure air facilities for use by follow-on forces."

SOF units are increasingly important to the PLA, as they represent the "new type" units that were prioritized for development. Unlike the USSOCOM, the PLA has no equivalent unified national-level command overseeing their training, equipping and employment. Instead, Chinese SOF units are commanded by either operational or tactical headquarters. Certainly, this is one important factor that reduces the effectiveness of PLA SOF usage.

US SOF have the following core missions that they perform: civil affairs, counterinsurgency, direct action, counterterrorism, countering weapons of mass destruction, military information support operations, foreign humanitarian assistance, foreign internal defense, hostage rescue and recovery, security forces assistance, special reconnaissance, unconventional warfare and preparation of the environment.

However, many of these mandated functions are beyond the mandate of PLA units. China would use its SOF units in quite a different way to the USA, and their closest counterpart is probably US Army Ranger units.

Blasko, writing for The Jamestown Foundation, assessed that Chinese troops would be "tasked with a limited number of strategic-level missions deep behind enemy lines", and that "the majority of PLA SOF operations would likely be conducted relatively close to and in support of larger conventional units in what most often resemble commando or reconnaissance missions".

Blasko also pointed out: "According to PLA doctrine, special operations are considered one link in system-of-systems operations to be integrated with the other important campaign activities of information warfare, firepower assault, maneuver and psychological warfare. Special operations seek to create favorable conditions for main force units by raiding vital enemy areas, paralyzing enemy operational systems, reducing enemy operational capabilities, as well as interfering, delaying and disrupting enemy operational activities. SOF units are tasked mainly to conduct special reconnaissance, raids, sabotage, harassment, hostage rescue and decapitation missions."

Chinese SOF units thus have a focus on battlefield-level operations where they would typically support division-and brigade-level formations, or at best theater commanders.

Another major difference is the experience level of troops, especially if one compares Chinese units to American ones. Flush with nonstop combat experience in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, American operators are among the most battle-hardened in the world. The PLA lacks this kind of combat experience, even if they do train hard and are now regularly dispatched to places like Djibouti and the Gulf of Aden.

Oddly, some Chinese SOF personnel are merely two-year recruits or even lieutenants on their first assignments. This is very different to the USA, where significant levels of experience are necessary before being accepted into a USSOCOM unit. For this reason, Blasko concluded: "With so many relatively inexperienced personnel assigned, most units are organized and trained to operate in squads, platoons and companies."

Nonetheless, chosen for their stamina, Chinese SOF troops are trained in many skills and can operate a wide range of Chinese and foreign weapons. They have been gaining growing exposure through international deployments such as the PLAN''s continuing rotations of warships to the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy missions. They also enjoy exchanges with foreign units. For example, in 2019 some Chinese forces cross-trained in Singapore.

Blasko claimed: "The major focus of much Chinese media coverage about SOF training is on the physical toughness of SOF personnel, insertion methods, weapons qualification and close combat skills." Units tend to do well in international competitions because they drill hard in such technical skills.

In addition, an Army Special Forces Academy is located in Guilin, this facility established only as recently as 2012. With this training academy being so young, China cannot have anything close to the institutional collective knowledge that USSOCOM has.

The Queshan Combined Arms Training Base located in Zhumadian, Henan Province, is designed specifically to rehearse SOF training. However, with China''s SOF capabilities at still a relatively young stage, regular commanders may not always use them to their full potential, so the successful incorporation of SOF capabilities will represent a significant training challenge for the PLA in the near to midterm future.

Do PLA special forces have special equipment? Certainly, troops have advanced communications equipment, weapon sights, night vision devices, target designators and unmanned aerial vehicles. Otherwise, they tend to use many of the same weapons that regular infantrymen do.

The SOF battalion resident in the Hong Kong Garrison, for example, is armed primarily with 5.8mm QBZ95-1assault rifles. They are also provided Mengshi 4x4 fast attack vehicles, and regularly train with helicopters such as the Z-9ZH and Z-8KH also based in Hong Kong. In public, they do not reveal all their special weapons, however, but it is known they have silenced weapons and round-corner firing devices at their disposal. A notable aspect is an all-female contingent of special forces in Hong Kong.

Not only do PLA special forces have no umbrella headquarters, but they lack dedicated platforms such as delivery and support aircraft and helicopters. In contrast, the USA, for instance, boasts the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The Pentagon thus said in a report: "The PLA''s special-purpose forces do not have the kind of air and naval assets available to US special operations forces and, as a result, [they have] limited range and sustainability."

Blasko echoed this same weakness, highlighting that Chinese SOF units are limited in how far they can operate behind enemy lines because of a lack of appropriate means of insertion via aircraft or helicopter. Nonetheless, this situation should begin to improve as Y-20 transport aircraft and Z-20 helicopters become more widespread.

At this point, it is pertinent to mention those SOF troops that appeared in the PLA''s massive parade in Beijing on 1 October 2019. Many troops were seen ensconced in gyrocopters that can carry two soldiers each. These commercial-off-the-shelf aircraft are believed to be hunting Eagle gyrocopters manufactured by Shaanxi BaoJi Special Vehicle Manufacturing.

The 290kg Hunting Eagle gyrocopter is powered by a 115hp Rotax 914 engine. Each gyrocopter can carry a payload of 230kg in the form of two people. The manufacturer lists its cruising speed as 100-120km/h, with a top speed of 160km/h. The Hunting Eagle can fly for four hours or 400km at a maximum ceiling of4,500m.

China can use these aircraft to unobtrusively land soldiers behind enemy lines, plus their low speeds mean they have a short take-off and landing performance (20-80m). The PLA is known to operate another gyrocopter type that accommodates three soldiers too. As well as gyrocopter, aircraft parachute and helicopter insertions, Chinese troops can also make use of submarines or surface vessels to land on an enemy coast.

In the Beijing parade in 2019, SOF troops also appeared aboard small 6x6 all-terrain vehicles manufactured by Norinco. These Lynx amphibious vehicles can be armed with a variety of different weapons (in the parade they fielded a 12.7mm QJZ89 machine gun and carried five soldiers. Units such as PLA marines, special forces and airborne troops are now widely using these types of ATVs.

There is no doubt that Chinese special forces are more elite than their regular infantry counterparts. Yet while their training is improving, they still lack real-world combat experience and the wherewithal and logistical support to perform long-distance operations. This is in sharp contrast to USSOCOM, which has a larger globally distributed force with manifold dedicated assets at its fingertips.

In any Taiwan invasion scenario, these PLA SOF units would doubtlessly be employed to sow confusion and destruction. Therein, Blasko also made another observation: "Such operations have a greater chance of success in Southeast Asia and East Asia where overseas Chinese populations are present." (ANI)

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