What you need to know
The 'Strategic Support Force' has become a force optimized for combat in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain that will enhance the PLA’s capability to fight and win future information wars.
It has been nearly a year since the first round of military reforms responsible for the creation of the Strategic Support Force (戰略支援部隊; SSF). Although media reports were initially forthcoming with information, references to the SSF quickly dropped off, leaving far more questions than answers. However, as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has started a more serious and concrete implementation of the hard work of reforms, more details have gradually emerged. A year on, there is enough information available to enable a basic understanding of the Force’s structure, unit composition, and future direction. The SSF has become a force optimized for combat in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain that will enhance the PLA’s capability to fight and win future informatized wars.
It is important to note that, while the SSF is a unique product of the reforms, it is built from the familiar. The reforms have thus far employed a “bricks not clay” approach to reorganization, repurposing whole, existing institutions and reforming them into new organizations to align with new paradigms, presumably with more minute changes to follow. This is best seen in the reorganization of the former four general departments into the new Central Military Commission functional organs.  Following from this concept, the SSF appears to be wholly constructed from the operational units and organizations from the former general departments, particularly the General Staff Department (GSD), General Armament Department (GAD), and General Political Department (GPD) units responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, the SSF’s main missions.
The force looks to be primarily designed around two operational imperatives. One, is peacetime-wartime integration (平戰結合 or 平戰一體). Previous operating concept would have required the PLA to transition to a wartime posture just prior to or shortly after the outbreak of war. For strategic-level information operations, in real terms this would require unprecedented coordination between GSD, GAD, GPD, and Military Region units across different echelons. The SSF simplifies this process dramatically, effectively organizing these units into operational groups under new domain-centric verticals as standard practice, optimized, like the new Military Theater Commands (戰區), as a wartime structure.
Two, the SSF is intended to shift the PLA’s most strategic, informatized missions from a discipline-centric to domain-centric force structure. Previously, space, cyber, and electronic warfare units were organized according to their mission type — the disciplines of reconnaissance, attack, or defense — rather than their war-fighting domain. This is best seen in the cyber mission, for which espionage was handled by the 3PLA, while the attack elements were handled by the 4PLA. The central concept here is the idea of “integrated reconnaissance, attack, and defense” (偵攻防一體化), which requires that the intelligence, offensive, and defensive elements are integrated together to enable full-spectrum war-fighting in a particular domain. This new organizational construct is also intended to enable previously impossible levels of unified planning, force construction, and operations. 
Force Structure and Composition
Established on December 31, 2015, the Strategic Support Force is a Military Theater-grade (正戰區級) or Deputy Military Theater-grade (副戰區級) organization commanded by former Second Artillery Force Major General Gao Jin (高津). The political commissar is Major General Liu Fulian (劉福連) (Xinhua, Jan. 1). Li Shangfu (李尚福), former director of the GAD Xichang Satellite Launch Center (西昌衛星發射中心; 27th Base) has been identified as a deputy commander of the SSF (Sohu, Aug. 30). Rao Kaixun (饒開勳), former director of the 1PLA, is reportedly another deputy commander (The Paper, March 11; NPC.gov.cn). The SSF is responsible for the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions. Functionally and structurally, the SSF operates like the former Second Artillery Force (第二砲兵部隊; PLASAF), which was similarly a “budui (部隊)” that functioned like a service and consolidated strategic capabilities under the CMC (China Brief, Feb. 8).
Under this leadership, the force appears to have a staff department, equipment department, political department, and, presumably, a logistics department. More operationally, the force appears to have headquarters components for its space and cyber forces, embodied in the Space Systems Department (航天系統部; SSF-SSD) and Network Systems Department (網路系統部; SSF-NSD), respectively. The SSF may create or already have an Electronic/Electromagnetic Systems Department (電子/電磁系統部; ESD) for its electronic warfare force. These departments may be subordinate to the staff department or, more likely, to SSF leadership directly, which would make them Corps Leader grade (正軍級) or Deputy Corps Leader grade (副軍級) organizations.
Space and Aerospace Mission
Of the known missions of the SSF, the space mission has been the best defined in the year since its creation. Space units are organized into the newly-established Space Systems Department. The former General Armament Department’s space mission forms the basis for the Space Systems Department, although the department also draws units and missions from the former General Staff Department. The SSD consolidates nearly every aspect of PLA space operations, including space launch, support, telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The current head of the SSD is unknown, though would likely come from the GAD’s space cadre.
|English Name and Cover Designation||Chinese Name|
|1||Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center / 20th Testing and Training Base (63600部隊)||中國酒泉衛星發射中心 ／第20試驗訓練基地|
|2||Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center / 25th Testing and Training Base (63710部隊)||中國太原衛星發射中心 ／第25試驗訓練基地|
|3||Xichang Satellite Launch Center / 27th Testing and Training Base (63790部隊)||中國西昌衛星發射中心 ／第27試驗訓練基地|
|4||Wenchang Aerospace Launch Site||文昌航天發射場|
|Sources: (1) PLA Daily, Oct. 20; PLA Daily, Nov. 11; (2) Zhejiang University, Sept. 27 (3) Strategic Support, April 17; PLA Daily, Dec. 12 (4) PLA Daily, May 8; PLA Daily, Nov. 1|
Space Telemetry, Tracking, & Control:
|English Name and Cover Designation||Chinese Name|
|1||Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center||北京航天飛行控制中心|
|2||Xi’an Satellite Control Center / 26th Testing and Training Base (63750部隊)||中國西安衛星測控中心 ／第26試驗訓練基地|
|3||Telemetry, Tracking, and Control Stations (e.g., Kashi station)||[客什] 航天測控站|
China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department 23rd Testing and Training Base
|Sources: (1) Strategic Support, April 10; (2) Zhejiang University, Sept. 27; Weinan Daily, July 30; (3) PLA Daily, May 3; (4) Phoenix, June 30; PLA Daily, March 11|
The SSD has also incorporated certain units from the General Staff Department, though much fewer than from the GAD, which had comparatively greater number of units responsible for space mission. The Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (航天偵察局; ARB), responsible for aerospace ISR, has shifted to the SSF, based on personnel transfers, including that of Zhou Zhixin (周志鑫), head of the ARB (PLA Daily, April 9). The Satellite Main Station (衛星通信總站; SMS) from the former GSD Informatization Department (總參信息化部; INFOD) has also been incorporated into the SSF (Dangjian.people.com, February 29). 
|English Name and Cover Designation||Chinese Name|
|Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB) 61646部隊||航天偵察局|
|Satellite Main Station (SMS) 61096部隊*||衛星總站|
|Sources: PLA Daily, April 9; Dangjian.people.com, Feb. 29; CNKI. |
* Both the ARB and Satellite Main Station have been split off from their former parent units, which have become new bureaus under the General Staff Department’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department (聯合參謀部; JSD). The GSD 2PLA has become the new JSD Intelligence Bureau (情報局; JSD-IB) and the GSD INFOD has become the new JSD Information Communications Bureau (信息通信局; JSD-CIB).
Although a more comprehensive analysis of where the former General Armament Departments operational and R&D units have moved is beyond the scope of this report, it is worth noting that a number of these organizations that fall outside of the space mission have also moved to the SSF. Some serve administrative or support functions, such as the GAD 306th Hospital, which was transferred from the GAD in July 2016, while others are more germane to the SSF’s mission (Sohu. July 30). Such R&D-focused institutes may be housed in the SSD or alternatively could have been transferred to the SSF’s Equipment Department, or some equivalent.
|English Name and Cover Designation||Chinese Name|
|1||China Nuclear Test Base / 21st Experimental and Training Base 63650部隊*||中國核試驗基地／第21試驗訓練基地|
|2||Aerospace Research and Development Center||航天研發中心|
|3||Project Design Research Center||工程設計研究所|
|Sources: (1) PLA Daily, Jan. 30; (2) CTTIC, Oct. 17; Zhejiang University, Sept. 27; (3) CTTIC, Oct. 17; Zhejiang University, Sept. 27 |
*Military researchers affiliated with the GAD 21st Test Base have published journal articles discussing directed energy weapons (DEW), which suggests that this base may have a mission to conduct research into operational uses of lasers or other directed-energy weapons. This aligns with the Strategic Support Forces mission to be a “new-type” (新型) force responsible for “new-type” capabilities, which DEWs have traditionally been characterized as.
There are key remaining questions regarding the SSF’s space mission. For one, it remains unclear whether the Space Systems Department will incorporate kinetic anti-satellite capabilities, such as direct-ascent weapons, or those will remain with the successor to the form PLASAF, the PLA Rocket Force (解放軍火箭軍; PLARF). It is also unclear whether the SSD will incorporate operational units responsible for hydrology, meteorology, mapping, and navigation, although there are initial indications that some of these units are now part of the SSF (Strategic Support, Dec. 4). These units were previously under the GSD First Department (總參一部; 1PLA; also known as the Operations Department), Survey and Mapping Bureau (總參測繪導航局; SMB). The 1PLA is now reorganized as the JSD Operations Bureau (作戰局; JSD-OB) under the Joint Staff Department, with the new Battlefield Environmental Support Bureau (戰場環境保障局; JSD-BESB) taking the place of the former Survey and Mapping Bureau (The Paper, Feb. 19).
Although the SSF’s cyber mission has thus far been far less defined than its space mission, the details and structure are becoming progressively clearer. The Strategic Support Force’s cyber forces appear to be organized under the newly-established SSF Network Systems Department (網路系統部; SSF-NSD). The former General Staff Department Third Department (總參三部; 3PLA) appears to be the central component around which the NSD is organized. The 3PLA is the Chinese military’s premiere cyber espionage organization, and their preeminence in this domain makes them a natural fit as the primary “tentpole” for the SSF’s cyber force. Although the leadership of the NSD is unknown, Zheng Junjie (鄭俊傑), former head of the 3PLA, may have moved over, but this cannot yet be independently confirmed. This would put him in contention as a potential Commander of the NSD.
Multiple organizations subordinate to or affiliated with the former 3PLA have moved over to the Strategic Support Force. Most noteworthy, the GSD 56th and 58th Research Institutes, both formerly under the 3PLA, have moved to the Network Systems Department (yz.chsi.com.cn, yz.chsi.com.cn). The GSD 56th and 58th Research Institutes previously reported directly to 3PLA headquarters, and were tasked with military research, development, testing, and acquisition (RDT&A) in support of 3PLA’s mission.  Additionally, a growing number of public records link former 3PLA units and facilities—in particular, former Technical Reconnaissance Bureau’s and the 3PLA headquarters itself—to the SSF (e.g., weain.mil.cn). These moves are reliable indicators not only that the core functions of 3PLA have moved, including its administrative responsibilities but also that the Network Systems Department itself may be synonymous with the 3PLA, essentially acting as a renamed, reorganized version of the former department. 
Other aspects of cyber warfare, including cyber-attack and cyber defense, should be expected to shift into the NSD, yet there have been no indicators of this so far. Computer network attack (CNA) has traditionally been handled by the GSD Fourth Department (4PLA) and the computer network defense (CND) mission has been handled by the GSD Informatization Department. While elements of both organizations have moved to the SSF, there is no indication that their cyber missions have yet been tasked specifically to the NSD.  It is likely that these missions will move to the NSD within the coming few years to align with the principles around which the SSF is organized and to fulfill the concept of “integrated cyber-attack, defense, and reconnaissance.” 
Although cyber constitutes one of its primary missions, the 3PLA is also responsible for traditional signals and communications intelligence, which doesn’t fit squarely into the Network Systems Department. If the Network Systems Department is solely focused on cyber warfare, as its name implies, then the traditional signals intelligence mission of the nation-wide network of TRB’s would need to find a new home. This a substantial portion of the 3PLA’s personnel, facilities, and organizational mass. Currently, it is unclear if the Central Military Commission will split this mission away from the 3PLA, but given the trajectory of the reforms, this seems likely.
Electronic Warfare Mission
At this point, the least amount of information is known or can be confirmed about the status of the SSF’s electronic warfare (EW) mission. The General Staff Department Fourth Department (總參四部; 4PLA), also known as the Electronic Countermeasure and Radar Department (電子對抗與雷達部), has been responsible for strategic-level, or national level, electronic warfare for the PLA.  In contrast to the space and cyber missions, which have been scattered across several different in the general departments, the electronic warfare mission had been solely under the remit of the 4PLA. Given these facts, it is likely the 4PLA will have a strong, central role in the electronic warfare mission under the SSF — perhaps even forming a separate systems department of its own — though so far the extent of the 4PLA’s move, though assumed, is unclear.
In recent months, there have been some preliminary indicators that suggest portions of the 4PLA have been transferred. The 54th Research Institute, formerly subordinate to the 4PLA, appears to have moved to the SSF, though it is not clear under what administrative structure. (CNITSEC; bjgtz.com, radars.ie.ac.cn; PLA Daily, March 11). Previously, the GSD 54th RI reported directly to 4PLA headquarters, and much like the 56th and 58th Research Institutes for the 3PLA, its move is a strong indicator that core components of the 4PLA now report to the Strategic Support Force. The fate of the 4PLA’s operational units, alternatively, have been assumed to move but their status is still unconfirmed; however, their primacy in strategic electronic warfare makes their move to the SSF a near-certainty.
Speculatively, the SSF may create an equivalent Electronic or Electromagnetic Systems Department, analogous to the Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department, to oversee a force to fight in the electromagnetic domain. Presumably, the 4PLA would serve as the central “tentpole” around which the rest of the force would be formed. This would mean that each of the SSF’s confirmed missions of space, cyber, and electronic warfare would have a main administrative and operational headquarters under the SSF, responsible for warfighting in their respective domains.
This potential structure could answer the question as to the status of the 3PLA’s traditional signals intelligence mission, if it is eventually split off from the Network Systems Department. A notional Electromagnetic Systems Department would be a natural home for the 3PLA’s technical reconnaissance mission, which would provide the both the domain reconnaissance component supporting the 4PLA’s electronic warfare mission as well as the critical intelligence component for the PLA’s expanding strategic missions.
The Informatization Department and its subordinate units do not appear to have moved to the Strategic Support Force as initially predicted, but rather seem to have remained largely within the Central Military Commission thus far (China Brief, Feb. 8). The Informatization Department has been reorganized into the Information Communications Bureau (信息通信局; JSD-ICB) under the CMC’s Joint Staff Department. Its former research institute, the 61st Research Institute, has also remained within the CMC but moved to the CMC Equipment Development Department (Gqt.org.cn). 
Operationally, the CMC has appeared to have retained units for force-wide information support. The highest-echelon organization responsible for command and control, the Information Support Base (聯合參謀信息保障基地; JSD-ISB) formerly under the Informatization Department, has remained under the CMC Joint Staff Department, presumably directly reporting to Information Communications Bureau (duxuan.cn). Before the reforms, all national-level informatization units and communications main stations reported directly to the ISB. It is unclear how many will still remain subordinate to the ISB. An overly cautious Central Military Commission, reluctant to give up too much control of information, may choose to keep a number of these informatized units under its direct purview.
The structure and shape of this CMC informatization corps is currently unknown. Speculatively, it is possible that the Central Military Commission may create a joint informatization force similar in structure and scope to the Joint Logistics Support Force (軍委聯合後勤保障部隊; JLSF), a fusion of former General Logistics Department units and possibly logistics units from the other service branches (Sina, Sept. 13).  Such a “Joint Information Support Force” (軍委聯合信息保障部隊) would presumably be responsible for national-level, joint information support, command and control, information security, and intelligence dissemination.
At this point, it remains unclear whether and to what extent the SSF will incorporate an informatization or information support mission. Some informatization units are confirmed to have moved to the Strategic Support Force, but these could be the exception rather than the rule. Units responsible for elements of space information support, computer network defense, and spectrum sensing/management are expected to move over to corresponding missions in the Strategic Support Force, but there has been no confirmation in open sources thus far.
Thus far, the Central Military Commission has focused on making broad strokes and affecting change in larger, leading organizations first, in what the PLA is calling an “above the neck” (脖子以上) reform (81.cn; Dec. 19). Such an approach minimizes disruptiveness of reforms and helps generate buy-in from leadership on deeper cuts that will undoubtedly take place in the future. Ultimately, this serves as a slow, incremental baseline on which future reforms can be built. For the Strategic Support Force, this has meant that the old siloed nature of space, cyber, and electronic warfare have been broken and reorganized into new verticals.
This alone, however, will not be enough. Although the organizational structure now employed by the SSF is a better representation of a domain-centric view of war fighting, some incongruences remain at lower levels. Elements of the former GSD’s cyber, space, and electronic warfare capabilities remain integrated within units responsible for other missions. To fully follow-through on the conceptual framework employed for the Strategic Support Force, deeper, more painful cuts will need to happen. The PLA is now embarking on “below the neck” (脖子以下) reforms, likely to be implemented over the remaining three-year period the reforms are intended to take place. This process will presumably entail undertaking deeper, more difficult changes than previous changes have presaged. For the SSF, this will be the test to see whether the PLA can fully implement the concepts and guiding paradigms that will enable better war-fighting or institutional barriers and vested interests will win the day.
1. In the reforms, the four general departments, the General Staff Department (總參謀部; GSD), General Political Department (總政治部; GPD), General Logistics Department (總後勤部; GLD), and General Armament Department (總裝備部; GAD) have become slimmed-down, CMC functions organs called the Joint Staff Department (軍委聯合參謀部; JSD), Political Work Department (軍委政治工作部; PWD), Logistics Support Department (軍委後勤保障部; LSD), and Equipment Development Department (軍委装備發展部; EDD), respectively.
2. Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮] (eds.), The Science of Military Strategy [戰略學], National Defense University Press [國防大學出版社], 2015, p. 388; Though the SSF does appear to have incorporated a former General Political Department unit, the 311 Base (311基地; 61716部隊) or the “Three Warfares Base,” for now the status of this unit isn’t entirely clear. Traditionally, the psychological dimension of warfare hasn’t been considered a domain, per se, but rather a discipline under information operations. It is not clear whether the PLA intends to create a war-fighting force on par with those for space, cyber, and electronic warfare that would conduct psychological operations. See http://www.cqvip.com/qk/81377x/201606/669378161.html and http://www.cqvip.com/QK/97723X/201401/49213060.html for personnel linkages between the 311 Base and the SSF.
3. Both the ARB and Satellite Main Station have been split off from their former parent units, which have become new bureaus under the General Staff Department’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department (聯合參謀部; JSD). The GSD 2PLA has become the new JSD Intelligence Bureau (情報局; JSD-IB) and the GSD INFOD has become the new JSD Communications and Information Bureau (通信信息局; JSD-IB).
4. According to Mark Stokes, Russell Hsiao, and Jenny Lin, the 56th Research Institute focuses on research and development of advanced computing technologies, including supercomputers. The GSD 58th RI focuses on cryptography and information security. Both of these technologies have applicability to cyber warfare. https://project2049.net/documents/pla_third_department_sigint_cyber_stokes_lin_hsiao.pdf
5. In this regard, it is noteworthy that so far the 3PLA’s sister organizations from the General Staff Department, the 2PLA and INFOD, have remained under the GSD’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department, along with their respective Research Institutes. In this way, the various GSD Research Institutes may be a useful bellwether for judging if a particular general department or organization has moved. Such an approach to renaming is consistent with the PLA’s “bricks not clay” reform.
6. While the PLA has so far move whole organizations, it can’t be ruled out that the CMC may move smaller pieces of organizations when necessary. For instance, the CMC moved the 2PLA to the CMC, reorganizing it as the Intelligence Bureau (JSD-IB), and moved the 2PLA Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB) to the SSF Space Systems Department; effectively separating the components of the organization. Generally, however, it appears that the CMC is building with whole organizations, but lingering uncertainty as to how deeply the CMC is cutting into traditional mission sets hinders the ability to make predictions with greater confidence.
7. In the previous structure, each Service Branch, including the PLASAF, and Military Regions maintained their own Technical Reconnaissance Bureaus. The SSF does not seem to incorporate these other Service or MR-specific TRB’s, and they appear to continue to be entities independent of the SSF’s cyber mission as inherited from the 3PLA. Interestingly, there are preliminary indicators to suggest that the former MR TRB’s are not under the control of the new Military Theater Commands as one would expect, but rather report directly to the new Army Leading Organ, indicating that the Army is utilizing the former network of MR TRB’s as a de facto reconnaissance branch in a similar manner the former GSD used the 3PLA.
8. As previously discussed, the former 4PLA was also responsible for the PLA’s computer network attack mission. In general, for information operations, the 4PLA appeared to act as the “attack” element, with the 3PLA serving as the reconnaissance element, while the Informatization Department acted as the defense element.
9. The 61st Research Institutes name would therefore be the CMC Equipment Development Department 61st Research Institute (中央軍委裝備發展部第61研究所).
10. An excellent forthcoming paper from Erin Richter and Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce examines the JLSF in greater detail. Thank you to both for giving the author a basic introduction into the JLSF.
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