A Disturbance in the Force: The Reorganization of People’s Liberation Army Command and Elimination of China’s Strategic Support Force

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 9

Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the ISF (Source: Youtube)

Executive Summary:

  • Consolidation and refinement of military information power capabilities within the new Information Support Force (ISF) continues to reflect the PLA’s outsized emphasis on battlespace information control in multi-domain integrated joint operations.
  • The April 2024 reorganization eliminated the Strategic Support Force and subordinated the Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department—now designated the Military Aerospace Force and Cyberspace Force, respectively—to the Central Military Commission.
  • Additional changes to PLA organization and a clarification of roles and responsibilities in the new structure may be forthcoming.
  • The ISF could be the PLA’s answer to information network competition as the US military advances network capabilities associated with Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Editor’s note: This article is one of two that cover the disbanding of the Strategic Support Force, announced on April 19. You can read the complementary piece here.

On April 19, 2024, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) eliminated its Strategic Support Force (SSF; 战略支援部队) and created a new military force, the Information Support Force (ISF; 信息支援部队). The ISF did not replace the SSF, which had overarching responsibility for all PLA space- and information-related capabilities. The mid-April reorganization elevated the SSF’s former communications organization, the Information Communication Base (ICB), to a higher grade, making it equivalent to the other two SSF departments. The three SSF functional components, what are now called the Military Aerospace Force (ASF; 军事航天部队), the Cyberspace Force (CSF; 网络空间部队), and the Information Support Force (ISF), have been organized under the Central Military Commission (CMC). They join the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF; 联勤保障部队) as four “arms” (兵种) that are directly subordinate to the CMC.

The implications and impacts of this development are not entirely clear in the wake of the SSF’s demise. The move by CMC Chairman Xi Jinping may be related to factors ranging from ongoing corruption scandals within PLA ranks to bureaucratic infighting to organizational efforts to increase operational effectiveness. In the final analysis, the SSF may have fallen victim to a combination of all those factors. The ISF, for its part, may be the PLA’s answer to information network competition as the US military advances network capabilities associated with Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Evolution of the Strategic Support Force

The Strategic Support Force was created in 2015 as part of so called “above-the-neck” reforms that reorganized the upper echelons of the PLA (see China Brief, February 8, 2016). These reforms created operationally focused military theater commands and scoped military service responsibilities to “man, train, and equip” similar to command relationships in the US military between combatant commands and military services. The newly created SSF was a military service unique to the PLA that focused on space, counter-space, and information warfare capabilities.

Prior to the SSF’s dissolution, the SSF may have totaled between 200,000 and 250,000 personnel. Given the two million PLA troops on active duty, the SSF only represented between 10-12 percent of the force. Still, if those numbers are accurate, the SSF alone was larger than almost every NATO military and had almost as many personnel as the entire Japan Self Defense Force (Dahm, 2024, p.12). In the PLA organizational hierarchy, every command organization has a “grade,” akin to a unit rank. The SSF was a theater grade organization, commanded by a full general, organizationally on par with the other military services and the PLA’s five operational theater commands.

In 2015, the newly created SSF brought together information-related organizations from the PLA’s former General Staff Department (GSD). The GSD 3rd Department (3PLA), responsible for electronic intelligence and cyber reconnaissance, GSD 4th Department (4PLA), responsible for electronic warfare and cyber-attack, and some intelligence elements from the GSD 2nd Department (2PLA) were grouped under the Network Systems Department (NSD) (网络系统部). The NSD was a deputy theater grade organization under the SSF commanded by a lieutenant general. The NSD also reportedly inherited the PLA’s 311 Base, which has a mission narrowly focused on psychological operations against Taiwan, generating propaganda, and influencing public opinion on the island to support PLA objectives. [1]

The reforms also consolidated space-related organizations from the PLA’s former General Armaments Department (GAD) in the SSF’s Space Systems Department (SSD; 航天系统部). The SSD was also a deputy theater grade organization under the SSF. It was responsible for virtually all PLA space operations including space launches; telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C) of satellites and other space vehicles; management and control of PLA space-based communications and reconnaissance; and select counter-space capabilities, especially on-orbit counter-space capabilities.

A second round of PLA reforms, the 2017–2019 “below-the-neck” reforms, made significant changes within the military services and theaters. One move in these reforms shifted the PLA organization with overall responsibility for national and joint military communication networks to SSF control. In 2015, the CMC Joint Staff Department controlled what was known as the Information Assurance Base (IAB; 信息保障基地) also called the Information Support Base (信息支援基地). [2] As part of the below-the-neck reforms, the IAB, designated the 61001 Unit (61001部队), was moved to the SSF and renamed the “Information Communication Base (ICB; 信息通信基地).” The ICB commanded a number of geographically distributed information communication brigades (信息通信旅) assigned to support PLA theater commands. [3]

The “base” in “Information Communication Base” refers to a high-level military organization and not necessarily a basing facility (e.g., a naval base). According to PLA organizational convention, a “base (基地),” is normally a corps grade or deputy corps grade command, one or two steps down from a deputy theater grade. Therefore, within the SSF, the ICB was likely an independent corps grade organization directly under SSF command alongside the two deputy theater grade departments, the NSD and SSD. Figure 1 depicts PLA organization with detail of SSF elements prior to the April 2024 reforms (Dahm, 2024, p.15).

Figure 1: Pre-April 2024 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Organization.

The New Reforms and Expectations for the Information Support Force

Eight years after its creation, the April 2024 reorganization eliminated the Strategic Support Force and subordinated the SSD and NSD—now designated the Military Aerospace Force (ASF) and Cyberspace Force (CSF), respectively—to the CMC. The Information Communication Base (ICB) was elevated from a corps grade organization to a deputy theater grade organization and renamed the Information Support Force (ISF). A former deputy commander of the SSF, Lieutenant General Bi Yi, assumed command of the new ISF. PLA spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian stated, “With the latest reform, the PLA now has a new system of services and arms under the leadership and command of the CMC. There are four services, namely the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Rocket Force; and four arms, including the Aerospace Force, the Cyberspace Force, the Information Support Force, and the Joint Logistic Support Force” (Xinhua Daily Telegraph, April 20). Figure 2 depicts PLA organization with detail of former SSF elements following the April 2024 reforms.

The ISF will likely retain all the ICB’s responsibilities and capabilities. Whether theater information communication brigades are elevated to theater information communication bases remains to be seen. The new ISF probably has overarching responsibility for the PLA’s enterprise-level computer architecture, the integrated command platform (一体化指挥平台). The ISF may also coordinate cyber defense and information security of PLA networks through the Network Security and Defense Center (NSDC; 网络安防中心). [4] Former ICB units that are likely now part of the ISF also appear to be responsible for maintaining and repairing the National Defense Communication Network (NDCN; 国防通讯网) built on the PRC’s defense fiber-optic cable (国防光缆) backbone network (MOD, December 3, 2018).

Figure 2: Post-April 2024 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Organization

Rationale Unclear, Further Restructuring Possible

It is not entirely clear why the PLA decided to eliminate the Strategic Support Force. With the benefit of hindsight, the US Department of Defense (DoD) may have anticipated the reorganization for some time. DoD first included the new terms for the SSF’s Aerospace Force and Cyberspace Force in its 2023 “China Military Power Report” (DoD, 2023, p.70). In January 2024, Chinese language media began to speculate about an imminent breakup of the SSF into its component elements (Ming Pao Canada, January 11). Palace intrigue surrounded the potential elimination of the SSF since its commander, General Ju Qiansheng, had been missing from public appearances since summer 2023. Ju was rumored to be caught up in ongoing corruption scandals involving the PLA Rocket Force and Equipment Development Department. As of this writing, Ju’s future is unclear.

Despite the corruption speculation, the PLA may have eliminated the SSF simply because it had become irrelevant. Reports indicated that the aerospace, cyberspace, and communications network elements pursued their disparate functions relatively independent of the SSF staff (Ming Pao Canada, January 11). The elimination of the SSF should not necessarily be viewed as a failed PLA experiment. The consolidation and refinement of military information power capabilities continues to reflect the PLA’s outsized emphasis on battlespace information control in multi-domain integrated joint operations.

Official coverage of the ISF creation ceremony observed, “Xi Jinping emphasized that the Information Support Force is a newly created strategic force and a key element for coordinating the construction and application of network information systems” (MOD, April 19). A subsequent PLA Daily newspaper commentary connected the creation of the ISF to Xi’s 2022 report to the 20th Party Congress that emphasized network information systems as the “largest variable (最大变量)” for improving the combat effectiveness of the military (MOD, April 20). At the core of the PLA’s informationized warfare concept is the idea that modern warfare is a confrontation between systems-of-systems. Empowering the new deputy theater grade Information Support Force to strengthen and harden information network capabilities may be the PLA’s response to similar US DoD efforts to consolidate and align US military information networks under the umbrella of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Additional changes to PLA organization and clarification of roles and responsibilities in the new structure may be forthcoming. In the April 19, 2024, ISF rollout, the PLA spokesperson foreshadowed, “As circumstances and tasks evolve, we will continue to refine the modern military force structure with Chinese characteristics” (Chinamil, April 22). Monitoring future development related to PLA information organizations will provide much needed insights into the PRC’s military capabilities, strategy, and intent.


[1] Western assessments probably overstate the SSF’s leading role in PLA psychological operations. As part of the 2015 reforms, the SSF reportedly inherited the 311 Base (61716部队) from the former General Political Department (GPD). Limited open-source intelligence indicates the 311 Base is focused exclusively on psychological warfare and propaganda that targets public opinion on Taiwan. Very little evidence has emerged that the SSF has control over psychological or propaganda operations against other targets such as the US and its allies, regionally or globally. Broader SSF cyber capabilities may certainly play a role in collecting intelligence and spreading disinformation as part of a broader malign influence campaign, but there is scant evidence that the SSF has overall responsibility for political warfare in the PLA or PRC government. See, Mark Stokes and Russel Hsiao, The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department (Washington, DC: 2049 Institute, 2013), 29, https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/P2049_Stokes_Hsiao_PLA_General_Political_Department_Liaison_101413.pdf, also, John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era, (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2018), p. 17, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/china-perspectives_13.pdf.

[2] Elsa B. Kania and John Costello, “Seizing the Commanding Heights: The PLA Strategic Support Force in Chinese Military Power,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 44, no. 2 (2021): p. 253, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390.2020.1747444. The Information Communication Base (ICB) should not be confused with the CMC Joint Staff Department Information and Communications Bureau (信息通信局) (JSD ICB).

[3] Zhang Xiaohan, “学思践悟, 重点突破备战保通” [Study, Think and Practice, Focus on Breakthroughs & Prepare for Success], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], April 2, 2023, http://www.mod.gov.cn/gfbw/wzll/yw_214068/16213872.html. There is conflicting information about the organization and subordination of PLA information communication forces. On the one hand, it seems clear that the top-level Information Communication Base (61001 Unit), headquartered in southwest Beijing, commands several SSF ICB brigades throughout China. However, PLA media makes numerous references to apparently remote “information communication bases.” This may be an informal term that simply describes where IC brigades and other ICB units are physically located. See, for example, “情注一缆通滇藏 – 记某信息通信基地四营五连连长翁春芳” [A Cable Connects Yunan and Tibet – A Record of Weng Chunfang, Commander of the Fourth Battalion Fifth Company of an Information Communications Base], 新华网 [XinhuaNet], December 3, 2018, http://www.xinhuanet.com/politics/2018-12/03/c_1123801663.htm. Attempts to sort out inconsistencies in terminology are further exacerbated by the fact that other PLA services maintain their own information communication brigades and information communication units. See, “正赛 (通信兵专业比武邀请赛)” [Main Match (The Signal Corps Professional Competition Invitational Tournament)], 永不消逝的电波 [The Eternal Wave], June 27, 2023, https://m.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_23645590.

[4] Kania and Costello, 253, see also, Zhang Dapeng, Kang Zizhan, Wang Lingshuo, and Zhang Shaobo, “淬炼新域新质‘新锋刃’” [Tempering the New Domain, New Quality, ‘New Forward Edge’], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], December 21, 2022, http://www.mod.gov.cn/gfbw/wzll/yw_214068/4928766.html.