Chinese Special Operations Forces: “Lessons Learned” and Potential Missions

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 4

Over the past 10-15 years, China has placed increasing emphasis on the development and improvement of its special operations forces [1]. According to the 2000 U.S. Department of Defense report on Chinese military power, “Particularly since the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, the PLA has devoted considerable resources to the development of Special Operations Forces (SOF).” Moreover, the PLA identified the further development of these elite units as “an integral element of ground force modernization” [2]. In keeping with this assessment, the PLA in the 1990s created a number of new SOF units, with capabilities similar to U.S. Army Ranger units, as a complement to its existing long-range reconnaissance forces [3]. This emphasis on enhancing SOF capabilities was sparked at least in part by Chinese analysis of the role of special operations in conflicts such as the Falkland Islands War and the Gulf War. According to PLA strategists, one of the key lessons of these conflicts was that “special warfare has become an indispensable and important combat operation in modern campaigns” [4].

The level of priority accorded to improving SOF capabilities seems to have grown even further over the past few years, as reflected by a passage in China’s 2006 National Defense White Paper, which identifies improving special operations capabilities as one of the Army’s major military modernization priorities. The white paper states, “The Army aims at moving from regional defense to trans-regional mobility, and improving its capabilities in air-ground integrated operations, long-distance maneuvers, rapid assaults and special operations.” This increasingly strong interest in special operations capabilities almost certainly derives from Chinese analysis of the role of special operations units in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It appears that Chinese analysts have devoted a considerable amount of attention to observing and analyzing the performance of U.S. and coalition special operations forces in both of these conflicts. Indeed, the Academy of Military Science (AMS) and Central Military Commission (CMC) reportedly established special research taskforces to analyze the role of special operations in Operation Enduring Freedom (South China Morning Post, March 4, 2002).

Chinese analysts argue that the role of SOF in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and other recent conflicts underscores their increasing importance in fighting “local wars under informatized conditions.” For example, one recent Chinese article concludes that special operations forces have emerged from the shadows and moved to the center of the stage as a result of their central role in recent conflicts. According to the author of this analysis, SOF achieved “striking results in battle” in Afghanistan and the status of special operations forces increased even further following their widespread employment in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), during which they conducted a variety of missions, including special reconnaissance, targeting for air strikes, direct action in the enemy’s rear area, disruption of enemy logistics and search and rescue, as well as playing a key role in the “decapitation” strategy and participating directly in major combat operations [5]. According to the author of this article, the influence of special operations is no longer relegated to the tactical and operational levels. On the contrary, the author asserts, SOF units are capable of directly achieving strategic aims. Consequently, the author concludes, SOF units have become an important force in high-tech local wars; they are indispensable to commanders because of their flexibility and utility, not only in low-intensity conflicts, but also in mid-to-high intensity warfare. Accordingly, the modernization of SOF units should receive a very high priority and the development of elite units should focus on “informatized construction” and realistic training.

This analysis is consistent with the findings of a number of recent articles in PLA Daily and other Chinese newspapers, which have highlighted the role of U.S. and coalition SOF in the war on terror, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of these articles reflect a favorable view of the potential contributions of SOF, but some also address the challenges of conducting special operations. For example, a January 2007 article on U.S. air strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia stated that opportunities to target the leaders of terrorist groups have been limited by the difficulties of acquiring actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of these elusive “high-value targets” (People’s Daily, January 14).

Chinese Views on the Characteristics of Special Operations Forces

Chinese assessments of the role of foreign special operations forces in recent conflicts are an important influence on the development of the PLA’s own SOF capabilities. Although much of the available Chinese writing on special operations focuses on assessing foreign experiences, some publications offer insights into how the PLA plans to apply these “lessons learned” to its own operations. At a general level, PLA writings on special operations define SOF units as elite combat units capable of conducting operations that may achieve strategic results despite their small numbers. For example, according to a 2002 China Militia article, the principle characteristic of small, elite special forces units, which are “very well equipped” (zhuangbei jingliang) and “highly trained” (xunlian yousu), is that they are “of unimposing stature but very strong and capable” (duanxiao jinghan) [6].

Some Chinese military publications go into greater detail, analyzing the characteristics of SOF and describing the potential roles of PLA special operations units in future warfare. Most notable in this regard is The Science of Campaigns, which defines “campaign special warfare” (zhanyi tezhong zhan) as a series of combat operations conducted by specially trained and equipped elite forces employing special tactics [7]. Among the strengths of SOF units, according to this volume, are their survivability, self-reliance and flexibility (linghuoxing). SOF groups range in size from just a handful to a few dozen and serve multi-functional objectives. They usually operate in the enemy’s “campaign deep areas,” where they carry out operations that are integral to the success of a campaign. They are capable of conducting a variety of missions, and rapidly changing elements of their missions when necessary to achieve their general objectives. Chinese writers emphasize that the success of special warfare operations depends upon the elements of surprise and covertness. It is most difficult for an enemy to defend against special operations attacks when they are “sudden” and “covert.” This means that to complete their missions successfully, SOF teams must launch surprise attacks, striking “at unexpected times and locations with unexpected combat methods and means” [8]. Given these characteristics, “special warfare is timed mainly to take advantage of the darkness of night, bad weather, and the enemy’s negligence.”

Based on this analysis of the characteristics and capabilities of SOF, PLA writers discuss a number of potential missions. According to The Science of Campaigns, for example, SOF can be employed to achieve a variety of general operational and strategic objectives, including attacking critical targets and infrastructure, “paralyzing the enemy’s combat system,” reducing the enemy’s combat capabilities, interfering with the enemy’s combat operations and “creating favorable conditions for the main force” [9]. More specifically, SOF missions may include: conducting strategic reconnaissance and collecting intelligence; capturing or assassinating key enemy personnel; engaging in harassment actions; participating in psychological operations; taking part in information and electronic warfare campaigns and launching direct attacks on targets such as airbases, ports, bridges, command and control facilities, radar sites, critical weapons systems, transportation and communications hubs and other rear area logistics facilities, bases and depots. If required, SOF can also provide direct support to main forces by “concentrating a certain number of special forces to seize key targets and key points in an enemy’s deep area in order to directly help the offensive of the main force” [10]. In addition, other sources indicate that SOF units may participate in a variety of potential domestic missions, such as counter-terrorism operations, hostage rescue and perhaps even responding to “unexpected incidents” such as riots and outbreaks of social unrest.

Implications for a China-Taiwan Conflict

Although PLA writers generally refrain from discussing potential SOF missions in Taiwan scenarios, the more general analysis they provide sheds some light on how China would likely employ its special operations capabilities in a cross-Strait conflict. Indeed, these writings suggest that Chinese SOF would likely conduct a broad range of direct action, strategic reconnaissance and other special missions in the event of a conflict with Taiwan. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Defense assesses that specific missions assigned to PLA SOF units in Taiwan contingency operations would likely include “conducting reconnaissance and surveillance; locating or destroying C4I assets, transport nodes, and logistics depots; capturing or destroying airfields and ports; and destroying air defense facilities” (DoD Report on PRC Military Power , 2000).

In a Taiwan conflict, PLA special operations units would probably play a particularly important role in strategic reconnaissance and battle damage assessment (BDA) missions by supplementing China’s growing space-based and airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. For example, SOF units could provide targeting data for precision strikes against critical military targets such as Taiwan’s major airbases or other government and military facilities. They could also assess the effectiveness of attacks on such targets. Moreover, Chinese media reports indicate that SOF units would conduct strategic reconnaissance missions perhaps as far away as “several hundred or thousand kilometers,” which suggests that PLA SOF might also attempt to conduct such missions against U.S. military bases in the region [11]. Potential direct action missions would include attacks on Taiwan’s airbases, command and control facilities, ISR assets, and key logistics and transportation targets such as major highways and bridges. PLA SOF could also support the efforts of main forces by seizing control of ports or airfields to facilitate their arrival on the island.

Whether independently conducting strategic reconnaissance and direct action missions or supporting main forces, PLA SOF would almost certainly play an important role in almost any type of military operation against Taiwan, ranging from a limited, coercive use of force to a full-scale amphibious invasion. In particular, special operations might be an especially critical factor in a decapitation strategy scenario, in which the PLA would attempt to overthrow Taiwan’s democratically elected government by capturing or killing senior civilian officials and paralyze the military by degrading the ability of commanders to communicate with forces in the field [12]. As part of a decapitation strike, analysts in Taiwan have speculated that the PLA would launch missile strikes or carry out special operations attacks against the Presidential Palace in Taipei and other important national-level command and control facilities to eliminate pro-independence leaders and paralyze the armed forces (Taipei Times, October 5, 2004). In such a scenario, SOF units would probably infiltrate Taiwan long before the initiation of hostilities and then undertake missions, such as seizing key leadership facilities, attacking key communications nodes and supporting psychological and information operations. Although this would seem like a very high-risk strategy for the PLA, and one with a significant probability of failure, the threat of a potential decapitation strike cannot be ruled out entirely. Indeed, Taiwan has used scenarios involving PLA decapitation strikes in some of its recent military exercises (Taipei Times, April 13, 2005).


Chinese analysts have carefully studied the role of foreign SOF in military operations from the Falkland Islands War to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Based on China’s analysis of U.S., British, and other foreign special operations in recent years, Chinese strategists envision SOF playing a variety of roles—conducting strategic reconnaissance and direct action missions, participating in psychological and information operations and possibly supporting main forces—in future military conflicts. Although often implied rather than stated explicitly in Chinese writings, this almost certainly includes Taiwan contingencies. There are many uncertainties regarding actual Chinese special operations capabilities, but even if PLA SOF units are not on par with the world’s leading special operations units, they could nevertheless pose a serious threat to Taiwan—and perhaps to U.S. forces as well—in a variety of conflict scenarios, ranging from a coercive campaign intended to achieve limited political objectives to a full-scale invasion attempt. Preparing to counter the Chinese SOF threat thus represents a growing challenge for planners and policymakers in Taiwan and the United States.


1. For an excellent overview of the organizational history of Chinese special forces, which also discusses the PLAN Marines, PLAAF airborne troops and the PAP’s special armed police units, see Qu Xiaohua, Liu Zhanyong, and Shi Jun, Achieving Victory through Surprise: Special Warfare [Chuqi zhisheng: tezhong zhan], Hebei, China: Hebei Science and Technology Press, 2000.

2. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2000, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, June 2000, from hereinafter referred to in-text as “DoD Report on PRC Military Power, 2000.”

3. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 21.

4. Wang Houqing and Zhang Xingye, ed., The Science of Campaigns [Zhanyixue], Beijing, China: National Defense University Press, 2000, pp. 213-214.

5. Gu Fengshan, “The ‘Shadow War’ Takes the ‘Stage,'” (‘Yingzi zhanzheng’ zouxiang ‘qiantai’) Military Salon (Junshi Shalong), September 14, 2004, available online at

6. Feng Lang, “Scanning the World’s Counterterrorism Special Forces Units,” (Saomiao shijie fankongbu tezhong budui), China Militia (Zhongguo Minbing), 2:209 (2002),

7. Wang and Zhang, ed., The Science of Campaigns. The authors describe special warfare as a form of “precision” (jingque) attack that is carried out by small groups of highly trained operators.

8. Ibid., pp. 214-216.

9. Ibid., pp. 214-216.

10. Ibid., pp. 216-218.

11. “Walking into Special Forces’ Drill Ground,” Shanghai Liberation Daily [Shanghai Jiefang Ribao], May 30, 2001, in FBIS.

12. Jui-Kuang Lee, “Year 2005-2010: Evaluation of China’s Implementation of Decapitation Warfare Against Taiwan,” Taiwan Defense Affairs (Guofang zhengce pinglun), 4:3 (Spring 2004).