PLA Special Operations: Forces, Command, Training and Future Direction

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 16

Figure 1: Notional PLA SOF Unit Organization

This is the first of two articles on PLA Special Operations Forces (SOF). The second article will explore SOF combat missions and potential for missions abroad.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) considers special operations forces a new type of operational force that can act as a force multiplier on the modern battlefield. Each service as well as the Second Artillery Force have subordinate special forces to conduct special reconnaissance and direct action missions, although those subordinate to the ground forces by far are the largest. Compared to conventional forces, special operations forces offer less risk and cost as a means to achieve limited military, political, or diplomatic objectives. [1] As China extends its reach, the PLA’s expanding and modernizing SOF units will become an important component supporting the expanding global missions expounded in the recent Defense White Paper (State Council Information Office, May 26). The PLA has closely studied historical and recent foreign special forces operations and modernization, including those in the United States, Israel, United Kingdom, Germany and Russia, in developing their own special forces doctrine, equipment and training requirements. This article examines PLA special operations forces, command and planning, training, as well as future developments.


The PLA divides the development of their special operational forces into three distinct periods. The first period was from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. This is considered a germination period for PLA SOF operations. Though predating the designation of special warfare units, the PLA considers the reconnaissance, harassment and sabotage operations of small guerilla units as characteristic of SOF operations. The PLA drew on this embryonic period to provide experience for later SOF development. The period from the early 1950s to the late 1980s is considered a formative period. The 1960s through the early 1980s saw the establishment of reconnaissance troops with SOF characteristics. The reconnaissance battalions and their training at this time are viewed as an important stage supporting the later development of SOF units. Group Armies and maneuver divisions have subordinate reconnaissance battalions (China Military Online, March 10). SOF are more highly trained and equipped, and would be assigned high-priority strategic or operational missions, probably at greater depths than reconnaissance battalions. The final phase, in the late 1980s, began with preparations by the PLA to establish SOF units. Preparations included establishing the theoretical basis for SOF doctrine and operations, study of foreign special forces, and formulation of specialized training programs. [2]

Force Structure and Organization

The PLA Navy (PLAN) South Sea Fleet and two Marine brigades have subordinate SOF units, as does the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) 15th Airborne Army and Second Artillery Force (SAF). The PLA has been expanding special operations forces subordinate to select Group Armies from groups to brigades (China Brief, May 1). Most of the Group Armies with SOF brigades/regiments also contain Army Aviation units to support SOF insertion into the enemy’s rear area.

Special Operations Groups With Army Aviation Support

Military Region/ Group Army

Special Operations Group

Army Aviation Component


Unidentified Regiment

9th Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

Unidentified Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

7th Regiment


Unidentified Brigade

5th Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

10th Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

6th Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

2nd Brigade


Unidentified Brigade

Unidentified Regiment

Group Armies without SOF brigades might have subordinate SOF fendui (likely battalion-sized units). Group Armies containing SOF and Army Aviation units are higher priority formations indicating important wartime missions, and those Group Armies with neither SOF nor Army Aviation brigades/regiments are possible candidates for demobilization during the current round of military reforms. Ground force maneuver units contain SOF units, probably company size detachments within brigades and regiments. It is likely that within an SOF brigade, subunits are specialized (see Figure 1). However, soldiers are cross trained to conduct multiple types of missions.

Special Operations Forces Roles and Operations

The PLA stresses that SOF units are valuable, elite, highly trained, relatively few in number and are not easily replaced. Doctrine, therefore, emphasizes that SOF be employed only for high priority strategic and operational missions that cannot be accomplished by conventional forces or weapons systems. As a force multiplier, the PLA will employ SOF units in support of theater and campaign objectives in the main operational direction and during the critical operational phase. The PLA considers SOF units’ primary mission as reconnaissance, although direct action missions are also important (People’s Daily Online, February 16; China Military Online, April 28, 2014). [3] Tactical-level SOF detachments subordinate to maneuver units support offensive combat by assaulting key enemy objectives, such as enemy strong points, that are critical to the success of the maneuver unit’s operation. They also provide guidance for firepower support. The PLA is beginning to provide more specialized training to expand the capabilities of these tactical units, including direct-action missions (PLA Daily, June 25).

SOF troops are formed into groups, generally 3 to 15 soldiers. Small groups conduct reconnaissance missions or provide guidance for precision strikes, while larger groups perform direct-action missions. Multiple SOF groups, each with a specialized assignment, execute larger direct-action missions; for example one or more assault groups attacks an objective from different directions, supported by a firepower group, blocking or ambush group, UAV group, and reserve group based on the mission requirements and the enemy situation. Groups can comprise a mix of personnel, including from different military services, with varied skills and equipment depending on mission requirements. Groups are capable of independent operations, and have some redundancy in skilled personnel and equipment to ensure completion of a mission despite losses. Groups are composed primarily of combatants, and most personnel will be officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO). SOF groups have limited sustainment capabilities, are vulnerable, and can operate for a relatively short time until they require resupply or exfiltration. They will usually complete the combat phase of a direct action mission in no more than one to two hours, quickly followed by withdrawal of the force or reinforcement and resupply. [4]

An SOF group could infiltrate its operational area many days in advance. Delivery under concealment of night or bad weather is advocated, as well as use of feints to provide cover for SOF insertions. Since most SOF missions would be located deep in the enemy rear area, air or sea insertion is more likely. The PLA also notes that SOF personnel could potentially masquerade as businessmen or tourists to get close to a target. [5]

Command and Planning

The PLA does not have a Special Operations Command as does the U.S. military, although the PLA does stress unified command for SOF units operating in a decentralized manner across the battlespace. The PLA notes that most countries provide high-level, centralized and unified command of SOF units and operations. PLA SOF units are primarily responsible for special reconnaissance and intelligence, with additional responsibilities for direct action missions, differentiating them from U.S. special forces. PLA SOF units in combat will operate under theater or campaign command. Planning, while detailed, will focus on mission oriented objectives, with the group commander accomplishing the assigned mission as the situation warrants, as well as displaying initiative to seize battlefield opportunities against high-value targets. [6]

Command and coordination during SOF operations require flexibility and rapid decision making. The command-and-control center in the main command post formulates the operational plan, with sub-plans of operational action that includes a special operations action plan. The special operations action plan, based on higher-level command intent, designates the operational area, organization of command-and-communications methods, composition of the force, required weapons and equipment, operational phases, division of responsibilities between groups, support, method of delivery and withdrawal, coordination plan with other forces, preparations for the mission, and timeframe for completion of the mission. Detailed planning requires accurate intelligence on the target, the surrounding environment, and locations of enemy forces. Determinations are reported to superior commands for approval. When time permits, simulations or even exercises are conducted to improve planning. As a conflict approaches, SOF units complete pre-battle preparations and enter a standby status awaiting orders to implement pre-war operational plans or await adjustments to the plans. The nature and rapid pace of SOF operations on a dynamic battlefield will likely lead to changes in plans. If reversals are experienced during combat operations, quick decisions are required to reduce losses, regain the initiative, change the mission objectives, or immediately withdraw the force if, possible, to preserve it for subsequent missions. [7]

Theater joint operations command posts contain an Intelligence Center and could include a Special Operations Center as well. It is likely that both would support the development of the special operations action plan, and support command and coordination of the mission. Special reconnaissance groups likely report back through the Intelligence Center to ensure fusion of intelligence reporting and analysis, and to update the general situation map providing a common operating picture (COP) to command posts. [8]


The PLA has studied foreign special forces and U.S. Ranger training, and seeks new training innovations to improve SOF-integrated training bases. PLA SOF have adopted a comprehensive approach to their training program featuring individual combat skills, strength and fitness, and psychological training, as well as group combat training. Training is designed to push troops to a breaking point, with training accidents and casualties an accepted risk of the training requirements to forge special forces personnel who can operate under immense psychological and physical stress during combat missions. Training also employs simulations and terrain that resembles actual mission areas. After selection of personnel, SOF training employs a building block approach moving from basic to specialized, individual to group, and unit combined arms to coordination training with other forces and services. Training is ultimately focused on team building. [9]

SOF units train with foreign special forces and participate in international competition. This provides a chance to interact and gain knowledge of foreign special forces, equipment, training and tactics (China Military Online, March 3; China Military Online, April 27).

Versatility is also stressed with groups training in different environments and terrain. Troops receive technical and tactical training, mastering a variety of light and heavy weapons to include artillery, reconnaissance and communications equipment, as well as foreign systems. In advanced stages, SOF groups train with joint forces. Planning, command, and coordination training is part of the comprehensive training to cultivate troops with diversified skills and capabilities to ensure that a mission is not jeopardized by the loss of key individuals. [10]

SOF training includes physical endurance training that stresses physical as well as psychological limits of the troops. This training is conducted in varied terrain and climate, and includes cross-country, obstacle, climbing, swimming, diving, skiing, parachute and strength training. Field survival training teaches basic survival skills, rescue, medical, resistance, escape and evasion, camouflage, and protective measures. Training includes marksmanship and use of cold weapons (weapons other than firearms or explosives), unarmed combat, use of explosives, infiltration methods, and reconnaissance training that includes interrogation and high-tech surveillance equipment. Special tactical training emphasizes reconnaissance and combined-arms tactics to meet the different SOF combat mission requirements, operate as a team, and coordinate with other SOF groups and conventional forces. Other training includes basic foreign language training as well as knowledge of foreign countries and ethnic groups specific to an SOF unit’s mission area. [11]

SOF training bases include specialized facilities to support realistic mission training. When possible, SOF will conduct thorough mission training with terrain and facilities that simulate real targets to test plans, force composition, and improve combat capabilities. [12]

Future Developments

Numerous PLA publications have stated that new type operational forces such as special operations will continue to increase, continue to receive priority in modernization resources, and experience expanding and diversified missions in the future. It is likely that all group armies and fleets will establish subordinate SOF brigades. The PLA will need to develop specialized aircraft and helicopters, high speed stealth boats, and submersible vehicles to support insertions at greater ranges. Reports of also exist of a mini-submarine, a variant of the Type 093 class, under construction, that could support SOF infiltration (Taipei Times, July 1;, March 17). Development of ships capable of carrying multiple helicopters will support potential overseas operations. SOF will deploy increasingly high-tech, light-weight, lethal and non-lethal weapons, surveillance equipment, and communications. The PLA is considering establishing a special forces research, development and procurement center to meet future SOF equipment needs. The PLA also plans to equip SOF with new technology weapons such as lasers, electromagnetic pulse emitters and incapacitating chemical compounds. PLA researchers also suggest expanding SOF missions into network and space warfare. The PLA intends to improve SOF command flexibility with enhanced situational awareness, operational coordination capabilities, decision making, and planning. Improvements in the command information and command automation systems can support these goals. Finally, the PLA intends to improve SOF training quality and develop specialized, high-tech training centers and bases. [13]


The PLA is expanding and modernizing its considerable SOF units, with each military service and the SAF containing SOF units. The PLA views SOF forces as key force multipliers that can conduct diverse missions in peacetime or war. Importantly, they believe that SOF forces can achieve diplomatic, political, and military objectives with precision, less risk and cost than employment of conventional forces, making SOF forces an important weapon available for achieving Beijing’s objectives in peace or war. The PLA will need to continue to improve training and modernization of the force with specialized equipment, particularly stealthy assets for air and sea infiltration, as well as develop global intelligence capabilities to fully realize the potential of this elite force.


1. Science of Campaigns, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 196.

2. SOSCS, Special Operations Science Course of Study (hereafter abbreviated as SOSCS) (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), pp. 36–38.

3. SOSCS, pp. 103-106.

4. SOSCS, pp. 100-106, 118 and 155.

5. SOSCS, pp. 46 and 109; Military Terms, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011), p. 880

6. Science of Campaigns, pp. 200-202

7. SOSCS, pp. 154-168

8. Joint Operations Command, (Shenyang: Baishan Press, 2010), pp. 50–53.

9. SOSCS, pp. 215-219; Military Terms, pp. 881-883.

10. SOSCS, pp. 219-220.

11. SOSCS, pp. 221-224.

12. SOSCS, pp. 224-227.

13. Taipei Times, July 1; SOSCS, pp. 45-49, 210 and 224.