PLA Special Operations Forces: Organizations, Missions and Training

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 9

PLA special operations forces. (Credit: Xinhua)

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) special operations forces (SOF) are considered among the “new type” units receiving priority for development (Information Office of the State Council, April 16, 2013). With their roots in pre-existing reconnaissance units, the first PLA SOF units were formed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War (Guangming Online, February 24, 2012). By the end of the 1990s, each of the seven military regions was assessed to command an Army SOF or special reconnaissance group (dadui) with about 1,000 personnel. [1] Over the following 15 years, these units were expanded, additional Army SOF units formed (including a few small units composed of women), and new SOF units established in the Navy, the Air Force and the Second Artillery (PLA Daily, January 30).

No national-level special operations headquarters has been created to oversee all SOF activities, and no dedicated fleet of strategic, special-mission SOF delivery and support aircraft or ships is known to exist. Instead of being considered national-level strategic assets, most, if not all PLA SOF units, are commanded by operational or tactical headquarters. Though small numbers of the most capable SOF units may be tasked with a limited number of strategic-level missions deep behind enemy lines, 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.

At present, the total number of SOF personnel is estimated to range from 20,000 to 30,000 personnel, or about one percent of the entire PLA. Chinese SOF units are composed of experienced officers and noncommissioned officers, but also are assigned new conscripts/recruits (i.e., privates) out of basic training and newly commissioned lieutenants just graduated from academies, including a Special Operations Academy in Guangzhou.


The Army is assessed to control nine SOF brigades (estimated with 2,000–3,000 personnel each) and two SOF regiments (up to 2,000 personnel each) assigned to army-level headquarters in nine group armies and two military districts. [2] Over roughly the last three years, all but one of the original seven Army SOF groups have been expanded to brigade size and assigned to group army headquarters: in the 38th, 21st, 26th, 31st, 42nd and 13th Group Armies. The one exception is the 39th Group Army’s SOF Regiment, which continues to be reported in the Chinese media as a regiment (PLA Daily, October 23, 2013). The Xinjiang Military District commands an SOF brigade, which recently was expanded from a group (PLA Daily, September 19, 2014). The Tibet Military District has a subordinate SOF regiment (PLA Daily, June 19, 2014). Recently, at least one former infantry division (in the 16th Group Army) and one infantry brigade (in the 12th Group Army) have been transformed into two new SOF brigades and remained subordinate to their group army headquarters (PLA Daily, January 6, 2014; CCTV-7, July 3, 2014. An unknown number of smaller SOF units (fendui, likely companies or platoons) have been formed in some infantry and armored divisions and brigades (PLA Daily, January 11; China News, August 26, 2014).

In total, half of the PLA’s 18 group armies and the two most sensitive military districts have organic SOF units (not including smaller SOF units found in some divisions and brigades). This percentage may rise as new SOF units are created or transformed from existing units or if existing group armies are disbanded in upcoming force reductions. At the same time, it seems likely that additional SOF companies or platoons will be formed in more divisions and brigades.

The Navy has an SOF regiment, located in Sanya, assigned to the South Sea Fleet (SSF) and smaller SOF units in each of its two Marine brigades, also in the SSF (PLA Daily, January 23, 2013; PLA Daily, June 26, 2014). Navy SOF personnel have deployed with every task force sent to the Gulf of Aden to conduct escort missions since 2008. The Air Force’s 15th Airborne Army has a subordinate SOF regiment, which includes the “Thor” Commando unit (PLA Daily, January 27). The Second Artillery has an SOF unit (likely a group or regiment) that in peacetime serves primarily as a Blue Force unit in exercises (PLA Daily, February 12, 2014).

Army SOF units are supported mainly by Army Aviation (helicopter) units, amounting to about 710 airframes for the entire Army. [3] Amphibious ship and helicopter units in the Navy support Navy and Marine SOF units. Air Force SOF units have greater access to the limited number of long-range transport aircraft in the PLA for parachute operations than the other services. All parachute-qualified personnel appear to receive their initial training on Y-5 biplanes, which also may be used for SOF insertion missions.

SOF units are equipped with the most modern weapons and equipment in the PLA for experimentation and operations, including advanced electronics and communications, unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision and target designators as well as an array of light vehicles, including ultra-light aircraft. Many SOF units are described as “triphibious,” capable of being inserted by air, land and sea (surface and subsurface).


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. [4] Of note, despite its early history as a guerilla organization, the PLA does not include the execution or support of protracted, unconventional warfare behind enemy lines among the types of campaigns the PLA may be assigned.

Though elements within PLA SOF units are capable of executing anti-terrorist missions (hostage rescue, in particular), they likely would be employed in such tasks outside of China. Inside China, the Chinese civilian police or People’s Armed Police take the lead in domestic anti-terrorist operations (PLA Daily, January 16). For domestic security missions, such as seen during the 2008 Olympics games, the PLA mainly provides capabilities not found in the Ministry of Public Security police forces and People’s Armed Police, such as air defense and anti-chemical protection.

In operations against foreign enemies, most PLA SOF operations likely would be conducted to support tactical (division or brigade level) or operational (army or military region) commanders. Over the past decade, Army SOF units that previously were assessed to work for military region headquarters have been assigned to group armies, and most of the new SOF units that have been created are subordinate to army-level, division, or brigade headquarters, indicating that most PLA SOF missions are focused primarily at the operational and tactical levels of war. However, it is possible that small teams of the most experienced SOF personnel could be assigned to undertake a limited number of strategic level operations.

There are multiple reasons for this battlefield-level of focus. First, though PLA SOF units have numerous senior non-commissioned officers in their ranks, many SOF personnel are two-year conscripts and lieutenants on their first assignments. With so many relatively inexperienced personnel assigned, most units are organized and trained to operate in squads, platoons and companies. Second, PLA SOF units are limited in the depths they can be inserted on a land battlefield by a lack of long-range fixed and rotary wing transport aircraft, a shortfall shared by all of the PLA. On the other hand, many SOF units have underwater capabilities and could be delivered near a distant shore by military surface vessels or submarines or civilian craft. But the farther beyond PLA front lines they go, the less operational, logistics and real-time intelligence support is available. As such, they would be limited in their operations to what they could carry during insertion (unless pre-positioned caches were available).


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 (PLA Daily, April 30, 2014). Individuals and small units frequently demonstrate their skills in internal PLA and international special operations competitions, where they display their technical competence (Photo China, July 24, 2014). PLA SOF personnel and units have participated in numerous training exercises with foreign countries, including militaries from Russia, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia and Jordan. [5] They have also sent personnel for training in Israel, Turkey, Estonia and Venezuela (PLA Daily, March 19, 2014).

SOF units frequently are integrated into combined arms and joint training exercises in conjunction with conventional force maneuver and assault, often conducting reconnaissance, raids or sabotage behind enemy lines after helicopter insertion. The Queshan Combined Arms Training Base has been designated specifically for special operations training (PLA Daily, October 10, 2014). However, employment of SOF units is still considered in the exploratory phase, and some infantry or armored commanders have been judged not to have used them properly in training (Liaowang Dongfang Zhoukan, June 6, 2013).


PLA SOF units have grown substantially since their beginnings some 20 years ago and are likely to continue to receive priority for development. Though now they are mainly focused on battlefield operations in support of conventional units, they have capabilities that can be used for strategic missions, provided they can be inserted and supported at longer ranges.

Most foreign analysts assume Chinese SOF would be used in Taiwan or other contingency operations outside of China. Small teams of highly skilled and experienced personnel (the elite of the Chinese SOF) could use commercial transportation to infiltrate targets outside of China prior to hostilities provided that weapons and equipment were pre-positioned beforehand. Other select teams, with equipment, could be inserted covertly using selected military air or naval vessels. Such operations have a greater chance of success in Southeast Asia and East Asia where overseas Chinese populations are present. However, there is little publicly available evidence that PLA SOF units currently are organized or trained to conduct unconventional warfare activities outside of China behind enemy lines for extended periods of time.

PLA SOF units would be greatly aided if dedicated long-range transport and combat aircraft were developed to support their operations. If not available already, PLA SOF units must have access to detailed, real-time intelligence tailored to fit the needs of each individual mission. Though Chinese SOF personnel purport they do “not know rest, difficulty, suffering, hunger and fatigue,” most of these troops probably would prefer not to be sent on a one-way mission (People’s Daily, September 8, 2009).


  1. Dennis J. Blasko, “PLA Ground Forces: Moving Toward a Smaller, More Rapidly Deployable, Modern Combined Arms Force,” in The People’s Liberation Army as Organization, eds. James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N. D. Yang, Conference Proceedings published by RAND, 2002, p. 325.
  2. James Hackett (ed.), The Military Balance 2015, London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2015, pp. 238 and 244, holds a tenth SOF brigade subordinate to the 54th Group Army.
  3. James Hackett (ed.), The Military Balance 2015, p. 239.
  4. Zhang Yuliang (ed.), ??? [The Science of Military Campaigns] Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006, pp. 151 and 187–192; China News, March 10, 2014. The Science of Military Campaigns also includes special technical warfare, such as attacks on computer systems and other forms of electronic and psychological warfare, as a basic type of campaign special operations; however, other specialized units in the PLA, not SOF units, appear to have been assigned these actions as their primary mission.
  5. Dennis J. Blasko, “People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police Ground Exercises With Foreign Forces, 2002–2009,” in The PLA at Home and Abroad, eds. Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, June 2010, pp. 427–28.