Planned Obsolescence: The Strategic Support Force In Memoriam (2015-2024)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 9

The shoulder emblem of the now-disbanded Strategic Support Force (Source: Wikipedia)

Executive Summary:

  • The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force likely was designed principally as a transitional structure meant to provide a home for disparate space, cyber, and informatization forces until their force structure could be developed enough to stand as independent branches.
  • The successor branches of the SSF, the new Space Force, Cyber Force, and Information Support Force, likely maintain the units, capabilities, and mission areas previously held under the SSF.
  • These branches can be best understood as rough PLA equivalents to US functional combatant commands, non-geographically defined joint-force structures intended to support services and military theaters by providing critical capabilities and operations in strategic domains of warfare.
  • The creation of the branches also has the benefit of bringing critical resources and capabilities under the direct oversight of the Central Military Commission. This design feature is likely motivated by a desire to have greater control and more closely shape broader PLA modernization. It is in part also a response to controversies and international incidents associated with the SSF’s current leadership.

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.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is evolving toward a “triple matrix” structure of four domain-focused services, four strategic/functional forces, and five regionally-focused theater commands (163, April 20). The SSF was designed with the possibility that it could be a transitional rather than permanent force structure, serving a practical purpose for launching and shaping broader military reforms, even if it failed to enable enduring synergies between the different forms of information support and warfare and their respective forces. As a holding entity, the way that the SSF consolidated key strategic capabilities and removed them from the former General Staff and General Armament Departments served a dual purpose. On one hand, it reduced the relative influence of the PLA Army within the broader national security state. On the other, it facilitated the eventual incorporation of their joint-force functions into an expanded Central Military Commission (CMC) structure. The SSF provided a place to house military elements critical for joint operations and modern warfighting at a time when no other obvious home or cohesive, pre-existing organizational structure existed. It also functioned as an “incubator” to mature and build up the aerospace, cyber, and information forces (163, April 20).

The Transitional Structure of the SSF

Peculiarities evident at the SSF’s creation indicated that it was intended to be a transitional structure. These include a compressed grade structure, the SSF’s unique status among services and theaters, and the largely independent nature of the aerospace and cyber forces.

Compressed Grade Structure

From the start, the SSF’s grade structure exhibited irregularities that were never resolved. Its staff department, ostensibly responsible for operations, existed at the same grade as the Space Systems Department (SSD; 航天系统部) and the Network Systems Department (NSD; 网络系统部), the respective headquarters for the aerospace and cyber forces. This limited the degree of operational control the SSF’s staff department could exert over the two main subordinate branches of the SSF. At the time, it was reasoned that the grade status of the SSF itself (Military Theater-grade) and its highest grade units, the former General Armament Department space bases (Corps Leader-grade) necessitated that the SSD must have a Deputy Military Theater-grade—thus making it equivalent with the SSF’s staff department. An equivalent headquarters for the NSD was therefore later created for the sake of parity, but the lack of any organization that could serve in Corps Leader-grade left a “gap” in its initial organizational structure. (See the chart below for grade analysis of the SSF in its 2015-2017 incarnation).

Unique Status Among Services and Theaters

The SSF maintained a unique status among services and the newly created Military Theaters when it was created in 2015, one it would share with the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF; 中国人民解放军联勤保障部队) upon the latter’s establishment in September 2016. The military reforms were guided by the new command and organizational logic of “the CMC leads, theaters fight, and services build (军委管总, 战区主战, 军种主建)” (PLA Daily, February 26, 2019). This established a dual-command structure not dissimilar to that of the United States, where services are tasked to “man, train, and equip” while combatant commands conduct operations. Neither the SSF or the JLSF ever clearly fit into this paradigm, both resembling (or being described as, in the former case) military services and integrating joint personnel within their units. The SSF also appeared to maintain responsibility for operations similar to theater commands. These outliers ran counter to the clear division the CMC intended to make. Joint personnel notwithstanding, the SSF seemed to straddle the line between operations and force construction in a way that resembled the responsibilities assigned to services prior to the reforms.

Largely Independent Aerospace and Cyber Forces

The expected synergies between the aerospace force and cyber force failed to materialize. Although operational interactions between the forces remain opaque and thus difficult to characterize with certainty, each force remained largely independent organizationally. Though a mid-level Corps and Deputy Corps Leader-grade structure for the Cyber Force materialized in time (filling the “gap” mentioned above), the SSF does not appear to have ever created subordinate bases or mid-level structures at the actual grade where aerospace and cyber forces were intended to work together operationally—something one would expect if operational synergies were to be seriously attempted. The lack of cohesion between the two branches of the SSF during this era appeared to be a missed opportunity to fulfill the PLA’s stated goals of defending the interests of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) across a cohesive “strategic frontier” of space, cyberspace, and the far seas (PLA Daily, January 15, 2023). Instead, the SSF reconstituted these forces in a siloed fashion, a choice that is being maintained and further emphasized under their new arrangement.

These issues were exacerbated over time, raising the likelihood that they were intended as “features” rather than “bugs” of the SSF’s purpose and organizational design. The PLA’s “below the neck (脖子以下)” reforms from 2017 would have been an opportune moment to shift or change grade structures to alleviate the “compressed” nature of the SSF as an organization (NewsChina, February 24, 2017). Instead, the SSF underwent a second “mini reorganization,” which largely built out and further matured the force structure of the SSF’s aerospace and cyber branches by creating or designating a number of new joint-force units under its Military Unit Cover Designator range (32001-32099). [1] At this time, units belonging to the former General Staff Department’s Informatization Department (through the Information Support Base and its subordinate units) were incorporated into the SSF, [2] and later apparently reorganized into an “Information Technology Force (信息技术部队)” (Sina News, June 21, 2018). This latter organization continued to operate as recently as March 2024 per civilian recruitment drives at major Chinese universities (Weixin, March 5, 2023). Despite clear potential synergies and overlap between the aerospace and cyber forces, this information technology support force was kept as a largely independent, quasi “third branch” of the SSF (MOD, April 20).

The CMC’s original intent may have been to use the SSF as a temporary “holding company.” In this way, it would consolidate disparate aerospace, cyber, and informatization support units, each within their respective silos, in order to expand and mature their force structure over time. The expectation would have been that they could later operate as standalone independent “branches,” akin to the JLSF. In this regard, more painful possible reform paths that would have resolved grade issues, grade imbalances between branches, and synergy between forces were likely judged to be irrelevant since they would be overcome in time (163, October 19, 2023). The approach the PLA took also had the advantage of letting the CMC maintain a degree of oversight and control over critical elements underpinning joint operations and force modernization. This enabled the CMC to better wield its institutional power as a cudgel for control, reform, and force-shaping.

Figure 1: A grade analysis of the SSF in its 2015-2017 organizational structure.

Force Composition and Mission Focus of the New Military Branches

It remains to be seen how the overarching missions of the SSF will be distributed across the three branches that have taken its place. Despite their relative independence, the aerospace, cyber, and information support forces under the SSF did have meaningful overlap between their respective missions, particularly with respect to intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and space-based information support. The units and capabilities they have each inherited can guide an initial assessment of their respective missions in their new status as “forces,” but that approach is a stopgap at best. If the SSF was always intended as a transitional structure and the three new joint forces were always the intended result, however, one would expect that their force structure and existing mission parameters would remain largely the same.

  • PLA Aerospace Force (军事航天部队): The aerospace force will likely maintain its existing missions, units, and capabilities. These include ground-based space surveillance; satellite telemetry, tracking, and control; space launches; manned spaceflight; space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and ground and space-based kinetic anti-satellite capabilities. This branch also likely inherited the survey, mapping, and navigation stations of the former General Staff Department, newly reorganized since the 2017–2019 “mini reorganization” into the former space system department’s structure.
  • PLA Cyberspace Force (网络空间部队): The cyber force is likely to continue its principal mission of information warfare. This includes cyber reconnaissance, cyber espionage, offensive cyber operations and operational preparation of the battlespace, and strategic electronic warfare (including non-kinetic anti-satellite measures). An open question is whether it will continue to maintain the psychological warfare mission under the 311 Base, which is focused on psychological warfare measures against Taiwan. The 311 Base has always been an outlier in analysis of SSF structure and mission organization, sharing neither obvious mission synergy with its cyber and electronic warfare counterparts nor their common origin under the former General Staff Department Third and Fourth Departments. [3] Furthermore, the Base’s public visibility relative to the PLA’s other psychological warfare assets has made it difficult to judge whether it is reflective of the arrangement of the PLA’s broader capabilities in this domain, or an outlier.
  • PLA Information Support Force (信息支援部队): The information support force is composed of the former General Staff Department Informatization Department—reorganized into the SSF in the 2017-2019 “mini reorganization”—that was largely integrated wholesale under the Information Support Base and its subordinate units. These units and capabilities include the Information Support Base and its subordinate units. This force likely focuses exclusively on “informatization” and “information support” (i.e. communications facilitation) rather than the more offensive and intelligence-related capabilities associated with information warfare. Its mission likely includes the maintenance of military networks, strategic communications and backbone infrastructure, management of communication satellites, cyber defense, cybersecurity, and information security for military communications, and strategic spectrum allocation and management.

Rationale and Organizational Logics of the New Military Forces

From an organizational management perspective, the CMC has further flattened out the overall structure of the PLA. It now directly oversees four services, five joint-force military theaters, and four joint-force forces/branches. This creates a complex matrix structure that expands the previous maxim of “CMC leads, services build, theaters fight” (ChinaNews, November 26, 2015). It may now be more appropriate to say that “CMC leads, theaters fight, services build, and forces/branches support.” This is a new paradigm whereby services are responsible for force construction, theaters are responsible for joint-force operations in geographic areas of responsibility, and forces/branches are responsible for strategic-level support through both the provisioning of vital services and capabilities and by conducting operations in critical domains of warfare.

The new branches may be understood as the PLA’s answer to the functional combatant commands of the US military. Unlike geographic combatant commands (e.g. US Indo-Pacific Command or Central Command) which operate in delineated geographic areas of responsibility, functional combatant commands (COCOMs) operate across geographic or regional boundaries and provide unique capabilities to both the geographic combatant commands and the military services.

Political and organizational factors could also be at play in the creation of the new forces/branches. This is on top of the strictly military and operational advantages the new reorganization promises. Flattening the whole of the PLA into a triple-matrix, more horizontal structure of services, forces/branches, and theaters has the advantage of creating barriers to the formation of power centers within the force. Furthermore, the subordination of logistics, aerospace capabilities, cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, and communications and networking directly under the CMC means it will directly control the most fundamental resources for any service and military theater. Practically speaking, this is a useful measure for ensuring that the allocation of those resources is driven by operational need (from the CMC’s point of view) rather than parochialism or favoritism (PLA Daily, November 10, 2021). It will therefore be in line with the PLA’s long-term strategic objectives of force modernization, development, and joint operations. Many of these functions underpin and encourage the type of joint-force environment (via communications, networking, intelligence sharing, etc.) that the CMC is more broadly looking to create (MOD, January 5, 2023). As with the SSF, these forces/branches can be used as an effective force-shaping tool by the central leadership in the long-term development and modernization of the PLA.

Timing of Dissolution and Reorganization

It is unclear why the reorganization is happening now if it has been on the cards since the SSF’s creation. It is true that the CMC would have faced significant difficulties if it had attempted to establish these branches in 2015. The dispersed units that the SSF consolidated under the SSD and NSD had no preexisting cohesive structure that would resemble a “force” or “branch” as such. In the case of cyber and electronic warfare, the major gaps in its command and grade structure could not have been resolved easily.

The “mini reorganization” undertaken by the SSF from 2017 to 2019 is in retrospect a benchmark date. It was during that period that what would become the new Information Support Force was first integrated (or at least first acknowledged as being integrated from our outside perspective) into the SSF. The intervening five to seven years may have been necessary for this new force to reach the necessary maturity, and for the establishment of mid-level joint-force units (overseeing the previously inherited units from GAD and GSD) to be routinized and normalized across the force.

Another possibility is that a series of internal controversies and international incidents caused the CMC and Xi Jinping to lose faith and trust in the SSF’s leadership. This is not mutually exclusive with the organizationally focused explanation. In 2023 alone, the SSF Commander Lt. General Ju Qiansheng (巨乾生) and Minister of Defense Li Shangfu (李尚福), the former SSF Chief of Staff, reportedly came under investigation for “corrupt procurement” by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (see China Brief, September 20, 2023); the US Air Force was forced to shoot down a PRC spy balloon erroneously entering US airspace, and Microsoft revealed widespread PRC intrusions into US critical infrastructure that are suspected to originate from the PLA (Microsoft Threat Intelligence, September 2023). Whatever plans may have already been underway for the SSF’s dissolution, these incidents from the last year likely served to accelerate them, if not prompt them.


It is too soon to say what the latest developments entail for the PLA’s ability to fight and win wars. It is clear, however, that the PLA will place a heavier emphasis on direct control of strategic forces from now on. Whether this makes the PLA more effective in the long run will depend on one’s assessment of its current problems. If, as the CMC seems to think, the primary current challenge the PLA faces is an excess of bureaucracy and layers of command preventing decisive action by leadership, this new change is likely to be a net positive for combat effectiveness. Alternatively, if the PLA’s effectiveness hinges on a cultivation of bottom-up initiative and dynamic action, as espoused by the US military, the increased ease of “skip echelon” command from the top down that the PLA is pursuing (both through reorganization, and through technological innovations like the Integrated Command Platform) may paradoxically be at cross purposes with maximizing combat effectiveness. We are still in the early days of this new era of the PLA’s force structure. The outcome remains an open question.


[1] 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,

[2] J. Michael Dahm, Testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, p. 14-15,

[3] John Costello and Joe McReynolds, China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for a New Era, (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2018), p. 17