The Strategic Support Force: Update and Overview

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 19

The Strategic Support Force is commanded by former Second Artillery Force Major General Gao Jin (高津).

It has been nearly a year since the first round of military reforms responsible for the creation of the Strategic Support Force (战略支援部队; SSF). Although media reports were initially forthcoming with information, references to the SSF quickly dropped off, leaving far more questions than answers. However, as the PLA has started a more serious and concrete implementation of the hard work of reforms, more details have gradually emerged. A year on, there is enough information available to enable a basic understanding of the Force’s structure, unit composition, and future direction. The SSF has become a force optimized for combat in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain that will enhance the PLA’s capability to fight and win future informatized wars.

Force Overview

It is important to note that, while the SSF is a unique product of the reforms, it is built from the familiar. The reforms have thus far employed a “bricks not clay” approach to reorganization, repurposing whole, existing institutions and reforming them into new organizations to align with new paradigms, presumably with more minute changes to follow. This is best seen in the reorganization of the former four general departments into the new Central Military Commission functional organs. [1] Following from this concept, the SSF appears to be wholly constructed from the operational units and organizations from the former general departments, particularly the General Staff Department (GSD), General Armament Department (GAD), and General Political Department (GPD) units responsible for space, cyber, and electronic warfare, the SSF’s main missions.

The force looks to be primarily designed around two operational imperatives. One, is peacetime-wartime integration (平战结合 or 平战一体). Previous operating concept would have required the PLA to transition to a wartime posture just prior to or shortly after the outbreak of war. For strategic-level information operations, in real terms this would require unprecedented coordination between GSD, GAD, GPD, and Military Region units across different echelons. The SSF simplifies this process dramatically, effectively organizing these units into operational groups under new domain-centric verticals as standard practice, optimized, like the new Military Theater Commands (战区), as a wartime structure.

Two, the SSF is intended to shift the PLA’s most strategic, informatized missions from a discipline-centric to domain-centric force structure. Previously, space, cyber, and electronic warfare units were organized according to their mission type—the disciplines of reconnaissance, attack, or defense—rather than their war-fighting domain. This is best seen in the cyber mission, for which espionage was handled by the 3PLA, while the attack elements were handled by the 4PLA. The central concept here is the idea of “integrated reconnaissance, attack, and defense” (侦攻防一体化), which requires that the intelligence, offensive, and defensive elements are integrated together to enable full-spectrum war-fighting in a particular domain. This new organizational construct is also intended to enable previously impossible levels of unified planning, force construction, and operations. [2]

Force Structure and Composition

Established on December 31, 2015, the Strategic Support Force is a Military Theater-grade (正战区级) or Deputy Military Theater-grade (副战区级) organization commanded by former Second Artillery Force Major General Gao Jin (高津). The political commissar is Major General Liu Fulian (刘福连) (Xinhua, January 1). Li Shangfu (李尚福), former director of the GAD Xichang Satellite Launch Center (西昌卫星发射中心; 27th Base) has been identified as a deputy commander of the SSF (Sohu, August 30). Rao Kaixun (饶开勋), former director of the 1PLA, is reportedly another deputy commander (The Paper, March 11; NPC.gov.cn). The SSF is responsible for the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions. Functionally and structurally, the SSF operates like the former Second Artillery Force (第二炮兵部队; PLASAF), which was similarly a budui that functioned like a service and consolidated strategic capabilities under the CMC (China Brief, February 8).

Under this leadership, the force appears to have a staff department, equipment department, political department, and, presumably, a logistics department. More operationally, the force appears to have headquarters components for its space and cyber forces, embodied in the Space Systems Department (航天系统部; SSF-SSD) and Network Systems Department (网络系统部; SSF-NSD), respectively. The SSF may create or already have an Electronic/Electromagnetic Systems Department (电子/电磁系统部; ESD) for its electronic warfare force. These departments may be subordinate to the staff department or, more likely, to SSF leadership directly, which would make them Corps Leader grade (正军级) or Deputy Corps Leader grade (副军级) organizations.

Space and Aerospace Mission

Of the known missions of the SSF, the space mission has been the best defined in the year since its creation. Space units are organized into the newly-established Space Systems Department. The former General Armament Department’s space mission forms the basis for the Space Systems Department, although the department also draws units and missions from the former General Staff Department. The SSD consolidates nearly every aspect of PLA space operations, including space launch, support, telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The current head of the SSD is unknown, though would likely come from the GAD’s space cadre.

Launch Facilities:

  English Name and Cover Designation Chinese Name
1 Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center / 20th Testing and Training Base (63600部队) 中国酒泉卫星发射中心 /第20试验训练基地
2 Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center / 25th Testing and Training Base (63710部队) 中国太原卫星发射中心 /第25试验训练基地
3 Xichang Satellite Launch Center / 27th Testing and Training Base (63790部队) 中国西昌卫星发射中心 /第27试验训练基地
4 Wenchang Aerospace Launch Site 文昌航天发射场
Sources: (1) PLA Daily, October 20; PLA Daily, November 11; (2) Zhejiang University, September 27 (3) Strategic Support, April 17; PLA Daily, December 12 (4) PLA Daily, May 8; PLA Daily, November 1

Space Telemetry, Tracking, & Control:

  English Name and Cover Designation Chinese Name
1 Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center 北京航天飞行控制中心
2 Xi’an Satellite Control Center / 26th Testing and Training Base (63750部队) 中国西安卫星测控中心 /第26试验训练基地
3 Telemetry, Tracking, and Control Stations

(e.g., Kashi station)

[喀什] 航天测控站
4 China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department

23rd Testing and Training Base

中国卫星海上测控部/第23试验训练基地
Sources: (1) Strategic Support, April 10; (2) Zhejiang University, September 27; Weinan Daily, July 30; (3) PLA Daily, May 3; (4) Phoenix, June 30; PLA Daily, March 11

The SSD has also incorporated certain units from the General Staff Department, though much fewer than from the GAD, which had comparatively greater number of units responsible for space mission. The Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (航天侦察局; ARB), responsible for aerospace ISR, has shifted to the SSF, based on personnel transfers, including that of Zhou Zhixin (周志鑫), head of the ARB (PLA Daily, April 9). The Satellite Main Station (卫星通信总站; SMS) from the former GSD Informatization Department (总参信息化部; INFOD) has also been incorporated into the SSF (Dangjian.people.com, February 29). [3]

English Name and Cover Designation Chinese Name
Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB) 61646部队 航天侦察局
Satellite Main Station (SMS) 61096部队* 卫星总站
Sources: PLA Daily, April 9; Dangjian.people.com, February 29; CNKI.

* Both the ARB and Satellite Main Station have been split off from their former parent units, which have become new bureaus under the General Staff Department’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department (联合参谋部; JSD). The GSD 2PLA has become the new JSD Intelligence Bureau (情报局; JSD-IB) and the GSD INFOD has become the new JSD Information Communications Bureau (信息通信局; JSD-CIB).

Although a more comprehensive analysis of where the former General Armament Departments operational and R&D units have moved is beyond the scope of this report, it is worth noting that a number of these organizations that fall outside of the space mission have also moved to the SSF. Some serve administrative or support functions, such as the GAD 306th Hospital, which was transferred from the GAD in July 2016, while others are more germane to the SSF’s mission (Sohu. July 30). Such R&D-focused institutes may be housed in the SSD or alternatively could have been transferred to the SSF’s Equipment Department, or some equivalent.

  English Name and Cover Designation Chinese Name
1 China Nuclear Test Base / 21st Experimental and Training Base 63650部队* 中国核试验基地/第21试验训练基地
2 Aerospace Research and Development Center 航天研发中心
3 Project Design Research Center 工程设计研究所
Sources: (1) PLA Daily, January 30; (2) CTTIC, October 17; Zhejiang University, September 27; (3) CTTIC, October 17; Zhejiang University, September 27

*Military researchers affiliated with the GAD 21st Test Base have published journal articles discussing directed energy weapons (DEW), which suggests that this base may have a mission to conduct research into operational uses of lasers or other directed-energy weapons. This aligns with the Strategic Support Forces mission to be a “new-type” (新型) force responsible for “new-type” capabilities, which DEWs have traditionally been characterized as.

There are key remaining questions regarding the SSF’s space mission. For one, it remains unclear whether the Space Systems Department will incorporate kinetic anti-satellite capabilities, such as direct-ascent weapons, or those will remain with the successor to the form PLASAF, the PLA Rocket Force (解放军火箭军; PLARF). It is also unclear whether the SSD will incorporate operational units responsible for hydrology, meteorology, mapping, and navigation, although there are initial indications that some of these units are now part of the SSF (Strategic Support, December 4). These units were previously under the GSD First Department (总参一部; 1PLA; also known as the Operations Department), Survey and Mapping Bureau (总参测绘导航局; SMB). The 1PLA is now reorganized as the JSD Operations Bureau (作战局; JSD-OB) under the Joint Staff Department, with the new Battlefield Environmental Support Bureau (战场环境保障局; JSD-BESB) taking the place of the former Survey and Mapping Bureau (The Paper, February 19).

Cyber Mission

Although the SSF’s cyber mission has thus far been far less defined than its space mission, the details and structure are becoming progressively clearer. The Strategic Support Force’s cyber forces appear to be organized under the newly-established SSF Network Systems Department (网络系统部; SSF-NSD). The former General Staff Department Third Department (总参三部; 3PLA) appears to be the central component around which the NSD is organized. The 3PLA is the Chinese military’s premiere cyber espionage organization, and their preeminence in this domain makes them a natural fit as the primary “tentpole” for the SSF’s cyber force. Although the leadership of the NSD is unknown, Zheng Junjie (郑俊杰), former head of the 3PLA, may have moved over, but this cannot yet be independently confirmed. This would put him in contention as a potential Commander of the NSD.

Multiple organizations subordinate to or affiliated with the former 3PLA have moved over to the Strategic Support Force. Most noteworthy, the GSD 56th and 58th Research Institutes, both formerly under the 3PLA, have moved to the Network Systems Department (yz.chsi.com.cn, yz.chsi.com.cn). The GSD 56th and 58th Research Institutes previously reported directly to 3PLA headquarters, and were tasked with military research, development, testing, and acquisition (RDT&A) in support of 3PLA’s mission. [4] Additionally, a growing number of public records link former 3PLA units and facilities—in particular, former Technical Reconnaissance Bureau’s and the 3PLA headquarters itself—to the SSF (e.g., weain.mil.cn). These moves are reliable indicators not only that the core functions of 3PLA have moved, including its administrative responsibilities but also that the Network Systems Department itself may be synonymous with the 3PLA, essentially acting as a renamed, reorganized version of the former department. [5]

Other aspects of cyber warfare, including cyber-attack and cyber defense, should be expected to shift into the NSD, yet there have been no indicators of this so far. Computer network attack (CNA) has traditionally been handled by the GSD Fourth Department (4PLA) and the computer network defense (CND) mission has been handled by the GSD Informatization Department. While elements of both organizations have moved to the SSF, there is no indication that their cyber missions have yet been tasked specifically to the NSD. [6] It is likely that these missions will move to the NSD within the coming few years to align with the principles around which the SSF is organized and to fulfill the concept of “integrated cyber-attack, defense, and reconnaissance.” [7]

Although cyber constitutes one of its primary missions, the 3PLA is also responsible for traditional signals and communications intelligence, which doesn’t fit squarely into the Network Systems Department. If the Network Systems Department is solely focused on cyber warfare, as its name implies, then the traditional signals intelligence mission of the nation-wide network of TRB’s would need to find a new home. This a substantial portion of the 3PLA’s personnel, facilities, and organizational mass. Currently, it is unclear if the Central Military Commission will split this mission away from the 3PLA, but given the trajectory of the reforms this seems likely.

Electronic Warfare Mission

At this point, the least amount of information is known or can be confirmed about the status of the SSF’s electronic warfare (EW) mission. The General Staff Department Fourth Department (总参四部; 4PLA), also known as the Electronic Countermeasure and Radar Department (电子对抗与雷达部), has been responsible for strategic-level, or national level, electronic warfare for the PLA. [8] In contrast to the space and cyber missions, which have been scattered across several different in the general departments, the electronic warfare mission had been solely under the remit of the 4PLA. Given these facts, it is likely the 4PLA will have a strong, central role in the electronic warfare mission under the SSF—perhaps even forming a separate systems department of its own—though so far the extent of the 4PLA’s move, though assumed, is unclear.

In recent months, there have been some preliminary indicators that suggest portions of the 4PLA have been transferred. The 54th Research Institute, formerly subordinate to the 4PLA, appears to have moved to the SSF, though it is not clear under what administrative structure. (CNITSEC; bjgtz.com, radars.ie.ac.cn; PLA Daily, March 11). Previously, the GSD 54th RI reported directly to 4PLA headquarters, and much like the 56th and 58th Research Institutes for the 3PLA, its move is a strong indicator that core components of the 4PLA now report to the Strategic Support Force. The fate of the 4PLA’s operational units, alternatively, have been assumed to move but their status is still unconfirmed; however, their primacy in strategic electronic warfare makes their move to the SSF a near-certainty.

Speculatively, the SSF may create an equivalent Electronic or Electromagnetic Systems Department, analogous to the Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department, to oversee a force to fight in the electromagnetic domain. Presumably, the 4PLA would serve as the central “tentpole” around which the rest of the force would be formed. This would mean that each of the SSF’s confirmed missions of space, cyber, and electronic warfare would have a main administrative and operational headquarters under the SSF, responsible for warfighting in their respective domains.

This potential structure could answer the question as to the status of the 3PLA’s traditional signals intelligence mission, if it is eventually split off from the Network Systems Department. A notional Electromagnetic Systems Department would be a natural home for the 3PLA’s technical reconnaissance mission, which would provide the both the domain reconnaissance component supporting the 4PLA’s electronic warfare mission as well as the critical intelligence component for the PLA’s expanding strategic missions.

Informatization

The Informatization Department and its subordinate units do not appear to have moved to the Strategic Support Force as initially predicted, but rather seem to have remained largely within the Central Military Commission thus far (China Brief, February 8). The Informatization Department has been reorganized into the Information Communications Bureau (信息通信局; JSD-ICB) under the CMC’s Joint Staff Department. Its former research institute, the 61st Research Institute, has also remained within the CMC but moved to the CMC Equipment Development Department (Gqt.org.cn). [9]

Operationally, the CMC has appeared to have retained units for force-wide information support. The highest-echelon organization responsible for command and control, the Information Support Base (联合参谋信息保障基地; JSD-ISB) formerly under the Informatization Department, has remained under the CMC Joint Staff Department, presumable directly reporting to Information Communications Bureau (duxuan.cn). Before the reforms, all national-level informatization units and communications main stations reported directly to the ISB. It is unclear how many will still remain subordinate to the ISB. An overly cautious Central Military Commission, reluctant to give up too much control of information, may choose to keep a number of these informatized units under its direct purview.

The structure and shape of this CMC informatization corps is currently unknown. Speculatively, it is possible that the Central Military Commission may create a joint informatization force similar in structure and scope to the Joint Logistics Support Force (军委联合后勤保障部队; JLSF), a fusion of former General Logistics Department units and possibly logistics units from the other service branches (Sina, September 13). [10] Such a “Joint Information Support Force” (军委联合信息保障部队) would presumably be responsible for national-level, joint information support, command and control, information security, and intelligence dissemination.

At this point, it remains unclear whether and to what extent the SSF will incorporate an informatization or information support mission. Some informatization units are confirmed to have moved to the Strategic Support Force, but these could be the exception rather than the rule. Units responsible for elements of space information support, computer network defense, and spectrum sensing/management are expected to move over to corresponding missions in the Strategic Support Force, but there has been no confirmation in open sources thus far.

Conclusion

Thus far, the Central Military Commission has focused on making broad strokes and affecting change in larger, leading organizations first, in what the PLA is calling an “above the neck” (脖子以上) reform (81.cn; December 19). Such an approach minimizes disruptiveness of reforms and helps generate buy-in from leadership on deeper cuts that will undoubtedly take place in the future. Ultimately, this serves as a slow, incremental baseline on which future reforms can be built. For the Strategic Support Force, this has meant that the old siloed nature of space, cyber, and electronic warfare have been broken and reorganized into new verticals.

This alone, however, will not be enough. Although the organizational structure now employed by the SSF is a better representation of a domain-centric view of war fighting, some incongruences remains at lower levels. Elements of the former GSD’s cyber, space, and electronic warfare capabilities remain integrated within units responsible for other missions. To fully follow-through on the conceptual framework employed for the Strategic Support Force, deeper, more painful cuts will need to happen. The PLA is now embarking on “below the neck” (脖子以下) reforms, likely to be implemented over the remaining three year period the reforms are intended to take place. This process will presumably entail undertaking deeper, more difficult changes than previous changes have presaged. For the SSF, this will be the test to see whether the PLA can fully implement the concepts and guiding paradigms that will enable better war-fighting or institutional barriers and vested interests will win the day.

John Costello is a Senior Analyst for Cyber and East Asia at Flashpoint. He is a Cybersecurity Fellow for New America and former Congressional Innovation Fellow for the majority staff in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. John is also a U.S. Navy veteran, former NSA Analyst, and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. John is also a proud Alum of Defense Group Inc.

The author would like to thank Elsa Kania for her tireless assistance with this piece; it would have been impossible without her efforts. The author would also like to thank Mark Stokes, Peter Mattis, Ken Allen, Paul Triolo, Dennis Blasko, James Mulvenon, and Kevin Pollpeter for their invaluable expertise into understanding the Strategic Support Force and the PLA’s legacy space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions.

Notes

  1. In the reforms, the four general departments, the General Staff Department (总参谋部; GSD), General Political Department (总政治部; GPD), General Logistics Department (总后勤部; GLD), and General Armament Department (总装备部; GAD) have become slimmed-down, CMC functions organs called the Joint Staff Department (军委联合参谋部; JSD), Political Work Department (军委政治工作部; PWD), Logistics Support Department (军委后勤保障部; LSD), and Equipment Development Department (军委装备发展部; EDD), respectively.
  2. Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮] (eds.), The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], National Defense University Press [国防大学出版社], 2015, p. 388; Though the SSF does appear to have incorporated a former General Political Department unit, the 311 Base (311基地; 61716部队) or the “Three Warfares Base,” for now the status of this unit isn’t entirely clear. Traditionally, the psychological dimension of warfare hasn’t been considered a domain, per se, but rather a discipline under information operations. It is not clear whether the PLA intends to create a war-fighting force on par with those for space, cyber, and electronic warfare that would conduct psychological operations. See http://www.cqvip.com/qk/81377x/201606/669378161.html and http://www.cqvip.com/QK/97723X/201401/49213060.html for personnel linkages between the 311 Base and the SSF.
  3. Both the ARB and Satellite Main Station have been split off from their former parent units, which have become new bureaus under the General Staff Department’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department (联合参谋部; JSD). The GSD 2PLA has become the new JSD Intelligence Bureau (情报局; JSD-IB) and the GSD INFOD has become the new JSD Communications and Information Bureau (通信信息局; JSD-IB).
  4. According to Mark Stokes, Russell Hsiao, and Jenny Lin, the 56th Research Institute focuses on research and development of advanced computing technologies, including supercomputers. The GSD 58th RI focuses on cryptography and information security. Both of these technologies have applicability to cyber warfare. https://project2049.net/documents/pla_third_department_sigint_cyber_stokes_lin_hsiao.pdf
  5. In this regard, it is noteworthy that so far the 3PLA’s sister organizations from the General Staff Department, the 2PLA and INFOD, have remained under the GSD’s successor, the CMC Joint Staff Department, along with their respective Research Institutes. In this way, the various GSD Research Institutes may be a useful bellwether for judging if a particular general department or organization has moved. Such an approach to renaming is consistent with the PLA’s “bricks not clay” reform.
  6. While the PLA has so far move whole organizations, it can’t be ruled out that the CMC may move smaller pieces of organizations when necessary. For instance, the CMC moved the 2PLA to the CMC, reorganizing it as the Intelligence Bureau (JSD-IB), and moved the 2PLA Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau (ARB) to the SSF Space Systems Department; effectively separating the components of the organization. Generally, however, it appears that the CMC is building with whole organizations, but lingering uncertainty as to how deeply the CMC is cutting into traditional mission sets hinders the ability to make predictions with greater confidence.
  7. In the previous structure, each Service Branch, including the PLASAF, and Military Regions maintained their own Technical Reconnaissance Bureaus. The SSF does not seem to incorporate these other Service or MR-specific TRB’s, and they appear to continue to be entities independent of the SSF’s cyber mission as inherited from the 3PLA. Interestingly, there are preliminary indicators to suggest that the former MR TRB’s are not under the control of the new Military Theater Commands as one would expect, but rather report directly to the new Army Leading Organ, indicating that the Army is utilizing the former network of MR TRB’s as a de facto reconnaissance branch in a similar manner the former GSD used the 3PLA.
  8. As previously discussed, the former 4PLA was also responsible for the PLA’s computer network attack mission. In general, for information operations, the 4PLA appeared to act as the “attack” element, with the 3PLA serving as the reconnaissance element, while the Informatization Department acted as the defense element.
  9. The 61st Research Institutes name would therefore be the CMC Equipment Development Department 61st Research Institute (中央军委装备发展部第61研究所).
  10. An excellent forthcoming paper from Erin Richter and Leigh Ann Ragland-Luce examines the JLSF in greater detail. Thank you to both for giving the author a basic introduction into the JLSF.