Photo: U.S. Army Training & Doctrine Command / Badge: 痛 / Illustration: Defense One

Farewell to China’s Strategic Support Force. Let’s meet its replacements

The PLA axes an organization once hailed as evidence of innovation.

The unexpected elimination of the People’s Liberation Army unit that handled space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions is all the more surprising because the Strategic Support Force seemed to just be coming into its own.

On April 19, the PLA announced that three co-equal forces—the Aerospace Force, Cyberspace Force, and Information Support Force—would be established to replace the SFF,  itself created as part of the broad 2015 reorganization that also birthed the PLA Rocket Force.

At its inception, the SSF was hailed by domestic leaders and outside observers as a sign that the PLA was capable of real innovation. Placing interrelated missions such as space, cyber, electronic warfare, and other information missions such as psychological warfare under a single command was intended to create synergies between all of these, facilitating joint operations and providing the PLA with advantages in dominating network-centric warfare and the information space.

Or so the theory went. Now the PLA, apparently unhappy with the results of its experiment, has broken the SSF into three component forces. The military’s new structure will be four services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force—backed up by four supporting forces directly under the supreme Central Military Commission: the Joint Logistics Support Force and the three new ones (Aerospace Force, Cyberspace Force, and Information Support Force).

Of the new forces, only the Information Support Force appears to have held an establishment ceremony. Notably, it featured a speech by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who tasked the new organization with “a great responsibility for advancing the military's high level of development and winning a modern war.” Xi’s remarks also provided a bit more information about the new force’s missions, indicating that the ISF will handle “construction and application of the integrated network information system,” ensuring a smooth and unobstructed flow of information, fusion of information resources, and facilitating joint warfare. 

The ISF will be complemented by a Cyberspace Force, which will presumably take on the cyber attack, defense, and espionage missions from the former SSF’s Network Systems Department. The PLA’s brief press release provided little additional information, saying only that “Cyber security remains a global challenge and poses a severe threat to China. Developing the Cyberspace Force and cyber security and defense means are important for reinforcing national cyber border defense, promptly detecting and countering network intrusions and maintaining national cyber sovereignty and information security. We actively advocate building a cyberspace featuring peace, security, openness and cooperation and are committed to working with the international community to jointly build a community with a shared future in cyberspace.”

Finally, the SSF’s Space Systems Department will be spun off into a new Aerospace Force, which will take over the PLA’s space mission. According to the vaguely worded press release, the new force will “strengthen the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use space, enhancing crisis management and the efficacy of comprehensive governance in space and promoting peaceful utilization of space.” 

This will seemingly create a structure closer to (although not entirely equivalent to) the U.S. military’s Space Force. Interestingly, while the PLA’s official website translates the new organization as “Aerospace Force,” China Daily’s English edition translates it as “Space Force.” The PLA plays an outsized role in China’s space program—for example, all space launch facilities and astronaut training and management were controlled by the SSF, and now will presumably be controlled by the Aerospace Force—making the new Aerospace Force’s likely mission more akin to the U.S. Space Force plus most of NASA.

Much remains unknown about how exactly this will play out. For instance, the SSF also oversaw a range of research institutes focused on developing and integrating future weapons, but it is not yet clear in open reporting where they will end up. 

The drastic reform of its structure less than a decade after its last reform gives ammunition to both pessimists and optimists observing the PLA’s development.

On the one hand, it suggests that the PLA’s much-heralded reforms of 2015, which were meant to turn it into a modern joint force, have not been smooth sailing. Where the Pentagon sees a growing threat from China’s cyber, information, and space efforts, Chinese military leaders saw the need to make major changes. Placing all of these missions under a single roof did not create new efficiencies—at least, not enough to justify its problems—and may have simply placed a new layer of bureaucracy between these missions and the CMC. In this way, the new structure actually harkens back to the pre-reform PLA structure, in which these missions were controlled by different directly-subordinate CMC Departments. This comes on the heels of a major purge of some of the PRC defense establishment’s highest officers, including, reportedly, leaders in the SSF. 

On the other hand, these reforms also suggest that the PLA is not a sclerotic organization, but is capable of frankly assessing its shortcomings, finding innovative solutions, and making changes when needed. This is a major change from only a few years ago, when PRC leaders struggled to enact even relatively modest reforms in the face of an entrenched bureaucracy. 

And for all that is changing, there is much that is not. According to an op-ed released in PLA Daily after the establishment of the ISF, while the structure may be new, the PLA’s underlying theories of victory remain the same: “Victory is achieved through information. Modern war is a confrontation between system and system, a contest between system and system. Whoever holds information superiority will hold the initiative in war.” This new reform seeks to drive the PLA further towards that enduring goal. 

Matt Bruzzese is a senior Chinese-language analyst for BluePath Labs.

P.W. Singer is a best-selling author of such books on war and technology as Wired for War, Ghost Fleet, and Burn-In; senior fellow at New America; and co-founder of Useful Fiction, a strategic narratives company