The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has completed a massive series of exercises for it special operations forces (SOF) in the city of Guilin in China’s Guangxi Province.
The exercises, which are called Ingenious Special Operations Soldier-2018, are the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground forces’ first ever such assessment of their special operations capability.
“The assessment and contest covered all basic and compulsory training subjects of the special operations of the PLA Army,” PLA Army officer in charge of the exercise told ChinaMil—an “authorized by the Central Military Commission of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and sponsored by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) News Media Center.”
According to the China Mil posting: “During the 9-day assessment and contest, 870 SOF officers and soldiers from the PLA Army were divided into 4 categories of commanding HQ, detachment commanders, SOF teams, and SOF individuals and took part in the fierce competitions of 64 subjects, including interpretation of remote sensing image, multiple weapons shooting, and consecutive special operations.”
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The Chinese wargames evaluated both units and individuals. “The contest focused on assessing and testing the commanding HQ's ability to effectively plan and use special operations forces, detachment commanders’ ability to command special operations, SOF teams’ ability to conduct operations, and SOF individuals’ stamina, skills, and intelligence,” ChinaMil stated.
Dennis J. Blasko, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China, explains that China’s SOF are very different from their American counterparts.
“Unsurprisingly, Chinese SOF units are quite different from their U.S. counterparts and demonstrate most often capabilities similar to those of U.S. Army Ranger units. In particular, Chinese SOF units lack many of the dedicated special mission support capabilities found in the U.S. military,” Blasko wrote in War on the Rocks.
“According to publicly available PLA doctrine, many U.S. SOF Core Activities are not included among PLA SOF missions.”
One of the reasons for that is because Chinese PLA and People’s Armed Police (PAP) SOF units evolved from reconnaissance units.
“Chinese SOF units are a relatively ‘young’ force with roots in earlier reconnaissance units,” Blasko wrote.
“The PLA and PAP formed their first special operation unit quietly in the late 1980s and gradually expanded the force through the 1990s and into the new century. SOF units are considered ‘new type’ units receiving priority for development on par with development of helicopter, light mechanized, and ‘digitalized’ units.”
Because of their origins as reconnaissance forces, Chinese SOF tends to focus on direct action missions and Chinese media focuses on the soldiers’ physical toughness rather than technical expertise.
“PLA and PAP SOF personnel and units have participated in numerous training exercises with foreign militaries, special operations competitions, and in-country training at foreign schools. Chinese SOF teams often have had excellent results in international competitions,” Blasko writes.
“As a result, Chinese SOF units have demonstrated their capabilities in many types of small unit commando-type direct action and reconnaissance missions, the first two Title X core SOF activities.”
However, Chinese SOF falls short on typical tasks for U.S. SOF such as unconventional warfare.
“Though most analysts assume Chinese SOF would be used in Taiwan contingency operations (including support to and by ‘Fifth Column’ fighters already on the island), there is little open source evidence that SOF units are organized or trained to conduct Title X unconventional warfare activities,” Blasko writes.
“Likewise, though the PLA provides training for foreigners in its system of schools in China, it does not appear to have recent experience in overseas foreign internal defense activities. No PLA SOF units are known to be organized and tasked similar to U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Beret”) units. The PLA also does not have units equivalent to U.S. Civil Affairs units.”
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter:@davemajumdar.