The Chinese People's Liberation Army and Special Operations
Since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has steadily evolved its view of how future wars will be fought. Where the PLA had originally expected to fight with massed air, land and sea forces in “local wars under modern conditions,” it shifted, first to preparing for “local wars under modern, high-tech conditions,” and now “local wars under informationized conditions,” where quality and technology play an ever greater role.
In order to fight such wars, the PLA has placed much greater emphasis on the ability to conduct joint operations. At the same time, it is an article of faith that the human factor will continue to play a key role in any future war; therefore, the PLA has also remained interested in the conduct of “political warfare” (zhengzhi zhanzheng; 政治战争), which roughly correlates with the American concept of “psychological warfare.” These Chinese approaches have important implications for the American special-operations community.
How the PLA Defines Special-Operations Forces
Chinese discussion of special-operations forces seem to resemble American and western concepts. Special operations (tezhong zuozhan; 特种作战), for example, are described as the use of specially organized, trained and equipped elite units to achieve particular operational and strategic goals, through the conduct of unconventional or irregular warfare means.1 Chinese concepts of special-operations forces’ missions appear to closely resemble the SOF core activities as enumerated by U.S. Special Operations Command. They include:
• Special reconnaissance missions (strategic or operational reconnaissance deep in an opponent’s territory);
• Special strikes, including at enemy strategic and operational command posts and key personnel, as well as countering enemy deep penetration forces;
• Disruption of enemy facilities, including transportation and logistics sites; ambushes and other hit-and-run attacks; and
• Special technical combat, including various forms of computer network attacks, broadcasting propaganda and disruption of enemy navigation and positioning systems.2
The Chinese view of the role of special operations and special-operations forces has been influenced, in part, by the evolving PLA concept of how future wars will be fought.
Evolution of Chinese Concept of Warfare
Since at least the end of the Cold War, the PLA has been a careful student of foreign, and especially American, military developments. As the PLA has not fought a war since concluding the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, it has necessarily had to rely upon close observation and analysis of foreign military experience to help shape its own preparations for future conflict. From these analyses, the PLA appears to have concluded that future wars will be marked by several characteristics.
One key conclusion is that future wars will require joint operations, i.e., cooperation by forces drawn from all the services (which in the case of the PLA includes not only land, sea and air forces, but also the Second Artillery, which is responsible for missile operations). This marks an enormous shift for the PLA. Prior to the first Gulf War, the PLA was focused on ground forces, and engaged in learning how to perform combined arms operations, i.e., the ability to have various branches interoperate. The PLA Navy and PLA Air Force seemed to be relegated mainly to supporting roles. With the conclusion of the first Gulf War, however, the PLA concluded that it had not understood the impact of modern technology on warfare, and the resulting global military transformation.
After extensive debate in the 1990s, the PLA moved from focusing on combined arms operations from a ground force-centric perspective towards a concept of joint operations, where the various services were at least more nominally equal. This shift was codified in the 1999 New Generation Operations Regulations. Under these new regulations, the PLA made joint operations the basis for operational thinking by all parts of the PLA. Service campaigns, whether by the ground forces, navy, air force or second artillery (responsible for missile operations) were subordinated to joint campaigns, which are seen as more important, and more decisive.
In addition, PLA analysts appear to have concluded that future wars will be marked by the “three non” warfares: non-contact (fei jierong; 非接融) warfare, non-linear (fei xianshi; 非线式) warfare and non-symmetric (fei duicheng; 非对称) warfare. Wars will be non-contact, in that the more advanced side will tend to remain out of reach of the majority of the other side’s weapons, while itself retaining the ability to engage the enemy. The emphasis will be on concentrating firepower from a variety of sources, rather than massing troops.3 Moreover, it may employ not only very long-range, precision munitions capable of covering the entire strategic depth, but also exploit “soft-kill” methods (e.g., computer-network attacks) that will effectively nullify an opponent’s forces without having to directly confront or engage them.
Wars will be non-linear, both physically and temporally. In the physical aspect, given the non-contact nature of future wars, the battlefield will not have many set battle-lines. Instead, opposing forces are likely to find themselves intermingled. Moreover, given the vulnerability of concentrated forces to modern precision munitions, each side is likely to field smaller forces that will operate in a more dispersed fashion throughout the strategic depth of the theater. In the temporal aspect, operations are likely to occur simultaneously, rather than sequentially.4
Wars will be non-symmetric, not only in terms of the quality of the forces involved (where Chinese analysts have tended to assume that they would be at a significant disadvantage), but also how the two sides fight. That is, far from the two sides grappling head-on in battle, with similar forces using similar tactics, each will instead seek out the other’s weak spots and try to exploit them. The two sides are not only likely to deploy different forces, but are also likely to employ different tactics, exhibit different operational patterns and pursue different strategies in the process. Chinese writings suggest that they see the 2003 Iraq War as embodying many of these aspects, as the United States employed various forms of operations, engaging on land, sea, air, outer space and cyber-space in order to utterly overwhelm the Iraqis.5
The third conclusion seems to be that political warfare will play a growing role in future conflicts. Political warfare (zhengzhi zuozhan; 政治作战) or wartime political work (zhanshi zhengzhi gongzuo; 战时政治工作), according to both the 2003 and revised 2010 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Political Work Regulations, includes public-opinion warfare, psychological warfare, legal warfare and other measures to undermine the enemy’s will and morale. Political warfare, in this context, strikes at an opponent’s psychology and is equated with Western concepts of psychological warfare.6
In some ways, one might consider political warfare an extension of the “three nons.” It employs political means (including legal, public opinion and psychological elements) to attack an opponent non-symmetrically and in a non-lethal manner at a remove from their physical location. The goal of political warfare is to sap an opponent’s will to fight, both in the military and the larger population, thereby shortening a conflict and reducing the cost, especially to one’s own side.
Impact on the Chinese View of Special Operations
Each of these conclusions has an impact on special operations. A recent assessment of the Iraq War noted the importance of incorporating special operations in joint operations, alongside land, sea, air, space and cyber operations.7 Similarly, a Chinese volume on the role of mobilization in modern warfare notes that “unified joint operations,” entails melding special-operations capabilities with other, more conventional-warfare forces.8
Meanwhile, Chinese writings about the “three nons” of future wars also often refer to special-operations forces and missions. Non-linear warfare, for example, is likely to involve airborne insertion of special-operations forces throughout the enemy’s strategic depth. These forces will reconnoiter enemy transportation and energy infrastructure, communications nodes and command and control systems once thought safely distant behind the lines, and either attack them directly or else provide targeting information for other weapons systems.9
In addition, special operations are likely to occur on a non-linear timeline. Chinese analyses note, for example, that allied SOF deployed to Iraq long before the commencement of hostilities in March 2003. As important, special operations are likely to occur simultaneously with each other, and in close synchronization with conventional forces, further jettisoning concepts of linear time.
In terms of non-symmetric warfare, SOF, by their nature small, elite and flexible, can have a disproportionate effect on an opponent. Indeed, successful special operations deep into an opponent’s territory, eliminating key targets and key personnel, are seen as the embodiment of asymmetric application of force. 10 U.S. and allied special operators’ ability to provide targeting information on key Ba’athist leaders during the 2003 Iraq War, and the seizure of key airfields by U.S. Special Forces, exemplify the asymmetric impact of special operations. The successful conduct of these actions had a major affect on the effort to overwhelm Iraqi defenses.11
Political Warfare and Special Operations
It is the political warfare aspect, though, and especially the Chinese conception of psychological warfare (which is seen as a subset of political warfare), that would seem to most touch upon special operations. Psychological warfare, according to the PLA, is the employment of psychology, through such means as propaganda, to sap the will of an opponent’s military and civilian populace, as well as to counter an opponent’s effort to do the same.12 The advent of modern information technology provides many new avenues for conducting psychological-warfare operations. At the same time, it demands a more careful planning and execution effort; as the PLA notes, many nations, especially the U.S., have created dedicated psychological-warfare operations units in part for this reason.13
From the PLA’s vantage point, observing foreign wars, the ability of SOF to wage political warfare, including psychological warfare, has become a major potential threat. The advent of so much information technology, and its permeation of modern society, allows psychological-warfare activities to reach an unprecedented audience and generate widespread effects. PLA assessments of the 2003 Iraq War, for example, highlight the role of dedicated psychological-warfare units. These were observed conducting a large-scale and intense effort to comprehensively undermine Iraqi resistance.14 This included not only tactical activities, such as leaflet drops, but also actions with more operational and strategic impact, such as Arabic language broadcasts by EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft. Another major contribution attributed to special-operations units were computer network attacks, including hacking into Iraqi computer systems. Undertaken in coordination with more lethal actions, the result was an undermining of Iraqi will and the inducement of “psychological shock and awe.”15
Special operations are not solely worrisome for their propaganda activities, however. PLA writings have also expressed concern about the ability of technologically more advanced opponents to employ special operations to weaken their opponent’s confidence. SOF are able to observe closely the enemy’s strategic targets, identify hidden sites such as underground facilities and provide better targeting information for key command and communications centers, as well as essential personnel. Moreover, SOF can also potentially strike at targets that are hidden or otherwise protected from precision-guided munitions.16 In so doing, they can help demoralize enemy forces by creating a sense of vulnerability and making their resistance appear futile.
This combination of tactical, operational and strategic effects took its toll in Iraq, influencing not only Iraqi military commanders, but the broader Iraqi public, Iraqi leaders and global public opinion. “Because of the development of techniques, broadening of efforts and intensification of methods, psychological offensives have already been elevated to the national strategic level, and become a vital aspect of strategic activity which will affect the entire military strategic picture.”17
Not surprisingly, given the concerns about psychological warfare and the potential role of special operations in that context, the PLA has shown great interest in defensive measures against them. Given the political nature of psychological operations, the foremost concern is to strengthen the morale, will and political support of both the military and the civilian populace. Bolstering troop and public morale, in turn, highlights the saliency of the public-opinion warfare (or media warfare) component of political warfare. In the PLA’s view, western military operations, often broadcast globally, are fundamentally shaping global perceptions of western (and especially American) military capability, creating psychological pressures on potential adversaries and directly influencing their views and decisions. This was a major technique employed in the Iraq conflict, with the U.S. orchestrating a global media campaign to highlight the forces arrayed against Saddam Hussein, and the hopelessness of the Iraqi cause.18 Countering the perception that the war is lost before it is even fought is an essential task for political warfare operations.
To this end, one essential task is to remove or at least limit doubts among officers and troops. This is likely to be especially difficult, from the Chinese perspective, given the likely technological disparity between the Chinese military and their likely opponents. A more technologically sophisticated enemy will appear to be capable of striking apparently at will. Increased political indoctrination efforts by party cadre are useful, but more concrete measures are also necessary, such as displays of prisoners or downed aircraft.19 Indeed, a key responsibility for the joint-operations headquarters is to counter enemy special operations. It is therefore likely that enemy SOF will be especially targeted, both in order to limit their effectiveness, and to provide concrete evidence that the opponent is not “running the table.”
One method to achieve this is for the joint operations headquarters to consider what objectives special-operations units are likely to have, and what methods they are likely to employ to achieve them. By effectively “reverse engineering” what SOF might be trying to achieve, it may then be possible to counter those forces, or otherwise frustrate their ability to achieve objectives. This can include mobilizing rear area security, heightening the alert level of local security forces and deploying one’s own special-operations units to ambush them. It is suggested that PLA psychological-warfare units would be armed for self-protection, but would rely on evasion if they are discovered.20 It may be that the PLA expects similar behavior on the part of foreign SOF.
In addition, some units such as psychological-warfare units may also be targeted with strike assets, if and when they are identified on the battlefield, in order to disrupt their activities.21 Ground-based units may be subjected to concentrated artillery shelling, while aerial forces would likely suffer the attention of various air defenses.22
The PLA clearly sees SOF as occupying an essential role in any future conflict. In future “local wars under informationized conditions,” special operations are likely to be called upon to undertake a range of activities, including mounting direct attacks, providing targeting information to enhance the effect of other forces and affecting not only the materiel but information available to enemy forces. In particular, SOF are seen as an integral part of any political warfare effort; countering foreign SOF are therefore also likely to be a major concern.
Dean Cheng is a Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Center, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C. Cheng focused on Chinese political and security affairs. In particular, he focuses on the relationship between China’s military and foreign policy as it relates to the rest of Asia and the United States. Cheng earned a bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University in 1986 and studied for a doctorate at MIT.
1. Zhang Yuliang, Chief Editor, The Science of Campaigns (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 196.
2. Zhang Yuliang, Chief Editor, The Science of Campaigns (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2006), pp. 199-200.
3. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 165.
4. Wang Baocun, “An Analysis of the ‘Three Non’ Warfares,” National Defense Newspaper (July 12, 2004). http://www.pladaily.com.cn/gb/defence/2004/07/12/20040712017055.html
5. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 138.
6. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 147.
7. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 139.
8. Ren Min, The Science of National Defense Mobilization (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Science Press, 2008), p. 471.
9. Fan Chengbin, The Study of Hi-Tech Campaign Paralyzation (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2003), pp. 47, 140.
10. PLA Academy of Military Sciences, Foreign Studies Office, First Section Director, “’Three Nons’ Warfare Guides Modern Conflict,” Global Times (December 8, 2003). http://www.people.com.cn/GB/junshi/2237719.html
11. He Zhu, Experts Discuss the Iraq War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2004), p. 103.
12. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), p. 1.
13. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), p. 4.
14. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 153.
15. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), pp. 147, 148.
16. Zhang Yuliang, Chief Editor, The Science of Campaigns (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2006), p. 196.
17. Fan Gaoyue, Fu Linguo, The Iraq War: The First Implementation of an Informationized Form of War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2008), p. 153.
18. He Zhu, Experts Discuss the Iraq War (Beijing, PRC: Academy of Military Sciences Press, 2004), pp. 86-87.
19. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), p. 222.
20. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), pp. 210-211.
21. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), p. 206.
22. Guo Yanhua, Chief Editor, Study Volume on Psychological Warfare (Beijing, PRC: National Defense University Press, 2005), pp. 222-223.