A Shift in Command: The Restructuring of China’s Strategic Support Force

 By Ashu Maan
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The Strategic Support Force (SSF), People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) fifth service branch and Xi Jinping’s brainchild met its demise on 19 April 2024. The SSF touted as a significant step towards “informatization” by the PLA as part of its latest operational concept i.e., “Informatized Local Wars” (2015) was tasked with the integration of cyber data and capabilities into operations across electromagnetic and space warfare domains. The SSF didn’t last a decade and was disbanded into three service arms i.e., the Aerospace force (ASF), the cyberspace force (CSF), and the Information Support Force. The disbanded components of SSF will know be administered directly by the Central Military Commission (CMC) along with the Joint Logistics Support Force established in 2016 and recognised as an arm of PLA in April 2024. This paper looks into the evolution of the SSF and deduces the reasons behind its reorganisation.

Evolution of the Strategic Support Force

Established in 2015, the Strategic Support Force (SSF) consolidated the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capabilities and missions in space, cyberspace, electronic, and psychological warfare. The SSF operated under the direct supervision of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and provided support across the PLA. According to the 2019 Defense White Paper of the People’s Republic of China, “the modernization aims of the SSF included making significant progress in crucial areas and hastening the comprehensive development of new-type combat forces to construct a robust and modern strategic support force”.

In 2015, the newly established Strategic Support Force (SSF) of the PLA incorporated various information-related units previously under the PLA’s General Staff Department (GSD). This integration included the GSD 3rd Department (3PLA), which was responsible for electronic intelligence and cyber reconnaissance; the GSD 4th Department (4PLA), tasked with electronic warfare and cyber-attack capabilities; and some intelligence components from the GSD 2nd Department (2PLA). These groups were consolidated under the Network Systems Department (NSD), a deputy theater-grade entity within the SSF, led by a lieutenant general. Furthermore, the NSD reportedly took over responsibilities from the PLA’s 311 Base, which is specifically focused on conducting psychological operations targeted at Taiwan, creating propaganda, and shaping public opinion on the island to advance PLA goals.

SSF’s Space Systems Department (SSD) was formed by merging space-related entities from the PLA’s former General Armaments Department (GAD). The SSD managed nearly all of the PLA’s space operations, which encompassed space launches; telemetry, tracking, and control (TT&C) for satellites and other space vehicles; oversight of the PLA’s space-based communications and reconnaissance systems; and certain anti-satellite activities, particularly those involving on-orbit capabilities.

The SSF underwent a second round of reforms between 2017 and 2019. During this time, the Information Assurance Base (IAB), also known as the Information Support Base, and designated as the 61001 Unit, was under the control of the CMC Joint Staff Department. As part of the structural reforms, this unit was transferred to the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and renamed the “Information Communication Base” (ICB). The ICB oversaw several geographically dispersed information communication brigades, which were tasked with supporting the PLA theater commands.

PLA’s Organisational Chart (Pre and Post Reorganisation)

Image 1: Pre 2024 Organisational Chart

Before the dissolution of the SSF the CMC consisted of five services i.e. PLAGF, PLAAF, PLAN, SSF, and Rocket Force. These along with Theater Commands were at theater grade. The Joint Logistics Support Force that fell directly under the CMC along with the component of SSF i.e., SSD and NSD were recognised as Deputy Theater Grade.

Image 2: Post-2024 Organisational Chart

Post reorganisation the PLA is left with four services and Theater Commands at the Theater Grade and with four supporting arms at the Deputy Theater Grade under the direct supervision of the CMC.

Rationale of the Reforms

It is difficult to gauge the reason behind the current reforms as the commentator of the PLA Daily while describing the reforms indulged in typical verbosity that is often seen in the controlled press conferences of Chinese officials. Therefore, one has to analyse past and current trends to reach a conclusion about the reforms. The current reforms do not appear to have a singular rationale behind them and may be an outcome of a number of factors.

First, the SSF’s elements namely the Network Systems Department (NSD) and the Space Systems Department (SSD) have outgrown SSF itself. Even after eight years of the SSF coming into existence the two elements could not be integrated and operated as two separate entities. This was evident as United States Department of Defence’s, “China Military Report 2023” referred to NSD as the ‘Cyberspace Force and SSD as ‘Aerospace Force’ even before they were reorganised.

Second, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign that has been going on since 2012 has regularly targeted commanders and generals. Similarly, the SSF commander General Ju Qiansheng had been missing since 2023 leading to speculation of corruption in SSF akin to the Rocket Force. The SSF had become a bloated organisation due to the integration of various departments and coupled with intensive investment it needed due to being technical in nature may have served as a motivation for corruption.

Third, as the war in Ukraine and Gaza have shown, information, logistics, and cyberspace are the main components of modern warfare and them coming under a service branch would obstruct Xi’s ability to directly gauge what the PLA was doing in these crucial domains.  SFF’s successor, the Information Support Force, will now manage network information systems, communications support, and potentially network defense. This reconfiguration results in the PLA having four arms and four services, with the services being the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force. The four arms are directly subordinate to the CMC. This arrangement allows the commission to directly interact with the individual support forces without intermediating through the SSF headquarters.

Fourth, the SFF was at par with Theater Commands in hierarchy and therefore it would have made it difficult for the theatre commanders to directly tap into SSF’s resources. However, the reorganised arms are a level below the theatre commands thus making it easier for theater commanders to tap into thereby improving jointness (that was the aim of SFF).

The reasons outlined above would have collectively contributed to China’s decision to dissolve the SFF and restructure the PLA..

Conclusion

The strategic restructuring of China’s Strategic Support Force into distinct, specialized arms marks a significant shift in China’s military organization and doctrine. This change reflects a deeper strategic intent to enhance the efficacy, responsiveness, and integration of its military capabilities, particularly in the realms of cyberspace and space warfare. The direct control exercised by the CMC over these critical domains indicates Xi’s ongoing centralisation of power.

For India, this reorganization presents a complex array of strategic challenges and implications. As China enhances its capabilities in these cutting-edge warfare domains, it signals a shift towards more sophisticated forms of warfare where information and space operations could become key elements of military strategy. China has already indulged in information warfare against India as seen from the ‘Newsweek case’. While the other services like the PLAGF, PLAN, and PLAAF have their defined conventional role during war and peace, arms like ISF generally operates in the grey zone where they wage a perpetual war. Apart from Newsweek case, China in the past has waged cyberwarfare where they reportedly hacked into the systems of Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of External Affairs. With the ISF now being an individual entity under control of CMC, China’s grey zone activities in the virtual world will most likely see an uptick.

Moreover, the restructuring of the SSF into units directly under the CMC may enable China to execute more coordinated and aggressive strategies in the Indo-Pacific region. The SSF was created for enhancing jointness and synergy in the PLA. However, its bloated nature led to confusion among its components with regards to their mandates. For instance, the SSF had both the Information Support Base and communications department, but they did not have a clear separation of duties leading to overlapping of functions and responsibilities. Now with the separation of arms the ISF will probably lead offensive/defensive actions with the ASF and CSF operating as support arms leading to enhancement of operational efficiency.