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This article is organised as follows:

  • Part 01: Introduction to PAP Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 02: Hierarchy of PAP Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 03: Organisation of PAP Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 04: Recruitment, Selection and Training of PAP Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 05: Training Establishments.
  • Part 06: Miscellaneous.

1.0     Introduction

“Although it appears that China’s special forces are still in the early stages of their development, it would be a mistake to dismiss their capabilities.” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

This article is about the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) Special Operations Forces (SOF).

The PAP is one of seven (7) organisations that make up the Chinese Armed Forces (China Military, 2017) and has approximately 660,000 personnel.

Although part of the Chinese Armed Forces, PAP is not part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The PAP is a paramilitary force responsible for internal security within the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In time of war, the PAP could also be used as light infantry to support the regular ground forces.

PAP SOF units, or Special Police Units (SPU), comprise the police/paramilitary component of the PLA’s SOF community. In contrast to its US counterparts, the PLA does not have a unified SOF Command, with operational and administrative control devolved to the branches of military service and Theatre Commands (TCs).

For those who apply for PAP SOF, approximately [? out of every 100] volunteers will be dropped/failed during the initial training programme.

This article will provide the reader with an outline of the PAP’s SOF, providing a brief history and their role and purpose. It will then provide an outline of the hierarchy and organisation of PAP SOF before moving on to describe the selection and training process. Finally, the article will discuss some of the training establishments which deliver training to Chinese PAP SOF candidates before providing some useful links, publications and references.

1.1     Brief History of PAP SOF

In response to the growing threats of global terrorism and incidence of local aircraft hijacking in the 1980s, the PLA secretly established the first of two well-known Special Police Units (SPU). The Anti-Hijack Special Police Unit under the codename ‘Ministry of Public Security 772 Police Unit’ was established in Beijing to handle any emergency and crisis at the national level (Sino Defence, 2007).

In 1983, this unit was transferred to the newly established PAP and became the PAP Special Police Group.

In early 1985 the unit was re-titled the PAP Special Police School combining both combat and education roles, and received its first cadets in September of that year.

In 2002, the school officially became the PAP Special Police College (or Academy). The unit is sometimes referred to as the National Special Police Group or Falcon Commando.

Established in late 2002 as the Snow Wolf Commando Unit (SWCU), the Snow Leopard Commando Unit is the second of two well-known PAP special operations units and is also located in Beijing.

“The name of snow wolf was chosen due to the known tenacity of arctic wolves and their ability to survive and thrive in extremely harsh conditions, which is expected of the SWCU officers.” (Yuankai, 2008).

In general, SPUs at the local level are normally organised into Special Duty Squadrons, which are tasked with a broad range of missions including counter-terrorism, anti-hijacking, hostage rescue, riot-control, bomb disposal, large event security and VIP protection. However, the Beijing SPU, due to the sensitivity of its location, has more SPU elements than any other provincial-level PAP units. There is at least one Special Duty Detachment specialised in counter-terrorism and riot control.

The SWCU called its first candidates in 2003, with those successfully selected starting a five year training programme (Yuankai, 2008).

In February 2004, the PAP sent six members of SWCU to protect Chinese diplomats stationed in Iraq – the first time the PRC had deployed “military’ personnel” to a foreign country on a diplomatic protection mission (Sino Defence, 2008b).

The SWCU and another unit, the Beijing Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit, were first revealed to the public during a demonstration at the Beijing Police Academy on 27 April 2006. The demonstration was part of a public relations effort to highlight the capabilities of the PAP to deal with terrorism, protect delegates and to enforce law and order during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

On 07 December 2006, the PAP sent another six members of SWCU on another diplomatic protection mission, this time to Afghanistan (Sino Defence, 2008b).

Just prior to August 2007 the SWCU was renamed the Snow Leopard Commando Unit (Yuankai, 2008).

“…the new name was inspired by the story of a brave and cunning snow leopard, which escaped an ambush by a hunter and his eight hunting dogs.” (Yuankai, 2008).

Chinese SOF now consist of PLA Army SF, PLA Army aviation units, PLA Rocket Force, PLA Navy Marine Corps, PLA Air Force Airborne troops and the People’s Armed Police force units.

1.2     General Duties of Special Operations Forces

SOF personnel are required to infiltrate and exfiltrate to and from operational areas dismounted, carrying heavy loads and manipulating personal and support weapons systems and other heavy equipment. SOF personnel perform insertions and assaults on targets by:

  • Parachuting onto ground or into water;
  • Climbing ladders and cliffs;
  • Rappelling;
  • Conducting close-quarters battle (CQB); and
  • Battle drills in varying types of terrain and climatic conditions day or night.

SOF personnel are also required to board ocean vessels while they are underway from another floating or airborne platform in all sea states day or night, and where speed and stealth are imperative. These duties are performed while wearing heavy rucksack and body armour. SOF personnel perform individual CQB and detainee handling which may require the individual to:

  • Combat and detain another person using blocking strikes;
  • Disarming;
  • Lifting;
  • Pulling;
  • Ground fighting;
  • Grappling; and
  • Moving a non-compliant person.

There is no tolerance for a lapse in attention when conducting CQB and other assaults while wearing night vision goggles as well as Special Operations Insertion and Extraction (SOIE) techniques. Accurate discrimination of non-combatants and precision engagement of enemy combatants requires extreme concentration.

Similarly, high-risk roped and un-roped insertions with no redundant safety systems require constant attention. SOF personnel require the ability for continuous analysis of the situation, environment, mission aims and unique foreign societal complexities during operations.

1.3     Role and Purpose of PAP SOF

The PAP SOF have a number of roles including (Yuankai, 2008):

  • Counter-terrorism;
  • Riot control;
  • Anti-hijacking; and
  • Bomb disposal.

2.0     Hierarchy of PAP SOF

This section provides an outline of the civilian and military personalities and organisations that have some form of control, impact, or direction over the PAP’s SOF.

2.1     President of the People’s Republic of China

The President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a civilian, has three main roles:

  • President of the PRC;
  • General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party; and
  • Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

2.2     Premier of the People’s Republic of China

The Premier of the PRC, a civilian, is the head of the Chinese Government’s State Council, which leads three important ministries (State Council, 2014):

  • The Ministry of Public Security;
  • The Ministry of State Security; and
  • The Ministry of National Defense.

2.3     Ministry of Public Security

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) is a, blue- or black-uniformed, civilian police force responsible for domestic law enforcement. The MPS has approximately 1.9 million personnel.

2.4     Ministry of State Security

The Ministry of State Security (MSS) is the Chinese Government’s main domestic and international intelligence organisation, performing functions similar to the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, international intelligence) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, domestic intelligence).

2.5     Ministry of National Defense

The Ministry of National Defense (MND) is headed by the Minister of National Defense, generally known as the Defence Minister.

The MND was established in 1954 after a decision by the 1st Session of the 1st National People’s Congress. In contrast to western convention, the MND does not exercise command authority over the PLA, which is instead subordinate to the Central Military Commission (CMC). The MND principally serves as a liaison body representing the CMC and PLA when dealing with foreign militaries in military exchange and cooperation.

Its official responsibilities had been to exercise unified administration over the development of the Chinese Armed Forces such as recruitment, organisation, equipment, training, scientific military research of the PLA, and the ranking and remuneration of the officers and enlisted personnel. However, in reality, these responsibilities are carried out by the fifteen (15) agencies (previously four General Headquarters) of the PLA, which are under the control of the CMC.

Although the MND itself does not exercise much authority, the role of the Defence Minister has always been viewed as one of the most important positions in China’s political system. The Minister is always an active military officer (OF-9 level), a State Councillor and a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and member (sometimes a Vice Chairman) of the CMC, enabling the post holder to take part in the decision making process in the PLA, the Government and the Chinese Communist Party.

2.6     Central Military Commission

The Central Military Commission (CMC), chaired by the President of the PRC, exerts command and control of the PLA through fifteen (15) agencies: general office; joint staff department; political work department; logistical support department; equipment development department; training department; national defence mobilisation department; discipline inspection commission; politics and law commission; science and technology commission; administration; auditing; international cooperation; reform and organisational structure; and strategic planning (Zhaohui, 2016).

The Joint Staff Department has a number of responsibilities including military operational planning, command and control, studying and formulating military strategies, and assessing operational capacity (Zhaohui, 2016).

Reforms in early 2016, initiated by the then President of the PRC, witnessed a reorganisation from four departments to the fifteen agencies noted above.

2.7     Director General SOF

“Officially, the PLA does not have a unified command like the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) for special operations, but the Intelligence Department (2nd Department) of the PLA General Staff Department may serve as a general director for SOF and special forces warfare doctrines development. The SOF units are also believed to be closely associated with the intelligence department[s] of the seven MRHQs.” (Global Defence, 2008).

There is currently (as of May 2017) no public information available discussing the post of general director of SOF after the 2016 reforms.

2.8     PAP Internal Guards

The PAP Internal Guards is one of eight branches of the PAP, and the largest with approximately 330,000 of the 660,000 personnel (Sino Defence, 2008c).

Although assigned to the newly established PAP in 1982, the Internal Guards can trace their lineage back to 1949, with their core responsibilities remaining the same (Sine Defence, 2008c):

  • Guarding key state institutions and urban areas;
  • Dealing with emergencies and maintaining state security and social stability; and
  • Counter-terrorism operations.

PAP Internal Guards units are classified as either static units (that guard specific targets or areas) or mobile units (dealing with emergencies and crisis). The PAP Internal Guards also has specialised Special Police Units (SPU) for counter-terrorism and anti-hijacking operations organised at the national and local levels – the most well-known being the Snow Leopard Commando and Falcon Commando units.

The largest unit with the PAP Internal Guards is the PAP General Corps, assigned to each of China’s provincial-level entities (provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities). Each PAP General Corps is led by a PAP Major General (OF-7) with approximately 15,000 to 30,000 personnel.

A PAP General Corps is normally composed of several Detachments, roughly equivalent to a PLA brigade or regiment, and led by a PAP Senior Colonel or PAP Colonel (OF-5). Detachments may consist Groups and/or Squadrons.

2.9     Police SWAT Unitse

Established in early 2005, SWAT units, part of the local civil police system, should not be confused with the PAP’s Special Police Units.

Although they have similar missions and training, the PAP has military personnel in contrast to the police SWAT units who composed of professional police officers.

3.0     Organisation of PAP SOF

The PAP, which is not part of the PLA, has a dual command structure:

  • Central Military Commission; and
  • State Council (through the MPS) directs domestic security efforts.

PAP has two SOF units, or Special Police Units (SPU), both stationed in Beijing, and they are the two main anti-terrorist units (Blasko, 2015):

  • Local SPU: Snow Leopard Commando (雪豹突击队), part of the PAP Beijing General Corps; and
  • National SPU: PAP Special Police College, including the Falcon Commando (猎鹰突击队).

3.1     Local SPU: Snow Leopard Commando Unit (雪豹突击队)

First established in 2002, the Snow Leopard Commando Unit (SLCU) is one of two PAP special operations units. Although there are local SPU organised as Special Duty Squadrons, the Beijing SPU is organised as a Special Duty Detachment composed of several Special Duty Squadrons.

Officially known as the 3rd Group, the SLCU is part of the 13th Detachment. The 13th Detachment is the ‘Special Duty Detachment’ of the PAP’s Beijing General Corps (Sino Defence, 2008a). It is an elite unit on high-alert and ready to respond to any emergency in the city of Beijing.

The SLCU has approximately 300 (Sine Defence, 2007) or 400 (Sine Defence, 2008a) personnel divided into four squadrons (Sino Defence, 2007 & 2008a):

  • 9th and 10th Squadron’s responsible for counter-terrorism operations;
  • 11th Squadron responsible for obstacle removal, bomb disposal and anti-CBRN missions; and
  • 12th Squadron responsible for fire support and suppression (e.g. snipers).

3.2     National SPU: PAP Special Police College

The PAP Special Police College, sometimes referred to as the Special Police Academy or National Special Police Group, is responsible for handling emergency and crisis at the national level.

The PAP Special Police College reports directly to the PAP Headquarters (HQ) and has two primary roles (Sino Defence, 2007):

  • Educational and Training: Offering three- and four-year degree education in two subjects:
    • Special reconnaissance; and
    • Special police.
  • Operations: The counter-terrorism and anti-hijacking unit of the College is known as Falcon Commando (猎鹰突击队). The unit is mainly specialised in counterterrorism and anti-aircraft hijacking operations, though it is a highly versatile group capable of many other missions including hostage rescue and VIP protection. Falcon is completely composed of (commissioned) officers rather than enlisted personnel, and organised into four specialised operational teams:
    • Special Emergency;
    • Special Operations;
    • Special Reconnaissance; and
    • Special Bomb Disposal.

4.0     Selection and Training

This section of the article provides a very brief overview of the publicly available information regarding the selection and training of PAP SOF candidates.

4.1     Selection and Screening

Candidates for the PAP SOF must have been enlisted for one or two years within the wider-PAP (Sina News, 2006). The Special Police College conducts nationwide recruitment once per year (Sino Defence, 2007).

As part of the three-month selection and screening process, candidates will undertake a variety of tests and assessments including (Sino Defence, 2007; Yuankai, 2008):

  • Interviews;
  • Physical tests;
  • Psychological tests; and
  • An academic examination.

Candidates are “selected on a 1:10 ratio before entering the complex.” (Yuankai, 2008).

4.2     SOF Training

Candidates who successfully complete the assessment and selection process will progress on to the three-year training, following one of two curricula (Sino Defence, 2007):

  • Special reconnaissance; or
  • Special police.

Training undertaken by candidates includes (Sina News, 2006; Sino Defence, 2007 & 2008b; Yuankai, 2008):

  • Physical Training: including 10 km, off-road route, carrying 35 kg.
  • Weapons Training & Small Arms Tactics: Firing weapons from different directions while standing up, kneeling on the ground and/or lying down.
  • Advanced Driving utilising a variety of vehicles, including cars and motorcycles.
  • Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).
  • Chemical Defence.
  • Martial Arts and Hand-to-hand combat.
  • Close Quarter Battle (CQB).
  • Anti-hijacking and Hostage Rescue tactics.
  • Negotiation.
  • Large Event Security.
  • Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).

4.3     Graduation

Candidates who successfully complete the training programme will be assigned to the Beijing General Corps’ 13th Detachment, the home of the SLCU.

Graduates of the PAP Special Police College are commissioned as Second Lieutenants (OF-1) and posted to one of the various provincial and municipal SPUs. Only a very few graduates will be considered for immediate employment with the Falcon Commando Unit.

5.0     Training Establishments

There are several training establishments involved in the delivery of training to candidates during their basic SOF and advanced SOF training. Some of these training establishments are outlined below.

5.1     PLA Special Operations Academy

The PLA Special Operations Academy (解放军特种作战学院), sometimes translated as the Academy of Special Operations, was established in 2012 in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province (Blasko, 2015).

The original purpose of the academy was to prepare junior officers for assignments in SOF units.

5.2     PLA Physical Culture Academy

“The recent emphasis on building Special Operations Forces has resulted in the establishment of a unique course within the Physical Culture Academy in Guangzhou that includes anti-terrorist, peacekeeping, and information technology operations.” (Blasko, 2006, p.61).

The Physical Culture Academy was previously part of the General Staff Department (Blasko, 2006).


6.0     Miscellaneous

6.1     Useful Links

6.2     Useful Publications

  • Books:
    • Bo, J.Q. (2015) Chinese Special Forces: Real Man. Chinese Edition. Jiangsu: Jiangsu Phoenix Art Publishing House.
    • Kamphausen, R. & Lai, D. (eds) (2015) The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute and United States Army War College Press. Available from World Wide Web: https://fas.org/nuke/guide/china/pla-2025.pdf. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].
    • Lee, N. (1983) The Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1980-82: Modernisation, Strategy and Politics. Canberra: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Available from World Wide Web: http://sdsc.bellschool.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/publications/attachments/2016-03/sdsc-lee.pdf. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].
    • Pollpeter, K. & Allen, K.W. (eds) (0000) The PLA as Organization v2.0. PLACE: Defence Group Inc. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.pla-org.com/downloads/. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].
  • Research:
  • Magazines:
    • Henderson, S.J. (2006) In the Shadow: Chinese Special Forces Build a 21st-Century Fighting Force. Special Warfare: The Professional Bulletin of US Army Special Operations. July-August 2006. 19(4), pp.30-35.
    • Cheng, D. (2012) The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Special Operations. Special Warfare: The Professional Bulletin of US Army Special Operations. July-September 2012. 25(3), pp.24-27.
    • Andrew, M. (2015) The Origins of Chinese Special Forces, 1922-1935. Special Operations Journal. 1(1), pp.37-43.

6.3     References

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Allen, K.W., Blasko, D.J & Corbett Jr, J.F. (2016) Updated – The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown and Speculation, Parts 1 & 2. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Updated_The_PLA_s_New_Organizational_Structure_-_What_is_Known__Unknown_and_Speculation_Parts_1_and_2.pdf. [Accessed: 05 June, 2017].

Bisht, N.S. (2015) PLA Modernization and Likely Force Structure 2025. Delhi: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.

Blasko, D.J. (2006) The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century. Oxon: Routledge.

Blasko, D.J. (2015a) Chinese Special Operations forces: Not Like “Back at Bragg”. Available from World Wide Web: https://warontherocks.com/2015/01/chinese-special-operations-forces-not-like-back-at-bragg/. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

Blasko, D.J. (2015b) PLA Special Operations Forces: Organizations, Missions and Training. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/pla-special-operations-forces-organizations-missions-and-training/. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

China Defence Today (2017a) PLA Air Force. Available from World Wide Web: https://sinodefence.com/pla-air-force/. [Accessed: 02 June, 2017].

China Defence Today (2017b) PLA Reorganises Group Armies and Airborne Corps. Available from World Wide Web: https://sinodefence.com/2017/05/04/pla-reorganises-group-armies-and-airborne-corps/. [Accessed: 05 June, 2017].

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Global Defence (2008) PLA Special Operations Forces. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.globaldefence.net/archiv/artikelanalysen/asien/chinaplaspecialoperationsforcesenglishversion/. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].

Henderson, S.J. (2006) In the Shadow: Chinese Special Forces Build a 21st-Century Fighting Force. Special Warfare: The Professional Bulletin of US Army Special Operations. July-August 2006. 19(4), pp.30-35.

Long, L.F. (2017) 2017 Military Reform Latest News: Air Force “Airborne Army” Designation Debut to Travel Camp System. (Translated from Chinese). Available from World Wide Web: http://www.guancha.cn/military-affairs/2017_05_03_406570.shtml. [Accessed: 05 June, 2017].

Po, W.W. (2003) “China Preparing to Establish 16th Airborne Corps, Aimed at Increasingly Rampant ‘Taiwan Independence’ Movement,” Wen Wei Po, 26 August 2003, in FBIS CPP20030826000047; Chin Pan, “China Builds New Airborne Army To Deter Taiwan Independence – Armed Forces Undergoing Largest-Scale Establishment Restructuring Since PRC’s Founding,” Wen Wei Po, 1 October 2003, in FBIS CPP2001001000060.

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