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This article is organised as follows:

  • Part 01: Introduction to PLA Navy Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 02: Hierarchy of PLA Navy Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 03: Organisation of PLA Navy Special Operations Forces.
  • Part 04: Recruitment, Selection and Training of PLA Navy 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 Liberation Army’s (PLA) Air Force Special Operations Forces (SOF).

The PLA Air Force (or PLAAF is one of seven (7) organisations that make up the Chinese Armed Forces (China Military, 2017) and has approximately 398,000 personnel – although military reforms may see an increase (Jianing, 2017).

PLA Air Force SOF unit[s] comprise the air 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).

The PLA is commanded through the Central Military Commission, with PLA Navy combat units distributed among five TCs (Eastern, Southern, Western, Northern and Central).

Although the PLA’s primary role is to defend China from external threats, by law, it has a secondary role of supporting domestic security operations.

Many defence analysts categorise Chinese SOF as similar to US Rangers in their capabilities although closer inspection of their analysis, and a tradition of misinformation by the Chinese, suggests that Chinese SOF capabilities may be greater than perception suggests. Further, many defence analysts compare Chinese SOF against the codified US model of SOF, which is merely one among many.

For those who apply for PLA Air Force 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 PLA Air Force’s SOF, providing a brief history and their role and purpose. It will then provide an outline of the hierarchy and organisation of PLA Air Force 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 PLA Air Force SOF candidates before providing some useful links, publications and references.

1.1     Brief History of PLA Air Force SOF

“China’s reluctance to get involved globally on a large scale may translate to a prioritization of development of China’s special operations capabilities.” (Kamphausen & Lai, 2015, p.220).

This sub-section provides a brief history of Chinese air force SOF which can trace their lineage back to the 1940s. In contrast to military convention, Chinese paratroopers are part of the Air Force rather than the Army.

The first Chinese paratrooper unit was raised by the Kuomintang (KMT) in January 1944, which was subsequently expanded to three groups with a command established under the KMT Air force (Bisht, 2015).

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the PLAAF established the first airborne unit, Air Force Marines First Brigade, on 26 July 1950 (Bisht, 2015). The brigade was located in Shanghai but the HQ was moved to Kaifeng, Henan Province, the following month.

In September 1951, the Air Force Marines First Brigade was renamed the Air Force First Marine Division, and subsequently renamed the Airborne Division in 1957 (Bisht, 2015). There is some suggestion that sometime between 1951 and 1957 the unit was known as the Paratroops Division (needs verification).

The “Airborne Corps” was established in the early 1960s under the PLAAF (Xiaoping, 2011, p.104) or “in 1961 with the reorganisation of the 15th Airborne Corps.” (China Defence Today, 2017a). The HQ was now located in Xiaogan, Hubei Province.

In 1969, the Airborne Corps capabilities were enhanced with the addition of a helicopter regiment “and its subordinated airlift regiment also received some Soviet-made An-26 transport aircraft for improved airlift capabilities.” (China Defence Today, 2017a).

By the mid-1970s, the 15th Airborne Corps, sometimes known as the 15th Airborne Army, had grown to three divisions.

In 1975 and 1985, respectively, the Airborne Corps experienced significant reorganisation in force reduction and restructuring. The number of Infantry was reduced and the specialised service arms (e.g. artillery, anti-tank and air defence) were significantly expanded (China Defence Today, 2017a). As part of the 1985 restructuring, the three airborne divisions were reduced to brigade status. China Defence Today (2017a) states the three brigades were upgraded to divisions in 1993, however, writing in 1998 Yang and Liao (1998, p.52) state “The 15th Airborne Corps of the PLAAF is composed of three airborne brigades.”

In either 1992 or 1993 the airborne forces became an official branch of the PLAAF. Prior to this, the PLAAF’s five branches were aviation, SAM, AAA, communications and radar. The airborne troops were sometimes mentioned as a sixth branch.

During the 1990s, the Airborne Corps developed several technical combat units, including reconnaissance, communication, artillery, and anti-chemical units (Yang & Liao, 1998).

“From 2000 onwards the transformation of the AB corps from a sole parachuting combat force to a synthesis of ground and air combat forces is very evident.” (Bisht, 2015).

Other than changes to the order-of-battle, the 15th Airborne Corps began creating subordinate battalion-level helicopter groups (dadui) to its divisions in 2005.

In April 2017, the three divisions of the 15th Airborne Corps were decommissioned and the regiments reassigned to six new brigades reporting directly to the Corps HQ. There is also some speculation that the Corps will be upgraded to become the 84th Airborne Army Corps (Taipei, 2017).

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 PLA Air Force SOF

The personnel of the Airborne Corps are considered elite troops and play a critical role, forming part of the PLA’s strategic reserve and rapid reaction forces.

Airborne operations, from a Chinese context, include:

  • Paratrooper operations;
  • Air transport operations;
  • Heliborne operations; and
  • Special operations.

The Chinese are expected to utilise their airborne forces in the following roles:

  • Seizure of important areas, routes, and crossings (i.e. airbases, seaports or islands of strategic importance) in advance of major thrusts or to protect the rearward movement of Chinese forces;
  • Sabotage missions against nuclear delivery means, support units and guidance equipment;
  • Disruption of troop control, movement and logistic support by operations against headquarters, communications centres and rear areas installations;
  • Support of amphibious landings and/or support of deep penetrations following a breakthrough of the enemy defences;
  • Holding vital terrain in the case of a major invasion of China;
  • Assistance to guerrillas; and
  • Internal security missions.

As noted below, the role and purpose of the Airborne Corps has developed over the years.

“Strategically, the airborne troops are considered to be a reserve force, yet in tactical terms the airborne troops are deployed as an advance force. It could be reconstituted as an air mobile rapid attack force.” (Yang & Liao, 1998, p.52-53).

“Although the airborne forces may appear less relevant to air campaigns, Chinese employment concepts call for their integrated use against airfields and other relevant targets. Moreover, they are an integral part of the PLAAF and therefore more likely to actually be employed in this capacity than might be the case in other militaries.” (Cliff et al., 2011, p.22).

“Based in Henan province in central China, the 15th airborne corps is meant for independent strategic missions: limited power projection and deep strike manoeuvrability. The 15th corps’ missions would include occupying strategic points in the enemy’s rear, destroying enemy’s key communication hubs and preventing his supporting forces from reaching the front.” (Sawhney, 2012).

2.0     Hierarchy of PLA Air Force 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 PLA Navy’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 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.

2.4     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.

“The airborne troops are directly under CMC control.” (Yang & Liao, 1998, p.52-53).

2.5     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.

2.6     Commander PLA Airborne Corps

Prior to April 2017, the Commander of the 15th Airborne Corps had the grade of Corps Leader (正军职) in the rank of Major General (OF-7) (Kong Jun Shao Jiang, 空军少将).

It has been suggested that post-April 2017, the Commander PLA Airborne Corps will hold the grade of Division Leader (正师职) in the rank of Senior Colonel (OF-5) (Kong Jun Shang Xiao, 空军上校) (Allen et al., 2016).

The PLA Airborne Corps HQ is located at Xiaogan, Hubei province.

3.0     Organisation of PLA Air Force SOF

“Like the PLAA and PLAN, why does PLAAF not have special-purpose (Special Forces) units? Colonel Yujun reply was, “PLAAF does not need special-purpose units as they are inbuilt into its organisation.” (Sawhney, 2012).

The PLAAF contains both Elite Forces and Special Forces units, collectively termed SOF. Currently, all of the PLAAF’s SOF units sit within the Airborne Branch.

The Airborne Forces have various special units, including weapons controllers, reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, communications, engineering, chemical defence and logistical personnel.

Prior to April 2017, the PLA Air Force SOF was organised as follows (Cliff et al., 2011; Blasko, 2015b; Wood, 2016):

  • 15th Airborne Corps:
    • Corps HQ.
    • 43rd Airborne Division:
      • Thor Commando;
      • 127th Airborne Infantry Regiment
      • 128th Airborne Infantry Regiment; and
      • 129th Airborne Artillery Regiment.
    • 44th Airborne Division:
      • 130th Airborne Infantry Regiment;
      • 131st Airborne Infantry Regiment; and
      • 132nd Airborne Artillery Regiment.
    • 45th Airborne Division:
      • 133rd Airborne Infantry Regiment
      • 134th Airborne Infantry Regiment; and
      • 135th Airborne Artillery Regiment.
  • 16th Airborne Corps:
    • Reported in the press (mainly Hong Kong) in 2003 (Section 3.2) but never actually established (Po, 2003).
  • Support units, including subordinate transport regiment (fixed-wing aircraft) and helicopter flight (rotary-wing aircraft).

In April 2017, the PLAAF airborne forces were reorganised by the CMC by decommissioning the three divisional HQs (China Defense Blog, 2017). The regiments of the three former airborne divisions were upgraded to brigades, and new units established, reporting directly to the (newly renamed) PLA Airborne Corps (China Defense Blog, 2017; China Defence Today, 2017b; Long, 2017):

  • Corps HQ.
  • 127th Airborne Brigade.
  • 128th Airborne Brigade.
  • 130th Airborne Brigade.
  • 131st Airborne Brigade.
  • 133rd Airborne Brigade.
  • 134th Airborne Brigade.
  • Special Operations Brigade (upgraded from the SOF Group).
  • Strategic Support Brigade (formed from the merger of the signal regiment, engineering detachment, chemical-defence detachment and logistics).
  • Aviation Brigade (formed from the merger of the fixed-wing and rotary-wing units).

There are also reconnaissance and artillery assets.

“Sources have said that the PLA’s 15th airborne army is likely to be upgraded as the new 84th Airborne Army Corps, an indication that China is trying to improve its airborne forces, Leung said. He said he expects the new 84th Airborne Army Corps to include an airborne assault group similar to that of the US 101st Airborne Division.” (Taipei Times, 2017).

3.1     Thor Commando (雷神突击队)

“The Air Force’s 15th Airborne Army has a subordinate SOF regiment, which includes the “Thor” Commando unit.” (Blasko, 2015b).

The Thor Commando (雷神突击队) is the SF unit of the PLAAF SOF community. This SOF Group was established during the 2000s in one of the three divisions (43rd Airborne Division) of the then 15th Airborne Corps.

“The ‘Leishen’ or ‘Thor’ commando team belongs to the PLA Air Force. Officially established in September 2011, this unit reportedly carries out training with four types of aircraft, eight types of parachutes and 15 parachuting methods to prepare soldiers for a wide range of battle and reconnaissance scenarios.” (Aid, 2014).

Leishen is interpreted by some as ‘Thundergod’.

3.2     PLAAF 16th Airborne Corps

“In late 2003 reports also emerged, mainly from Hong Kong press, that in the course of a future round of military force reductions, the PLA was going to form a new 16th Airborne Army. Its purpose is to serve as a support force for consolidating areas initially secured by the 15th Airborne Army, but it is also going to be primarily based in the Hangzhou area, which is approximately an hour’s flight to Taipei.” (Po, 2003).

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 PLA Air Force SOF candidates.

4.1     Selection and Screening

No information available.

4.2     SOF Training

No information available.

4.3     Graduation

No information available.

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

Aid, M. (2014) China Has 10 Separate and Distinct Special Forces Units. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.matthewaid.com/post/105770345781/china-has-10-separate-and-distinct-special-forces. [Accessed: 16 May, 2017].

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].

China Defense Blog (2017) 15th Airborne Corps’ New ORBAT. Available from World Wide Web: https://china-defense.blogspot.com.au/2017/04/15th-airborne-corps-new-orbat.html. [Accessed: 02 June, 2017].

China Military (2017) Armed Forces. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.chinamil.com.cn/armed-forces/index.htm. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].

Cliff, R., Fei, J., Hagen, J., Hague, E., Heginbotham, E. & Stillion, J. (2011) Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century. RAND: Project Air Force. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2011/RAND_MG915.pdf. [Accessed: 03 June, 2017].

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.

Sawhney, S. (2012) The Iron Structure: China’s Higher Defence Management. Force: National Security and Aerospace Newsmagazine. August 2012. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.forceindia.net/TheIronStructure.aspx. [Accessed: 05 June, 2017].

State Council (2014) State Council Organization Chart. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.gov.cn/state_council/2014/09/03/content_281474985533579.htm. [Accessed: 19 May, 2017].

Taipei Times (2017) China’s PLA Corps Reduced from 18 to 13, Reorganized. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2017/04/25/2003669381. [Accessed: 02 June, 2017].

Tao, Z. (ed) (2016a) PLA holds Symposium to Mark Missile Force Anniversary. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2016-06/28/content_7220910.htm. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].

Tsang, S. (Ed) (2006) If China Attacks Taiwan: Military Strategy, Politics and Economics. Oxon: Routledge.

Xiaoping, L. (2011) The PLA Air Force. Beijing: China International Press.

Yang, A.N.D. & Liao, M, W-C. (1998) Chapter 4: PLA Rapid Reaction Forces: Concept, Training, and Preliminary Assessment. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/conf_proceedings/CF145/CF145.chap4.pdf. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

Zhaohui, D. (ed) (2016) China Reshuffles Military Headquarters. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2016-01/11/content_7160596.htm. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].