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This article is organised as follows:

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

The PLA Army (or PLAA) is one of seven (7) organisations that make up the Chinese Armed Forces (China Military, 2017) and is the biggest with approximately 1.6 million personnel – although military reforms will see PLAA regular and reserve personnel numbers reduced whilst reserve personnel in the other branches will be increased (Jianing, 2017).

PLA Army SOF units comprise the land 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 Army 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 Army SOF, approximately 50 to 90 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 Army’s SOF, providing a brief history and their role and purpose. It will then provide an outline of the hierarchy and organisation of PLA Army 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 Army SOF candidates before providing some useful links, publications and references.

1.1     Caveats

When reading this article, the reader should be aware of a number of limitations, which include:

  • Unit names may change for a variety of reasons including: natural change over time; translators’ interpretation; misinformation by the host nation; and so on. For example, the ‘Falcon’ SF unit has also been called/interpreted as the ‘Falcons of the Southwest’ and the ‘Southwest China Falcon’.
  • Some sub-unit (minor) Chinese SOF units have been known to take names from other regions/areas or have names similar to unit (major) Chinese SOF units.
  • Different sources mention different names and tasks for units, although they are discussing the same units.
  • Sources contradict each other regarding names and capabilities, although (in general) not on purpose.
  • It took me a while to get my head around the various sources and present something coherent on PLA Army SOF.
  • This article is unlikely to be 100% accurate, but I hope it is close.

1.2     Brief History of PLA Army 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 SOF which can trace their lineage back to the 1920s, two decades earlier than their Western counterparts.

SOF elements have been part of the Chinese Communist Party well before the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (commonly known as the Red Army) was founded. Selected party members were involved in enforcing party discipline and killing counterrevolutionaries, while the latter, with the formation of the Red Army were traditional long-range reconnaissance forces capable of operating behind enemy lines and as elite light infantry (Andrew, 2015).

The PLA can trace its roots to the 1927 Nanchang Uprising of the Chinese Communists against the Chinese Nationalists. Initially known as the Red Army, it grew under Mao Zedong and Zhu De from 5,000 troops in 1929 to 200,000 in 1933 – with only a fraction of this force surviving the Long March in retreat from the Nationalists (Andrew, 2015).

After rebuilding its strength, a large portion of the communist forces, the Eighth Route Army, fought with the Nationalists against the Japanese in northern China during World War II. In WWII (and the war against the Nationalists immediately after), carefully selected soldiers from ordinary units were formed into temporary composite units, given specialised training and weapons, and tasked with special missions such as long-range penetration, tactical reconnaissance, raids on vital enemy positions, etc. After the mission was accomplished, these units were normally disbanded and soldiers returned to their original units (Global Defence, 2008).

After WWII communist forces, now renamed the People’s Liberation Army, defeated the Nationalists and made possible the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, the PLA relied on specially-trained reconnaissance units within its ground forces for some special missions (Global Defence, 2008). Each military region (MR) had a regiment-sized reconnaissance group directly organic to the military region headquarters (MRHQ). Army corps and divisions also had their own subordinated reconnaissance units (usually battalion- or company-sized). Although these reconnaissance units were not ‘special forces’ using the modern definition, their missions covered the spectrum of special operations tasking.

The Sino-Vietnam border conflicts that took place in 1979 and the 1980s was the first wake-up call to the PLA that it lacked a dedicated SOF capability. During the conflicts, Vietnamese SOF operating in small groups caused the PLA some considerable causalities and losses. Towards the end of the conflicts, the PLA quickly learned from its lessons and began to send its own SOF units, mostly composed of personnel from army reconnaissance units, to operate behind enemy lines for raiding, ambushing, kidnapping, reconnaissance, and other special operations (Global Defence, 2008).

“China created its elite special forces and Rapid Reaction Units (RRU) in the 1980s.” (Kamphausen & Lai, 2015, p.220), starting with the “Special Reconnaissance Group” in 1988 (Lavendar, 2013, p.5).

Modern Chinese SOF is modelled upon the Russian SOF pattern. And, although adept at guerrilla warfare and special missions, the PLA did not have a dedicated Special Forces component until the early 1990s when China underwent a doctrinal change from ‘people’s war’ towards ‘fighting a local war under high-tech conditions’.

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.

Initially, PLA Army SOF units were under the command of one of seven Military Region HQs (replaced by five Theatre Commands) but, from around 2003, command transitioned to Group Armies (which are distributed among the Theatre Commands).

1.3     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.

1.4     Role and Purpose of PLA Army SOF

“China’s special forces seem to be well on their way toward becoming cohesive and competent units. Successive wins in international reconnaissance competitions show that they are mentally and physically tough, mastering many of the soldier skills needed in combat.” (Henderson, 2006, p.34).

Unlike US SOF, the PLA focuses the roles of its SOF on direct action, special reconnaissance and counter-terrorism (Global Defence, 2008).

Blasko (2015) states PLA SOF units are not generally trained for unconventional warfare (UW) and civil affairs (CA) unlike their US counterparts. However, Kamphausen & Lai (2015) argue this is starting to change and Cheng (2012, p.24) writes “special operations … 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.”

Current PLA doctrine suggests the use of SOF for a high-intensity, lightning-fast regional conflict that is over in short amount of time. Generally, the PLA is not intending to be involved in long-duration, low-intensity operations in foreign countries, in contrast to US SOF in Southeast Asia in the 1960s/70s.

Chinese SOF assets undertake a number of roles, or core activities, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:

  • Direct Action (DA): The most important mission for PLA SOF, involving short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions, is to seize, destroy, capture, recover or inflict damage on designated personnel or material. Other DA operations may include: capturing enemy airfields and seaports for subsequent airborne and amphibious landing troops; sabotaging enemy equipment and systems; attacking vital civilian infrastructure; ambushing enemy forces; spreading misinformation to cause enemy confusion, etc.
  • Special Reconnaissance (SR): This involves reconnaissance and surveillance actions to obtain or verify vital intelligence and information, by using visual and other hi-tech collection methods. It may also involve locating and designating targets for precision strikes.
  • Counter-Terrorism (CT): Training in offensive counter-terrorism operations to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism.
  • Other Roles: PLA SOF, on occasion, also act as ‘Blue Army’ (opposing force) during training exercises in order to test the ability of regular army units against SOF.

However, as noted by McCauley (2015b), the role and purpose of PLA SOF is slowly evolving and encompassing more missions and tasks as the PLA SOF further develops its capabilities. Reading McCauley’s (2015b) outline of the PLA SOF’s likely employment (from the Special Operations Science Course of Study) during combat missions and campaigns, it would suggest that the PLA SOF is not that far behind US SOF.

2.0     Hierarchy of PLA Army 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 Army’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 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.

2.5     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 Army SOF

Information unavailable.

3.0     Organisation of PLA Army SOF

Under the old MR model (pre-2016), each PLA MR had at least one SOF unit, with each unit being roughly the size of an Army Group/Regiment and established with 1,000 to 2,000 personnel across three battalions. Since their inception in the 1990s, there has been a gradual upgrading of PLAA SOF units from group to regiment to brigade status. Each battalion had its own HQ and support unit (Global Defence, 2008). Each SOF unit had a unique codename with units organised as follows (Blasko, 2015):

  • Beijing Military Region Special Forces Unit (MRSFU), known as Oriental Sword (东方神剑); one unit (one brigade).
  • Guangzhou MRSFU, known as South China Sword (华南之剑) or South Blade; one unit (one brigade).
  • Chengdu MRSFU, known as Southwest China Falcon (西南猎鹰) or [Leopard (猎豹)]; two units (one brigade and one group).
  • Shenyang MRSFU, known as Siberian Tiger (东北虎); two units (one brigade and one group).
  • Nanjing MRSFU, known as Flying Dragon (飞龙); two units (two brigades).
  • Jinan MRSFU, known as Eagle (雄鹰); one unit (one brigade).
  • Lanzhou MRSFU, known as Tiger of Dark Night (暗夜之虎) or Night Tiger; two units (one brigade and one regiment).
  • Hong Kong Special Operations Company, known as the 5 Minute Response Unit (part of the Honk Kong Garrison within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region).
  • The Macau Quick Reaction Platoon, known as the ‘Sharp Swords’ (Fitsanakis, 2015), ‘Macao Guard Unit’ or ‘Kimchee Commandos’ (part of the Macau Garrison within the Macau Special Administrative Region).

Under the Theatre Command model (post-2016), PLAA formations are organised as follows (Blasko, 2017; McCauley, 2017):

  • Eastern Theatre Command (formerly Nanjing MD):
    • One special operations brigade, located at Jiangsu, within 71st Group Army (previously 12th Group Army (Wood, 2017a)). This second SOF brigade was converted from an Infantry brigade over a three year period, 2013 to 2016 (Bo, 2016).
    • One special operations brigade within 72nd Group Army (previously 1st Group Army); and
    • One special operations brigade, located at Xiamen, within 73rd Group Army (previously 31st Group Army (Wood, 2017a)). ‘Flying Dragons’, established in late 1992 (Henderson, 2006; Aid, 2014).
  • Southern Theatre Command (formerly Guangzhou MD):
    • One special operations brigade within 74th Group Army (previously 41st Group Army).
    • One special operations brigade, located Guangzhou, within 75th Group Army (previously 42nd Group Army (Wood, 2016)). ‘Sharp Sword of Southern China’, established in 1988 as the PLA’s first dedicated SOF unit and was later expanded in 2000 to become the first PLA SOF unit capable of air-, sea- and land-operations.
    • 14th Group Army has been disbanded.
    • Hong Kong Special Operations Company, known as the 5 Minute Response Unit (part of the Honk Kong Garrison within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region).
    • The Macau Quick Reaction Platoon, known as the ‘Sharp Swords’ (Fitsanakis, 2015), ‘Macao Guard Unit’ or ‘Kimchee Commandos’ (part of the Macau Garrison within the Macau Special Administrative Region).
  • Western Theatre Command (formerly Chengdu MD & Lanzhou MD):
    • One special operations brigade (?Tiger) within 76th Group Army (previously 21st Group Army).
    • One special operations brigade (?Cheetah) within 77th Group Army (previously 13th Group Army (McCauley, 2017)).
    • 47th Group Army has been disbanded.
    • Possibly one special operations group in the Tibet Military District (MD) and one special operations regiment in the Xinjiang MD (Blasko, 2015).
  • Northern Theatre Command (formerly Shenyang MD):
    • One special operations brigade, located at Shenyang, within 78th Group Army (previously 16th Group Army (Wood, 2017b)).
    • One special operations brigade (‘Tigers of the Northeast’ or ‘Siberian Tiger’), located at Liaoyang, within 79th Group Army (previously 39th Group Army (Wood, 2017b)).
    • One special operations brigade within 80th Group Army (previously 26th Group Army).
    • 40th Group Army has been disbanded.
  • Central Theatre Command (formerly Beijing MD):
    • One special operations brigade within 81st Group Army (previously 65th Group Army).
    • One special operations brigade (‘Arrow’, formerly ‘Divine Sword’ (Aid, 2014)) within 82nd Group Army (previously 38th Group Army). Established in the early 1990s.
    • One special operations brigade (‘Eagle’) within 83rd Group Army (previously 54th Group Army).
    • 20th Group Army has been disbanded.
    • 27th Group Army has been disbanded.

Small SOF units have also been established in some PLAA divisions and brigades. Most PLA SOF units have been upgraded to brigade-size with approximately 2,000 to 3,000 personnel (Blasko, 2015; McCauley, 2015a). Over the period 2000 to 2015, and including all branches of military service, the number of SOF personnel has roughly doubled (Blasko, 2015).

McCauley (2015a) suggests that, in 2015, a PLA Army SOF brigade consisted of:

  • SOF brigade HQ;
  • Reconnaissance battalion (3);
  • Direct Action battalion (1 or 2);
  • Amphibious battalion (1);
  • Heavy/special weapons battalion (1);
  • UAV battalion (1);
  • Anti-terrorist battalion (1); and
  • Comprehensive support battalion (1).

“SOF troops are formed into groups, generally 3 to 15 soldiers.” (McCauley, 2015a).

We will now look at the PLAA SOF units based on their codenames within the old MR model. I make an assumption (rightly or wrongly) that the PLA Army SOF units kept their unique codenames during the 2016/2017 reforms.

3.1     Oriental Sword (东方神剑)

Within the TC model, there are two special operations brigades assigned to the Central Theatre Command, formerly the Beijing Military Region.

Oriental Sword (or Divine Sword), established in the 1990s, is the SOF unit of the 38th Group Army located in Beijing. There is also an SOF unit the 26th Group Army located in Jinan (McCauley, 2015a).

“‘Arrow,’ formerly known as ‘Divine Sword,’ is the special forces of the Beijing Military Region. This elite unit tasked with protecting the capital contains 3,000 soldiers, each of whom is adept at a wide range of tasks ranging from battlefield reconnaissance to anti-terrorism. Every soldier from this unit must be able to run five kilometres bearing heavy equipment in under 25 minutes, complete a 400 metre obstacle course in under one minute and 45 seconds, throw several hundred grenades over at least 50 metres each time, and perform 100 push-ups in a minute.” (Aid, 2014).

“The Beijing Military Region’s Recon and Strike Force. This group is trained to assault airfields and to take out command-and-control elements using assault helicopters, powered parachutes, mortars and flamethrowers. The unit is known to target communications centres, radar systems and ammunition depots. They are considered to be endurance swimmers who are proficient at underwater demolitions and can pilot boats.” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

3.2     South China Sword (华南之剑)

The South China Sword unit is the SOF unit of the Southern Theatre Command. The special operations brigade, located at Guangzhou, within 42nd Group Army (McCauley, 2015a; Wood, 2016) was first established in 1988 as the PLA’s first dedicated SOF unit (as a special reconnaissance unit) and was later expanded in 2000 to become the first PLA SOF unit capable of air-, sea- and land-operations.

The codename of the unit has also been interpreted as Sharp Sword of Southern China, South Blade and Sword of Southern China.

“‘South Blade’ is belongs to the Guangzhou Military Region. Founded in 1988, it is the earliest of the PLA’s official special operations forces. Basic training for this unit include cross-country running, climbing, swimming and shooting, though soldiers must also be familiar with operating 15 advanced technologies including GPS navigation, night vision, and photo reconnaissance.” (Aid, 2014).

“The Guangzhou Military Region’s Sword of Southern China. This group, comprising 4,000 soldiers, operates out of Qixi, in the Guangzhou Military Region [48]. Established in 1988, it is said to be one of the earliest groups formed after China began modernizing its military. The unit is said to be a triphibious force capable of all-weather warfare; of carrying out long-range air borne operations; of underwater crossings; and of capturing beachheads. Soldiers of the unit cross-train in 60 subject areas (individual subject areas are not referenced) of the Chinese navy and air force. The unit is trained in contingency operations and has carried out joint training in island operations with other branches of the military [50]. It is said that the unit has 400 personnel trained to fly aircraft, perform “stunt driving” and pilot boats [51].” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

3.3     Southwest China Falcon (西南猎鹰)

According to McCauley (2017) there is only one special operations brigade within the Western TC, located at Sichuan and part of 13th Group Army (Blasko, 2015; McCauley, 2015a).

Under the MR model there were others, for example, ‘Falcons of the Southwest’ (Henderson, 2006, p.33; Aid, 2014) and the ‘Hunting Leopards’ (Henderson, 2006, p.31 & 33) were reported as SOF units within the Chengdu MR. ‘Night Tiger’ was part of the Lanzhou MR (Section 3.8).

The Falcons of the Southwest, established in 1992, are reported as a SOF unit specialising in “in thrilling and dangerous missions involving car chases, scaling cliffs, and hostage rescue situations.” (Aid, 2014).

“The Chengdu Military Region’s Falcons of the Southwest. Established in 1992, this group uses high-tech equipment to carry out special combat reconnaissance. The unit has received numerous awards and was profiled in a documentary showing air-assault and forward-reconnaissance skills. The group is credited with attaining amazing results in four disciplines: reconnaissance, airborne insertion, surprise attacks and emergency evacuations.” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

The Hunting Leopards carried out their first anti-terrorism exercise in 2002. However, “From available reporting, it is difficult to ascertain whether this unit is strictly military or has ties to the People’s Armed Police (PAP).” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

3.4     Siberian Tiger (东北虎)

The ‘Siberian Tiger’ (Aid, 2014) or the ‘Tigers of the Northeast’ is an SOF unit of the Southern TC, and part of either the 39th Group Army or 16th Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

Henderson (2006, p.33) describes this SOF unit as “a marine special-forces unit trained to perform airborne and commando ‘SEAL-type” assault operations on airfields, command-an-control sites and radar-warning sites using powered parachutes and scuba equipment.”

Both Henderson (2006) and Aid (2014) suggest personnel undergo extensive survival training in jungle, desert, prairie and urban environments and are capable of conducting missions in the sea, air and land dimensions of the battlefield.

3.5     Flying Dragon (飞龙)

Established in 1992 (Henderson, 2006; Aid, 2014), the ‘Flying Dragon’ or Flying Dragons’ is one of two SOF units now part of the Eastern TC, formerly the Nanjing MR, in either the 1st Group Army or 31st Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

Both Henderson (2006) and Aid (2014) report that the unit conducts unconventional training under ‘great intensity’ and dangerous conditions.

In 1997, the unit carried out a simulated attack on a hidden/concealed enemy airfield involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), helicopters and paratroopers in the Zijin Mountains of Nanjing (Henderson, 2006; Aid, 2014). The drones were used for relaying battlefield intelligence to HQ.

3.6     Eagle (雄鹰)

Aid (2014) reports:

“The ‘Eagle’ is the special operations force of the Jinan Military Region and is a new unit adept at land, air and sea battle and reconnaissance. Soldiers are said to focus on upper body strength training to enhance cardiovascular endurance, including being able to run at least 3,300 metres in under 12 minutes. They also reportedly engage in hand-to-hand combat training as well as the traditional Chinese health and martial arts practice of qigong.”

The Jinan MR is now part of the Central TC. It is believed the SOF brigade is part of 26th Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

3.7     Heroic Falcons

Henderson (2006, p.33) reports:

“The Jinan Military Region’s Black Berets/Heroic Falcons. The Heroic Falcons are trained in special reconnaissance and in triphibious warfare.”

Personnel practice Qigong, a Chinese form of martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, and also cardiovascular endurance with runs graded as follows (Henderson, 2006):

  • Pass: 3,300 meters (2.05 miles) in 12 minutes;
  • Good: 3,400 meters (2.11 miles) in 12 minutes; and
  • Outstanding: 3,500 meters (2.17 miles) in 12 minutes.

The Jinan MR is now part of the Central TC. It is believed the SOF brigade is part of 26th Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

3.8     Night Tiger (暗夜之虎)

According to McCauley (2017) there is only one special operations brigade within the Western TC, located at Sichuan and part of 13th Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

Under the MR model there were others, for example, ‘Falcon’ (Henderson, 2006, p.33; Aid, 2014) and the ‘Hunting Leopards’ (Henderson, 2006, p.31 & 33) were reported as SOF units within the Chengdu MR (Section 3.3).

Under the old MR model, the Lanzhou MR was home to the ‘Night Tiger’ (Aid, 2014) or the ‘Tigers of the Night’ as Henderson (2006, p.33) translates the unit’s name.

“The Lanzhou Military Region’s Tigers of the Night. Information on this unit is vague; reports offer only general references to a “certain” special-forces unit located in the Lanzhou Military Region being involved in various types of activities. “North Education,” an online site sponsored by the Tianjin Education Committee, references a dedicated special-forces unit in the Lanzhou Military Region and talks about the unit’s participation in Estonia’s “ERNA” special-forces competition. However, the article does not give any background, the unit’s mission or the unit’s code name.” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

“The special forces of the Lanzhou Military Region is the ‘Night Tiger,’ which has a long and illustrious history with its origins dating back to World War II. It is also home of China’s first counter-terrorism unit, established in 2000.” (Aid, 2014).

3.9     Oscar

It is believed that ‘Oscar’ is one of two SOF units now part of the Eastern TC, formerly the Nanjing MR, in either the 1st Group Army or 31st Group Army (McCauley, 2015a).

3.10     Daggers

“The Daggers (military region unknown). This amphibious unit, formed in 2001, is described as “one of the ace cards” for dealing with Taiwanese independence. In 2004, the unit carried out a mock exercise involving the capture of a coastal island in which the unit set up an “electronic interference system,” followed by the arrival of armed helicopters and airborne troops. The unit destroyed the island’s airport, oil-storage facilities, command centre and ammo dumps. The island was then secured for follow-on forces by removing the enemy’s biological and chemical weapons [55].” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

3.11     Hong Kong Special Operations Company

The Hong Kong Special Operations Company, known as the 5 Minute Response Unit, is part of the Honk Kong Garrison.

The Hong Kong Garrison is located within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and is part of the Southern TC. The Garrison, and therefore the SOF unit, reports direct to the CMC although administrative control is exerted by the Southern TC.

It is understood that some Hong Kong Special Operations Company personnel were later transferred to the Macau Garrison to form the new Quick Reaction Platoon established there.

3.12     Macau Quick Reaction Platoon

The Macau Quick Reaction Platoon, known as the ‘Sharp Swords’ (Fitsanakis, 2015), ‘Macao Guard Unit’ or ‘Kimchee Commandos’ is part of the Macau Garrison.

The Macau Garrison is located within the Macau Special Administrative Region and is part of the Southern TC. The Garrison, and therefore the SOF unit, reports direct to the CMC although administrative control is exerted by the Southern TC.

3.13     PLA Airborne Forces

For readers wondering why there is no information regarding airborne forces.

Chinese airborne forces, in contrast to convention, form part of the PLAs Air Force rather than the PLA Army.

Further information can be found here.

3.14     PLA Army Aviation SOF

“PLA SOF are supported mainly by helicopter units, consisting of about 750 airframes of all types for the Army and probably less than 100 each in the Navy and Air Force.” (Blasko, 2015).

Established in April 1986 as the “Army Aviation Unit (AAU)” (Yang & Liao, 1998, p.52), this helicopter force supports all PLA operations not just SOF operations. The Chinese utilise helicopters in the same manner as their US counterparts including delivering troops by parachute, air-landing, and fast-roping or rappelling.

4.0     Selection and Training

“The PLA began by selecting the most experienced officers and cadre from PRC military forces (estimated to be well in excess of two million). After establishing the groups, the PLA supplied them with the most advanced equipment available; vigorously cross-trained them in multiple disciplines; and pushed them to their mental and physical limits.” (Henderson, 2006, p.33).

Since the 1990s, China has been slowly developing and upskilling its SOF capabilities both in personnel and equipment. However, the converting of personnel from conventional-status to SOF-status hasn’t always been conventional – look here for an example.

Application for the PLA Army’s SOF is made by male volunteers of the PLA Army, applications from other branches of military service are not accepted (needs verification). Volunteers can be either commissioned officers or enlisted soldiers.

Candidates will generally go through three phases to become a fully-qualified PLA Army SOF Operator, which include:

  • Phase 1: Selection and Screening.
  • Phase 2: Basic SOF Training.
  • Phase 3: Advanced SOF Training.

4.1     Selection and Screening

“The dropout rate during initial training is said to average between 50 and 90 percent.” (Henderson, 2006, p.30).

There is virtually no public information on the selection and screening process for Chinese SOF. However, we do know that Chinese SOF have been benefiting from the PLA’s modernisation and professionalism agenda (Lavender, 2013).

Candidates must pass highly strict and demanding multi-phase selection and screening processes before they are accepted (Lavender, 2013; Lui, 2016).

Consequently, PLA SOF are composed of highly-trained, skilled and motivated professional soldiers, who are carefully selected from the commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) serving on active duty.

4.2     SOF Training

“Training is designed to push troops to a breaking point, with training accidents and casualties an accepted risk of the training requirements to forge special forces personnel who can operate under immense psychological and physical stress during combat missions.” (McCauley, 2015a).

PLA SOF training is delivered in two stages: basic and advanced.

Based on extensive studies of foreign SOF, Chinese SOF training encompasses (Henderson, 2006; McCauley, 2015a; Blasko, 2015):

  • Physical Fitness Training conducted in a variety of austere conditions.
  • Close Combat Skills and martial arts.
  • Camouflage and Concealment.
  • Weapons Handling and Small Arms Proficiency.
  • Land Navigation.
  • Communications: for relaying information in a timely manner using man-pack tactical radio and video-voice-data communication equipment.
  • Methods of Insertion: Using a three-dimensional, all-weather infiltration approach, or triphibious model:
    • Sea (submarine, high-speed ferry, open-water swimming and scuba diving). Training involves open-water swimming, sea demolition/clearing mines and sea shooting. Other training includes a 10,000-metre (approximately 6.2 miles) swim, a night-time swim in full gear, diving, underwater transport and survival drills on islets.
    • Air (airborne, powered parachute, paragliders and helicopter). In parachute training, the PLA has effected a gradual transition from using multi-type parachutes and planes to armed parachuting in mountain areas and over waters from both high- and low-altitude insertion.
    • Land (long-distance movement and rock climbing). It has been reported that in various exercises, SOF personnel have been able to penetrate through defensive positions that use night-vision equipment, noise- and motion-warning systems, anti-infantry radar systems and other high-tech warning/surveillance equipment. However, the penetration techniques used by SOF personnel, the conditions under which the exercises were carried out, and the exact type and age of the detection equipment are all unknown.
  • Special Reconnaissance: short-term and sustained reconnaissance behind enemy lines using digitised battlespace monitors and UAVs to relay information. Through special reconnaissance, SOF personnel can obtain relevant data on the weather, hydrological and geographical features of specific regions. Special reconnaissance includes actions such as target search, area evaluation and verifying the effects of a strike.
  • Mountain Training: The Chinese, generally, have conducted combined-arms and individual soldier training from around 12,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level. Other training and testing has included:
    • The use of heavy equipment, determining its maximum speed and climbing capability at different altitudes, in various types of terrain and under different climates.
    • Maximum rate of fire and range of fire of different weapons.
    • Long-range raids lasting up to four hours, followed by extended periods of work in altitudes approximately 16,400 feet above sea level (Taiwan’s highest peak is just under 13,000 feet offering insight into other possible areas of operations, for example Tibet and Central Asia).
    • More specifically, SOF training has included: hostage rescue; battlefield rescue; ammunition transport; traversing minefields; and first aid. SOF have also been known to train in a variety of military vehicles in this terrain.
  • Wilderness/Survival Training: Conducted in the Luliang Mountains, located in the Western Shanxi province, and selected to its all-weather environment, sparse population, high mountains and dense forest. Training, over a seven day course, includes (both individually and in small teams) learning to:
    • Catch wild pigs, snakes, fish, birds and insects;
    • Gather flowers, plants and fruits;
    • Find, extract and purify water;
    • Conserve water and prevent dehydration;
    • Make fire by many means;
    • Make shelters and resist rain and insects;
    • Make winter clothing using on-site materials; and
    • Recognize and apply medicinal herbs to wounds.
  • Specialised Training: Depending on their specific roles, SOF candidates will undertake specialised training in one or more of the following areas:
    • Urban warfare;
    • Sniper training;
    • Amphibious operations;
    • Demolitions;
    • Advanced communications;
    • Computers; and/or
    • Foreign language skills.

PLA SOF training stresses the importance of team building.

“All parachute-qualified personnel initially take jump training in fixed-wing aircraft, primarily the Yun5 biplane (a locally produced version of the Soviet An2 Colt), which also can be used for SOF operations. The PLA’s shortage of long range, heavy transport aircraft means Air Force airborne units receive priority for jump training using these assets.” (Blasko, 2015).

“The original selection pool for the Special Operation Forces was over 100 soldiers, but only 30 qualified after training. I was one of them,” said Zhaxi Muga, Lieutenant of the PLA [1]2th Group Army.” (Bin, 2017).

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].

Bin, H. (2017) Chinese Special Operations Forces Recalibrating for Modern Warfare. Available from World Wide Web: https://america.cgtn.com/2017/01/15/chinese-special-operations-forces-recalibrating-for-modern-warfare. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

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

Blasko, D.J. (2015) 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. (2017) What is Known and Unknown about Changes to the PLA’s Ground Combat Units. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/known-unknown-changes-plas-ground-combat-units/. [Accessed: 13 June, 2017].

Bo, T. (2016) China Military Transformation ep2: Infantry Unit Transformed into Special Ops Force. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.cctv.com/2016/10/03/VIDElGGrPvXb8NKbzLmNJ9Ge161003.shtml. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

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

Fitsanakis, J. (2015) Macau Authorities Deny CIA Tried to Assassinate Snowden. Available from World Wide Web: https://intelnews.org/2015/04/28/01-1686/. [Accessed: 15 May, 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.

Jianing, Y. (2017) China to Reduce Army Reserves as part of Military Reform. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-03/10/content_7521737.htm. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].

Katoch, P.C. & Datta, S. (2013) India’s Special Forces: History and Future of Indian Special Forces. New Delhi: Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.

Lui, Z. (2016) China’s Special Forces need to Extend Overseas Reach to Safeguard Interests, Military Mouthpiece Says. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2003775/chinas-special-forces-need-extend-overseas-reach. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

McCauley, K. (2015a) PLA Special Operations: Forces, Command, Training and Future Direction. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/pla-special-operations-forces-command-training-and-future-direction/. [Accessed: 22 May, 2017].

McCauley, K. (2015b) PLA Special Operations: Combat Missions and Operations Abroad. China Brief. 15(17). Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/pla-special-operations-combat-missions-and-operations-abroad/. [Accessed: 16 May, 2017].

McCauley, K. (2017) Snapshot: China’s Western Theater Command. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/snapshot-chinas-western-theater-command/. [Accessed: 16 May, 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].

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].

Tao, Z. (ed) (2016b) Strive to Build a strong, modern Strategic Support Force: Xi. Available from World Wide Web: http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2016-08/29/content_7231309.htm. [Accessed: 25 April, 2017].

Women of China (2017) China’s First Female Special Forces Unit Receives Parachute Training. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.womenofchina.com.cn/html/report/6210-1.htm. [Accessed: 17 April, 2017].

Wood, P. (2016) Snapshot: China’s Southern Theater Command. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/snapshot-chinas-southern-theater-command/. [Accessed: 16 May,2017].

Wood, P. (2017a) Snapshot: China’s Eastern Theater Command. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/snapshot-chinas-eastern-theater-command/. [Accessed: 16 May, 2017].

Wood, P. (2017b) Strategic Assessment: China’s Northern Theater Command. Available from World Wide Web: https://jamestown.org/program/strategic-assessment-chinas-northern-theater-command/. [Accessed: 13 June, 2017].

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].