The PLA’s Strategic Support Forces – China’s Military Cyber Force

Xi and Co.

In January 2016, Chinese press reported that two new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units would be established to address outer space and cyber operations concerns.  Deemed the Ballistic Force, this unit will be separate from the 2nd Artillery and will develop missiles as well spacecraft innovation, according to the report. The Strategic Support Force is the unit dedicated to cyber operations that will focus on “technological war” – both in space as well as via the Internet.  The two units, in addition to a PLA general command, were developed in response to modernization reforms initiated by the Chinese government.  The forces will follow the direction of the Communist Party of China, the Central Military Commission (CMC), and President Xi, according to reporting.

On January 1, China’s CMC released military reform guidelines in order to better support China’s interests regionally as well as internationally.  In order to make its military more adaptable to ever-changing geopolitical situations, the PLA’s responsibilities have broadened to extend beyond securing China’s boarders and maritime interests, particularly as China’s interests extend into the global community.  China’s military is very land-force heavy, a reality that has its roots since the Communist Party won the civil war in 1949.  Reforms seek to balance the army with the naval and air force services, a key move to better position China to handle modern-day conflicts that may not always require land forces as the dominant service element.

According to one military expert, the Strategic Support Forces will support the battlefield ensuring the military’s ability to use aerospace, network, and electromagnetic domains, and is seen as an instrumental capability for joint force operations supporting objectives highlighted in China’s 2015 new military strategy of “Winning Informatized Local Wars.”  Long suspected of having military components with offensive cyber capabilities, the official creation of a cyber-specific military force demonstrates Beijing’s commitment to developing its own cyber-centric entity that will support both wartime and peacetime activities, a dual mission responsibility bearing striking similarities to the United States Cyber Command.  The fact that the cyber unit will function independently of the ground forces command intimates that it will be a key facilitator for integration with other service elements during conflict, and will assist the protection of critical civilian infrastructure assets such as nuclear energy and financial networks outside periods of conflict.

China’s need for a strong, modernized military is to help counterbalance Western – especially U.S – interests in the Asia-Pacific. According to one Chinese news source, a significant military gap between China and the United States could negatively impact governments’ view of China as a rising power and regional leader.  The perception is that a powerful China is influential and with whom collaboration can occur as an equal partner thus reducing reliance on the West for security.

While the establishment of the Strategic Support Force is seen as an important catalyst to enhancing Chinese military support capacity, it also serves as the body that can engage foreign militaries’ cyber components.  The United States and China have been steadily increasing military-to-military engagement, an opportunity that provides transparency and the opportunity to establish rules of the road to prevent the escalation of tensions over areas of dispute or misunderstanding.  Given the past tumultuous two years in which five PLA officers were indicted by the Department of Justice for industrial espionage, and the revelations provided by the Edward Snowden leaks of alleged U.S. global spying, the Strategic Support Force can be leveraged as such an agent for communication.  As there are no agreed upon rules of behavior for nation states in cyber space, setting up independent cyber deterrence strategies without international understanding of acceptable/unacceptable activities risks causing miscalculations that could invariably escalate into more heated exchanges.  In this regard, the Strategic Support Force should not be viewed as China’s final admission of a cyber warfare capability that many had long suspected; rather, it should be viewed as an opportunity to deter aggressive behavior by soliciting greater cooperation in order to better proactively resolve disputes through enhanced cooperation and dialogue.