In its effort to build a modern 21st Century fighting force, China has had its own revolution in military affairs that has touched almost every aspect of the armed forces. Chinese special-operations forces have been no exception.
Major transformations in China’s elite special forces began taking place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has concentrated on selecting the highest quality individuals within the military, providing them with the most advanced equipment available, and training them in a wide range of military disciplines. The PLA has placed a high degree of emphasis on the physical and mental abilities of the candidates: The training can be grueling, and those who are found to be unsuited are cut from the program immediately. The dropout rate during initial training is said to average between 50 and 90 percent.
Within the military forces of the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, there are many units that could be classified as “special forces.” They include rapid-reaction forces, airborne divisions, amphibious landing units and marines. While these organizations certainly fit the category of special forces, for the purposes of this article, they will be considered to be large special-mission units and therefore not included. Instead, the focus here will be on smaller, more elite units tasked with unconventional or asymmetrical warfare.
Two developments have provided excellent methods for separating Chinese special forces from the larger special-purpose components. The first development is a sharpening of doctrine regarding the special forces’ missions. In an analysis of 20th century combat theory, authors Chang Wanquan and Yu Guohua of the People’s Liberation Army Daily provide a summary of the operating doctrine of PLA special forces. They note, “Special forces warfare includes detailed battle theories, such as special forces reconnaissance, attacks and sabotage, and comprehensive battle theories, such as integrated land-sea-air-space-electronic combat, all-dimensional simultaneous attacks, nonlinear combat, no-contact longrange warfare, asymmetrical combat, large-scale night combat and ‘surgical’ strikes.”
The second development is the adoption of code names to distinguish units, which is often done by select military organizations. The PLA has assigned at least one dedicated special forces unit to each military region. The size of the special-forces unit depends upon the military region. Units have been reported to range from battalion to division size.
While Chinese special forces are designed to perform various operations, their two main missions are direct action and special reconnaissance. Direct action can be broken down into five categories: decapitation, harassment, security, terrorist response and rescue.