Throughout the modern War on Terror, the United States has increasingly relied on its special operations troops to conduct a wide variety of combat operations. And as China has worked to modernize its People’s Liberation Army into a force that can stand toe to toe with the West, it’s taken notice of how effective this sort of war fighters can be. While China’s first “special forces” units were established in the 1990s, the 2000s saw a surge in emphasis on special operations troops, to the point that now every People’s Liberation Army Group has its own dedicated special forces unit attached to it.
In 2002, China even founded their own equivalent to the Navy SEALs, known as the Jiaolong, or “Water Dragons.” Unlike much of China’s sprawling but slow-moving military, the Jialong has seen some action in recent years: they were called on to evacuate foreign nationals from Yemen in 2015 and to re-capture a hijacked freighter in the Gulf of Aden in 2017. The PLA’s Air Force now also has its own SOF unit comprised of elite paratroopers known as Leishen, or “Thunder Gods.”
Over this last summer China put its special operations troops through a series of exercises that, while featuring a number of SOF staples for the press, like conducting night-time raids and the like, was likely really about determining how effective China’s SOF command and control elements can be in a realistic combat environment. The former is good for motivational (propaganda) videos like this one below, while the latter is essential for preparing for a technologically advanced opponent like China would find in the West.
“While media coverage of the exercise emphasized tests of special forces skills, such as fast-roping from helicopters, night operations and sniper attacks, the underlying point of the exercise is likely to be the test of command capabilities,” the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) said about the exercises. These exercises also served as an announcement to the world that China’s SOF troops are receiving increasingly realistic and pertinent training for today’s combat operations.
“Increasing realism in training, and particularly the creation of PLA Aviation Brigades that provide SOF brigades with organic vertical lift, are important steps in creating an operationally useful force,” FMSO noted. “As assessments of the exercise ‘Ingenious Special Operations Soldier-2018′ are published or future iterations of the exercise take place, the PLA’s progress in implementing the new command structure should become more clear.”
The fact that China’s SOF units are rapidly integrating aviation brigades into their training is of particular import, as not only is insertion and extraction an essential element of SOF mission planning, but China has long struggled with its inability to effectively move its troops around the world. Despite maintaining one of the largest standing army’s on the planet, China lacks the equipment necessary to rapidly move large numbers of troops anywhere. SOF units, however, have a greater capacity for affecting geopolitical change, so it’s logical that China would first focus on increasing SOF’s mobility, before tackling the far larger issues of its conventional forces.
“China has traditionally lacked the transport aircraft needed to perform a major airborne operation,” FMSO’s report states. “With the Y-20 heavy lift transport entering mass production and upgrades to smaller aircraft being rolled out, that situation is changing. Although still in its early stages, PLAAF special forces units like the Leishen commandos have laid an important foundation for building a strong strategic deterrent and power projection capability.”