China’s long-rumored military reforms became real in November 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping made important remarks at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on military reforms. Xi, who also serves as CMC chairman, provided a basic outline of the military reforms, including the replacement of military regions with battle zones as well as other major structural adjustments. The key point was the establishment of a new military structure with a chain of command that gives orders top-down, from the CMC to battle zones and subordinate units, as well as a new corresponding military administrative structure. In other words, the CMC is to take direct command, while the five battle zones are to be responsible for operations, and each service is to focus its efforts on building combat strength. These adjustments started taking shape in January 2016 and the five battle zones (in place of the existing seven military regions) were set up the next month, marking the most significant change to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in decades.
The newly established Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force (SSF), two new services of the PLA, were some of the major changes to the military’s structure. The transformation of the Second Artillery Corps (SAC) into the Rocket Force was not a surprise, as the SAC had already been an independent military branch under the direct control of the CMC. With the mission to “deter against hostile forces in all territories with both conventional and nuclear warheads,” the PLA Rocket Force, like its predecessor, the SAC, is responsible for the stockpile of surface-to-surface strategic and tactical ballistic missiles, which are China’s “lethal weapons” in its nuclear deterrence strategy.
For long-term observers of the PLA’s development, that the SAC was restructured as the Rocket Force was not surprising. The establishment of the SSF, however, was a different story; to many specialists, the SSF represented a major break in tradition. In addition, after China announced its establishment, media reports on the SSF have been scarce. The new service is veiled in mystery.