Asia Defense

China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for Innovation?

The new PLA branch might be China’s key to leapfrogging the United States on military technology.

China’s Strategic Support Force: A Force for Innovation?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Jian Kang

Chinese President Xi Jinping has tasked the new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF) with pursuing “leapfrog development” and advancing military innovation. The SSF, which has consolidated the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, has consistently been characterized as a “growth point” for the construction of “new-type” forces, while also considered an important force in joint operations. The SSF not only possesses the capabilities to contest space and cyberspace, the “new commanding heights of strategic competition,” but also may take responsibility for the PLA’s initial experimentation with and eventual employment of a range of “new concept weapons.” Looking forward, the SSF could become a vital force for innovation through which PLA may seek to leapfrog the U.S. military in critical emerging technologies.

In its design, the SSF is intended to be optimized for future warfare, in which the PLA anticipates such “strategic frontiers” as space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain will be vital to victory, while unmanned, “intelligentized,” and stealthy weapons systems take on an increasingly prominent role. According to its commander, Gao Jin, the SSF will “protect the high frontiers and new frontiers of national security,” while seeking to “seize the strategic commanding heights of future military competition.” Through its integration of space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, the SSF may be uniquely able to take advantage of cross-domain synergies resulting from the inherent interrelatedness and technological convergence of operations in these domains. The frequent characterization of the SSF as responsible for the construction of “new-type” or “new-quality” combat forces does allude to these known capabilities, which are often characterized in such terms. However, the concept is also used to refer expansively to a variety of forces based on advanced technologies. For instance, the SSF will likely incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including for electronic warfare.

Beyond its established space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions, the SSF’s responsibilities may incorporate the research and development (R&D) and perhaps also the initial testing and fielding of certain of the PLA’s “new concept” weapons systems. The PLA’s official definition of this term alludes to high-technology weapons, such as directed energy weapons, kinetic energy weapons, and cyber weapons. In some instances, the notion of “new concept” weapons might act as a subtler reference to the concept of “assassin’s mace” or shashoujian (杀手锏) capabilities, intended to target U.S. vulnerabilities and achieve an asymmetric advantage. Indeed, the development of “disruptive weapons” has been characterized as a major task for the SSF, which appears focused on the military applications of multiple emerging technologies, from big data to nanotechnology. In the foreseeable future, it is also plausible that the SSF may experiment with and eventually field directed energy weapons, which could include high-energy lasers, high-power microwave weapons, and/or railguns. For instance, there have been reports of recent advances in the PLA’s high-power microwave weapons by researchers with the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology.

The SSF will undertake its own cutting-edge R&D through a number of research institutes that could also take responsibility for its agenda of civil-military integration. At this point, there are initial indicators that the 54th, 56th, 57th, and 58th Research Institutes, which were previously under the aegis of the former General Staff Department (GSD), have all been transferred to the SSF. According to Lü Yueguang, deputy director of the 54th Research Institute, the SSF’s “core tasks” include “relying on technological innovation to raise war-fighting capabilities,” while seeking to achieve “leapfrog development” in crux domains. This pursuit of technological innovation will be enabled by the SSF’s related role to advance civil-military integration, which Xi’s initial commentary and subsequent remarks on the SSF have emphasized. The focus on civil-military integration is also perceived as necessary to the SSF’s missions due to the nature of informationized warfare itself, given that civilian information systems have become increasingly critical to military technology. To take advantage of dual-use technological advances, these research institutes may engage extensively with the defense industry and broader scientific community.

Inherently, the SSF’s prospects for success in its ambitious agenda for innovation will also depend upon the human, cultural, and organizational aspects of this new force. The SSF has produced an “Innovation-Driven Development Strategy” that incorporates efforts to advance the construction of a cadre of innovative, talented personnel and to “cultivate the spirit of innovation.” Similarly, Chu Hongbin, political commissar of the China Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control Department, which is now subordinate to the SSF, argues that the key to the formation of new-type combat forces is the “collection of talent.” He notes that over 70 percent of personnel in his department have at least a master’s degree. However, the effective utilization of these talented personnel will depend upon the SSF’s capability to create a culture that embraces and enables innovation. There have been initial indications of its attempts to do so, such as organizing brainstorming sessions and seminars.

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Although the PLA has typically been characterized as an organization resistant to change, the SSF, as a specialized, technical force with a mandate and an identity that center upon innovation, might be better poised to advance defense innovation than the PLA at large. If successful, the SSF could ultimately become a catalyst for changes in the PLA’s way of warfare. However, it will be difficult to measure or estimate its progress in such an amorphous, yet vital endeavor. Presumably, the SSF will face considerable constraints to achieving organizational cohesion and original innovation. As Chu Hongbin observes, “although the institutional barriers have already been broken, changing inherent, inertial ways of thinking still requires a process.” In practice, that process could prove painful.

At this point, the SSF’s prospects for success remain uncertain, against the backdrop of a reform agenda that continues to be characterized as a protracted war. The construction of new-type forces and development of new concept weapons will certainly be a complex, challenging endeavor that will demand innovation not only in technology but also in training and doctrine. Ultimately, the SSF’s future trajectory may thus constitute a vital determinant of the PLA’s ability to innovate to confront the challenges of future warfare.

Elsa B. Kania is an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. Elsa is a graduate of Harvard College (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), and she was a 2014–2015 Boren Scholar in Beijing, China. She has previously worked at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Department of Defense, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, and FireEye, Inc.