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PLA Strategic Support Force: The ‘Information Umbrella’ for China’s Military

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Asia Defense

PLA Strategic Support Force: The ‘Information Umbrella’ for China’s Military

Beyond cyber and space warfare, the SSF will play a key role in conventional joint operations.

PLA Strategic Support Force: The ‘Information Umbrella’ for China’s Military
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley

While the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) new Strategic Support Force (SSF) is a critical force for dominance in the space, cyber, and electromagnetic domains, the SSF’s function of “strategic support,” namely information support, will be equally vital to the PLA’s capabilities to fight and win wars.

Based on the available information, the SSF is composed of the Aerospace Systems Department, which has seemingly consolidated control over a critical mass of the PLA’s space-based C4ISR systems; and the Cyber (or Network) Systems Department, which appears to integrate the PLA’s information warfare capabilities, enabling the coordinated pursuit of electronic countermeasures, cyber attack and defense, and psychological warfare missions.

Beyond information warfare, the SSF has taken responsibility for strategic-level information support, through activities including intelligence and technical reconnaissance, to the rest of the PLA. While the integration of information warfare capabilities is consistent with trends in the PLA’s doctrinal writings, this integrated approach to information support across these domains reflects a more novel change that could enhance the PLA’s capability to actualize integrated joint operations.

Although the PLA has achieved significant breakthroughs in its modernization, continued challenges in the development of C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) capabilities have, to date, undermined its ability to engage in integrated joint operations, which depend upon system of systems operations capability. To realize this capability, the PLA requires a joint, integrated C4ISR system that enables effective information-sharing and intelligence fusion among its services. However, the lack of jointness, high degree of stove-piping, and often redundancy of these systems have resulted in continued operational challenges. The resolution of such persistent problems has been a major impetus for the ongoing reforms, which are intended to advance jointness and complete the PLA’s transition “from green to purple.” The creation of the SSF thus constitutes a critical mechanism through which the Central Military Commission (CMC) seeks to consolidate and enhance integral aspects of the PLA’s system of systems capabilities.

During the PLA’s initial “above the neck”  stage of reforms, the establishment of the SSF appears to have consolidated the PLA’s ISR capabilities for the “strategic commanding heights” of warfare in space and cyberspace. Concurrently, the new CMC Joint Staff Department’s Information and Communications Bureau has assumed primary responsibility for high-level command and control for war-fighting contingencies, including through the PLA’s Information Assurance Base.

In this regard, there appears to have been a differentiation of missions of information assurance – which involves ensuring the integrity and functionality of information and communications systems, such as those used for command and control – and information support – through pursuing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to enable operational and strategic objectives, with the SSF taking primary responsibility for the latter. The SSF has consolidated the cyber espionage capabilities of the former General Staff Department’s (GSD) Third Department (3PLA); the electronic support measures, including electronic intelligence, from the former GSD Fourth Department (4PLA); and many of the PLA’s space-based ISR systems, including the GSD’s Aerospace Reconnaissance Bureau and Satellite Main Station, as well as the former General Armaments Department’s launch facilities; telemetry, tracking, and control facilities; and assorted research and development organizations. For instance, the SSF appears to have taken on a central role in the management of the PLA’s Beidou navigation satellites. In the aggregate, these technical reconnaissance capabilities are vital not only to effective operations in these domains but also to operations by any service in any domain. In this regard, the creation of the SSF represents a critical progression in the PLA’s modernization of its military intelligence capabilities.

While the SSF has been aptly characterized as the PLA’s information warfare service, its mission of strategic-level information support for joint operations is equally integral – and indeed the source of its name. This unprecedented consolidation of the PLA’s technical reconnaissance activities will not only enable the SSF to contest the critical “strategic frontiers” of space and cyberspace, along with the electromagnetic domain, but also to ensure effective information support for the PLA as a whole. Indeed, according to an authoritative text, Theater Command Joint Operations Command, the SSF is tasked to engage in intelligence and reconnaissance activities for the space, cyber, and electromagnetic battlefields, given its responsibility for operations in these domains, and also to provide operational support to each of the PLA’s five theater commands. In this regard, the SSF is designed to provide an “information umbrella” to the PLA as a whole.

Given this vital mission, the SSF is recognized as an “important support” for the PLA’s joint operations system of systems. In particular, at the time of its establishment, Xi Jinping’s initial remarks urged the SSF to “adhere to system of systems integration.” In the words of SSF representative Lü Yueguang, such “information dominant system of systems integration” is the “fundamental requirement for future joint operations.” In particular, according to influential military commentator Yin Zhuo, the SSF is intended to constitute the entirety of the “information chain” that is so integral to informatized warfare, ‘from the initial intelligence, reconnaissance, and early warning; then, information transmission, information processing, and information distribution; after the outbreak of hostilities, problems of guidance, judging the effect of strikes…and second strikes.’ This extensive integration of such critical “strategic support” functions within a single service has been characterized as an innovation that surpasses the U.S. military, which, by the PLA’s assessment, still struggles from issues of redundancy and lack of integration with regard to its own information support capabilities. However, it remains to be seen whether the SSF will be successful in efficiently integrating this information chain in practice.

The concept of “system of systems fusion” reflects the imperative that the PLA advance the jointness and compatibility of its C4ISR systems. To some extent, this task is likely the responsibility of the Information and Communications Bureau, which has taken responsibility for the PLA’s integrated command platform, while the CMC Equipment Development Department will likely seek to ensure the compatibility of systems and infrastructure at the development level. However, the SSF itself could ensure the “centralized management, centralized employment, and centralized development” of support resources, according to military commentator Du Wenlong. The lack thereof has traditionally been particularly problematic for the PLA’s space-based C4ISR systems, which have been the responsibility of multiple military and civilian organizations. For instance, the SSF may take responsibility for high-level requirements, planning, and procurement. The SSF’s focus on civil-military integration (or “military-civil fusion”) will further this agenda, given the extent to which modern warfare relies upon dual-use technologies, including, for instance, satellite systems under civilian management or control.

If this centralization of information support through the SSF is successful, such a consolidation of its strategic ISR capabilities could enhance the PLA’s capabilities in integrated joint operations. Although there is thus a clear operational rationale for this change, the decision also may reflect a response to prevailing organizational dynamics. The creation of the SSF, directly under the command of the CMC, also enables the PLA’s highest echelon of leadership to exercise closer control and supervision over these critical capabilities, perhaps overcoming prior bureaucratic resistance to effective jointness. At this point, it is too soon to say whether the SSF, which appears to be predominantly composed of PLA Army officers and enlisted personnel, will effectively provide joint information support to the PLA as a whole. However, this attempt at a deeper integration of its system of systems capabilities reflects the PLA’s recognition of a traditional weaknesses and the start of a bold effort to remedy it.

Elsa Kania is an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. Her research focuses on the PLA’s advances in and approach to emerging technologies. Elsa recently testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on the PLA’s unmanned systems and potential military applications of artificial intelligence. She is a graduate of Harvard College.