Based on an assessment of the technological and strategic environment, in 2015 China overhauled its defense bureaucracy, with a particular emphasis on “information” domains such as space and cyber. The 2015 reorganization was intended to facilitate joint, multidomain warfare by establishing the conditions necessary for space, cyber, and electromagnetic dominance. This has resulted in what some call China’s “space force,” but in reality the resulting organizations differ dramatically from their counterparts in the United States.
Since the 2015 reorganization, China’s space capabilities are divided between several different agencies, but primarily reside in the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) and the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF). The latter, formerly the Second Artillery, manages the PLA’s extensive force of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as the communications infrastructure necessary for targeting and delivery.
For its part, the PLASSF has responsibility for space, cyber, and electromagnetic spectrum domains, making it a genuinely joint organization in concept, at least. A RAND report on the reorganization argues that the PLASSF should be thought of as an organization intended to facilitate joint warfare, rather than as a “space force” or “cyber force” in U.S. terminology. Indeed, in some ways the cyber warfare organs of the PLASSF more closely resemble intelligence than military organizations in the U.S. system. If the lines between the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command remain blurry and uncertain, the PLASSF in some ways more closely resembles the now defunct Joint Forces Command, which worked to integrate existing U.S. military capabilities and to shepherd “transformation” in the Department of Defense. It also resembles a grown up version of DoD’s now-obsolete Air-Sea Battle Office, which focused on concentrating and deconflicting air and sea assets in the Western Pacific.
China’s space capabilities are extensive, with a wide array of launch vehicles, satellites, and land and sea-based installations for monitoring, collecting, and analyzing data. Prior to 2015 the bureaucratic organs for managing these capabilities were spread across a bewildering array of military, civilian government, and defense industrial base (DIB) firms. The PLASSF has amalgamated some of these capabilities and given “space jointness” a degree of authority within the wider military bureaucracy. However, the PLASSF has not taken over the entirety of Chinese space responsibilities; the services each retain their own space capabilities, and the PLASSF does not appear to have authority over missile defense or ground-based counter-space missions. It does not control the China Manned Space Agency, a rough analogue of the United States’ NASA.
The PLASSF thus does not occupy a similar institutional position to the United States Space Force, which is an independent uniformed service under the authority of the Department of the Air Force.
How will this matter? An independent service is an uncertain vehicle for space ambitions, as the U.S. experience is showing. The PLASSF is not an independent service; it does not have recruiting authority or a unique rank structure or a place on the joint chiefs. Unlike a U.S. combatant command, it does not seem to house large numbers of personnel from different services. What the PLASSF represents, however, is an institutional commitment to resolving the problems of multidomain, multiservice battle in space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. This may, in the long and short run, prove a better model for managing the military problem of space than the creation of an awkward independent service.