RIP, SSF: Unpacking the PLA’s Latest Restructuring

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RIP, SSF: Unpacking the PLA’s Latest Restructuring

The Strategic Support Force is no more, and its functions are being separated into three separate arms: the Aerospace Force, Cyberspace Force, and Information Support Force.

RIP, SSF: Unpacking the PLA’s Latest Restructuring

Gen. Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, left, attends the opening session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, March 5, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

On April 19, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officially disbanded its Strategic Support Force (SSF) and re-established the Information Support Force. While some observers have dismissed this move as merely a change in nomenclature – the same group of people under a different name – a closer examination reveals significant implications when juxtaposed with the restructuring efforts within the PLA and the framework of the U.S. and Russian militaries.

The decision to dissolve the SSF and establish the PLA Information Support Force signifies a nuanced shift in China’s military organizational strategy. By aligning with global trends and potential adversaries’ structures, this restructuring aims to enhance the PLA’s capabilities in an era increasingly defined by information warfare and cyber operations. Thus, beyond superficial alterations in nomenclature, this move reflects a strategic response to evolving security challenges and technological advancements.

The Unprecedented “Four Services and Four Arms”

At the close of 2015, the PLA underwent significant reforms and the SSF emerged as a newly minted branch alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force, all commanded by officers of full theater-grade generals. With the unveiling of the latest organizational framework, the PLA’s updated military structure presents a nuanced evolution: While the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force retain their status as full theater-grade services, the SSF undergoes significant reconfiguration. It is no longer a full service, but will see its functions divided up among new “arms” under what China now calls the “four services (军种) and four arms (兵种).”

Formerly responsible for overseeing space affairs under its Aerospace Systems Department at the theater level, this entity of the former SSF has now been transformed into the Aerospace Force, one of the “four arms.” Similarly, the Cyber Systems Department, previously tasked with cyber warfare, has assumed a new guise as the Cyberspace Force. Moreover, the Electronic and Electromagnetic Systems Department, which formerly oversaw C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), is restricted into the Information Support Force (ISF).

These three arms will operate alongside the existing Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), which was established back in 2016. This “arm” oversees logistical operations and is commanded by a deputy theater-grade general. This reorganization sees the SSF transition into three deputy theater-level branches, thus forming the “four arms” along with the JLSF, which is now confirmed as one of the arms. 

This shift potentially opens the door for deputy theater-grade major generals or lieutenant generals to assume command positions within these newly delineated units. Such adjustments signal a strategic realignment within the PLA’s organizational hierarchy, reflecting the evolving nature of modern warfare and the imperative to enhance capabilities in emerging domains such as space, cyber, and information warfare.

Convoluted Tasks and Responsibilities

The primary rationale behind the restructuring appears to be addressing concerns stemming from the SSF’s previous mandate, which encompassed a wide array of responsibilities, potentially hindering operational effectiveness. 

The former service was tasked not only with information and communication technology but also with aerospace, cyber operations, and electronic warfare. As a result, the SSF found itself spread thin, with individual units vying for resources. Furthermore, the expertise required to command such a multifaceted force may have been lacking in singular appointees.

Of particular note is the decentralized nature of these tasks, which were not consolidated under the command of the SSF following the military reforms. For instance, while the Aerospace Systems Department within the SSF managed backend systems for space-related affairs, aspects of equipment development were also overseen by the Equipment Development Department and, notably, by elements within the Rocket Force and Air Force. Such overlapping organizational structures inevitably impeded operational efficiency.

U.S. Counterparts as Models?

A telling comparison can be drawn with the United States’ establishment of a dedicated Space Force, which centralized all matters pertaining to space warfare. This disparity underscored the need for a more streamlined approach within the PLA.

In light of President Xi Jinping’s recent emphasis on cultivating new combat capabilities (新质战斗力), a pragmatic reassessment of organizational structures may be underway, possibly drawing inspiration from the U.S. military’s framework.

The newly established Aerospace Force may mirror the role of the U.S. Space Force, while the Cyberspace Force could resemble the U.S. Cyber Command, thus allowing for a more coherent and effective utilization of resources and expertise across different branches. This strategic realignment suggests a concerted effort to enhance the PLA’s operational effectiveness and adaptability in the face of evolving threats and challenges.

Russian Characteristics

Russia’s own military restructuring is another possible model for the PLA. 

As early as 2012, then Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin proposed the formation of a Russian Cyber Command. Subsequently, in 2013, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu instructed the General Staff to initiate the establishment of a Russian-style Cyber Command modeled after the U.S. Cyber Command, directly under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. 

The following year, reports emerged indicating the completion of the formation of cyber units, with news outlets such as TASS reporting the establishment of the Divisions of the Computer Attack Detection and Prevention System within the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces.

Coincidentally, during the “Caucasus-2016” routine strategic exercises, the Russian military participated for the first time in “live electronic, cyber, and informational confrontation.” 

In early 2017, the first deputy chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, Andrei Krasov, denied the existence of cyber units in the Russian military but acknowledged the trend among major powers toward establishing such units. Subsequently, in February of the same year, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the establishment of cyber information units tasked primarily with safeguarding Russian military command and control communications systems from cyberattacks and undertaking counter-propaganda efforts.

By 2023, Russian Minister of Digital Affairs Maksut Shadayev publicly supported the idea of the Ministry of Defense establishing a more comprehensive cyber force and advocated for increasing recruitment to swiftly onboard digital talent, expand real-time capabilities, and navigate the trends of the cyber battlefield.

This development underscores the deeply ingrained logic of “hybrid warfare” within Russian strategic thinking, which diverges from the U.S. tendency to compartmentalize units. Russian doctrine views cyber warfare merely as one aspect of overall information warfare, encompassing electronic warfare, propaganda, and psychological operations. Moreover, Russia’s official stance on its cyber units remains highly secretive, both serving as a deterrent and signaling ongoing strategic adjustments without definitive conclusions.

With this history in mind, it’s notable that the recent restructuring of the PLA, transitioning from the previous configuration of five main services (the Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, Strategic Support Force) plus one direct-reporting unit (Joint Logistics Support Centre) to the current “four services plus four arms,” emphasizes the role of the Information Support Force. In fact, the announcement of the restructuring came at a ceremony to launch the ISF, which was attended by Xi himself.

This move bears a certain degree of resemblance to Russian practices. However, in the abandonment of the SSF in favor of three separate branches and in terms of future conceptualization, the PLA’s trajectory may lean more toward emulation of US military practices.

In his remarks at the ISF launch ceremony, Xi called the new branch “a key pillar in coordinating the construction and application of the network information system,” adding, “It will play a crucial role in advancing the Chinese military’s high-quality development and competitiveness in modern warfare.”


Since the establishment of the SSF in late 2015, there has been considerable curiosity from external observers regarding this nascent military unit. However, few anticipated that within a decade, the force would undergo another round of restructuring. Similar to the reforms initiated at the end of 2015, the PLA must once again engage in extensive training and exercises to solidify the core organizational structure of the reconfigured force.

The question of whether the PLA, following its 2024 reorganization, can swiftly adapt to the new institutional framework remains unanswered. With significant personnel reshuffling at the senior levels and the organizational overhaul the PLA has undergone, the timeframe required for the force to attain full operational capability is uncertain. Additionally, there is the looming concern of whether the new organizational setup might give rise to unforeseen challenges in operational effectiveness. 

These uncertainties raise questions about whether this restructuring could afford Taiwan more time for defense transformation. These issues form the basis of new research tasks for scholars studying the PLA, as they delve into the intricacies of the military’s ongoing evolution and its implications for regional security dynamics.