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The Reorganization of China’s Space Force: Strategic and Organizational Implications

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The Reorganization of China’s Space Force: Strategic and Organizational Implications

The rationale behind the new “Aerospace Force.”

The Reorganization of China’s Space Force: Strategic and Organizational Implications
Credit: Depositphotos

Under the direction of President Xi Jinping, who is also the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s general secretary and heads the CCP’s Central Military Commission (CMC), China has constituted four new military branches, or “arms” as they have been called in the Chinese press.  Besides the four People’s Liberation Army (PLA) services – the PLA Ground Force, PLA Air Force, PLA Navy, and PLA Rocket Force – we now have the Aerospace Force, the Cyberspace Force, the Information Support Force, and the Joint Logistic Support Force.

In the course of this restructuring, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), a fifth service established by Xi in 2015, has been scrapped. The PLASSF bundled together space, cyber, electronic, and psychological operations. The new reorganization changes the PLASSF structure with the emphasis now on integrated but super specialized military operations that are based on a cumulative intelligence gathering and assessment process. Such a structure will then be utilized to achieve military effectiveness and develop combat-ready forces. 

As identified by Xi in his “Xi Jinping Thought on Strengthening the Military”: 

China is at a crucial stage in its path toward becoming a world power…the country is facing new situations and new challenges when it comes to its security and development, so the Chinese military must be aware of its responsibilities and problems and make comprehensive changes. 

As part of Xi’s military reform, PLA services and arms are being equipped and tasked with the development of high-end technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, cyber, hypersonic, and space, with the goal of creating a leaner, smarter, and more effective force. Xi has also prioritized absolute loyalty to the CCP, specifically at PLA Headquarters, in order to develop an effective 21st-century warfighting capacity, command over domain, fast reaction times to conflict, and centralized command structures with the CMC as the top body. The reorganization of the PLA that was announced on April 19 is a reflection of these key characteristics.

So, what are the key strategic and organizational implications of this reorganization, particularly as it relates to China’s space sector? 

Strategic and Organizational Implications

In 2012, Xi instituted a round of military reform under his “thought process.” Drawing inspiration from a heady mix of party ideology, technology, culture, and strategic purpose, especially his own experience as the president of the Central Party School (2007-2012), Xi has reorganized the PLA to place it more directly under the control of civilian CCP leaders. We witnessed this earlier in his tenure with the establishment of the PLASSF in 2015 and the deliberate marginalization of the PLA General Armament Divisions (GAD). The military-heavy GAD undermined the civilian CMC. 

Anyone indicating that these new 2024 military reorganizations have been undertaken because of corruption within the PLA is therefore missing the big picture and the thrust of Xi’s now 12-year military reform process. Xi is seeking to turn the PLA from a Russian-style, army-heavy military to more of a U.S.-like joint force structure, with each service and branch excelling in their domain capabilities, and yet seamless in military integration for the joint fight. The way the PLASSF was constituted meant that each component (space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare) was reporting to the PLASSF commander, and not to the CMC directly, which resulted in obstacles to seamless integration. That’s why the PLASSF had to go.

Russian military logistics complications, internal force structure shortfalls, doctrinal deficiencies, and lackluster training during its current war in Ukraine have been a wake-up call for China. Under Xi, for the last 12 years, and with even more urgency after Ukraine, there has been an overhaul of the entire PLA structure, focused on optimizing the command chain. Regional command structures have been restructured to help boost joint combat capabilities. The theater commands were reduced in number from seven to five (the Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, and Central theater commands) with an emphasis on developing land, sea, air, space, and cyber interaction – but now with a direct command structure guided by the CMC. 

During a plenary session with a delegation of the PLA and the armed police during the 13th National People’s Congress in 2018, Xi stated that implementing the strategy of military-civilian integration is a prerequisite for building integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities and for realizing the Party’s goal of building a strong military in the new era.” Xi underscored the vital importance of coordinating science and technology innovation between the civilian and military sectors, developing the capacity for integrated reasoning and implementation, geared towards China occupying the strategic high ground. Toward this end, policy should guide innovation, strategy, and organizational change. 

Xi’s continuous emphasis on innovation, technology, and integration through his civil-military integration strategy in almost all PLA Day celebrations and plenary sessions broadly indicates that he has not been satisfied with the level of integration and domain superiority achieved by the different branches of the PLA under the reorganized structure he instituted in 2015. This explains the further organizational changes and PLA restructuring in 2024.

Military organizational restructuring also has intended strategic effects for China as it keeps the adversary guessing as to the unique characteristics, intent, and purpose of a particular newly constituted service or arm, for instance, the Aerospace Force or the Information Support Force. Military reorganization throws up challenges for foreign intelligence services to make sense of the intended end goal and what it all means for their force structure.

Xi’s military restructuring has been guided by the long-term strategic purpose of national rejuvenation and the need to respond to the conflicts of the 21st century. Xi has instituted his thoughts on strengthening China’s military, based on which the CCP Central Committee has been working toward achieving both theoretical and operational clarity on what kind of military China should be building, and how its military capacity should advance its strategic goals of emerging as the world leader by 2049 across different domains – space being one of them.

In fact, Xi became the first CCP general secretary to head an official reform body constituted by the CMC in 2013 to transform China’s national defense system. The Politburo of the CCP also contributed to the reform process.

We saw the result of that process when Xi directed the establishment of the PLASSF, the PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Ground Force Headquarters. Xi’s emphasis on science, technology, and innovation, with a streamlined focus on China’s policy goals, is behind this current restructuring as well, to include his firm belief in further strengthening CMC control over military leadership. The Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development established by the CCP Central Committee and the PLA under Xi’s guidance has conducted more than 800 workshops to institute the military reforms we have seen to date. 

The New Aerospace Force

Regarding the PLA Aerospace Force established on April 19, the reorganization of its institutional structure with a specific focus on space is a step forward. Unlike the PLASSF, which clubbed space and cyber together, the new reorganization has resulted in the establishment of a separate Cyberspace Force dealing with cyber defense aimed at maintaining China’s national sovereignty in the cyber domain. 

The Aerospace Force now will be focused on supporting and achieving China’s space policy goals and will directly report to the CMC. The Russian experience in Ukraine has made it clear to China that it requires a space-specific dedicated arm of the PLA that will be optimized to focus on developing LEO-based constellations and counter-space capabilities, and achieving space domain superiority. 

The Aerospace Force will focus on developing military space capacities that will support China’s overall space policy. This was stated by Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesperson Wu Qian in his briefing on the establishment of the new services and arms. Describing the changes as the latest round of organizational reform – implying more is to come – Wu specified that the Aerospace Force will focus on ensuring China’s access, use, and control of space, as well as helping to ensure space governance. The Aerospace Force will develop doctrine, space-specific culture, training, and capabilities to enhance Chinese space power.

On March 7, over a month before the military restructuring was announced, Xi participated in a plenary meeting of military delegates to the National People’s Congress. In his remarks, he emphasized the importance of new combat effectiveness that can integrate strategic technologies like AI, unmanned aerial vehicles, and space. Previewing Xi’s thinking on the Aerospace Force, he described space as a vital competency that helps build overall military effectiveness. He emphasized the need for both structural and strategic innovation and reform, meaning doctrinal changes that view space as an integral part of multidomain operations, as well as organizational change, with new forces focused on achieving domain superiority and capability. 

China’s 2019 White Paper on Defense stated that

Outer space is a critical domain in international strategic competition. Outer space security provides strategic assurance for national and social development. In the interest of the peaceful use of outer space, China actively participates in international space cooperation, develops relevant technologies and capabilities, advances holistic management of space-based information resources, strengthens space situation awareness, safeguards space assets, and enhances the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use outer space [emphasis added].

The ability to safely enter, exit and openly use outer space is the strategic rationale that has been provided by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense for the establishment of its new Aerospace Force. One of the Aerospace Force’s policy goals, in continuation of the 2019 White Paper on Defense, is “to safeguard China’s security interests in outer space.” 

The establishment of the four different arms of the PLA, including the Aerospace Force, is part of Xi’s ongoing military reform, further vindicated by lessons China has learned from Russia in Ukraine and, most importantly, the vital contribution of space to the war effort on both sides. The reorganization of China’s military forces is an adaptation to new situations of wars of the 21st century augmented by the role of technology. It is also a clever way to keep adversaries guessing and foreign intelligence at best foggy on the details of China’s military space organizations and capacities.