Two years after the People’s Liberation Army created a new Strategic Support Force, a combined cyber and space warfare and military spy service, details about the force’s structure and mission remain wrapped in mystery.
As with most of China’s advanced arms programs and warfighting capabilities, the Strategic Support Force (SSF) remains a closely guarded secret. But the fact that China’s leaders have combined four or five military departments into a service on a par with its army, air force and navy in terms of stature highlights the importance the Chinese have placed on non-kinetic forms of warfare.
China in the past has labeled these types of military capabilities “assassin’s mace” or “trump card” weaponry – in other words tools that will allow the PLA’s traditionally weaker conventional and nuclear forces to use asymmetric means to defeat a stronger enemy, namely the superior forces of the United States.
Official and private sector reports on the Chinese military describe the new SSF as a significant structural reform that consolidates what China regards as key strategic capabilities – space, cyber, electronic, information and intelligence units – and places them directly under the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party rather than the PLA general staff.
The new relationships between these supporting strategic groups and PLA regional commands – and how they would function in a conflict – remains unclear. Supreme Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whose several titles include the chairmanship of the CMS, mentioned the SSF in passing during his lengthy October 18 speech to the Communist Party’s 19th Congress in Beijing. Xi said:
“Confronted with profound changes in our national security environment and responding to the demands of the day for a strong country with a strong military, we must fully implement the party’s thinking on strengthening the military for the new era and the military strategy for new conditions, build a powerful and modernized army, navy, air force, rocket force, and strategic support force, develop strong and efficient joint operations commanding institutions for theater commands, and create a modern combat system with distinctive Chinese characteristics.”
“Pentagon spending increases must include resources to meet this existing threat”
The Center for New American Security (CNAS) sees the SSF also developing China’s newest high-technology military capability – the use of artificial intelligence to direct high-tech weapons capabilities, specifically in the cyber and electronic warfare areas. “As the PLA’s Strategic Support Force seeks to build up advanced cyber capabilities, research leveraging Big Data and machine learning could become an enabler of future advances,” a CNAS report said.
Cyber researchers at a dedicated SSF Information Engineering University are using AI to prepare to counter massive distributed denial-of-service cyber attacks through pattern matching, statistical analysis and machine learning, leveraging Big Data analysis based on China’s decades-long campaign of stealing large databases around the world.
SSF electronic warriors also are leveraging AI and machine learning for “cognitive electronic warfare” – the ability of aircraft and other weapons systems to enter a war zone, rapidly understand electronic threats and develop and employ countermeasures against them. “The Strategic Support Force’s 54th Research Institute and [China Electronics Technology Corp.’s] 38th Research Institute, among others, are likely engaged in research and development related to cognitive electronic warfare,” the CNAS report said.
The PLA also is funding research on deep learning that will facilitate advanced and rapid monitoring of electronic signals for military purposes.
Major military reform
Most analyses of China’s growing military capabilities mention the SSF usually with the added caveat that little is known about the force.
The most detailed assessment of the SSF is contained in the latest annual report of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a document that is heavily informed by classified American intelligence briefings to the congressional commission.
The SSF is known to be responsible for the PLA’s cyber, electronic, information, and space operations following its establishment in December 2015 as part of a major military reform.
The force absorbed the increasingly capable signals intelligence service that had been known as the PLA General Staff Department Third Department, or 3PLA, and the electronic warfare Fourth Department, or 4PLA.
According to the commission report, some elements, including the human spying section of the notorious military intelligence service known as the General Staff Department Second Department, or 2PLA, also appear to be now part of the SSF.
The military spy service does collection and analysis of human spy operations, imagery intelligence and tactical military reconnaissance – a high priority function for the Chinese military. The General Staff Department was dissolved under the 2015 reforms.
The SSF has the mission of providing military intelligence and reconnaissance to all groups and departments of the PLA with the express goal of facilitating what Beijing calls “informationized” warfare.
Both 2PLA and 3PLA have been linked by American intelligence agencies to cyber attacks against a number of governments and corporations. The US Justice Department indicted five PLA hackers linked to 3PLA in May 2014. The SSF is also in charge of developing the PLA’s cutting edge arms, including directed energy weapons.
In terms of cyber warfare, the SSF’s mission will be to conduct offensive, defensive and reconnaissance operations on foreign networks. Electronic warfare, meanwhile, focuses on using electromagnetic means to suppress or deceive enemy electronics.
The commission report reveals that two Pentagon analysts have determined that the SSF’s space warfare role involves space support and offensive operations. The support functions include space-based communication; position, navigation, and timing; space-based intelligence and surveillance; ballistic missile warning, space launch detection, and characterization; and environmental monitoring.
“The SSF reflects the ongoing Chinese effort at being able to establish ‘information dominance,’ which the PLA considers critical to fighting and winning future wars”
The offensive space attack capabilities include three types of direct ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital systems, and ground-based directed energy weapons. The PLA also has at its disposal satellites capable of rendezvous and proximity operations, including systems that can grab and smash orbiting satellites. Six tests of proximity satellites have been carried out so far.
The idea behind the SSF is part of what the Pentagon calls anti-access, area-denial warfare – the backing of military forces designed specifically to attack foreign forces (and especially US forces) close to Chinese shores and territory.
The commission concludes that the SSF will enhance Chinese military capabilities designed to confront the US military in the Indo-Pacific in the coming year.
Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said of the new strategic service that it “reflects the ongoing Chinese effort at being able to establish ‘information dominance,’ which the PLA considers critical to fighting and winning future wars.”
Retired US Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former director of intelligence and information operations for the US Pacific Fleet, said the SSF is still shrouded in secrecy.
“Two years after President Xi Jinping’s creation of the Strategic Support Force, it continues to operate in the shadows supporting the PLA’s defensive and offensive non-kinetic requirements,” Fanell said.
“Whether it is the launching of synthetic aperture radar and hyper spectral satellites to increase its situational awareness in the maritime domain, or the integration of cyber teams within its combined arms combat structure at the theater command levels, the PLA’s combat effectiveness and lethality continues to be advanced on a daily basis by this new force.”
US and allied military leaders will be increasingly challenged to defend against SSF cyber attacks. At the same time, they need to develop offensive cyber weapons that can penetrate PLA defense systems. “Pentagon spending increases must include resources to meet this existing threat,” Fanell said.