OPED By Lt Gen. PR Shankar (Retired)
The People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) was established on December 31, 2015, as the fifth Service of PLA, equivalent to the Army Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force.
It is very shadowy and lethal and hence needs more significant understanding. The PLASSF is central to the PLA’s endeavor to be an “informatized” force to achieve China’s strategic aims.
The explicit political guidance given to PLA is that joint operations, whose common denomination is the “information” PLASSF provides, will be the norm. The information is a product of the centralization of China’s strategic space, cyberspace, electronic, data, communications, and psychological warfare capabilities.
The PLASSF provides the “information umbrella” for all land, sea, or air operations. It is the sheet anchor for PLA’s operations. The capabilities and missions of the SSF are global and not bound by geographic constraints. The SSF is the spearhead of the PLA’s international power projection.
The SSF has two primary missions. Firstly, it provides the PLA with strategic information support through space and network-based capabilities, including communications, navigation and positioning, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and the protection of military information infrastructure.
Secondly, the SSF conducts information operations, including space and counter-space, cyber, electromagnetic warfare, and psychological and political warfare operations. The SSF started in the informatization age of Hu Jintao and is now transitioning to the ‘intelligentization’ era as per Xi Jinping’s vision. The outline organization of the PLASSF is given in the graphic below.
The PLASSF has two departments. The Network Systems Department (NSD) is sometimes called the Cyberspace Force, and the Space Systems Department (SSD) is sometimes called the Aerospace Force.
The Space Systems Department controls nearly every aspect of PLA space operations, including space launch and support; telemetry, tracking, and control; information support; and space warfare.
The Network Systems Department incorporates all strategic information operations units in the PLA, including those responsible for cyber warfare, electronic warfare, psychological warfare, and technical surveillance.
It does the dual tasks of cyber-espionage and cyber-attack. The Network Systems Department shares operational and tactical missions with units under the services and regional theatre commands.
Space Systems Department: The Aerospace Force
Historically, China’s space program has been managed by the PLA. In turn, the Space Systems Department (SSD) is responsible for nearly all space operations of the PLA. China pursues a vigorous policy of Military Civil Fusion, which blurs the lines between civil and military space entities.
Many space activities related to the military are couched as civil projects. It is not a coincidence that from around the same time in 2015 that the SSD was incorporated into the SSF, there has been a considerable expansion in non-state-owned launch vehicle and satellite operation companies in China’s domestic market.
In addition, China has allotted significant economic and political resources to expand its space program for military and civil space applications, including commercial launches and space exploration. Hence, the SSD would be wholly involved in the entire range of China’s space activity – military and non-military.
In the Chinese scheme of things, establishing superiority in space is critical to success in battle. Controlling space-based information and communication while denying the same to adversaries is integral to “informatized warfare.”
The seriousness of Chinese intent in space-based operations is that they consider SpaceX’s Starlink constellation an “unprecedented challenge” to their national security. They have plans to launch a constellation that can suppress StarLink.
The SSD invests heavily in improving capabilities in space-based ISR, satellite communication, satellite navigation, counter-space techniques, meteorology, human spaceflight, and robotic space exploration.
China’s ISR satellites can provide 24×7 electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imagery and electronic and signal intelligence data. The SSD enables China to monitor land and maritime movements globally.
China is also testing next-generation space-based quantum-enabled communications satellites. The SSD also has extensive ground infrastructure to support its spacecraft. This includes launch vehicle manufacture, launch capability, data up/downlink, and command and control facilities.
The BeiDou navigation system (49 operational satellites) enhances China’s Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities. It provides all-time, all-weather, and high-accuracy PNT services to users in the Asia-Pacific region and globally.
BeiDou has a worldwide positional accuracy standard of 10 meters. Accuracy in the Asia-Pacific region is within 5 meters. China is now a competent space power with a global situational awareness program.
China has a clear space strategy, and its doctrine aims to integrate cyberspace, space, and EW into joint military operations. Its capability has expanded over time and is set to evolve further.
Xi Jinping states, “Space is an important strategic asset for the country that must be well managed and utilized and, more importantly, protected.” Accordingly, space launches have trebled in China in the past five years, and the number of satellites deployed has increased fivefold.
It has also tested out a reusable spaceplane for nine months in space. Last year, it completed the construction of the three-module Chinese space station. China has launched multiple ASAT missiles that can destroy satellites. It has also developed mobile jammers to interfere with adversaries SATCOM and GPS.
Space is a critical enabler of beyond-line-of-sight operations for Chinese forces. It will not be amiss to surmise that the PLA sees counter-space operations as a means to deter and counter the capability of any adversary, especially in a regional military conflict.
PLA is also into expanding space surveillance capabilities to enable counter-space operations. China wants to neutralize enemy satellites and other sensors to disable its adversaries to use their ISR capability or precision-guided weapons.
Attacks on surveillance, communication, navigation, and early warning satellites of adversaries must be expected. The SSD is also busy with the acquisition and development of counter-space technologies.
Counterspace activities include ASAT, co-orbital methods, electronic warfare, and directed energy capabilities. China is now pursuing ASAT capability in the geosynchronous orbit. An essential part of China’s counter-space capability is exploiting directed energy weapons.
Research on space-based lasers and microwave systems is also being pursued actively. In addition to all this, China is also toying with the idea of utilizing nuclear weapons to take out space assets of adversaries. The SSF will also resort to the use of nearby space for ISR. These could manifest as balloons or winged UAVs, as recently witnessed across the US.
In July 2021, China conducted its first fractional orbital launch of an ICBM with a hypersonic glide vehicle. This was a capability that surprised even the US. This is a significant capability. Though such assets will be with the PLARF, the SSF will anchor such endeavors.
Network Systems Department: The Cyberspace Force
China views warfare as a confrontation between opposing operational systems rather than merely between opposing military forces. Destruction of the opponent’s systems is the principal theory which guides PLA.
Accordingly, PLA writings focus on ‘Systems Destruction Warfare’ to destroy an adversary’s system through coordinated employment of space, cyberspace, and Electronic Warfare. The PLA aims to “paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems” and “sabotage the enemy’s war command system of systems” in any conflict.
Hence, China places significant emphasis on operations in the Information, Network, Cyber, Communications, Electronic Warfare, and Three Warfare domains, which it feels are the keys to the system destruction of any adversary.
This is a 24×7 endeavor that operates seamlessly in peacetime to extend well into conflict and post-conflict situations. The cyberspace force is, therefore, an essential element to project China’s power globally.
Chinese also believe that information dominance is the core of the “three dominances” (information, air, and space), which allow Chinese forces to achieve victory rapidly. The NSD spearheads offensive and defensive operations to achieve information dominance early and seize initiative in a conflict. As an extension, China poses a potent and persistent cyber espionage and cyber-attack threat to an adversary’s military and critical infrastructure.
The NSD runs the PLA’s national-level signal intelligence, cyber operations, electronic warfare, and psychological warfare forces and capabilities. The PLA has traditionally been offensive and intrusive.
Hence, it actively monitors, intercepts, de-encrypts, translates, and analyses foreign telecommunications signals to derive intelligence. The NSD can be expected to suppress, degrade, disrupt, or deceive enemy electronic equipment throughout a conflict by jamming, interception, or hacking.
Functionally, the PLA maintains a dual-echelon structure for cyber and EW operations. The SSF’s cyberspace force is responsible for strategic national-level operations, while the services and theatre commands are responsible for cyber and EW operations at the operational and tactical levels.
The NSD is critical for the PLA to operationalize China’s “Three Warfare Strategy” – psychological, public opinion, and legal warfare. It is also assigned to carry out political warfare in target countries.
They interfere and influence due government processes and functions in target countries to ensure that decisions favoring China and undermining the host nation are taken. This is a critical component of the ‘Three Warfare’ Strategy.
Psychological operations aim to achieve the effects of psychological deterrence, inducement, and demoralization on the rival by mobilizing negative public opinion.
The NSD also handles Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence Modernization (C4I). The PLA aims to enable rapid collection, processing, and sharing of information.
The NSD is a communication enabler of all Services to ensure effective, multi-echelon decision-making in accelerated time frames. The NSD systems are designed to distribute real-time data, including intelligence, battlefield information, logistical information, and weather reports at the strategic level.
While the NSD poses a sophisticated, persistent cyber-enabled espionage and attack threat to adversaries’ military and critical infrastructure systems, it is also tasked with cyber defense of critical infrastructure and military system-of-systems against adversary reconnaissance and attacks.
This can include preventative measures and offensive actions to deter or disrupt adversary cyberspace activity.
Xi Jinping is betting big on AI. The PLA is transiting from “informatised” to “intelligentized warfare” through extensive use of AI and other advanced technologies. Hence, in the NSD scheme of things, improving the PLA’s ability to fight and win informatized wars in a futuristic information systems environment will, in all likelihood, incorporate emerging technologies such as automatization, big data, the internet of things, AI, and cloud computing to improve process efficiencies.
The PLASSF is unique without a parallel. It is highly technology-oriented and expanding rapidly. It poses a significant threat to governments and militaries in everyday life. It is secretive, and not much information is available about it.
Unlike those of PLA, PLAN, PLAAF, or PLARF, its capabilities and assets are not advertised or displayed. The activities of the SSF are, however, super critical to the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission. The SSF embodies all the features of China’s Military-Civil Fusion Strategy. It is an extension of the intrusive and corrosive Communist bent of mind.
The PLASSF is a new and complex animal. It has diverse functional and technical specializations. As much as it poses a threat to the larger world, it also poses an internal threat to the Communist hierarchy merely based on the information it possesses. This aspect needs monitoring.
A lot is made of the political and psychological operations of the PLASSF through its ‘Three Warfare’ strategy. However, its methods and activities are now being discerned across the globe. Many of its capabilities are aspirational and futuristic. There are also enough cases of overreach and consequent failures from which lessons can be drawn.
Nations need to take precautionary/defensive/preventive measures against the activities of the PLASSF to ensure their security. However, this might not always be feasible in open and democratic societies. However, the PLASSF is an animal hungry for data. It thrives on data. Hence, a logical case exists to ‘feed the animal’ with data that suits us.
Information, cyberactivity, and intelligence are essential in the initial phases of a conflict. Once the conflict becomes kinetic and a violence threshold is breached, the relative prominence of the ‘information warfare’ starts waning.
Many of these ‘warfares’ start losing importance as battles become protracted. Cyber and intelligence operations are time, space, and situation-sensitive. Many of these operations lose value once the element of surprise is lost.
Military commanders must know this and be prepared to weather the storm. This is very evident from the outcomes in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and the ongoing Israel-Hamas wars.
While much is made of the use of AI in the military, its actual utility is unclear for most armies. Moreover, commanders are not prepared to make AI-based decisions involving loss of lives. AI in core military matters is still aspirational and untrustworthy. Hence, all the propaganda of ‘intelligentization’ must be taken with a pinch of salt.