PLA Special Operations Forces
This article is published with kind permission of “Chinese Defence Today — sinodefence.com”.
In PLA’s terminology, “special forces” or “special operations forces” (SOF) refers specifically to a group of small, highly-trained, elite ground forces units tasked with specialised operations such as special reconnaissance, counter terrorism, and direct action. The PLA has assigned one SOF unit to each of its seven military regions. Additionally, the Air Force (in its airborne corps) and Navy (in its marine corps) also have their own SOF elements. The People’s Armed Police (PAP) also has a special counter-terrorism unit known as “Special Police Unit” (SPU).
PLA SOF Arms Patches
Although the PLA did not have dedicated SOF until the late 1980s, it was no stranger to the special forces warfare. As early as the WWII and the 1940s Chinese Civil War, carefully selected soldiers from ordinary units were formed into temporary composite units, given specialised training and weapon equipments, and tasked with special missions such as long-range penetration, tactical reconnaissance, raid on vital enemy positions, etc. After the mission was accomplished, these units were normally disbanded and soldiers returned to their original units.
Between the 1950s~1980s, the PLA relied on specially-trained reconnaissance units within its ground forces for some special missions. Each military region (MR) had a regiment-sized reconnaissance group directly organic to the military region headquarters (MRHQ). Army corps and division also had their own subordinated reconnaissance units (battalions or companies). Although these reconnaissance units were not “special forces” in modern term, their missions covered the spectrum of special operations tasking.
The Sino-Vietnam border conflicts that took place in 1979 and the 1980s was the first wake-up call to the PLA in its lack of dedicated SOF. During the conflicts, Vietnamese SOF operating in small groups caused the PLA some considerable causalities and losses. Towards the end of the conflicts, the PLA quickly learned from its lessons and began to send its own SOF units, mostly composed of personnel from army reconnaissance units, to operate behind enemy lines for raid, ambushing, kidnapping, reconnaissance, and other special operations.
Soon after the end of the conflict, the PLA began to create its own dedicated SOF. In 1988, the first “special mission, rapid reaction” unit was formed in Guangzhou Military Region. The unit, known as “Special Reconnaissance Group”, was given new weapons and equipments which were not available to regular army units. Its members of the unit received specialised training in field surviving, swimming with full gear, parachute jumping, helicopterborne assault, etc. By the end of the 1980s, the reconnaissance groups directly organic to the military region headquarters were all transformed into dedicated SOF units.
Inspired by the actions of the U.S. special forces during the First Gulf War in 1990/91, and also as a response to the growing tensions between China mainland and Taiwan since the mid-1990s, the PLA’s SOF had a major expansion in the late 1990s, with high-technology being introduced as a new key element in the SOF development. The name of these units were also changed from “Special Reconnaissance Groups” to “Special Operations Groups”.