China — PLA Special Operations Forces (english version)



PLA Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Forces

This arti­cle is pub­lished with kind per­mis­sion of “Chi­nese Defence Today —”.

Chinese Defence Today

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).


Sinodefence - PLA SOF Arms Patches
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.

Sinodefence - PLA Reconnaissance Unit in the Sino-Vietnam border conflict (Source: Chinese Internet)
PLA Recon­nais­sance Unit in the Sino-Viet­nam
bor­der con­flict (Source: Chi­nese Internet)


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”.

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