Unlike the U.S. SOF, the PLA focuses the roles of its SOF very much on direct action (DA), special reconnaissance (SR), and counter-terrorism (CT). PLA SOF units are not trained for unconventional warfare (UW) and civil affairs (CA) like their American counterparts. This is because the PLA only intends to use the SOF for a high-intensity, lightening-fast regional conflict that is over in short amount of time. They are not going to be involved in long-duration, low-intensity operations in foreign countries, like what the U.S. SOF did in Southeast Asia in the 1960s/70s.
Direct Action (DA) — The most important mission for PLA SOF, involving short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions by SOF to seize, destroy, capture, recover or inflict damage on designated personnel or material. For example, prior to the outbreak of major hostilities between the PRC and Taiwan, PLA SOF will infiltrate the Taiwan island using powered parachutes, helicopters, or other methods, and launch a pre-empty strike against key enemy personnel and command & control elements, to paralyse the enemy C3I network and leave the enemy troops leaderless. This strategy is sometimes being referred to as “Decapitation Operation”.
Other DA operations may include capturing enemy airfields and seaports for the upcoming airborne and amphibious landing troops; sabotaging enemy equipments and systems; attacking vital civilian infrastructure; ambushing enemy forces; spreading rumours to cause enemy confusion and misjudgement, etc.
Special Reconnaissance (SR) — SR involves reconnaissance and surveillance actions to obtain or verify vital intelligence and information, by using visual and other hi-tech collection methods. This is very much like what SOF units of the Coalitions Forces did during the two Gulf Wars. Small teams consisting 2~4 people will be dispatched to behind enemy lines to collect intelligence concerning the capabilities, intensions, and activities or enemy forces. It may also involve locating and designating targets for precision strikes.
Counter-Terrorism (CT) — PLA SOF units are receiving training in offensive counter-terrorism operations to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism. As a result of the growing separatist activities in China’s remote regions such as Xijiang, PLA SOF have became increasingly involved in the counter-terrorism role. In October 2002, a PLA SOF unit took part in the joint China-Tajikistan counter-terrorism exercise. A recent report by the Chinese state media also confirmed that counter-terrorism had been added to the basic Special Forces training subjects under the renewed PLA doctrines.
Other Roles — In some occasions, PLA SOF are also acting as “Blue Army” (opposing force) in exercise to test the ability of regular army unit against special forces.