Chinese Special Forces: Dragons of the East


    China hosts a large number of special operations forces (SOF). SOF are renowned warriors worldwide. Tales of their exploits populate mass media, from video games to novels, movies and television shows. Understandably, these forms of media focus on organisations familiar to the average westerner. However, many countries field special forces, even if their employment is less noticeable than some of their mainstream contemporaries. This article looks at the publicly available information on Chinese special forces to create a comprehensive record of their history and current disposition.

    1.0: The Development of Chinese SOF

    Chinese history is rife with genuinely massive conflicts. For example, the Three Kingdoms period (220-280 AD) resulted in the death of 40,000,000 individuals [source]. Historians estimate that between the three largest Chinese civil wars, 170,000,000 people lost their lives [source]. World War II and the Chinese Civil War killed 22,500,000 people [source]. In the pre-modern period, China regularly fielded armies numbering in the hundreds of thousands [source]. Mass mobilisation was the primary way in which China waged its wars.

    The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), following their victory over the Nationalists, reinforced this notion [source]. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the CCP, relied on “mass formations of men and equipment” to make up for the shortcomings of its industrial production [source]. This so-called “People’s War” was a hallmark of Mao Zedong’s tenure as President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) [source]. People’s War continued as orthodoxy until the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War [source].

    1.1: The Sino-Vietnamese War (1979)

    On the morning of 17 February 1979, China initiated a war with Vietnam that would last just under a month [source]. Chinese casualties numbered 30,000 dead and 35,000 wounded, with similar Vietnamese numbers [source]. The cost of the conflict came as an unwelcome shock to PLA officers [source]. Vietnamese forces funnelled PLA soldiers into kill zones and promptly annihilated them en mass [source]. Though the conflict ended in a status quo ante Bellum, reforms to PLA doctrine and conduct were desperately needed [source].

    PLA soldiers advance on Vietnamese positions during the Sino-Vietnamese War. The war would result in over 60,000 Chinese casualties in just under a month. Original Image:

    Officers saw just how unsuitable People’s War was for a modern battlefield. As a result, reform efforts began in earnest after the conclusion of the war on 16 March 1979 [source]. One of the first lessons taken from this conflict was the lack of special forces on the Chinese side [source]. During the conflict, Vietnamese SOF caused massive casualties to PLA forces [source]. During World War II and the Korean War, specially selected groups of men raided and reconnoitred behind enemy lines, but this was an informal and ad hoc arrangement [source]. The Sino-Vietnamese war highlighted the need for a dedicated and specially equipped SOF to draw from [source].

    1.2: Deng Era Reforms

    The PLA’s understanding of the necessity of military reform coincided with Deng Xiaoping’s ascent to President of the PRC [source]. Deng set the country on an ambitious campaign of modernisation [source]. The Four Modernisations detailed programs to advance science, agriculture, industry and economy, and the military [source]. The placement of the military as the last of the modernisations was indicative of Deng’s priorities [source].

    His logic was simple; to build a professional military, China needed the industrial and economic capacity to meet the threat of potential rivals [source]. Without that, true modernisation would be an impossible task [source]. PLA modernisation was lethargic throughout the 1980s [source]. Even so, the PLA established its first SOF unit in 1988, the Special Reconnaissance Group [source]. Given training in a wide variety of capabilities, they were to be a rapid reaction force for any future conflict the country entered [source].

    PLA infantry during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Note the lack of body armour and camouflage. The subsequent arms embargo imposed by western nations further highlighted the need for the PLA to modernise [source]. Original Image:

    1.3: Modernisation Begins

    Military modernisation, therefore, only began in earnest with the stunning coalition victory during the First Gulf War (1991) [source]. The high-tech capabilities of new weapons systems, their lethality, and the speed at which the coalition destroyed the fourth largest army in the world shocked PLA officers out of lethargy [source][souce]. NATO intervention in the Balkans further enforced this point; modern warfare required capabilities that the PLA did not currently have [source].

    During the 1990s, the PLA stepped up its modernisation efforts [source]. Future wars involving China would be “under high-technology conditions” [source]. Such a environment required a flexible force, ideally capable of pre-emptive first strikes to negate hostile technological advantage [source]. Such a force would have to be “smaller, more agile, and manageable” than previously thought [source].

    1.3.1: A Newfound Appreciation for SOF

    Modernisation efforts emphasise special forces as a critical element of modern war-fighting [source]. During the conflict, Coalition SOF teams deep in enemy territory greatly aided the war effort [source]. They identified and destroyed decoys, acted as pathfinders, and guided precision munitions to devastating effect [source].

    China increased the size of its SOF units to seven, one for each military region [source]. Each regiment has 1,000-2,000 men, subordinate to individual Military Regional Commanders [source]. This command structure contrasts with the American practice of placing SOF under the command of United States Operations Command (USSOCOM) [source]. Regarding direct comparisons of combat capabilities, it is better to relate PLA SOF to US Army Rangers than Seal Team 6, Delta Force, or the Green Berets [source].

    2.0: The Role of SOF in PLA Doctrine

    Chinese Special Forces doctrine is like its Western counterpart [source]. Indeed, as detailed above, the PLA has taken extensive inspiration from past conflicts in shaping the missions their SOF expects to undertake [source]. In a conventional war, these expectations are as follows;

    • Infiltrating enemy lines [source].
    • Confuse and disrupt rear echelon formations [source].
    • Destroy key targets (i.e. radars, supply depots, communications, transportation) [source].
    • Guiding fire missions [source].
    • Capturing high-ranking targets [source].
    • Performing Reconnaissance [source].
    • Engaging in psychological warfare [source].

    The primary conflict the PLA seems to be preparing for is an eventual invasion of Taiwan [source]. SOF activities during this invasion would be a vital aspect of any successful seaborne assault [source]. 

    2.1: A Taiwan Invasion Scenario

    PLA SOF would likely infiltrate the island weeks before the main invasion force [source]. Much like during the Falkland Islands War, where Special Air and Boat Service personnel monitored Argentine activity and weather, Chinese special forces would be instrumental in giving the invasion the best chance possible [source]. Monitoring would also coincide with raids to degrade the ability of the Taiwanese Army to respond to a beach landing [source]. Targets include airstrips, observation posts, ammunition depots, and communication hubs [source]. Special forces could guide munitions onto high-value targets, wreaking further havoc on the defender’s cohesion [source].

    Furthermore, SOF will also perform in theatre psychological warfare [source]. PLA documents detail how special operations can assist in “disintegrating enemy resolve” through hijacking radio and television broadcasts [source]. These efforts would also involve distributing physical propaganda and placing remote transmitters across the island [source].

    2.2: Problems facing Chinese Special Forces

    While indeed a more potent force than decades prior, the PLA’s SOF faces several issues if it is to operate successfully on a modern battlefield. First, conscripts form the basis of SOF personnel, and officers are young and inexperienced [source]. Institutional knowledge is much harder to pass down when many from your elite forces return to civilian life every year.

    There is also the issue of culture. SOF requires unconventional thinking, initiative, and adaptability; these factors are not usually found in the rigidly hierarchical PRC [source].

    “Remnants of the Confucian sociocultural system, strengthened in ways by communist rule, stifle innovation, promote rigidity in thinking, and tend to favour paralysis over adaptability, all of which are not conducive to recognising, accepting, and exploiting the emergent RMA.”

    Dr Bates Gill, former Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [source].

    Additionally, PLA SOF does not have “the extensive infrastructure of […] support found by the U.S. SOF community” [source]. Therefore, special forces must work closely with regular units to function as intended. However, SOF remains poorly integrated into theatre-wide commands [source].

    Chinese special forces operating a CornerShot. These are most likely belong to the Sea Dragons, due to their Type 07 Oceanic camouflage.
    Chinese special forces operating a CornerShot. These men most likely belong to the Sea Dragons due to their Type 07 Oceanic camouflage [source]. Original Image:

    3.0: PLA SOF Organisation

    This section details the publically available information regarding Chinese special forces units, the Military Regions or Service Arm they belong to, and their strength. Regiments (also referred to as groups) are equal to 1,000-2,000 soldiers, while a brigade has 2,000-3,000 [source][source]. Fendui refers to small SOF units [source].

    3.1: Force Composition

    • Air Force: 15th Airborne Army, Group [source]. The “Thunder Gods” operate out of Hubei [source].
    • Beijing: 38th Group Army, Brigade [source].
    • Chengdu: 13th Group Army, Brigade [source]. This may refer to “Cheetah” group [source].
    • Chengdu: Tibet Military District, Group [source]. This may also be “Cheetah” group [source].
    • Guangzhou: 42nd Group Army, Brigade [source]. There are three possible SOF units this could reference; U/I Brigade, Special Force Battalion, or “Sword of the South” [source].
    • Jinan: 26th Group Army, Brigade [source]. This group is named the “Falcons” [source].
    • Lanzhou: 21st Group Army, Brigade [source].
    • Lanzhou: Xinjiang Military District, Regiment [source].
    • Nanjing: 12th Group Army, Brigade [source]. The “Sharks” are in Jiangsu, but it is unknown what regiment they are attached to [source]. 
    • Nanjing: 31st Group Army, Brigade [source]. Same as detailed above [source].
    • Navy: South Sea Fleet, Regiment [source]. Most likely, this references the “Sea Dragons” due to their size [source].
    • Navy, Two Marine Brigades, Fendui [source]. It is also possible that these Fendui are the “Sea Dragons” [source].
    • Second Artillery: Unknown, Regiment [source].
    • Shenyang: 16th Group Army, Brigade [source]. Likely the “Tigers of the Northeast” [source].
    • Shenyang: 39th Group Army, Group [source]. Also, possibly the “Tigers of the Northeast” [source].
    • Peoples Armed Police (PAP): Beijing Zongdui, Group [source]. Either the “Sacred Sword of the East” or the “Whistling Arrows” [source].
    • PAP: Special Police Academy, Brigade [source]. Same as above [source].
    A Chinese special forces soldier holding a QBZ-95 with a holographic sight. The camouflage is indicative the soldier belongs to the PAP.
    A Chinese special forces soldier holding a QBZ-95 with a holographic sight. The camouflage is indicative the soldier belongs to the PAP [source]. Original Image:

    3.2: Equipment

    Chinese special operations personnel have access to modern equipment analogous to its Western equivalents [source]. Regarding infantry, individual operators are equipped with night vision and communications devices [source]. Pictures of Chinese SOF highlight this, with soldiers seen with Ops-Core helmets, plate carriers, and optics on their rifles.

    Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are widely used, both special-purpose military (including micro-drones) and off-the-shelf commercial models [source]. In preparation for an invasion of Taiwan, Chinese SOF have access to sophisticated maritime equipment [source]. These include  “diver propulsion vehicles, and undersea personnel delivery systems” [source].

    4.0: Conclusion

    PLA Special Forces represent a critical aspect of Chinese military modernisation [source]. They form the sharp edge of the spear when it comes to any war China finds itself in. Unfortunately, there is not much reputable information available regarding the exact details. What is clear, though, is that PLA SOF are a hardened corps of well-trained soldiers. They have yet to test themselves to the same extent as other SOF units, so it remains to be seen just how formidable they are in actual conditions.

    Maxwell Goldstein
    Maxwell Goldstein
    Maxwell is a Junior Intelligence Analyst and student pursuing an international master's degree through the Erasmus Mundus IMSISS programme. His areas of focus are aerospace, technology, and the Indo-Pacific.

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