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Research Questions

  1. What are the missions and organization of China's newly created SSF?
  2. What is the role of the SSF, especially in regard to the PLA's use of space?
  3. What are the implications of the creation of the SSF for China's emerging aerospace expeditionary and power projection capabilities?

This report explores the missions and organization of China's military space enterprise, focusing on the organizational structure of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF). Created on December 31, 2015, as part of a major reorganization of China's military, the SSF is charged with developing and employing most of the PLA's space capabilities. Its creation signifies a shift in the PLA's prioritization of space and an increased role for PLA space capabilities. Chinese military strategists see military space capabilities and operations as a key component of strategic deterrence, critical to enabling the PLA to fight informatized local wars and counter U.S. military intervention in the region and essential for supporting operations aimed at protecting China's emerging interests in more-distant parts of the world. The main function of the SSF's space component appears to be the launch and operation of satellites to provide the PLA with command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. It appears that information warfare, including space warfare, long identified by PLA analysts as a critical element of future military operations, has entered a new phase of development in which an emphasis on space and information warfare, long-range precision strikes, and the requirements associated with conducting operations at greater distances from China has necessitated the establishment of a new and different type of organization.

Key Findings

China's New Strategic Support Force: Its Missions, Organization, and Implications

  • A major part of China's reform of its military was the creation in 2015 of the SSF, a new organization designed to better integrate space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into PLA operations.
  • The SSF appears to be a unique organization tasked with the inherently joint mission of supporting all services with its space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities.
  • The SSF's C4ISR capabilities enable the PLA to effectively conduct joint operations and successfully prosecute "system vs. system" warfare, which it characterizes as essential to winning modern wars.
  • The SSF appears to be charged with launching and operating China's satellite architecture, carrying out the co-orbital counterspace mission involving satellite-on-satellite attacks, and perhaps other counterspace missions.
  • Creation of the SSF made one organization responsible for the development of the PLA's space and information warfare forces to better integrate their capabilities into a joint force.
  • Information warfare, including space warfare, long identified by PLA analysts as a critical element of warfare, appears to have entered a period of significant development that could critically affect U.S. military operations.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Why Space Is Important to the PLA

  • Chapter Three

    The Role of Outer Space in PLA Operations

  • Chapter Four

    The Strategic Support Force

  • Chapter Five

    The SSF's Organizational Structure for the Space Mission

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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