Explained Chinese Restructuring in Defence ETV Bharat 01 May 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



Explained: Chinese Restructuring in Defence ETV Bharat 01 May 2024

          On 19th April, China announced the termination of the Strategic Support Force (SSF) which had been created with much fanfare by Xi Jinping in 2015 as part of his reforms of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) and exploited by him to gain his unprecedented third term. The SSF included departments amalgamated from other organizations. Its basic role was to enhance capabilities in space, cyber, information and electronic warfare. In the latest reorganization the SSF has been split into three independent branches, termed as the Information Support Force (ISF), Cyberspace force and Aerospace force.

These verticals would operate directly under the Central Military Commission (CMC), sending the message they would be closely monitored by the CMC, headed by Xi Jinping. At the end of the day the PLA would comprise of four arms, army, navy, air force and rocket force as also four independent verticals, three created recently and the existing Joint Logistics Support Force.

It also means that cyber, information and space are spheres which are considered to be of particular interest to the Chinese hierarchy. Further, though the announcement was made in Apr, there would have been intense discussions on the subject prior to the reorganization. As things happen in China, little is known till the final decision is announced.

The Chinese defence ministry spokesperson, as part of his press briefing, defined the role of Cyberspace force as, ‘reinforcing national cyber border defence, promptly detecting and countering network intrusions and maintaining national cyber sovereignty and information security.’ It will also be responsible for ‘offensive cyber operations,’ which conveys that the CMC would determine which opponents should face cyberattacks.

He added that the Aerospace Force will ‘strengthen the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use space.’ Space is the next dimension of warfare and is gaining importance all across the world. Most modern armed forces, including India, have a separate space command. The Indian CDS, General Anil Chauhan had recently stated, ‘space will cast its influence on the air, maritime and land domains.’

On the ISF, the PLA daily mentioned, ‘In modern warfare, victory hinges on information. The struggle is between systems, and whoever commands information superiority holds the initiative in war.’ Xi Jinping had himself stated in a recent event that the ISF will, ‘speed up military modernisation and effectively implement the mission of the people’s armed forces in the new era.’

The ISF will likely take charge of communications and network defence for the PLA, apart from dominating the information sphere. There is also a belief that in case of any future war, the ISF would be the lead intending to dominate the information space before other adversaries could act.

India has been facing Chinese information warfare as part of its grey zone operations along the LAC. These include renaming parts of Arunachal Pradesh at regular intervals as also projecting Chinese narrative on multiple media platforms. These actions are part of China’s ‘three warfare’ concept incorporating public opinion, psychological and legal warfare. This warfare will now be spearheaded by the ISF.   

Multiple reasons are being given for the Chinese restructuring. One is that the current SSF was not a success and did not improve coordination between space, cyber and network defence forces as also between them and other arms of the PLA. It could also possibly be that the SSF created the desired capabilities in these structures and once these were complete, separate verticals were created.

Second is the balloon incident when a Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down over the US last year, embarrassing Beijing. It enhanced the divide between the US and China. There are reports that Xi was unaware of a ballon being employed for spying.

The third is the recent crackdown on corruption within different branches of the PLA, mainly the rocket force. This implied that the CMC, headed by Xi, desired stronger control over crucial organizations, by reducing layers of command.

The fourth possible reason is to enable seamless cooperation between theatre commands and support organizations. The success of the Joint Logistics Support Force is a case in point, where its direct functioning under the CMC has enhanced cooperation across all theatres. Fifthly, are lessons flowing from ongoing conflicts, Russo-Ukraine and Israel-Gaza-Iran. Information management and control over the information space is essential in operations as also is building the right narrative. Cyber and space are domains which can no longer be ignored.

Finally, and most importantly, it would provide Xi with direct control over internal narratives which he would seek to project through the ISF to enhance his grip over the PLA.

India has also created its own space and cyber commands as part of its restructuring. This was based on a 2012 recommendation of the Chief’s of Staff Committee. These commands will coordinate their functioning with existing civilian agencies including ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) and DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization).    

The Chinese restructuring comes at a time when tensions are high between China and its neighbours over islands in the South and East China Seas. There is also enhanced troop deployment along the LAC with India, where there have been a few clashes.  

US-China relations remain unstable mainly due to Chinese offensive manoeuvres in the region as also its material support to Russia. The Chinese have, in recent times, been accused by the US, UK and New Zealand of planned cyberattacks. Indian strategic sites including ISRO and DRDO face hundreds of cyberattacks daily, largely from China and Pakistan.

China’s latest reforms also appear to be part of Xi’s plan to modernize the PLA by 2035. The question remains as to whether this is the final reorganization of the PLA or more would follow. After all Xi still has time before he seeks his fourth term and would intend to take credit for modernizing China’s military as he has done in the past.

The Indian air chief, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari, mentioned at a recent conference, ‘The traditional boundaries of the land, sea, air, cyber and space domains are increasingly becoming blurred, bringing about a paradigm shift in war fighting.’ Chinese restructuring is possibly aimed at enhancing joint capabilities in these fields within the PLA.    


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