What is China achieving by restructuring its military First Post 02 May 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



What is China achieving by restructuring its military First Post 02 May 2024

          On 31st Dec 2015, the Chinese PLA underwent a most talked about transformation leading to the creation of the Strategic Support Force (SSF). It was supposedly ‘designed to better integrate space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into PLA operations.’ Rand in a research paper of 2017 mentioned, ‘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.’

          Xi Jinping took credit for the creation of the SSF and exploited it to gain an unprecedented third tenure as President in 2023. The SSF was touted as a unique organization responsible for supporting all other PLA entities with space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities. Under a year into his third term, on 19th Apr, Xi announced the splitting of the same SSF into three different verticals, termed as the Information Support Force (ISF), Cyberspace force and Aerospace force.  

While the Information Support Force (ISF) would be a new branch, the other two, Cyberspace and Aerospace forces would emerge from the erstwhile SSF. As per Japan Times, ‘The changes are aimed at better adapting China’s military to the “informatization” conditions of modern warfare. The restructuring will lead to “better deployment” of satellite systems, cyberspace, and when conducting electronic warfare.’

These verticals will now function directly under the Central Military Commission (CMC), driving the message they would be under the watchful eye of Xi Jinping. With this restructuring the PLA would comprise of four arms, army, navy, air and rocket forces as also four independent verticals, the existing Joint Logistics Support Force and the new three, created by splitting the SFF.

For how long was this reorganization on the cards is unknown, however, what is clear is that no restructuring is implemented without detailed deliberation and assessment at the highest levels. This is so because restructuring creates instability and uncertainty in an organization. It takes time for the organization to settle down and re-commence its functioning. Too many changes also send a wrong message to adversaries.

The restructuring also conveys that there were either shortfalls in the functioning of the SSF or that it had been initially tasked to build requisite capabilities within the cyber and space forces which it fulfilled. The capability development aspect appears to be possibly correct as the deputy head of the erstwhile SSF as also its political commissioner were transferred to the newly created ISF, with the former deputy leading it.

Xi was himself present for the launching of the ISF and mentioned that the organization will play ‘a crucial role in advancing the Chinese military’s high-quality development and competitiveness in modern warfare.’ The PLA daily mentioned on the creation of the ISF, ‘In modern warfare, victory hinges on information. The struggle is between systems, and whoever commands information superiority holds the initiative in war.’

It is evident that the ISF would be exploited, apart from projecting the Chinese narrative in future operations, also to broadcast what Xi’s desires through the PLA thereby enhancing his hold on the organization. Of the three, the ISF remains the most essential organization.

The Chinese defence ministry spokesperson, as part of his press briefing, described Cyberspace force as, ‘reinforcing national cyber border defence, promptly detecting and countering network intrusions and maintaining national cyber sovereignty and information security.’ There was also a mention that it would be responsible for ‘offensive cyber operations,’ implying that the CMC would determine target nations for cyberattacks. Many western nations as also India have faced cyberattacks from China.

On the Aerospace Force, the spokesperson mentioned it 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. Space will play a major role in future conflicts. Most modern armed forces, including India, have created space commands.

By placing these newly created organizations under the CMC, the Chinese are confirming that these new structures need close supervision and direction. Further, as proved by the erstwhile logistics support force, effectiveness and integration is better when central organizations are directly controlled by the CMC, rather than being employed through layers of command. 

Various views are being projected on why the SSF was split within years of being touted as the most profound change in the PLA. Some analysts have mentioned that corruption scandals of the rocket force could be the reason. This may be partially true as technology dominated organizations demand high investment which provide incentive for corruption. Hence, by placing them under the CMC, a direct check could be maintained.

The second reason being touted is the balloon incident of Jan-Feb 2023. A Chinese unguided surveillance balloon, carrying monitoring equipment was shot down over continental US by fighter aircraft at a height of 65,000 ft. The Chinese claimed it veered off course while the US insisted it was on an intelligence gathering mission.

It led to deterioration in ties between the two nations. The launching and monitoring of the ballon would have been the responsibility of the SSF and under it the aerospace force. There are reports that Xi did not take kindly to this lapse. Closer monitoring by the CMC would prevent such reoccurrences.

The third possible reason being mentioned is lessons from ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza. In these conflicts projecting the correct narrative is essential in order to gain ascendancy over the opposition. India has experienced Chinese information warfare aimed at defending its claims over Arunachal. Renaming parts of the state with Chinese names and projecting its views on multiple media networks is ongoing.

Similar has been the experience of nations competing with China over shoals in the South and East China seas. These operations will now be spearheaded by the ISF. Similarly, cyber and space are domains which can no longer be ignored.

India also possesses its own cyber and space commands, which operate in close conjunction with specialist organizations including ISRO and DRDO. 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.’

Currently China’s relations with most of its neighbours are at an ebb as also are its relations with the US. It is aware that at some stage it would have to act against Taiwan or possibly India. It would then need to project the right narrative to justify its actions as also support ground operations by cyberattacks and exploitation of space. It is possibly with this view that China has restructured its SSF into three different verticals.

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