As the United States relies more heavily on special forces, it is likely China will too. Some special force units get all the attention. America’s Delta Force, Russia’s Spetnatz and Britain’s SAS have glamorous reputations.
When was the last time you heard about China’s special forces?
But Chinese special forces exist, and they have been growing in size, sophistication and global reach, according to the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). Their command structure has been streamlined and training has become more realistic.
China put these changes to this summer during the first comprehensive assessment of its special forces. The exercise, Ingenious Special Operations Soldier-2018, “tested all levels of command, including brigade, battalion, company, element and squad levels,” FMSO said. “While media coverage of the exercise emphasized tests of special forces skills, such as fast-roping from helicopters, night operations and sniper attacks, the underlying point of the exercise is likely to be the test of command capabilities.”
Chinese special operations units are a recent creation. “China’s first army special forces units were first set up in the 1990s,” FMSO said in the August issue of its OE Watch magazine. “Additional units have continued to be stood up, with the other services of the PLA establishing SOF [special operations forces] units with specialized skills sets throughout the 2000s.”
Each People’s Liberation Army Group Army has an attached special forces regiment or brigade. “Increasing realism in training, and particularly the creation of PLA Aviation Brigades that provide SOF brigades with organic vertical lift, are important steps in creating an operationally useful force,” FMSO noted. “As assessments of the exercise “Ingenious Special Operations Soldier-2018” are published or future iterations of the exercise take place, the PLA’s progress in implementing the new command structure should become more clear.”
Which brings up the real question: Do improvements in China’s special forces mean they will be used more often? Would America’s current foreign policy even be possible without special operations units to battle insurgents or train friendly troops in the Middle East and Africa?
Special forces have become America’s instrument for waging small wars on the cheap, using small numbers of elite soldiers rather than large numbers of expensive — and politically sensitive — regular troops. As China begins to stretch its muscles across the globe, it would be surprising if it did not do the same.