China's Strategic Support Force: A Force for Innovation?

The Diplomat
Zhang Tao

Chinese President Xi Jinping has tasked the new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF) with pursuing “leapfrog development” and advancing military innovation. The SSF, which has consolidated the PLA’s space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, has consistently been characterized as a “growth point” for the construction of “new-type” forces, while also considered an important force in joint operations.

The SSF not only possesses the capabilities to contest space and cyberspace, the “new commanding heights of strategic competition,” but also may take responsibility for the PLA’s initial experimentation with and eventual employment of a range of “new concept weapons.” Looking forward, the SSF could become a vital force for innovation through which PLA may seek to leapfrog the U.S. military in critical emerging technologies.

In its design, the SSF is intended to be optimized for future warfare, in which the PLA anticipates such “strategic frontiers” as space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic domain will be vital to victory, while unmanned, “intelligentized,” and stealthy weapons systems take on an increasingly prominent role.

According to its commander, Gao Jin, the SSF will “protect the high frontiers and new frontiers of national security,” while seeking to “seize the strategic commanding heights of future military competition.” Through its integration of space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities, the SSF may be uniquely able to take advantage of cross-domain synergies resulting from the inherent interrelatedness and technological convergence of operations in these domains.

The frequent characterization of the SSF as responsible for the construction of “new-type” or “new-quality” combat forces does allude to these known capabilities, which are often characterized in such terms. However, the concept is also used to refer expansively to a variety of forces based on advanced technologies. For instance, the SSF will likely incorporate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including for electronic warfare.

Beyond its established space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions, the SSF’s responsibilities may incorporate the research and development (R&D) and perhaps also the initial testing and fielding of certain of the PLA’s “new concept” weapons systems. The PLA’s official definition of this term alludes to high-technology weapons, such as directed energy weapons, kinetic energy weapons, and cyber weapons. In some instances, the notion of “new concept” weapons might act as a subtler reference to the concept of “assassin’s mace” or shashoujian (杀手锏) capabilities, intended to target U.S. vulnerabilities and achieve an asymmetric advantage.

Indeed, the development of “disruptive weapons” has been characterized as a major task for the SSF, which appears focused on the military applications of multiple emerging technologies, from big data to nanotechnology. In the foreseeable future, it is also plausible that the SSF may experiment with and eventually field directed energy weapons, which could include high-energy lasers, high-power microwave weapons, and/or railguns. For instance, there have been reports of recent advances in the PLA’s high-power microwave weapons by researchers with the Northwest Institute of Nuclear Technology.


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