By John Costello and Joe McReynolds
China Strategic Perspectives 13
In late 2015, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated reforms that have brought dramatic
changes to its structure, model of warfighting, and organizational culture, including the
creation of a Strategic Support Force (SSF) that centralizes most PLA space, cyber, electronic,
and psychological warfare capabilities. The reforms come at an inflection point as the PLA seeks
to pivot from land-based territorial defense to extended power projection to protect Chinese
interests in the “strategic frontiers” of space, cyberspace, and the far seas. Understanding the
new strategic roles of the SSF is essential to understanding how the PLA plans to fight and win
informationized wars and how it will conduct information operations.
The SSF reports to the Central Military Commission (CMC) and oversees two co-equal,
semi-independent branches: the Space Systems Department, which leads a space force responsible
for space operations, and the Network Systems Department, which leads a cyber force
responsible for information operations.
The SSF has two primary roles: strategic information support and strategic information
The PLA reforms have substantially altered the command context for many of the missions
now under the SSF, redefining longstanding organizational relationships and creating new responsibilities
across the PLA command bureaucracy.
The PLA reforms can be compared to U.S. reforms after the Goldwater-Nichols Department
of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which were similarly aimed at transforming a
peacetime military structure toward one more optimized for joint warfare. The SSF is partly
modeled on U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), with modifications reflecting China’s
unique approach and challenges.
The creation of the SSF heralds a new era for China’s strategic posture, both in terms of
the PLA’s preparations for fighting and winning informationized wars and its shift to projecting
power farther from China’s shores.