CIRA China analyst Joe McReynolds and former CIRA analyst John Costello have produced a landmark monograph on the structure and inner workings of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force for National Defense University:
In late 2015, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated a series of ongoing reforms that have brought dramatic changes to its structure, model of warfighting, and organizational culture. Undoubtedly, among the most important changes has been the creation of a unified Strategic Support Force (SSF) [zhanlüe zhiyuan budui, 战略支援部队]. This force combines assorted space, cyber, and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities from across the PLA services and its former general departments.
The few statements that Xi Jinping has made about the role of the Strategic Support Force have been almost comically circumspect, affirming that it is both a “strategic” force and a “supporting” one. Even 2 years after its founding, some aspects of the SSF’s organizational structure remain opaque to outside observers. However, despite this lack of transparency, a coherent picture has gradually emerged of how various SSF components fit together and the strategic roles and missions that they are intended to fulfill.
Although the Strategic Support Force is often described as having been designed to streamline the organization of China’s information warfare forces and thereby improve their efficiency, such incremental advantages are not the primary reason that the SSF was created. Rather, the SSF’s structure is first and foremost intended to create synergies between disparate information warfare capabilities in order to execute specific types of strategic missions that Chinese leaders believe will be decisive in future major wars. The PLA views cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare as interconnected subcomponents of information warfare writ large. Understanding the primary strategic roles of the SSF is essential to understanding how China will practice information operations in a war or crisis.