Updated May 29th, 2024 at 15:10 IST

With Strategic Support Force Dissolved, Xi Jinping’s Information Support Force to Fight the Cyberwar

This move aims to enhance military capabilities and tighten political control, influenced by recent global conflicts like the war in Ukraine.

Reported by: Yuvraj Tyagi
Representative | Image:Chinamil
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Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping initiated a significant restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by dissolving the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and replacing it with a new Information Support Force. This move, announced on April 19, is believed to be driven by a need for enhanced military capabilities and tighter political control. Analysts suggest that the lessons learned from recent global conflicts have influenced Xi’s decision to reorganize the PLA's support structure.

Joel Wuthnow, a Chinese military expert at the National Defense University in Washington, indicates that Xi’s decision may stem from observations of the war in Ukraine. "An effective structure for support forces is essential for modern warfare," Wuthnow said. He believes that the SSF had become an unnecessary management layer, complicating Xi’s oversight of PLA operations in space, cyberspace, and other information domains.  

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Creation of an Information Support Force for Enhanced Oversight  

The SSF, established on December 31, 2015, was responsible for key operations in the domains of space and cyberspace. The newly created Information Support Force will now manage network information systems, communications support, and potentially network defence. This reorganization is part of a broader structural change that also includes the establishment of the Cyberspace Force and the Aerospace Force, alongside the existing Joint Logistics Support Force.  

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These changes mean the PLA now has a streamlined structure with four arms and four services. The services include the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force, while the four arms report directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC). This direct reporting line to the CMC is expected to facilitate better oversight and operational efficiency, eliminating the layers that previously existed under the SSF.  

Improving Command and Control with Streamlined Forces  

Brendan Mulvaney, director of the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, notes the surprise among observers regarding this restructuring. “Creating a new force and disbanding another requires significant planning, yet the PLA kept these plans hidden,” Mulvaney remarked. The reorganization is seen as a strategic move to improve command and control within the PLA.

This restructuring allows theatre commanders to access support assets more directly, enhancing joint operations and reducing bureaucratic delays. “The new structure should help break down silos within the PLA and improve joint operations,” Wuthnow explained. The specialized focus of the new forces will enhance their operational effectiveness, without the hindrance of additional management layers.  

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Focus on Cyberspace and Aerospace Operations  

The Cyberspace Force takes over the functions of the SSF’s former Network Systems Department. It is tasked with reinforcing national cyber defence, detecting and countering intrusions, and maintaining cyber sovereignty. This force is also responsible for conducting offensive cyber operations, responding to accusations from the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand about China’s involvement in malicious cyber activities.  

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Similarly, the Aerospace Force will strengthen China’s capabilities in space, succeeding the SSF’s Space Systems Department. Despite China's emphasis on the peaceful use of space, the Pentagon's latest report on China's military highlights the PLA's view of space superiority as crucial for modern information warfare. These changes are expected to boost China's ability to control the space-enabled information sphere and deny adversaries their space-based capabilities.

This restructuring aligns with Xi Jinping’s broader goal of modernizing China’s military and increasing its competitiveness. Xi has underscored the importance of the Information Support Force in advancing the PLA’s development and improving its modern warfare capabilities. The restructuring ensures greater political control over the PLA’s information domain forces.  

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Mulvaney suggests that this reform also reflects Xi’s desire for more direct control. "The new headquarters will take time to establish command and control relationships," he noted. However, the overall impact on the PLA is expected to be less disruptive compared to the major reforms of 2015/2016. 

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Published May 29th, 2024 at 15:10 IST