Jinping ceremony
President Xi Jinping (center) transfers a military flag to Gao Jin (left) and Liu Fulian, commander and political commissar, respectively, of the PLA Strategic Support Force, at an inauguration ceremony in Beijing on Dec. 31. Credit: Chinese Ministry of National Defense

On the last day of 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping formally inaugurated three new services into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The commanders of the PLA Ground Forces, PLA Rocket Forces and the PLA Strategic Support Forces were vested with the colors of their respective services by Xi himself. This constitutes the first step in what promises to be one of the most far-reaching and radical reorganizations of the PLA, or indeed of any major power’s military, in the past two decades.

The creation of the PLA Ground Forces, for example, reflects a tectonic bureaucratic shake-up. Until now, the four General Departments (General Staff Department — warfighting, intelligence; General Political Department — political training, personnel; General Logistics Department — beans, bullets, blankets; General Armaments Department — weapons development, space infrastructure) that run the PLA doubled as the top leadership of the ground forces. Thus, the ground forces were bureaucratically first among equals, with substantially more clout since they staffed the top General Department billets administering the entire military. Now, the PLA Ground Forces have been made their own service — in effect a demotion, as they are separated from the General Departments.

By contrast, the creation of the PLA Rocket Forces is a massive bureaucratic gain for the former Second Artillery. Although in control of China’s rocket forces, and managing China’s nuclear warheads, the Second Artillery was only a “super branch,” half a bureaucratic step below the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force. By granting it the status of a service (junzhong), the Second Artillery has not only been elevated, but moves out of the shadow of the ground forces as well.

Most strikingly, however, is the creation of the Strategic Support Forces (zhanlue zhiyuan jun). Reportedly comprised of China’s space, electronic warfare and network warfare forces, this will arguably be the centerpiece of Chinese efforts to prepare for fighting and winning future “local informationized wars.” Chinese military writings on the conduct of “information warfare” (xinxi zhan) emphasize the need to establish “information dominance” (zhi xinxi quan). This, in turn, rests upon the ability to conduct network warfare (wangluo zhan) and electronic warfare (dianzi zhan), as well as psychological warfare. Because of the role of space systems in the collection, transmission and exploitation of information, the ability to establish space dominance (zhi tian quan) is integral to any effort to establish information dominance.

The establishment of the Strategic Support Force is therefore as much a reflection of how the PLA thinks future wars will be fought as the creation of the ground forces command. In both cases, the PLA is changing its organizational structure to improve its ability to prepare for future “informationized” warfare. Information warfare forces, including space forces, are being elevated, while the separation of the ground forces into their own command effectively signals that their role will shrink. This is further reflected in Xi Jinping’s remarks at the investiture, where the ground forces are praised as the earliest expression of the armed might of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while the Strategic Support Force is described as a vital extension of the PLA’s combat power, and the newest form.

Xi’s comments further presage the likely direction of future development. The Strategic Support Force is exhorted to firmly hold to leapfrog-style development, to accelerate development of new forms of combat power. Given its composition, the Chinese military is making clear that it will be a force to be reckoned with in the space, electronic warfare and network warfare domains.

And this is just the first major announced reform.

It remains to be seen how the Chinese will reorganize, if at all, the four General Departments. The Strategic Support Force likely gained network warfare assets from the GSD 3rd Department (home of the infamous Unit 61398), and likely the GSD 4th Department (responsible for radar and electronic warfare.) It likely assumes responsibility for space infrastructure, formerly the purview of the General Armaments Department. The separation of the ground forces suggests that there may now be a non-ground force commander for one or more of the General Departments, if all four are, in fact, retained.

It is likely that the seven military regions will also undergo changes. Many of the rumored reorganizations have discussed the idea of reducing the number to four or five military regions. The structure of their commands will also likely change, with the potential for a non-ground force commander for one or more of them, the permanent creation of a more joint headquarters structure, and the formal incorporation of space, electronic warfare and network warfare (in the form of Strategic Support Force commanders) into the highest levels of those structures.

Most of all, it remains to be seen what “strategic missions” will be assigned these new services, but especially the Strategic Support Force. The PLA Air Force, apparently the biggest loser in this reorganization thus far, only received a strategic mission in 2004: “Prepare for integrated air-space operations, prepare to conduct both offensive and defensive operations.” Will the Strategic Support Force receive a strategic mission now? If so, how will such a mission relate to the PLA Air Force’s?

For the United States, the Chinese reorganization is the clearest signal yet that, in the event of future conflict, the PLA will challenge the American ability to access and exploit outer space and cyber space. Past untrammeled supremacy in these vital arenas can no longer be taken for granted. Instead, in any crisis, whether in the wake of the 2016 Taiwan elections, or future developments in the South China Sea or East China Sea, will see a PLA organized and prepared to secure information dominance, including in outer space.

Dean Cheng is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.