PLA Special Operations Threat to Taiwan

PLA Special Operations Threat to Taiwan

PLA Special Operations Threat to Taiwan

Taiwan takes the People’s Liberation Army special operations forces (PLA SOF) threat seriously. In early October, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed that a special unit exists to prevent a PLA SOF decapitation attempt (反斬首) against Taiwan’s leadership. Additionally, they confirmed that there are crisis plans in place to rapidly evacuate the president to the underground national command post. While much of the public attention has been on the growing sophistication of PLA air force and naval exercises, a survey of authoritative Chinese-language sources appears to indicate a targeted mission for the PLA SOF that defense planners in Taipei and Washington should not take lightly.

The PLA’s SOF execute strategic and operational combat missions other forces are unable to accomplish, serving as a key force multiplier in operations against Taiwan. According to an authoritative Academy of Military Science (解放軍軍事科學研究院) publication, special reconnaissance is the primary mission; however, direct action missions are important for striking key targets, affecting morale, and disrupting enemy plans. Currently each group army has a SOF brigade, while Tibet and Xinjiang Military Districts, the Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force each have SOF units. Army maneuver units also contain small special forces units.[1]

Campaigns Against Taiwan

Possible PLA operations against Taiwan include a blockade campaign, joint fire strike campaign, or an island landing campaign—or more likely a combination of campaigns. SOF forces would conduct important reconnaissance and direct action operations against Taiwan. The PLA is currently capable of a joint fire strike campaign and likely a blockade campaign, but does not possess the requisite amphibious and airlift capabilities for an invasion of Taiwan. Additionally, the PLA would conduct an air defense or anti-air raid campaign to defend the mainland, although this operation would include offensive actions against enemy airfields. The table below identifies SOF combat actions specific to the campaigns.

Campaigns and SOF Combat Actions
 Island OffensiveIsland BlockadeJoint Fire StrikeAir Defense
Special ReconnaissanceXXXX
Strike GuidanceXXXX
Sabotage OperationsXXXX
Seize and ControlX   
Harassing Operations X X
Search and SuppressX   
Rescue XX 
Network SabotageX   
Psychological AttackXXX 
Anti-Terror   X

SOF infiltration could begin prior to the conflict, with insertions continuing during the various phases of an operation. SOFs could infiltrate undercover as businessmen or tourists using civil transportation. PLA publications report the employment of “underground Party organizations,” agents, and fellow travelers supporting intelligence operations, posing a dangerous counterintelligence problem to Taiwan’s security forces. These controlled networks in Taiwan could disrupt Taiwan internally, as well as assist SOF infiltration with local intelligence, safe houses, transportation, and cached weapons and equipment. Infiltration methods could include paradrops or landings by fixed or rotary wing aircraft or sea methods including delivery by submarines, fishing boats, civilian merchant ships or small specialized craft. SOF troops also practice parachuting into water, and use powered parachutes and ultralights.[2]

SOF troops are formed into groups for operations, usually from three to 15 soldiers. Smaller groups conduct reconnaissance missions or provide guidance for precisions strikes, while larger groups perform direct action missions. Multiple SOF groups, each with a specialized assignment, execute larger direct action missions.[3]

While air defense operations are primarily defensive and would be a part of any operation, SOF actions emphasize offensive, proactive measures against enemy air bases and forces. Other SOF missions include countering enemy special forces and anti-terrorist actions against groups working with the enemy.[4]

China could implement large scale air and sea blockades as an independent campaign or a component of an island landing campaign against Taiwan. Joint fire strikes would support a blockade campaign by neutralizing Taiwan air and naval forces threatening the blockade forces. Small scale blockades could isolate Taiwan-held islands. The PLA understands the sensitivity of blockades involving airline routes and international shipping, subject to international laws and conventions, as well as the possibility of outside intervention. The PLA recognizes that blockades will need to be lengthy to obtain the desired effect.

Important SOF actions include special reconnaissance of counter-blockade forces and preparations; guidance and assessments of joint firepower strikes on ports and airfields; attacks on communications, air defense, and targets affecting the enemy’s war potential,  including power grids, economic and other civilian objectives that can exhaust the enemy, weaken morale, create social tension or unrest; boarding, search or capture of targeted vessels; and rescue of pilots or naval personnel.

PLA doctrinal publications discuss a large-scale landing and on-island offensive campaigns against Taiwan. Smaller scale landings could attempt to seize Taiwan-held islands. The PLA considers reconnaissance and direct action missions critical to the success of such a campaign, effectively opening a second front in the enemy’s rear area. Large scale SOF employment would be continuous beginning prior to the start of operations providing direct support to key campaign phases including seizing and maintaining sea and air superiority, rapid landing and establishment of the beachhead, and delaying or defeating counterattacks.

Important combat missions include guiding firepower strikes; setting beacons or visual signals to identify amphibious landing zones, airborne drop zones, or air assault landing zones; attacking forces that threaten a landing zone; clearing mines and obstacles from amphibious or airborne landing zones; seizing control of vital objectives including command posts, government buildings, media, airports, ports, and key lines of communication or choke points; capturing or assassinating key political figures, scientific and technical experts, and other key personnel; hard or soft destruction or interference with the command network; and psychological warfare to collapse morale and the will to resist.[5]

Combat Missions

Special reconnaissance groups collect critical intelligence that other assets cannot provide to support planning, decision-making, and targeting. Groups conducting reconnaissance missions likely will not engage in direct action missions to maintain concealment. However, if a high priority target is discovered, the group could attack the objective or guide fire strikes. Special reconnaissance can include tracking and monitoring key targets including placement of technical surveillance means. Collection means can include UAVs, high tech monitoring equipment and sensors, capture and interrogation of enemy personnel, or surreptitious entry into enemy facilities.[6]

Guidance for joint long-range strikes is another important mission. Accurate guidance is time sensitive, requiring rapid location and transmission of targeting data to the fire unit. Accurate positioning data is provided using the Beidou satellite navigation system, laser designation, or visual signals such as markers, lights or smoke. SOF groups also provide damage assessments including target recovery to support decisions on subsequent strikes.[7]

Sabotage operations target key enemy command posts; precision strike systems; military airbases and ports; early warning sites; civilian transportation systems and power grids; logistics; and other strategic or operational targets, including the political and military leadership.[8]

SOF groups will seize an objective when the action could significantly impact operational success, and when other units cannot accomplish the mission. Such missions must be carefully chosen, as they could result in high casualties on valuable SOF assets. Objectives include major transportation hubs to disrupt supply and movement of forces; key strategic or operational areas such as mountain passes, high ground, towns, airfields, ports or smaller islands; and key systems such as water supply, communications, energy, financial institutions, and media facilities that could weaken the public’s will to resist or the enemy’s war potential.[9]

Harassing operations disrupt and cause chaos in the enemy depth to divert enemy forces, attrit, exhaust, deceive and confuse the enemy. These operations can employ hard or soft attack; psychological, electronic or network attacks; destruction of supplies or equipment; snipers striking key personnel or equipment; and feints to support other operations.[10]

Search and suppress missions aim to capture enemy political or military leaders to cause chaos, lower morale, obtain information, and eliminate remnants of enemy forces. Targeted enemy leadership could include officials of political parties, mass organizations, and religious groups.[11]

SOF psychological attack missions are a component of the overall psychological warfare plan, designed to cause chaos and lower enemy morale. Psychological missions could include decapitation strikes and attacks against key military targets or civilian infrastructure.[12]

In 2015, CCTV video showed PLA troops assaulting a building mockup resembling the Presidential Office in Taipei. However, the Taiwan military has plans to evacuate the Taiwan president by helicopter or a Military Police armor unit to the underground National Political-Military Command Center in a crisis. In addition, a Marine battalion was recently deployed to Taipei to prevent an attack on the capital.

The main point: PLA publications provide a unique, detailed, and authoritative insight into SOF missions in various campaign scenarios including those forming important components of any likely PLA operation against Taiwan. SOF forces would not only provide critical reconnaissance and battle damage assessments on the results of fire strikes, but also conduct direct action missions against objectives that other PLA forces cannot perform.

[1] Lectures on the Science of Special Operations (LSSO) (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013), 202-214.
[2] Theater Joint Operations Command (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2016), 170-172; Precision Operations (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2011), 136-137; LSSO, 46, 109, 195-198.
[3] LSSO, 100-106, 118 and 155.
[4] LSSO, 195-198.
[5] LSSO, 181-186.
[6] LSSO, 107-112.
[7] LSSO, 112-116.
[8] LSSO, 116-120.
[9] LSSO, 121-125.
[10] LSSO, 130-135.
[11] LSSO, 135-139.
[12] LSSO, 142-148.