PLA special operations forces (SOF) would likely play important supporting roles in an amphibious
assault on Taiwan. Their capabilities and training are geared towards several missions undertaken during the preparatory and main assault phases of the landing, including infiltration via special
mission craft and helicopter, reconnaissance and targeting, obstacle clearance, strikes and raids, and extraction missions. While PLA SOF have made progress in recent years, several longstanding challenges could affect their performance in an island landing: integrating advanced special mission
equipment for complex and dangerous missions, coordinating their operations with non-SOF
supporting and supported forces, and overcoming the Chinese military’s penchant for centralized
command. Even if PLA SOF are only partially effective, however, their support to the main assault
force could diminish Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from a large-scale invasion.
One important but sometimes overlooked factor that will influence the success of a People’s
Liberation Army (PLA) attempt to seize Taiwan is special operations forces (SOF) support to the
main assault force.1 Special operations have contributed to amphibious assaults in several modern campaigns, including Normandy (1944), the Falkland Islands (1982), and Grenada (1983). U.S. joint doctrine for amphibious operations continues to assign SOF multiple roles, including military
information support, civil-military operations, foreign humanitarian assistance, special reconnaissance, direct action, and preparation of the environment.2 During the preparatory and primary landing phases of a Taiwan invasion, and even during a potential “mop up” campaign against resistance fighters, the PLA would likely utilize SOF for similar purposes.3 Depending on their performance, these forces could enable or frustrate the operations of conventional PLA units, or
perhaps have no effect at all.
This report addresses the potential role of PLA SOF in a Taiwan campaign from three perspectives. First is doctrine. By analyzing authoritative PLA publications, including the Lectures on the Science of Special Operations, we find that PLA SOF are assigned three roles, including a primary role in special reconnaissance and secondary roles in strikes/raids on key targets and in information
operations. Second is force structure and capabilities. The PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force
(PLAAF), PLA Army (PLAA), and People’s Armed Police (PAP) all possess SOF relevant to a
Taiwan contingency, including some forces that have expanded in recent years. The PLA has also
acquired special mission equipment relevant to amphibious missions, such as underwater personnel delivery systems. Third is training. Based on PLA print and television media reports, PLA SOF have focused on squad-level and individual skills training, but there is also evidence of SOF involvement in larger combined-arms exercises. However, we found that joint training is limited, and there is
almost no open-source evidence of SOF actively preparing for information operations.