China’s ‘Fist Units’ Modernize, but Face Constraints
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Influenced by U.S. tactics and Russian doctrine, China’s special operations capabilities have been growing and improving in equipment, training and operations. Today’s modernized units bear lit tle comparison to the original “fist units,” or quantou , created by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the Cold War to execute difficult and dangerous missions. China’s special ops troops use sophisticated equipment, including advanced night-vision gear, state-of the-art sniper rifles, encrypted channel-hopping radios and air-droppable combat vehicles.
“These units are not simply an adaptation from the guerrilla tactics of the ’30s and ’40s, for they are equipped and prepared for specific missions,” said Paul H.B. Godwin, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Still, they have a long way to go before they are comparable to American units.
Estimated 8,000-Plus Troops
The Chinese began to modernize their special operations capabilities in the mid-1980s, after the disastrous 1979 punitive invasion of Vietnam.
The PLA abandoned Mao’s People’s War doctrine in favor of fighting local wars under high-tech conditions.
Today, the PLA has an estimated 1,000 special ops troops in each of its seven military regions (MRs), another 1,000 in the 15th Airborne Corps, and, likely, fewer in the People’s Liberation Army Navy marine force and the Second Artillery, said Dennis Blasko, author of “The Chinese Army Today.” “This is a fraction of the total U.S. SOF force number, [which is] somewhere north of 45,000 personnel in all services,” Blasko said.
China’s SOF operations are similar “to what we would assign to Rangers or Marine recon or commando units,” most often raids, Blasko said.
“PLA SOF units could be involved in anti-terrorist operations, too, but likely along with specially trained and equipped units from the civilian police force and the People’s Armed Police (PAP). In fact, all three, police, PAP and PLA special units share the responsibility for the anti-terrorist mission and evidently cooperate among themselves.” PLA SOF units include the Beijing MR’s Divine Sword, Nanjing MR’s Flying Dragons, Guangzhou MR’s Sword of Southern China, Jinan MR’s Heroic Falcons, also known as the Black Berets, Shenyang MR’s Fierce Tigers, Chengdu MR’s Falcons and Hunting Leopards, and Lanzhou MR’s Tigers of the Night.
Larry Wortzel, who served as a U.S. Army attaché in China from 1988-1990, compared these units to Russian Spetsnaz, “but I also think that the way that the U.S. Marine Corps uses its reconnaissance battalions and force reconnaissance companies is also a reasonable approximation.” These U.S. and Russian units can operate in groups numbering from a small team to a battalion, he said. There have been reports of a “Daggers” amphibious unit trained to attack Taiwanese air bases, command-and-control hubs, and hardened heavily defended facilities.
Last year, unconfirmed reports indicated that the PLA was developing an equivalent to the U.S. Army’s hostage-rescuing Delta Force. China does not appear to have units similar to the U.S. Special Forces, which train insurgents and run guerrilla operations.
Nor are they likely to carry out long-range missions.
“Once PLA SOF are on the ground, they are much more isolated than U.S. counterparts ... thus implying they may not be employed as far to the rear of enemy lines and on the same kinds of extended missions U.S. SOF teams routinely undertake,” Blasko said. “And this is exactly what is seen in training, PLA SOF operations are in much closer proximity to other PLA forces.” He noted the Peace Mission 2005 exercise, in which Chinese SOF troops were used near other Chinese and Russian units.
China’s special forces have much less gear than U.S. forces, which can call on satellite communications, dedicated specialized long-range helicopters, AC-130 gunship aircraft and more. They are typically armed with 5.8mm QB-series arms produced by China North Industries Corp. (Norinco), including the QBZ95 (Type 95) assault rifle, QBB95 squad automatic weapon, QBZ95B carbine and the QBU88 sniper rifle.
For close-quarter combat, units carry the QBZ95B carbine with a shortened barrel with muzzle flash cover and a Type 64/85 7.62 silenced submachine gun. They might also carry the new, silenced Jianshe Industries “JS” 9mm submarine gun or the new Norinco 9mm submachine gun with an interchangeable 50-round drum and 15-round box magazine.
China’s 15th Airborne Corps, which is not a special forces unit per se, but is nevertheless a specialized force, is developing a motorized and possibly mechanized brigade with the introduction of self-propelled 107mm rocket launchers, ZLC2000 (WZ506) tracked infantry fighting vehicles, QL550 lightweight four-wheeled armored vehicles, and LYT2021 high-speed assault vehicles fitted with 12.7mm machine guns, HJ8E antitank missiles and 82mm recoilless cannons. Virtually all of the equipment is manufactured by Norinco, which produces everything from tanks to rifles.
Most of the training and preparation centers on operations against Taiwan.
“PLA special operations forces infiltrated into Taiwan could conduct economic, political or military sabotage or attacks against leadership targets,” said the Pentagon’s 2008 report on China’s military.
The report said China could at present muster no more than 5,000 troops and little equipment in a single-lift airborne assault. According to the report, China’s Air Force and Navy have about 450 transports, few of them large and only 40 stationed within range of Taiwan.
There have been suggestions China could use commercial airliners for air drops, but the idea would face operational challenges.
The Army Aviation Corps has about 500 helicopters, including Mi-17 and Z-9 helicopters. China is developing a new Z-10 attack helicopter and there are plans to buy more Mi-17s.
Different Taiwan scenarios have been explored, including airborne forces taking CCK Airbase at Taichung and seizing Sungshan Airbase in Taipei. The lack of transports could be the reason why China has slowed plans to create a new 16th Airborne Corps.
However, China is honing its ability to airdrop heavy equipment. For several years, the military has been trying out heavyweight parachutes made by Jiangsu-based Nanjing Hongguang Airborne Equipment Factory, which reportedly copied the Ukrainian BPS916 heavyweight parachutes sold to China. The BPS916 can land an 8-ton load from a maximum altitude of 2,500 meters.
China’s average airborne trooper gets more airborne training than the U.S. equivalent, said Wortzel, who spent time with the 15th Airborne Corps.
“Their airborne training is more extensive than the average American paratrooper in a place like the 18th Airborne Corps. They get a lot of training, a lot of qualifying jumps, and most can pack their own parachutes,” he said. “But the 15th does not routinely practice or conduct mass tactical jumps and instead tends to operate in smaller units [battalion or smaller], although they can put a regiment on a drop zone,” he said.