January 10, 2015:
China recently went public with some details of their special operations (commando) forces. As long suspected, each of the seven military regions has its own special operations force while the navy has its own and the national police have two. The capital (Beijing, also a military region) has the largest force with over 3,000 personnel. Since the late 1990s the total manpower was expanded from about 12,000 special operation troops nationwide to over 30,000.
The higher concentration of troops in the capital is not unusual in communist dictatorships where much emphasis is placed on protecting “the center” (the senior leadership). The published article was more of a PR exercise, rattling off details of how tough and accomplished the operators are and made it appear that each military region commando force has a specialty. Each of the military regions is different and as with Russia only some items are nationwide standards. While all the special operations troops wear the same uniforms, use the same ranks and have the same basic equipment, each of operations forces in the seven regions and different services (navy, air force, national police and so on) has developed differences, often based on local geography or simply different commanders putting their own stamp on how it is done in their neighborhood.
Each military region now has a special operations brigade with about 2,000 troops. In a few cases smaller forces of several hundred operators are organized for divisions and armies (of half a dozen or so divisions). The non-army special operations units tend to be smaller, with lots of them in the various provincial and special police forces. Same with the navy and two marine brigades and its equivalent of the American SEALs. The current plan is to form small (platoon or company size, that is 20-150 troops) special operations units in every division and navy squadron (unit of several warships). Thus the army actually has eleven special operations brigades or (smaller) regiments.
These variations also hide the fact that most of these troops, while elite, are similar in capabilities to Western rangers, paratroopers or SWAT teams. There are few who are as capable as the American Special Forces or commandos (as created during World War II by the British in the SAS and SBS) After World War II there were similar but a bit different SAS variations like American SEALs and Special Forces units that focused on traditional commando ops. The Russians came up with Spetsnaz while the Germans and French and many former British colonies created quite impressive versions of SAS.
China did not get into forming special operations troops until the 1980s and each of the military regions and several major police organizations were allowed to develop their own versions of the basic idea (elite troops performing very difficult tasks). Naturally there is more emphasis on martial arts and physical conditioning, both Chinese traditions admired but not always practiced intensively by the military. Chinese special operations skills involve a lot of work on improving reconnaissance capabilities and the ability to track down and quickly kill or capture small groups of troublemakers (especially separatists or religious fanatics). In the 1990s Chinese special operations commanders began looking into using their elite troops for raiding key enemy targets to paralyze the enemy ability to move and react.
It should be noted that one of the two National Police special operations (called the Snow Leopards) has won the annual International Warrior Competition (the “Commando Olympics”) two years in a row. This involved competing with troops from 17 other nations, including the United States. That said, each year the Americans were not able to send their best because most American special operations troops are either in combat, getting ready for operations or recovering from their last tour. Still, the Snow Leopards did well and in other international operations (usually of a counter-terrorism nature) the Chinese operators always demonstrated a professional attitude and mastery of the skills needed to be an effective commando.