Throughout 2015 China has been, for the first time, publicizing and revealing details of their special operations (commando) forces. This has included confirming that some of these commandos have been sent to troublesome areas like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to protect Chinese diplomats. These commandos were noticed because suddenly the Chinese diplomats seemed to have much more efficient security details. Chinese commando detachments have also been sent along on warships assigned to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. Commandos are also believe to have been quietly and unobtrusively included with Chinese peacekeeping forces, especially those sent to really dangerous areas like South Sudan. Other unofficial commando assignments appear to have occurred in parts of Africa where Chinese economic interests require some extra protection. Apparently satisfied that this relatively new (especially for China) type of soldier was performing well the government decided to give the lads some deserved recognition.
There are more ominous implications to all this. China has made it clear that it intends to use its special operations troops to protect its “maritime Silk Road” trade routes to the Middle East and Africa via the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This has got all the nations adjacent to this new Silk Road worried. Taiwan is also alarmed at China releasing a video showing special operations commandos training by assaulting a facsimile of rather distinctive Taiwanese government buildings.
Unlike the United States, which combines its commando forces from different services under one organization (SOCOM for Special Operations Command) China allows different services (including the paramilitary national police) and regional to each raise and have their own. Thus 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 publicity about special operations this year have largely just concentrated on 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 special skills have 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 has a special operations brigade with about 2,000 troops. In a few cases smaller forces of several hundred operators are organized for about half a dozen combat divisions plus a few more for some armies. 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 but the troops are scattered all over the army.
These variations also hide the fact that most of these troops, while elite, are more 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.
Chinese publicists made much of the fact 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 U.S. 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.
The Snow Leopards are one several commando units in the national police and are based in Beijing. Two of the four squadrons of the Snow Leopards specialize in commando operations (like hostage rescue or difficult raids), while another handles bomb disposal and exotic (nuclear, biological, complex bombs) weapons and the other squadron specializes in snipers. The Snow Leopards were formed in 2002 and trained for five years before going to work. There are several similar units in other parts of China. In general, these police commando units do not reveal much about themselves. Much is known about the Snow Leopards because they were the first and being in the capital are something of a showcase unit for Chinese special operations in general.
The Snow Leopards are, like many commando units, small (under 500 personnel) and very selective. The Snow Leopards are mainly a counter terrorism unit, of which there are several in the national police (called the PAP or People's Armed Police). In China, the line between the armed forces and the police is sometimes blurred, especially when it comes to paramilitary outfits like the PAP.