China has taken a unique approach to special operations forces by treating police and military special operations forces as equal. China can do this because it has a national police force, something many developed nations adopted over a century ago. Military commandos first appeared during World War II, after some pre-war tinkering with the idea. Britain found the commando concept useful and developed it more thoroughly than any other nation. After the war Britain concluded that these specialized troops had nothing to do in peace time and disbanded most of them. The exception was the Royal Marines, a force similar to the U.S. Marine Corps but smaller and much older. While the army disbanded all its commando battalions the Royal Marines were allowed to keep a few of them after post-war personnel reductions. These Royal Marine Commandos (battalions) proved to be a good idea because over the next decade Britain revived the wartime SAS airborne and SBS naval commando units while the U.S. revived a much larger organization, the Special Forces. The navy brought back its beach recon force to become the SEALs (Sea. Air, Land) forces that were even more selective and used more rigorous training. During the war these “beach jumpers” were quietly put ashore on enemy beaches at night by small boats or from submarines to check for enemy obstacles and confirm the ability of the beach to handle an amphibious operation. After the war the concept was further expanded to include parachuting in along with other new assignments.
In the 1960 the special operations concept spread to federal and local law enforcement agencies in the United States, where more heavily armed and numerous criminal groups were beginning to appear and proliferate. The same thing was happening in Europe and the rest of the world. The new policing concept was called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). During the Korean War (1950-53) and similar leftist rebellions in southeast Asia, old special operations units were revived. It was the U.S. Army Rangers in Korea while Britain saw work for SAS, SBS, and Royal Marine commandos.
China did not pay much attention to special operations until Vietnamese special operations units (“sappers’’) caused Chinese forces considerable problems during a brief 1979-80 border war with newly unified and defiant Vietnam. China demanded that Vietnam halt its intervention into their neighbor Cambodia where Vietnam troops halted the mass murder carried out by the China-backed Khmer-Rouge, who were killing over a million civilians and real or imagined enemies in Cambodia as part of a Maoist Revolution China approved of. This was sending lots of refugees into Vietnam, along with some armed Khmer-Rouge who massacred Vietnamese civilians too. Protests by the Vietnamese Communist government didn’t stop this so they invaded Cambodia and installed a less psychotic regime which was also anti-Chinese.
The Chinese invaded Vietnam to discipline the Vietnam communists who had spent decades fighting Japanese, French, South Vietnamese and American forces. Vietnam now had a large force of combat experienced troops, including the deadly sappers (special operations raiders). After a few months of getting nowhere and suffering lots of casualties, China declared victory and pulled its surviving troops out of the hills that formed much of the border. They also abandoned the Khmer-Rouge and pondered the lessons they had just learned.
The greater effectiveness of combat- experienced Vietnamese troops was understandable, but what were those remarkable and even more lethal sappers? China didn’t really have a word or historical concept for that. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s Chinese military analysts studied the problem and concluded that China could best employ specialized personnel like this with the national police as SWAT (special weapons and tactics) type units also capable of carrying out military style raids. Within a decade this had evolved into special operations combat units. About twenty special operations battalions were organized, most of them assigned to provinces within the six multi-province military districts. These battalion size special operations units were adequate to supply “military reinforcement” for the national police if a local situation got out of control and the government preferred not to send in regular army units.
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 was 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 an enemy’s ability to move and react. Since 2000 China has been putting its commandos to work more frequently, including outside of China. After all that China now sees its commandos as scary enough to intimidate unruly populations.
Each military region now has a special operations “brigade” with as many as 2,000 troops, most of them the members of three or more special operations battalions with colorful names like Snow Leopards, Thunderbolts, Dragons or Lions. Each brigade had a few hundred army troops for support of the entire brigade.
In a few cases smaller forces of several hundred operators (as commandos are called) 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). The army actually has eleven special operations brigades or (smaller) regiments but the troops are scattered all over the country in the military regions.
By 2015, China began giving its commando forces a lot of publicity. That was also the first year China released details of their commando units, which were organized much like the original British special operations of World War II. The British called each battalion a “commando” and each commando consisted of several smaller (about a hundred personnel) squadrons. The initial publicity in 2015 made much of the fact that one of the two National Police special operations units (the Snow Leopards) won the annual International Warrior Competition (the “Commando Olympics”) two years in a row (2013-14). This involved competing with troops or SWAT operatives from seventeen 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 consistently demonstrated a professional attitude and mastery of the skills needed to be an effective commando.
In early 2017 China broadcast an interesting TV show that featured one of their commando units carrying out an operation remarkably similar to the 2011 American raid on the compound of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. For the TV show China built what appeared to be a replica of the bin Laden compound and showed Chinese commandos going through many of the same moves the U.S. Navy SEALs were known to have made during the raid, plus a few additional stunts apparently added for dramatic effect. The Chinese dramatization was not described as a reenactment of the bin Laden raid but rather a hypothetical operation in Xinjiang province where about half the population is Moslem, most of them Uighurs (ethnic Turks) and generally hostile to the Chinese presence. Xinjiang is where most Chinese Islamic terrorists come from although most Uighur violence in Xinjiang is against Han (ethnic Chinese) rule, which began in the 18th century and was completed, after much bloodshed, in 1884 when the area was designated Xinjiang province. Han Chinese did not become the majority in Xinjiang until after 2000 and many Uighurs accuse China of trying to erase Uighur culture in order to ensure long-term control over this frontier province. The TV show was sending a message to those Uighurs, reminding them that China had to conquer Xinjiang several times in the 18th and 19th century and that Chinese military capabilities were now capable of handling anything. The TV show did not have to remind the Uighurs that Chinese commandos are now considered world class and one unit, the Show Leopards, has an international reputation, acknowledged by Western nations long known for their excellent commando units.
The Snow Leopards are one of several commando units in the national police and are based in Beijing. Two of the four squadrons of Snow Leopards specialize in commando operations, like hostage rescue or difficult raids. Another squadron handles bomb disposal and exotic (nuclear, biological, complex bombs) weapons while 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 tend to be very secretive. 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 emergency police, called the PAP or People's Armed Police. The PAP has about 1.5 million personnel. In China, the line between the armed forces and the police is sometimes blurred, especially when it comes to paramilitary outfits like the PAP, which belongs to the Interior Ministry to provide “riot police” or suppress areas experiencing widespread violence, like Tibet or Xinjiang province. The PAP also performs some coast guard duties and keeps an eye on potential unrest in the military. In this respect PAP is similar to the Russian KGB forces that carried out similar tasks. Local policing is carried out by 1.8 million police who work for provincial governors and can always call on the PAP if a situation gets out of hand.
Later in 2015 China announced that it had changed its laws to allow Chinese military and police commandos to operate overseas. This came as a surprise to some in American naval intelligence because it was known that for several years special operations teams had been seen on Chinese warships operating off the Somali coast as part of the international anti-piracy patrol. But as far as anyone knows these commandos never saw any combat although they were observed training a lot. China was expected to use this new authority to offer commandos for sensitive peacekeeping emergencies.
China has a lot of different commando units to send overseas. China allows different services (including the paramilitary PAP) and military regions to create and maintain their own special operations forces. Because of that there are ten separate special operations forces (seven military regions, the navy 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 total manpower has expanded from about 12,000 special operation troops nationwide to over 30,000.
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 World War II British 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.