When Syrian government forces retook the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS for the second time in early March, they had the assistance of one of the world’s elite special operations forces: Russia’s Special Operations Command (SSO). In coordination with Russian air power, the combined forces killed or wounded 1,000 ISIS militants and destroyed more than 150 vehicles, according to a Russian military leader.
The development of the SSO is part of a larger shift by Russia to modernize and professionalize its military, and it is not the only one of the United States’ global competitors doing so. China is also in the midst of its own military modernization program, and chief among its goals is a larger and more capable complement of special operations-capable forces.
Both Russia and China have observed the successes of the United States’ Special Operations Forces (SOF) and have sought to incorporate successful elements into their own mission needs and concepts of warfare. While many of the missions and capabilities overlap with those of U.S. SOF, neither country can yet field SOF forces who can operate as robustly or independently as those of the United States.
Russia uses the term Spetsnaz (special purpose) to refer to its cadre of SOF. Spetsnaz dates back to the end of World War II but came into its own during the Cold War. Spetsnaz units have been created for all branches of the Russian military and are meant to support traditional forces in reconnaissance and sabotage roles rather than operate independently. While Russia has made strides to professionalize Spetsnaz, as many as 20 percent are still conscript forces.
Russia’s newest unit, the SSO, is different for several reasons. It is an entirely professional force that can operate independently of conventional units. Its first deployment was in Crimea in 2014 and then Syria in 2015. The SSO is a successful product of Russia’s sweeping military reforms that began in 2008, and the unit incorporates lessons learned from the U.S. and other Western powers. Michael Kofman, a research scientist at CNA and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Cipher Brief that “Russia's Chief of General Staff, Valeriy Gerasimov, made clear that their inputs were a study of the training and application of special operations by the leading foreign powers,” and “Russia's SSO continues to learn from the exploits of Western counterparts.” How the SSO is organized and commanded is up for debate. As Kofman says, “it is unclear whether it answers directly to the Russian General Staff or is an autonomous component within the GRU.”
Both the legacy Spetsnaz and the new SSO are important to Russia’s concept of “non-linear warfare,” the combination of intelligence, cyber, and SOF capabilities that augment conventional forces and underpinned Russia’s successful annexation of Crimea in 2014. As Russia continues to develop this operational concept and the capabilities of SSO, it may be seeking new opportunities to test its forces in combat. Kofman notes “There is word now that Russian SOF have deployed to an airbase in Western Egypt near the Libyan border, perhaps that will be their next experience.”
The development of Chinese SOF has followed a very different trajectory than that of Russia. China’s military, collectively known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), did not create units with specialized training and missions until relatively recently. The PLA Ground Forces was the first to do so in the late 1980s, and since then other branches have followed suit. Today, Chinese SOF number somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000, according to former U.S. military attaché to China and Cipher Brief expert Dennis Blasko.
China’s special forces are organized to confront its unique security needs internally and externally. Unlike many countries, China has a militarized police force known as the People’s Armed Police (PAP) for internal security. The PAP utilizes several SOF units for counterterrorism and riot control operations. These forces have been used in attempts to quell the ongoing unrest and threat of Islamist extremism in the western province of Xinjiang.
China’s SOF units train for missions in support of the Ground Forces, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force (nuclear forces). Though China does not detail how or where its SOF would be used in combat, many analysts assume that operations against Taiwan are a likely scenario. Unlike U.S. and Russian SOF, Chinese SOF have no combat experience and lack a robust ability to operate independently of conventional forces. Blasko explains this is in large part because of organizational structure, but also an absence of “the numerous types of special-mission aircraft (long-range helicopters, aircraft etc.) that are important force multipliers for U.S. Special Operations Forces.”
Though China’s SOF capabilities are behind its geopolitical peers, it has made large strides in the last 30 years. Blasko notes, though “PLA SOF units do not have as long a history as SOF units in other countries, they have been given priority for development and could see further expansion as the PLA reorganizes.”
As Russia and China continue their comprehensive military modernization and professionalization campaigns, advancing SOF capabilities is likely to remain a priority. While each country’s SOF is making strides in expanding mission types and developing independence of operation from conventional forces, there is one area where the U.S. maintains a clear advantage that is difficult to duplicate. The United States’ strong network of alliances, something China and Russia lack, means its SOF have a long history of interoperability with allied militaries across the globe. This is a critical edge that expands the possibilities of where SOF can operate and what missions they can execute.