PLA’s Power Projection Limitations

China has improved key military capabilities, such as special operations and better exercised airpower assets, but these forces still have limitations, China military experts told attendees at the annual Jamestown Foundation China Defense and Security Conference on March 12. Retired Army Lt. Col. Dennis Blasko, a former attaché to Beijing and Hong Kong, said the PLA currently fields between 20,000 and 30,000 SOF troops, to include a SOF unit in the PLA Air Forces’ 15th Airborne Army. While well trained and supplied, these units are mostly used to support conventional forces on the battlefield. There is little evidence there is robust, dedicated logistical support and real-time intelligence capabilities for these forces, which are critical elements of successful special operations power projection, he said. China’s SOF capabilities lack dedicated long-range air transport and close air support, unlike USAF AC-130s for example, and as such do not appear to be organized, trained, and equipped to conduct unconventional operations outside of China for extended periods of time, he added. Since 2011, the PLAAF has expanded its exercising and training events beyond the countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to include bilateral exercises in Belarus, Venezuela, and Indonesia, noted China military analyst Ken Allen. These deployments have often involved mobility support from Il-76 aircraft and some aerial refueling operations.