2 little-known US and UK special-ops missions are influencing how Chinese military planners think about an attack on Taiwan

Chinese special-operations forces train with lasers
Chinese special-operations forces conduct nighttime anti-terrorism training in China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, December 6, 2021.Yu Haiyang/Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images
  • China has steadily ramped up its aggression toward Taiwan in recent years.

  • Beijing is rapidly building a military capable of invading Taiwan, but it would still be challenged by such an operation.

  • Chinese strategists have been studied how other countries carried out similar operations, and two US and British conflicts stand out.

China has steadily ramped up its aggression toward Taiwan in recent years.

Beijing has repeatedly declared its intention to bring the self-governed island under its control, either through peaceful means or military action. China tells the world that it seeks a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, but it has been preparing for an invasion of its neighbor.

While the Chinese military is rapidly getting more powerful and advanced, it still faces considerable challenges in conducting such an operation. So Chinese military strategists have been exploring other options, including the use of special-operations forces, to increase the likelihood of success.

The importance of special operations

Chinese air force special operations troops
Chinese Air Force special airborne operations troops during a drill in China, March 3, 2015.Xinhua/Huang Hui

US special operators saw their earliest fighting in Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s, where they gained valuable experienced and created many tactics, techniques, and procedures for later generations of commandos.

The US's campaigns against terrorism in the Middle East have been modern demonstrations of the effectiveness and utility of special-operations forces. Whether it was the unconventional-warfare blitzkrieg in the opening days of Afghanistan or the surgical counterterrorism campaign in Iraq or the onslaught against ISIS, American special operators played an important — sometimes crucial — role, and their deeds did not go unnoticed by US adversaries.

For the Chinese military — which hasn't fought a major war since 1979 — special-operations forces are a fairly new concept.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) established its first commando unit in 1988 and created larger special-operations units in the 1990s. Lacking sustained and varied combat experience, China's military has invested more resources in these forces and is incorporating them into large-scale combined-warfare exercises.

Since at least the early 2010s, Chinese military strategists have studied other countries' special-operations forces and how they fight, trying to glean lessons for China's forces.

According to a review of Chinese military publications published the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College, in an operation against Taiwan the PLA is likely to employ its special-operations forces in roles similar to those laid out in the US military's doctrine for amphibious operations.

The distinct roles for special-operations forces in island landings described by the Chinese include reconnaissance ahead of the landing and conducting strikes and raids at its outset.

Notably, according to the review, Chinese military strategists have focused on two conflicts where special-operations forces made important contributions in those roles: The Falklands War between the UK and Argentina in 1982 and the US's invasion of Grenada in 1983.

Retaking the Falkland Islands

British Royal Navy helicopter Marines Falklands War
A Royal Navy Sea King helicopter lifts off after transporting Royal Marines to Darwin in the Falkland Islands, June 1982.Paul Haley/ Crown Copyright/Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

Lectures on the Science of Special Operations, a 2013 publication from China's Academy of Military Sciences, singles out the role the British Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS) played in the Falklands War to "confuse and disrupt" Argentine forces.

The two commando units had infiltrated the occupied islands weeks before the main British invasion force arrived. During that time, they conducted special reconnaissance operations to map out the Argentine order of battle and positions.

They also carried out direct-action missions to degrade Argentine defenses and sap their will to fight — most of the Argentine troops deployed to the Falklands were conscripts.

For three weeks, SAS and SBS patrols learned everything they could about the terrain and about Argentine forces and transmitted that intelligence to the approaching conventional British forces. Once San Carlos Bay was chosen for the landings, the British special operators "worked" the area, preparing it for the incoming forces.

British special-operations units helped to "ensure the smooth landing" of British marines and paratroopers, according to the Chinese publication.

Invading Grenada

Marine jeep landing craft Grenada
Children wave to a Marine backing a jeep onto a landing craft as US Marines pull out of Grenada, October 31, 1983.Bettmann/Getty Images

Lectures on the Science of Special Operations also references the role of US special operators in Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983.

The operation was a big learning experience for US special-operations forces and the US military as a whole.

The US operation was a "joint" one, and several commando units had major roles. US Army Rangers stormed and captured the island's main airfield with a daring low-level parachute drop, but Delta Force failed to seize a key piece of terrain, while SEAL Team 6 secured the governor's residence but was almost overrun.

The campaign provided lots of lessons about how the US military conducted joint operations. It also prompted reforms that led to the creation of US Special Operations Command and helped it become the effective and efficient organization it is today.

The Chinese authors link the US's quick victory in Grenada to special-operations forces' success in securing government offices, TV broadcast facilities, and important infrastructure, such as major roads.

Chinese SOF vs. Taiwan

Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen reviews an exercise by the 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, September 2016.Taiwan's Presidential Office

In a potential invasion of Taiwan, Chinese special-operations forces will likely play roles similar to those of their British and American counterparts in the Falklands and Grenada. They would support the landing, air assault, or airborne operations of conventional units while sowing confusion through targeted attacks in Taiwanese supply and communication lines.

Chinese military strategists see special-operations units as useful during the initial stages of an invasion to "pin down and scatter the enemy's operational forces" by attacking and sabotaging important facilities, thereby sowing chaos and preventing an organized defense, according to a 2006 publication by China's National Defense University.

Lectures on Joint Battles, a Chinese military publication, also states that Chinese special operators could be useful by conducting unconventional warfare and sabotage operations and enabling strikes deep into enemy territory.

Undermining enemy communications would also contribute to another SOF role described by the Chinese publications: psychological-warfare operations for "disintegrating enemy resolve."

In the end, these are academic military publications, not official doctrine. They are useful for understanding how Chinese military strategists view special-operations forces and their role in a potential invasion of Taiwan but shouldn't be viewed as operational plans.

According to the review, the publications also say little about the role of special-operations forces after the initial landing, such as in counterinsurgency, which is seen as one of the biggest challenges China is likely to face in an attempt to capture Taiwan by force.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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