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Elite Force

NewsChina takes a look at China's elite special forces unit.

By Xi Zhigang Updated Nov.5

Since its inception in 2002, China’s Snow Leopard Commando Unit (SLCU), the national anti-terror special forces unit, has been praised for its dedication to countering terrorism and its deterrent role at major events like the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.  

The SLCU, a 400-strong team including support staff, was established in 2002 following the September 11 attacks in the US and the Beslan school siege in Russia. Initially known as the Snow Wolf Commando Unit, the name was changed in 2007. Like other special forces in China and worldwide, it’s affiliated with a wider body, in this case the Beijing Armed Police, the paramilitary force that protects the capital.  

NewsChina secured an exclusive interview with members of the SLCU to give an inside account of their lives and training.  

Public Appearance 
It took several years to put the unit together. The SLCU’s first public appearance was when it participated in an anti-terrorist drill in Moscow on September 4, 2007, known as “Cooperation-2007.” A team of 30 and their equipment were flown to Moscow, where their first task was to launch an attack on “terrorists” who had hijacked a bus. Chen Yuhao, combat service support head of SLCU, remembers the drill well. Two SLCU commandos jumped onto the moving bus and threw stun grenades inside. SLCU members waiting in ambush then broke into the bus to launch an attack. Minutes later, SLCU members had killed six terrorists, arrested four and rescued four hostages with the help of Russian commandos.  

During the drill, SLCU commandos ran a tightly-disciplined assault. “In real-life combat, team members and hostages would be under extreme risk if there were any hesitation,” Chen told our reporter. Nikolai Rogozhkin, then Russian Interior Commander-in-chief, spoke highly of the performance of SLCU members, saying Chinese special troops are “well trained and equipped.”  

SLCU’s assault through the windows of the bus was widely discussed by Russian special force members, and SLCU members were also impressed by the combat skills and tactics of Russian commandos. During the attack, Russian special forces members shot and aimed at enemies simultaneously to make sure they always opened fire before the enemy.  

The drill tested the combat skills of the SLCU after a long journey, plus rapid reconnaissance in a remote environment, coordination with partners as well as their use of equipment and technology.  

Since the drill, SLCU members have frequently joined international special forces competitions to compete overseas with at least 32 counterparts, including the US Navy Seals and the German GSG-9, and conducted joint drills with more than ten different nations nations such as Russia, France and Israel. 

On the international stage, SLCU has done well in a number of championships, including winning the Warrior Competition in Jordan in 2013 and 2014, and snatching group champion in the 1st Sharp Blade International Sniping Competition held in Beijing in 2016. During the 15th Police and Military Sniper World Cup held in Budapest, Hungary, in May 2017, the SLCU won the group runner-up medal. During the 2014 Warrior Competition, participant countries carefully studied the team’s form and treated it as a formidable rival.  

Yet despite all these games, the SLCU has yet to be deployed in an actual operation, although individual operators have been sent on diplomatic protection missions and the unit has been visibly on display at big events.

“Competitions and drills, no matter how lifelike they are, are not real battlefields,” said Cheng Xun, deputy head of SLCU, adding that special forces in Europe and the US have seen many actual fights. The SLCU went abroad, he said, in order to learn their “advanced ideas, modes and tactics to enhance our skills.”  

The SLCU has established a research and development center to upgrade equipment, promote quick shooting, psychological tactics and defense, as well as special training in self-rescue and mutual assistance.  

“SLCU members have mastered urgent, difficult and dangerous tasks,” Cheng said.“An assault by the SLCU means China has sent out its most elite counter-terrorism force. There are two ways to solve a problem–strikes and deterrence.”  

High Standards 
The SLCU has a very demanding selection process for new members. All applicants are required to be above 175 centimeters in height, or 172 centimeters if they have special skills. Applicants need a senior high school education and to have served for at least one year in the armed police. 

After meeting the basic requirements, applicants must take the selection test. Candidates have to pass a series of arduous physical and psychological trials before starting the yearlong training, which includes defensive driving and sniper skills. Those who pass the course join the combat team, and, after three months of probation, formally become SLCU commandos. The performance of recruits is tracked and those who score worst will eventually be eliminated. In 2016 alone, at least 66 members dropped out after failing to meet requirements.  

SLCU commandos follow a rigorous daily schedule and are always on alert for potential deployment. Recruits are put through a “hell week” during training where they must run a total of 241 kilometers carrying a 35 kilogram backpack. They’re only allowed four hours rest a day and fed just 200 grams of rice.  

The training attempts to test the physical and psychological limits of team members as well as the endurance of equipment under extreme conditions. Organizers simulate on an irregular basis the actual combat environment of deserts, plateaus, being underwater, and urban conditions. Through training, competition and practice, the SLCU operators learn the skills they need to perform well under extreme conditions.  

Chen Yuhao, the combat service support head of the SLCU, is a typical representative of SLCU members. He joined the army in 2004 after a tumultuous time in high school, where he would often fight with his peers. His parents saw the army as a way to discipline their only son.  

But his initial assignment was a non-combat role, leaving him disappointed. When he learned that posts were open in the SLCU, he applied, and became one of just 200 people out of 10,000 applicants to get a posting in the SLCU reserve. He was on the brink of elimination several times, but he was inspired by the words of the head of the training program, who said that “effort eventually pays off.”  

Chen began to practice more consciously after each training session and by the end of the training program, his scores soared, particularly in long distance running and physical endurance. He successfully stayed and became a full member of the SLCU.  

It takes years to train a commando, and one of the problems has been China’s relatively limited service time. During competitions abroad, SLCU operators say, it’s not rare to see members of the overseas special forces in their 40s or 50s, which is currently impossible for frontline troops in the Chinese system. Older operators are still highly competitive.  

Xu Bo, the SCLU chief of staff, told NewsChina that it is a shame some senior SLCU members are forced out of the military. “We are currently studying the possibility of extending their service to address the talent shortage that constantly constrains the sound development of the SLCU.”