By Megha Rajagopalan
BEIJING (Reuters) - A new Chinese military outfit will lead the country's push to enhance its cyber warfare, space security and online espionage capabilities, Chinese military observers and analysts said.
Senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officials and other observers have begun to give details of the country's new Strategic Support Force (SSF), whose establishment was announced at the end of last year as part of a major overhaul of the armed forces.
"It's going to make them far more effective," said John Costello, a Washington-based analyst who focuses on China's cyber capabilities.
"It will most likely increase the sophistication of cyber intrusions and cyber reconnaissance over the long term. It will make them a lot more formidable to sustain cyber operations in a contested environment."
The new outfit will also be charged with assisting civilian government departments with cyber defense, analysts said.
"(China is) facing many hackers on the Internet engaging in illegal activities against our country, for example online attacks against important government facilities, military facilities, and important civilian facilities," Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the PLA Navy's Expert Consultation Committee, told the official People's Daily online.
"So it's imperative that we're equipped with defensive strength accordingly."
Yin, who according to his official biography is considered an expert on communications technology in the military, added that the force would also focus on space assets and global positioning operations.
China's growing cyber security prowess has been a source of tension in its relationship with the United States, which has repeatedly accused China of sponsoring hackers to steal data from its companies.
Beijing vehemently denies it engages in cyber theft, saying China itself is a victim of such attacks.
The Pentagon sees cyber espionage as a top national security concern. A 2014 U.S. indictment accused five Chinese military officers of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets.
The indictment singled out Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army, which was "hired" to assemble corporate intelligence. China called the charges "made up."
In an interview with a regional Chinese newspaper that was re-posted on the state-backed Global Times website, Song Zhongping, a respected Beijing-based military expert, said the SSF was more than a support force, and should be considered a military branch in its own right.
He added the force was comprised of three parts, including one made up of of "hacker troops" for cyber attacks and defense, as well as space and electronic warfare.
The space force will focus on all types of reconnaissance and satellite navigation, Song added. The electronic warfare unit would work on interference with enemy radar and communications.
Speaking about the military reforms on state television at the end of last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping called the support force a "new-type combat force to maintain national security and an important growth point of the PLA's combat capabilities."
The force would facilitate cooperation between defense and civilian sectors, Xi added.
The new force could also incorporate civilian technology including cloud computing, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, state media reported this month.
Senior Colonel Shao Yongling, a professor at the PLA Rocket Force Command College in the central province of Hubei, told the official China Daily that the SSF would serve to reduce duplication of tasks in the military and improve the PLA's ability to carry out joint operations.
"As for the Strategic Support Force, it better coordinates the cooperation between forces on the battlefield and logistic support," Major General Du Wenlong, PLA Academy of Military Science, told state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).
(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Mike Collett-White)