IPCS Discussion

Chinese Military Reform, 2013-2030

15 Sep, 2017    ·   5361

Report of the discussion on Chinese Military Reform, 2013-2030, held on 23 August 2017

Report of the discussion on Chinese Military Reform, 2013-2030, held on 23 August 2017.

Opening Remarks by the Chair
Col (Retd) Ajai Shukla

Columnist, Business Standard

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought any sizable war since the 1979 Vietnam campaign, which raises the question: Is the PLA is only a parade ground army? How much real combat capability does it possess? Some Indian soldiers who interact with the PLA and Border Guards on the LAC have also come away with the impression that Chinese troops are soft; and overly wedded to road-bound and motor vehicle-bound patrolling.

When it comes to PLA reforms, observers in India tend to focus on the big picture - including the Central Military Commission (CMC) reforms and the translation of seven military regions into five theatre commands. However, the big picture gives a limited sense of combat capability enhancements. That needs to be understood in light of lower-level reforms. These include reductions in army personnel that have taken place in recent years, and the mode of integration of military brigades with battalions. There is a need therefore for a re-think in terms of the PLA's real combat capabilities.

Chinese Military Reform, 2013-2030
Lt Col (Retd) Dennis J Blasko

Former Senior Military Fellow, National Defence University, US, & former US Military Attaché in Beijing, China

The current military reform in China was first announced in 2013 with little detail. It gained momentum in late 2015 and is likely to continue on to 2020. The Chinese are looking at a long-term, evolutionary military modernisation programme which is to take place gradually over generations. The current military modernisation is just one part of the long process that began after the 1979 border war with Vietnam.

The broad outline of the PLA modernisation programme is called the ‘Three-Step Development Strategy’, first published openly in 2006, with milestones in 2010 and another  for 2020 - focusing on mechanisation and informationisation. According to Xi Jinping, the 2020 milestone has already been accomplished. However, the final date of completion of modernisation is mid-21st century or 2049.

Informationisation has allowed people to acquire a bigger picture and communicate back and forth amongst themselves, making lateral communication possible. Nonetheless, this should not be seen as a way in which the party system might be subverted. If anything, the Chinese are using it to reinforce the system by limiting access to outside information.

The military being built under Xi Jinping has as its goal to build a strong national defence, commensurate with China's international standing, which is primarily economic. The Chinese have been talking about building a modern maritime force, which will be a major change from the military that was established in 1927 - all army which focused primarily on continental defence.

The Chinese military has three basic functions: warfighting, deterrence (both conventional and nuclear), and non-military operations such as disaster relief, participation in peacekeeping, and so on. This is done by the Chinese Armed Forces which consists of three elements: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and the militia. The PLA is tasked with defending Chinese sovereignty from external threats. Their secondary mission is to provide for domestic stability. The PAP has a dual chain of command through the military and also to the state council, and works to maintain domestic stability as well as support external defence. The militia supports both the PLA and the PAP in their external and internal activities.

Prior to the 300,000-men reduction that was announced two years ago, roughly seventy per cent of the 2.3 million personnel of the PLA was in the army. The navy was very small (ten per cent) and the marine force, part of the navy, had only 10-12,000 personnel. The air force accounted for 17 per cent of the total, and the second artillery or the strategic rocket force was estimated to be about 100,000. This structure showed the PLA to be a land-heavy organisation. Traditionally, China has been and still is a land power. However, that is changing now.

Under the former structure, the Central Military Commission (CMC) was the military’s highest command and policy leadership organisation. It is led by the leader of the Communist Party, who is also generally the Chinese president. The chairman of the commission (the president, now Xi Jinping) oversees the top 8 or 10 generals in the military. The Ministry of National Defence unlike most ministries is not in the chain of command.

Under the old structure, the CMC exercised policy and command through four general departments, mostly manned by army personnel. These general departments also acted as the army headquarters. Below it were the navy and the air force, which like the second artillery, commanded their own units. Most of the army units were assigned under seven military regions (also known as military area commands). Navy and air force units responded to the headquarters in Beijing on a daily basis whereas the army military regions commanded the army units below them all the way down to the border guards. The PAP reported both up the military chain and to the state council through the Ministry of Public Security - a dual chain of command.

This organisation in its basic form started in the 1950s and continued through 2016. In November 2013, four objectives of military reform were listed. The first was the announcement of the optimisation of the force. Following that, in 2015, the establishment of a three-tier command structure, which would take roughly 5 years to execute, was announced. Under the new structure, the CMC would still be in charge of the overall leadership of all the armed forces, but the four general departments were abolished and the size of the CMC was expanded.

National-level and theater reform started in late December 2015. The CMC was expanded to 15 functional elements. A new national-level army headquarters was created for the first time in the history of the PLA. The second artillery was upgraded to a full service at the same level as the army, navy and air force. Five joint theatre commands were created, with the prominent feature that army, navy, air force and rocket force would work side-by-side daily within the new headquarters structure.

A Strategic Support Force was also established - taking elements from the four general departments, to be in charge of space operations and national-level electronic and cyber warfare. A few months later, the Joint Logistics Support Force was established. In the past, most logistics were performed through the military regions and a few national-level organisations; now, the joint logistics support forces have been separated from command by the theatres. There are however joint logistics support forces in each of the theatres to perform a variety of logistics and maintenance functions.

Each theatre command has three service commands: army, navy, and air force, which report to both the theatre command for operations and the national service headquarters in Beijing for day-to-day administrative functions.These service commands are very important headquarters that directly command the operational units under them. The recent reform added a new theatre command army headquarters in each of the new theatres to command army units in their areas of responsibility. The navy has three fleets, and each theatre has an air force.

Over the past twenty years, the number of operational forces and their structures, especially of the army, have changed tremendously. The number of group armies since 1997 has been cut almost by half. The number of divisions twenty years ago was over a hundred, and now are less than ten. The number of brigades however, went from twenty to over a hundred brigades of all types.

Another area where the military saw a great increase was the special operation forces and army aviation forces. These forces give the army the ability to reach out beyond China’s borders. Additionally, long-range rocket artillery units have been added that also can be involved in maritime operations.

Corruption has been a big issue in the PLA. As a result, these past couple of years a fight against micro-corruption has been initiated. But the problem which the PLA rarely mentions (outside of its own internal publications) is the big gap that remain between the level of their modernisation and the requirements to fight a modern war. The Chinese understand there is a big gap primarily between their military capabilities and those of the US and Russia. While addressing this, the military acknowledges two inabilities. First, the inability of some commanders and political officers to fight a war; and second, weaknesses in command, control, coordination and cooperation, especially in employing the new type of combat forces.

Training the PLA’s commissioned and non-commissioned officers to plan for the employment of new equipment and to operate and maintain it properly are the biggest obstacles that the military is facing currently. While the new advanced equipment has allowed the military to exercise in new places, it has also increased operational and maintenance costs. However, many types of domestically-produced equipment have inefficient engines. Therefore, while the PLA is getting smaller, a reduction in defence budget is unlikely.

Even though the PLA has no intention of fighting a war anytime soon, it is on its way to becoming a more joint, integrated, professional force - and one that is loyal to the Communist Party.

While warfighting is the primary objective, the military’s intention is also to increase its deterrence posture. Moreover, the Chinese have been talking about breaking the ‘big army concept’ and they appear to have done just that.

However, the reorganisation and restructuring is causing anxiety within the troops and the units. They are being asked to do tasks they have never done before. There is a total reshuffling of the deck. The navy probably will be expanded although there is not so much talk about expanding the air force.

If there is one major takeaway from China's military modernisation, it has to be the word 'gradual'. Modernisation is not going to happen overnight. This is going to take generations. One cannot tell what it might look like in 2049, but by then, China's global interests are going to be much more widespread than they are today. Defence budgets are going to continue to rise. The senior leadership certainly understands the status of their forces and at this point they appear to prefer deterrence to achieve their national objectives rather than initiate conflict. However, if they feel they are being pushed around, they will push back, and this could lead to conflict. In 2049, the Chinese military might have a completely different idea about the use of military force, but right now, the PLA does not want to initiate a fight. Finally, while some say that the PLA is beginning to look like the US military - and in some way it is - it is too early to mirror image US capabilities and intentions on the Chinese force.

• Given the structural reforms, where does PLA combat power stand now? How good are the integrated brigades that are there with artillery components, armour components and so on, at fighting?

DJB: At this point military units are still getting to know their officers. Every unit is different; nearly all have been changed. This is because not only have personnel and structure changed, but many people have been assigned new jobs.

• Who are the adversaries China is making this changes for?

DJB: The Chinese look at the US as being the gold standard for the military. Since 1991, the US has been in joint conflict of one type or another. Its treaties with Japan and South Korea are another issue. Stability on the Korean Peninsula is their number one goal, not denuclearisation. Although it has not been said explicitly, the US is a concern primarily because of Taiwan and the Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the US to providing defensive weapons to Taiwan and, potentially, come to its aid, if attacked by China. China is also worried about terrorist groups coming into China, especially in Xinjiang. The Chinese have a satisfactory relationship with Russia but they both know that they cannot really trust each other. China has its border disputes with India, but with the Himalayas as a major obstacle, the Chinese are not really worried about the Indian military coming north.

• The modernisation drive has triggered military modernisation in other countries of the region. This could have a domino effect. What could be the way out?

DJB: The PLA is going to continue to modernise. When one sees modernisation, one sees warfighting. However, the Chinese are not just thinking warfighting, they are also thinking of deterrence. So, it is important to distinguish between warfighting and deterrence intentions. Deterrence runs the gamut from deterring terrorists, to deterring Taiwan's separation, to nuclear war. As China’s economic reach grows further, it will perhaps have to use military in places it has an economic footprint in. In the short-term, however, the military is not eager to go to war.

• Since 2001-02, the military have been focused on building their special forces capabilities. Doctrinally, where does this stand as a part of their military strategy?

DJB: The PLA’s rapid reaction forces were a lot more important when they had a much larger force. As the PLA has become smaller, one of its goals has been to prove the concept that fewer troops in smaller organisations can get from point 'a' to point 'b' quickly, and that they do not need as many forces all over the country as they used to.

• How can the influence or the role of PLA be seen when it comes to foreign policy-making towards neighbours?

DJB: The PLA executes elements of China’s overall foreign policy; it does not determine foreign policy. The PLA has two people on the CPC politburo, and no representation in the standing committee. The PLA thus does what the party tells them to do in the way of foreign policy. The PLA’s main focus is on external defence but it also does a lot of foreign relations work, like its visits or participation in international events. They have opened up their exercises to foreigners since 2005 and conducted exercises with other countries’ militaries since 2002.

Rapporteured by Avasna Pandey, Research Intern, CRP, IPCS