August - 2012 Issue
Force Magazine
The Iron Structure
China’s Higher Defence Management

President Hu Jintao is Chairman, Central Military Commission

Beijing: It is customary for a military presentation to be sequential: give out the country’s stated defence policy, mention roles and missions of the armed forces, and towards the end talk about the Higher Defence Management (HDM). Of the three issues, the first two are generic and inane subjects; plenty can be said without giving out much. The HDM is country-specific and its nuances determine how envisaged wars would be fought and won. This is because HDM impacts at the strategic and operational level of war. Most nations would hesitate to dwell too much on their HDM, especially when making a presentation to a potential rival audience.

Surprisingly, this was not the case with PLA officials, whose three hour interactive session with visiting Indian
journalists at the ministry of national defence (MND) information office on June 18 commenced with China’s Higher Defence Management (HDM). If the message was to convey comparative superiority of the Chinese HDM, it was done well. The presentation was made by Colonel Yang Yujun, deputy director general of the information office, MND. I have flagged eight highlights of the Chinese armed forces below, mostly related to their HDM, whose significance I shall discuss in the next article: India-China war.
  • The Central Military Commission (CMC) is China’s highest military command and control organisation, standing at the apex of the military (nuclear and conventional) chain of command and military-industrial complex. It commands a 2.3 million strong regular force, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); the 6,60,000 People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF); and eight million Militia. It has 12 members, of which eight are necessarily from the PLA. These eight are Chief of General Staff Headquarters (GSHQ), chief of PLA Air Force (PLAAF), chief of PLA Navy (PLAN), chief of PLA Second Artillery (PLASA), head of General Political Department (GPD), head of General Logistics Department (GLD), head of General Armament Department (GAD) and the minister of national defence, presently — General Liang Guanglie. There are three vice-chairmen namely, Xi Jinping, General Guo Boxiong and General Xu Caihou. The Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is Hu Jintao, who is also the President of China and Chairman of the Communist Party Politburo, the highest policy-making forum.
Three observations are noteworthy. First, being a triple hatter, the Chairman CMC interacts directly with the PLA and the Politburo at the same time. Thus views of the military are known to the Politburo and the latter’s policies are acceptable to the military. Second, as the man expected to succeed President Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping, already a vice-chairman of the CMC, is well versed with the PLA’s thinking, implying defence policy continuity. And third, given the predominance of PLA officials in the CMC, the military view is the most important, if not the predominant element of China’s national security policy-making.
  • The General Political Department (GPD), is unique to the PLA; no other military in the world has a similar representation. The GPD is a clear indication that the PLA is not apolitical. Considering that the political officers are PLA officers doing party work and not party functionaries in army uniform inside the PLA, it suggests that PLA has more weightage in civil-military relations, which has been the traditional stance of communist China. Probingly, I asked Senior Colonel (brigadier) Su Rong, commander I armoured regiment (brigade), which we visited, if having political officers in the PLAA (PLA Army) — an organization that aims to become a professional, high-tech force was an aberration. His reply was forceful, “Political officers are needed for unity (between PLA and civilians). It is important to be professional and have an ideology too. We believe that human beings are as important as equipment. It is because of this unity that PLA soldiers deliver more with less food. A PLAA soldier needs just one fourth the food a US soldier needs, to do his task well.” It was explained to me that this arrangement helps enhance PLAA interest in local affairs, and civilians in turn, learn about military affairs which would help them in mobilisation and understanding use of civilian infrastructure for war. As the PLAA political wing wields clout outside the military, it also helps Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members understand the PLA better. Senior Colonel Su Rong told me that there are six political commissars in each division (8,000 soldiers), one each in a regiment (brigade, 1,800 soldiers). At the battalion level, the political officers are called director and each PLAA company has a political instructor.
  • The PLAA and PLAAF are organised into seven Aero-Commands, which is an interesting Joint Operations concept for synergy and works differently during peace and war time. The PLAA comprising 18 combined corps (group armies) is distributed into seven Military Area Commands (MACs). The MACs, as per Colonel Yujun, “are established according to China’s administrative jurisdiction, geographical location, strategic and operational direction and operational tasks.” The PLAA’s seven MACs are in Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Commanders of the MACs are appointed by the Central Military Commission (CMC) and report to the CMC both during peace and war-time through the chief of General Staff Headquarters (GSHQ). Each combined corps has mobile operational units consisting of divisions and regiments (brigades); the PLAA units have arms and services including infantry, artillery, armour, air defence, engineering, signals, army aviation and Special Forces.

The PLAAF, on the other hand, has under it seven air commands located in each of the seven MACs. Under each air command at MAC level are aviation divisions, which are sub-divided into air regiments and air stations. During peace-time, the PLAAF does both single and combined arms training. During the visit to PLAAF 24th Air Division, the chief of staff, Senior Colonel Xu Longcum told me that, “during peace, the effort is on both single service training and combined exercises with the PLAA.” This is in consonance with PLAAF thinking which has graduated from being a support force to a main-battle assault force; by building capabilities for air strike, force projection and support. During war, I was told, the PLAAF air command comes under command of the co-located commander MAC, and transforms into Aero-command. I had two inter-related questions on this Joint Operations arrangement: Is there the option for PLAAF commander to take over the Joint Operations command (Aero-Command)? How are Joint Operations planned during peace-time? Colonel Yujun clarified that command during war will remain with commander MAC, who is always from the PLAA. “We have no Military Area Command (MAC) with an overall PLAAF commander,” he said. This implies that the PLAAF can do its independent roles like strike and force projection (which it practises during peace-time) only within the ambit of the overall plan conceived by the PLAA commander of the concerned MAC. The planning for Joint Operations is done by the commander MAC in consultation with his commander Air Command. The joint plans are sent to GSHQ, which is a tri-service headquarters, where final approval is given. The PLAA commander, MAC, however, retains flexibility in war as he remains in regular contact with the CMC through the GSHQ.
  • The PLA Second Artillery (PLASA) is an independent force of the PLA and includes all land-based nuclear missile force, conventional missile force, and combat support units. The chief of PLASA, who is always from the PLAA, is a member of the CMC and reports to the GSHQ. Until early Nineties, the PLASA had confined its training to itself. Once PLASA acquired better missile accuracies and converted a large number of medium and short range ballistic missiles in its inventory into dual-capable missiles, things changed dramatically with wider options available for use. Colonel Yujun confirmed that, “medium and short range strategic missiles are under the second artillery but tactical missiles are now under the local commander.” This is an important development with far reaching operational implications. It means that all strategic or nuclear missiles are with commander PLASA; while all ballistic missiles with conventional warheads are under command and control of the concerned MAC commander. The chain of command for nuclear-armed missiles runs from the CMC, through the GSHQ, to commander PLASA. For conventional ballistic missiles, the commander MAC is the sole authority for its employment.
In its 1996 military demonstration against Taiwan and all subsequent training exercises, the PLA has left little doubt about how it intends to use conventional ballistic missiles. The latter will be used in conjunction with the PLAAF to allow the air force to retain sorties for strike and air superiority missions. The conventional missiles’ targets would be heavily protected communication centres, weapons delivery sites, and aircraft carrier battle groups. It is axiomatic that conventional ballistic missiles would be employed in the initial stages of a conflict from widely dispersed sites.

  • The presentation mentioned PLAAF having an airborne corps in passing. I, however, asked two questions on PLAAF’s 15th airborne corps; one was answered, while the other was not. Like the PLAA and PLAN, why does PLAAF not have special-purpose (Special Forces) units? Colonel Yujun reply was, “PLAAF does not need special-purpose units as they are inbuilt into its organisation.” Based in Henan province in central China, the 15th airborne corps is meant for independent strategic missions: limited power projection and deep strike manoeuvrability. The 15th corps’ missions would include occupying strategic points in the enemy’s rear, destroying enemy’s key communication hubs and preventing his supporting forces from reaching the front. The 15th corps troops would be supplemented by PLAA and PLAN special-purpose (Special Forces) units, which are under the control of MACs and are trained to fight behind enemy lines, engaging in sabotage, reconnaissance and other unconventional operations. They receive extensive parachute training. In addition to the special-purpose (Special Forces) clandestine missions, the MACs have integral army aviation units to supplement 15th corps strategic effort; demonstrating a major shift from horizontal combination to vertical combination. My question that went unanswered was: how many combat troops can 15th airborne corps lift? During a formal dinner, I pressed this issue and said that indications were that 15th airborne corps could lift a division worth of fully combatant troops (8,000 soldiers). The response was a big smile.
  • The briefing to us mentioned that ‘the PLA is building capability to win local wars in conditions of information-ization by strengthening composite development of mechanisation and information-ization with the latter as the leading factor.’ This explains the two-step approach of the PLA: mechanisation which has been achieved and information-ization that it ‘hopes to complete by 2020’. The spine to mechanisation is provided by the General Logistics Department (GLD), an important organisational concept at the operational level of war. Considering that all PLA forces are meant for mobile operations, the need is to have lean and mean combat forces — the teeth component. The operational logistics or the tail factor is an entity by itself and is geared to fully support combat at various levels. To address logistics, which are critical to an intense battle, the PLA through the GLD has taken two steps: creation of a single supply system for a MAC and incorporation of nearby civilian supply depots to assist logistics in times of emergency. The single supply system has two peculiarities. All PLAAF, PLAN and PLAA forces in a MAC area can draw rations and fuel supplies from a single point. Moreover, massive storage sites have been created for holding ammunition reserves in the various operational theatres where MAC forces would fight their wars.
  • While China’s defence minister (always a retired PLAA officer) is a member of the CMC, the Ministry of National Defence (MND) has nothing to do with hard-core military work. In Colonel Yujun’s words, “The MND, under the state council (council of ministers or government) is the leading administrative organ of national defence undertakings. It is responsible for public relations; military co-operation with friendly foreign militaries; and in consultation with the CMC, it is authorised to mobilise PLA reserve force (militia) which is the backbone of the regular army.” He further elaborated that, “the Militia is an organic part of the armed forces and performs combat readiness support and defensive operations and assist in social order.” In India’s context, the PLA border guards (paramilitary forces) which face the ITBP and regular Indian Army on the LAC are Militia forces.
  • After Colonel Yujun had dwelled on PLA’s Higher Defence Management (HDM), he turned his attention to the overarching question: what is China’s defence policy? This was covered under three headings: the security environment, threats and the PLA’s responsibilities. According to Colonel Yujun, China’s security environment has been shaped by three factors: the dissolution of the bipolar system after the Cold War; economic globalization; and information or network globalization. Given the altered security environment, China has identified four threats to its national security. The first relates to ‘the imbalance in strategic military power. This has increased threats from outstanding land and maritime border disputes.’ (I will dwell on this vital aspect in my subsequent article: The way forward). The second threat to China is from within: its social transformation. “We have to guard against the triple threat of terrorism, extremism and secessionism,” he emphasised. The third threat relates to ‘China’s interests and facilities outside the borders.’ He explained that China has built facilities in friendly countries, which could be targeted by armed hostile groups. This cannot be good for China’s image and the armed forces have to be prepared to safeguard the nation’s interests, when required. The last threat identified by the colonel was to China’s investments abroad. He, however, did not elaborate on what exactly these meant.
Given these threats and challenges, China’s armed forces are focussed on five areas: safeguard sovereignty and the rise of China; contain Taiwan and three evil forces (terrorism, extremism, and secessionism); information-ization, which is the backbone of the PLA’s modernization; outer space, electronic and cyber security; capability for operations other than war, including counter-terrorism, search and rescue, anti-piracy, and peacekeeping; and military co-operation with other countries. The colonel concluded his brief defence policy presentation by saying that “China’s strategy is to attack only after being attacked.”

At the end of the presentation at the MND information office, I felt that there was a need to elaborate on the General Armament Department (GAD) as well. Created in April 1998, the GAD headed by a PLAA officer, is meant to improve defence management, oversee development of mechanised, information and high-technology warfare systems, and streamline weapons procurement and maintenance apparatus. Previously, the responsibility for arms purchases, research & development and equipment maintenance was scattered among numerous military and defence industrial organizations with little coordination. The creation of the GAD is proof that China is determined to avail opportunities to strengthen its defence industrial base. The vindication comes from recent reports that China is no longer the biggest importer of equipment in the world; it is now the third largest exporter of arms and equipment.
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