Changes are afoot for the PLAGF to become a world-class military by 2049
Prasun K. Sengupta
The People’s Republic of China’s military development goals were first quietly announced in the late Nineties, then announced more publicly in 2006. They all described a three-step development process for military modernisation: placing benchmarks at 2010, 2020 and mid-century, meaning 2049, indicating a very long-term outlook for military modernisation.
Specific objectives have been adjusted slightly over the years and President Xi Jinping recently added a new milestone of 2035, acknowledging that the 2010 date had passed. By 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) expected its current set of reforms to be complete and had achieved significant mechanisation of the PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF). By 2035, the PLAGF seeks to have fully modernised equipment, training, personnel structure, and doctrine. By 2049, the PLAGF looks to be a ‘world-class military.’ Officially, the Communist Party of China (CPC) consistently calls it ‘A’ world-class military, not ‘The’ world-class military. But the CPC does not define what a world-class military is, a lesson learned from previous rounds of reforms, where certain goals were set out, and then adjusted.
It was in the spring of 2014 that a task force was formed in Beijing to draw up an over-arching reform blueprint for the entire PLAGF. It involved more 690 civilian and military departments, 900 serving and retired commanders and experts, 2,165 Brigade-level and above officers, and ultimately resulted in excess of 800 meetings and took into account more than 3,400 comments and recommendations from the rank-and-file. The blueprint was revised more than 150 times and was finalised in November 2015. Subsequently, the PLAGF underwent thorough reforms, demobilising 300,000 personnel, constituting almost half of non-combat positions and 30 per cent of the officer corps. It is the most comprehensive of all PLAGF reforms in recent memory and has radically changed the way the PLAGF operates. A new training syllabus also went into effect in January 2018, having been in the works since April 2013. The overriding priority of the new syllabus is to have a high degree of realism with emphasis on new modes of warfare such as jointness and network-centric manoeuvre warfare.
The PLAGF is thus certainly moving in the direction it wants to go, but the more it tries to implement some of these initiatives, the more it discovers that these things are harder to do in real-life than it is to write about them in field manuals. In fact, the PLAGF in particular has already begun to reform some of its earlier reforms. One good example is standardising the structure of the Group Army (GA), the Corps-level organisation. Three years ago, GAs were standardised with six Combined-Arms Brigades and six supporting Brigades, one each artillery, air-defence, SOF, army aviation (helicopter), engineer and CBRN defence, and a Service Support Brigade.
A recent change the PLA made has been to break up the engineer and CBRN Defence Brigade into two separate Brigades: an Engineer Brigade and a CBRN Defence Brigade. This change is not universal yet,—at least one GA has retained the old structure. This series of rapid changes illustrates that the PLAGF will decide on something, experiment and train with it, and discover what does and does not work. It then must go back and revise based on the lessons learned. Many of these new adjustments are not announced officially. Every time a PLAGF unit goes on a field exercise, new equipment, unit structure, tactics, and doctrine are tested. The results of these tests get sent up the chain of command, and then drives change throughout the institution.
Running up to the 2035 ‘deadline’, one can anticipate many more significant changes in the PLAGF. It is very likely that the complete overhaul of the PLA’s equipment—begun under Deng Xiaoping back in the early Eighties—will finally be complete by then. All of the early Cold War era material will finally be gone, replaced by mostly China-designed equipment dating from the Nineties or 2000s. For example, about three years ago more than half of the main battle tank (MBT) force of the PLAGF was composed of Type-59 and Type-69 MBTs, a USSR-derived design dating from the Fifties. Today, newer Type-96, Type-99 and Type 15 MBTs, designed in the Nineties, slightly outnumber the Type-59s. It took almost 20 years to move to a majority modern MBT-types and it will take another decade at least to finally purge all of the legacy MBTs from the inventory. Ironically, by that time, some of the early Type-96 and 99 MBTs may themselves be obsolete and ready for replacement. The same process is underway for every category of equipment—modernised wheeled/tracked armoured personnel carriers (APC), tracked infantry combat vehicles (ICV), tube/rocket artillery and helicopters—with many of the same challenges and similar timelines.
One of the huge upgrades seen to PLAGF capability in this time period is a series of new systems significantly increasing the range at which ground commanders can strike. Legacy 122mm and 152mm tube artillery pieces are being rapidly replaced by modernised, longer-range 155mm systems, older 106mm and 122mm multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRL) are being augmented by highly capable 300mm and 370mm MBRLs, and attack helicopters and a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles have significantly increased the PLAGF’s operating radii. While longer range is valuable, it has several second-and third-order effects that must be considered. Intelligence, surveillance and targeting must now extend to the maximum range of their capabilities to support the new systems; coordination and communications with other units and with the joint force are now necessary to deconflict airspace, and so on. All of these supporting efforts are ongoing, but it all results in increasingly complex operations that the PLA will have to learn and master on the training field.
Prior to 1998, PLAGF squad leaders were simply third-or fourth-year conscripts; NCO leaders were not a part of the PLAGF’s personnel system. That year, however, the PLAGF established its first cohort of professional NCOs, along with the educational and training support necessary to develop them into military leaders and technicians. The first cohort was chosen from the conscript pool and given additional training. Some jobs that previously were assigned to officers were handed off to NCOs, including many billets that one traditionally associates with NCOs, such as supply sergeants. Professional NCOs became squad leaders.
Developing an NCO corps was a huge effort, requiring a number of major reforms and significant resources. The relationship between officers and NCOs had to be established; the duties and responsibilities of NCOs had to be built from scratch; the ranks of NCOs had to be filled by competent soldiers. One of the most significant changes undertaken was the training and education of NCOs. Today, several stand-alone NCO schools exist in which NCO cadets may attend two-or three-year degree programmes. Many PLA officer academies have subordinate NCO departments, where NCOs receive both academic instruction and military leadership training. Some NCO positions require significant functional, job-focussed technical training as well, which may be done formally or at the NCO’s unit.
Figuring out the relationship between NCOs and officers has been a challenge. Higher level NCO leadership positions, such as Company First Sergeants or Sergeants Major, have been established only in the last few years. Many of the leadership duties that one typically associates with senior NCOs, such as supervising soldier welfare, morale, and discipline, were traditionally handled by the unit’s Political Officer. The PLA recently added a seventh NCO rank in order to allow more senior NCOs to finish their careers and retire from the military. In 2018, the first cohort of PLAGF NCOs hit the 20-year mark, which means one is only now seeing the first NCOs who have gone through the new system from the beginning to the end of their careers.
One of the major benefits from the development of the NCO corps is that NCOs now can work in staff positions at Battalion and higher-level HQs. The newer PLAGF unit structures and approach to operations and planning requires far more staff than previously—a Battalion Staff used to consist only of a commander, political officer, and deputy commander, for example, which was sufficient when all they had to do was pass higher echelon orders down to their Company commanders. Now, Combined-Arms Battalions are tasked to conduct independent operations, requiring a full range of staff work at that level. The PLAGF has discovered that staff NCOs can both provide assistance to officers and fill key staff roles. A significant amount of PLAGF experimentation over the last few years focussed on how the future Battalion Staff should be structured—getting the right mix of officers, NCOs, and trained specialists, in the right jobs, with the right relationships.
As of now, the PLAGF has landed on a formal structure employing a Chief-of-Staff, a unit ‘Master Sergeant’, and four principal staff officers or NCOs. Of note, while this Staff is now probably capable of fighting independently for short periods of time, it does not look to be large enough to be capable of conducting both current operations and planning on a 24-hour, high intensity cycle over an extended period of time.
The Brigade-isation of the world’s armies dovetailed nicely with the PLAGF’s ongoing drawdown in size and desire to upgrade the training and equipment of its forces. Three different primary formation-types were established: the light (motorised) Combined-Arms Brigade (CA-BDE), which comprised truck-mobile or APC-mounted infantry; the medium (mechanised) CA-BDE, built around the tracked ICV and ICV-mounted infantry; and the heavy (armoured) CA-BDE, built around the MBT.
Initially, CA-BDEs were built with ‘pure’ Battalions, meaning that the Manoeuvre Battalions of each were homogenous—only infantry, mechanised infantry, or armour. After a period of experimentation and revision, the traditional homogenous Battalion was replaced with the Combined-Arms Battalion—the CAB. Major changes occurred at echelons above the CA-BDE as well. First, the Corps as it had existed throughout the history of the PLAGF was done away with, replaced by a new formation called the Group Army (GA). The GA was not a Field Army in the traditional sense, but rather, was a Corps-sized formation that mixed six CA-BDEs with six supporting Brigades: artillery, air-defence, rotary-winged aviation, SOF, engineer and CBRN defence, and service support. The GA was built specifically to support the new PLAGF’s concept of high-tempo systems warfare: elements of the GA are used to build the various specialised combat groups that comprise an overall operational system—the task-organised unit that conducts operations. The Divisional echelon was virtually done away with: only a handful of Division structures now remain extant.
The operational system is the complete set of capabilities assembled to conduct a particular mission. At the GA-level, an operational system can be thought of as similar to a Joint Task Force (JTF). On a smaller scale, operational systems are assembled to conduct specific tactical missions such as an assault, defence of a key position, or wide-area security. Combat Groups are sub-units of the operational system, and are built to perform specified tasks in support of the operational system’s mission. Combat Groups are typically named for their task: command group, assault group, firepower group, and so on. These names are not standardised, and different variations appear throughout different PLAGF publications.
While the CA-BDE can be thought of as the tactical-level force provider for the various Combat Groups, the CAB is meant to be employed either in its organic form, or augmented by attached capabilities. The PLAGF describes the CAB as the lowest echelon capable of independent operations, and for many tactical-level Combat Groups, a CAB serves as the group’s manpower backbone and bulk of its combat power. The PLAA describes the differences between motorised and mechanised infantry in how supporting vehicles are employed: motorised units are only transported by their assigned vehicles, while mechanised forces employ their vehicles as combat platforms that support the infantry. The PLAGF employs a variety of APCs and IFVs that feature a broad range of firepower and protection. Some are tracked, some are wheeled, and there is considerable overlap. As such, one must look at how the unit intends to fight, rather than its composition and equipment, when assessing a unit as motorised versus mechanised. Airborne, Mountain, and Amphibious CA-BDEs are described as light. The three basic types of CA-BDE are configured as follows:
The Light Combined-Arms Brigade comprises four Motorised Combined-Arms Battalions, one Reconnaissance Battalion, one Artillery Battalion, one Air-Defence Battalion, one Headquarters Unit, one Operational Support Battalion and one Service Support Battalion. The Medium Combined-Arms Brigade comprises four Mechanised Combined-Arms Battalions, one Reconnaissance Battalion, one Artillery Battalion, one Air-Defence Battalion, one Headquarters Unit, one Operational Support Battalion and one Service Support Battalion. The Heavy Combined-Arms Brigade comprises four Armoured Combined-Arms Battalions, one Reconnaissance Battalion, one Artillery Battalion, one Air-Defence Battalion, one Headquarters Unit, one Operational Support Battalion and one Service Support Battalion. The CAB takes the basic combined-arms approach used to build the CAB and applies it to the Battalion echelon. CABs only combine different manoeuvre elements along with organic short-range fires elements (assault guns and mortars), with the provision that other headquarters can attach elements from other Brigade organisations as required. Each CAB also houses an organic short-range air-defence capability in the form of manportable air-defence systems (MANPADS). Of note, the CAB has only limited staff, which may affect its ability to function as the PLAGF intends—as an independent unit. CAB structures are as follows:
The Light Combined-Arms Battalion comprises three Motorised Infantry Companies (10 light wheeled vehicles or APCs per Company), one Firepower Company (with up to nine rapid-fire 81mm mortars, MANPADS, crew-served weapons), one Headquarters Unit and one Service Support Company. The Medium Combined-Arms Battalion comprises three Mechanised Infantry Companies (10 wheeled or tracked IFVs per Company), one Assault Gun Company (14 wheeled 105mm assault guns), one Firepower Company (nine rapid-fire 120mm self-propelled mortars, MANPADS, crew-served weapons), one Headquarters Unit and one Service Support Company. The Heavy Combined-Arms Battalion comprises two MBT Companies (14 MBTs per Company), two Mechanised Infantry Companies (10 ICVs per Company), one Firepower Company (nine rapid-fire 120mm self-propelled mortars, MANPADS, crew-served weapons), one Headquarters Unit and one Service Support Company.
(To be concluded)