PLA has a host of rotary-winged vertical envelopment options to choose from
Prasun K. Sengupta
By early 2017 (prior to the structural re-organisation of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) theatre-level warfighting formations), the number of operational helicopter units (Regiments and Brigades) had grown to 12, including five Regiments and seven Brigades for the then 18 existing Group Armies (GA), although only nine GAs each had an integral Army Aviation unit assigned), and a few training units.
One Army Aviation Brigade was subordinate to the PLA’s former General Staff Department (GSD) and an Aviation Brigade was assigned to the Xinjiang Military District (XMD) and a Regiment to the Tibet Military District (TMD). Since April 2017 the 18 former GAs have since been reduced to 13, while the number of Army Aviation units now comprise 11 Brigades and one Regiment. Each Army Aviation Brigade will eventually have an integral special operations forces (SOF) Brigade.
For instance, the former Army Aviation Regiment in the 26 GA is now an Army Aviation Brigade under the PLA’s 80 GA, while the former Regiment in the 54 GA is now an Army Aviation Brigade under the PLA’s 83 GA. The former GSD-commanded Army Aviation Brigade is now an Army Aviation Brigade of the 81 GA in Beijing. The Army Aviation Regiment in the former 31 GA/current 73 GA is now an Army Aviation Brigade under the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command.
Similarly, the former Regiment in the old 41 GA (the Regiment most recently created) is now an Aviation Brigade in the 74 GA. In addition, a new Army Aviation Brigade has been created for the 76 GA in the Western Theatre Command. The 76 GA is the former 21 GA, which previously did not have an Army Aviation unit. The complete Army Aviation Brigade in the XMD is now under 76 GA’s command. New Brigade-sized units will be established in future for the 71 GA and 78 GA. In addition, new SOF Brigades will be raised for the 72, 74, 79, 81 and 83 GAs.
A typical PLA Army Aviation Regiment has four to six flight groups, with 12 helicopters in each group. A Brigade has six to eight groups. The variation in size among both Regiments and Brigades allows for the units to expand as new aircraft and pilots become available. Each unit is composed of a variety of helicopter-types. The entire force is composed of nine varieties of light, medium, heavy, and attack helicopters, with some produced in China and others imported from, or jointly developed with Russia.
Approximately 300 Russia-produced Mi-17-series (Mi-171 and Mi-17V-5) and Mi-8Ts comprise the largest proportion of the force, followed by some 255 China-built Z-9s (armed and transport versions), 85 locally manufactured Z-8s, plus 53 Airbus Military AS.350 Ecureuils and eight SA.342L Gazelles, 15 H-120 Colibri (jointly developed by Airbus Military with China), and less than 20 S-70C2 Black Hawks purchased from the US in the early Eighties. Two types of dedicated attack helicopters are new to the force, with the first Z-10WZ being introduced in 2011, followed by the Z-19WZ. Presently, there are approximately 120 of each type.
WTC’s Army Aviation Force
The PLA’s Western Theatre Command (WTC), under which the XMD and TMD come, presently commands the Feng Huang Shan helicopter base near Chengdu that houses units of the 2 Army Aviation Brigade of the 77 GA, Taipingsi helicopter base in Sichuan that houses units of the 2 Army Aviation Brigade, the Nyingchi helicopter base in Tibet with detachments of the 2 Army Aviation Brigade, Lhasa’s Dongguan helicopter base with detachments of the 2 Army Aviation Brigade (equipped with Mi-17V-5s and Z-19WZs), the Shiquanhezhen helicopter base, the Shule-Baren helicopter base in Xinjiang that houses the 3 Army Aviation Brigade of XMD), and the Wujiaqu helicopter base in Xinjiang housing the 3 Army Aviation Brigade (equipped with Z-10WZ and Z-19WZ).
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