A Valid Concern

PLA’s Western Theatre Command boasts of a joint operations command centre

Prasun K. Sengupta

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Western Theatre Command (WTC) covers Tibet, Sichuan, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Chongqing. It has its headquarters in Chengdu, and it includes a joint operations command centre, also located in Chengdu. The Army HQ of the WTC is in Lanzhou.

PLA’s PGZ-09 35mm self-propelled anti-aircraft gun

The new Strategic Logistics Support Force has subordinate Joint Logistics Support Centres in each of the five theatres, with one in Xining for the WTC. The WTC can deploy subordinate PLA Army (PLAA) and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units and request additional forces from the Beijing-based Central Military Commission (CMC) if required. Each theatre will require time to fully transition from the erstwhile army-dominated Military Region-headquarters to establish joint commands, gain familiarity between the services, as well as train personnel in their new joint positions.

For example, the WTC brought together experts to address theatre construction and develop plans to promote joint operations on 28-29 February 2016. The newly formed PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), as well as the other services, have assigned high-quality officers to the new joint commands. The PLARF has assigned approximately 100 officers to the five new theatre commands to support planning and training. It is not yet clear whether PLARF conventional missile launch brigades remain directly subordinate to the CMC or are theatre assets. If they remain under centralised control, the CMC would assign launch brigades to support the theatres as required.

Integral ground force assets of the WTC comprise the 76th Group Army (GA) which was previously the 21st GA, the 77th GA (erstwhile 13th GA, plus the integral assets of the Xinjiang Military District (XMD) and Tibet Military District (TMD). The 76st GA (Unit 68210) at Baoji, Shaanxi province, comprises the 61st Motorised Infantry Division (at Tianshui, Gansu province), 62nd Combined Arms Brigade (Jiayuguan, Gansu), 12th Combined Arms Brigade (Zhangye, Gansu), a Special Operations Brigade, 13th Army Aviation Brigade (Zhangye, Gansu), a Field Artillery Brigade, Air Defence Brigade (Linxia, Gansu), a Signals Regiment, 14th Engineer Regiment, 11th Chemical Defence Regiment, and the 90th Pontoon Bridge Regiment. The Chongqing-based 77th GA (Unit 77100) comprises the 37th Motorised Infantry Division, 149th Motorised Infantry Division, 17th Armoured Brigade, a Special Operations Brigade, Field Artillery Brigade, Air Defence Brigade, 2nd Army Aviation Brigade, Engineer Regiment, Signals Regiment, and an Electronic Warfare Regiment.

The 76th GA’s 12th Combined-Arms Brigade and the 62nd Combined-Arms Brigade were equipped with the latest Type 99A main battle tanks (MBT) after they traded in their Type 96A medium tanks in November 2016. They also received new Type 04A infantry combat vehicles (ICV) in May 2016. The two brigades are also currently equipped with AFT-10 CM-501G NLOS-ATGMs mounted on ZBD-08 tracked carriers, PHZ-10 122mm MBRLs, PGZ-09 35mm SPAAGs, PPZ-10 tracked 120mm breech-loading mortars, PCL-09 22.5-tonne 122mm motorised SPHs, PHL-03 300mm MBRLs, PLZ-05 45-cal 155mm tracked SPHs, PLZ-07 122mm tracked SPHs. The 12th and 62nd Brigades thus operate as Joint Tactical Battle Groups and both completed their annual training regimen last July inside Tibet. The number of Type 99A MBTs in the armoured regiments of these two brigades is 31 each, with one tank in the regimental HQ and each squadron having 3 troops of three tanks each and one tank in the HQ. The ICVs number 45 per mechanised regiment.

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