The Iron Wall

PLAGF’s synthetic formations represent China’s new approach towards warfare

Prasun K. Sengupta

The order of battle (ORBAT) and the tables of equipment (ToE) of the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces’ (PLAGF) Urumqi-headquartered Xinjiang Military Region (XMR), inclusive of the South Xinjiang Military District (SXMD) during the Cold War era was dictated by the 3,084km long border between Xinjiang and the USSR. This was further influenced by the ORBAT and ToE of the USSR’s Red Banner Central Asian Military District (with its headquarters at Almaty), which included the 32 Combined Arms Army (HQ in Semipalatinsk), the 17 Army Corps (HQ in Frunze), the 73 Air Army and the 24 Aviation Division with a total of eight combat/ combat-support Regiments. The 32 Combined Arms Army included the 69 Deep Reserve Tank Division, 71 Motor Rifle Division (MRD), 78 Tank Division, 155 MRD and the 203 MRD. The 17 Army Corps included the 8 ‘Guards’ MRD, 68 ‘Red Banner’ MRD, 134 MRD and the 68 Motor Rifle Brigade.

PCL-161 Mounted Gun System

Clearly outgunned and outnumbered both qualitatively and quantitatively, the ground formations of the XSMD had to endure another handicap vis-à-vis both the USSR and India: the sheer obsolescence of the PLA Air Force’s (PLAGF) combat aircraft assets. Added to this was Beijing’s sheer reluctance to use offensive airpower against its adversaries—be they India (in 1962) or Vietnam (in 1979)—for fear of risk escalation being initiated by the USSR from either its Central Asian Military District or from Mongolia. The PLAAF was especially worried that it would be soundly beaten by far more experienced Vietnamese and the Indian Air Force pilots, who had actual dogfighting experience. Consequently, faced with the prospect of warfighting on the ground without the PLAAF’s support, the PLAGF since the late 1970s began acquiring a wide range of wheeled and tracked armoured vehicles and tube/ rocket field artillery systems of USSR-origin from Egypt, which were subsequently cloned and re-engineered by the state-owned China Ordnance Industry Group Research Institute No. 201 in Huaishulin, Fengtai District, Beijing; and were mass-produced by the First Inner Mongolia Machinery Factory and Baotou Machine Factory (617 and 627 Factories).

By 1986, the T-55 main battle tank (MBT) had been cloned as the Type-69, while the BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle and the 9M14 Malyutka anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) were cloned as the WZ-501 and HJ-73 Honjian (Red Arrow), while the BMP-2 ICV was cloned as the ZBD-86A, ZSD-85 tracked armoured personnel carrier (APC) and ZSD-89 tracked armoured command vehicle. Other cloned platforms included the PLZ-83 152mm tracked self-propelled howitzer or SPH (clone of the USSR’s 2S3 Akatsiya), the PLZ-89 122mm tracked SPH (clone of the USSR’s 2S1 Gvozdika), the Type 90 122mm multi-barrel rocket launcher, or MBRL (cloned from the BM-21 Grad), the QSL-92 4 x 4 (clone of Renault’s Véhicule de l'Avant Blindé, or VAB APC) carrying HJ-9 ATGM (clone of the BGM-71 TOW obtained from Iran), and the WZ-551 APC (clone of the VAB’s 6 x 6 variant) and versions of the VAB mounting a licence-built Royal Ordnance L7 105mm rifled-bore cannon (PTL-02 ‘Vanguard’ assault vehicle) and the PLL-05 6 x 6 with a turret-mounted 120mm breech-loading mortar.

Also developed were the PHZ-89 122mm tracked MBRL, PCL-09 122mm mounted gun systems (MGS) and PTZ-89 tracked tank destroyer with 120mm smoothbore cannon, which were procured to offset the unavailability of medium-range ATGMs and they were finally retired in 2015. With the completion of development of the Type 96 MBT (armed with 125mm smoothbore cannon) by 1998, the mechanised infantry regiments finally began replacing the older one Regiment of Type-59 MBTs and two Regiments of Type-88A MBTs (200 of them, equipped with L7 cannons). While the wheeled vehicles were meant for use over the flat Central Asian steppes, the tracked vehicles were meant for the rugged terrain prevailing in the high-altitude plateaux of Aksai Chin.

Together, they equipped the XMR’s four Divisions, which included the 4 Mechanised Infantry Division (located at Aksu), 6 Mechanised Infantry Division (at Hotan), 8 Mechanised Infantry Division (at Tacheng), the 11 Mechanised Infantry Division (at Urumqi), a Special Operations Brigade (at Kashgar), 2 Artillery Brigade (at Urumqi) and an Air-Defence Brigade (at Urumqi). Till mid-2020, the total mechanised force of the SXMD against the Indian Army was about four armoured Regiments and two Light infantry regiments. The first-line force was about 372 MBTs and 248 ICVs.

In addition, reinforcements were available from the Western Theatre Command’s 76 Group Army (at Xining City, Qinghai Province), which included the 17 Heavy Combined-Arms Brigade (using ZTZ-99 MBTs); 56 Light Combined-Arms Brigade; 62 Heavy Combined-Arms Brigade (using ZTZ-99A MBTs); 149 Medium Combined-Arms Brigade (using ZTZ-96A MBTs); 182 Light Combined-Arms Brigade; 76 Special Operations Brigade; 76 Army Air Force Brigade; 76 Artillery Brigade; 76 Air-Defence Brigade; 76 Brigade of Engineering & Chemical Warfare; and the 76 Service Support Brigade. In the future, the XMR will establish a three-tier MBT system: 39.5-tonne ZTQ-105 MBTs will equip two Aksu-based) new light high-mobility infantry Brigades (acting as a fast reaction force), while the Hotan-based armoured Brigades will have both 44.5-tonne ZTZ-96A and ZTZ-96B MBTs, and the 76 Group Army at the rear will be equipped with 58-tonne ZTZ-99As.


Reforms In ORBAT & ToE

The on-going reforms of the ToE of the SXMD, which began in 2018, are generally in line with the overall strategy of the PLAGF, which is: ‘defend the west and attack in the east’ and emphasize ‘controllable border situations.’ Although the western section of the China-India Line of Actual Control (LAC) is vast and is 857km-long, the geographical environment is harsh. The altitude is high, and it is impossible for the PLAGF to organise even a Brigade-level mechanised offensive. Consequently, the SXMD has embraced a hierarchical ‘Synthetic Division-Synthetic Regiment-Synthetic Battalion’ reforms process. Under the new ToE, the XMR still maintains the overall strength of four Divisions, but the various Mechanised Infantry Divisions under its jurisdiction have been transformed into Synthetic Divisions, and the units under its jurisdiction are being transformed into High-Mobility Mechanised Infantry Brigades, each of which will comprise a HQ Company, Brigade Support Battalion, Fires Battalion, Mechanised Infantry Battalion, MBT Battalion, Air-Defence Battalion, and an Engineer Battalion. The quantum of MBTs is being greatly reduced, from four armoured Brigades to three, but the mechanised forces are being increased significantly from the original two light Brigades to three high-mobility medium mechanised Brigades.

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