Analysis: China’s Critical Western Theater Command

Analysis: China’s Critical Western Theater Command
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What you need to know

The WTC is the largest theater and has complex terrain including desert and high mountains, long borders, and challenging social conditions. Theater missions include supporting the People’s Armed Police Force maintaining internal stability in the restive Tibet and Xinjiang regions.

Despite continuing high-level meetings between China and India’s military, Beijing has not settled its border disputes with India, and continues aggressive military activity along the disputed border regions (China Military Online, Nov. 22, 2016). This is despite China’s resolution of most disputed land borders including those with Russia and Vietnam. China has also continued construction of infrastructure to support military operations in a conflict. The current round of ambitious PLA reforms, including creation of peacetime joint theater commands, will significantly increase joint operations capabilities in the newly formed Western Theater Command with responsibility for the Indian strategic direction. [1]

Each of the five new theater commands will focus on combat operations and enhancing joint training of subordinate forces based on wartime missions. The new commands include the Eastern Theater Command (TC) based on the former Nanjing Military Region (MR) responsible for Taiwan operations and territorial disputes with Japan; the Southern TC based on the Guangzhou MR responsible for operations against Vietnam and the South China Sea region, as well as providing forces for operations in a Taiwan conflict; Western TC based on the former Chengdu and Lanzhou MRs; Northern TC based on Shenyang MR plus Inner Mongolia and Shandong Provinces responsible for responding to potential instability on the Korean peninsula or possibly supporting operations against Japan; and a Central TC based on Beijing and Jinan MRs with responsibility for capital defense and serving as a strategic reserve to reinforce other theaters (Global Times, Feb. 2, 2016; Xinhua, Feb. 1, 2016).

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The Western Theater Command

The Western Theater Command (WTC) is the most expansive of the new theaters with complex internal and external operational requirements. The theater commander is Army LTG Zhao Zongqi, former commander of Jinan MR (2012–2016). LTG Zhao participated in combat against Vietnam, served as commander of the 52nd Mountain Brigade in the early 1990’s, and commander of the 14th Group Army (2005–2008) before moving to assignments in Jinan MR. These experiences demonstrate extensive operational knowledge of mountain warfare, making Zhao a good choice as WTC commander (Xinhua, Feb.1, 2016; The Beijing News, February 2, 2016; China Military Online, March 3, 2016).

The WTC is the largest theater and has complex terrain including desert and high mountains, long borders, and challenging social conditions. Theater missions include supporting the People’s Armed Police Force maintaining internal stability in the restive Tibet and Xinjiang regions. Disaster relief requiring liaison with civilian organizations is also an important theater mission. External responsibilities include responding to possible unrest in Central Asia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO sponsored series of Peace Mission exercises since 2005 have trained SCO forces for combined operations responding to large-scale unrest. However, the WTC’s primary strategic direction is India and the contested border regions (Xinhua, Aug. 18, 2014; China Military Online, March 3, 2016).

The Chinese press has reported that the Tibet Military Command/Military District in the WTC has been elevated by one level compared to other provincial-level military districts and placed under the PLA Army (PLAA). Most provincial-level military districts are under the National Defense Mobilization Department of the CMC with responsibility for reserves, militia and conscription. An article in The Global Times reported that the Tibet Military Command will be responsible for operations against India, at least in the Arunachal Pradesh area, training forces for specialized high-altitude mountain warfare and long-range mobility for such a contingency (Global Times, May 13, 2016). However, Army command would appear to usurp the theater’s command responsibility. The Xinjiang Military District is also under PLAA command. The current reforms and reorganization make the services responsible for force development and training their respective forces, which would appear to include the Army commands in the Tibet and Xinjiang Military Districts. Since the WTC has a difficult internal mission, the Army might additionally be responsible for internal missions in Tibet and Xinjiang, acting as an intermediate command level for the theater, which would have a daunting span of control if widespread unrest occurred in both areas, compounded by an external crisis.

The WTC headquarters includes a joint operations command center also located in Chengdu. The theater Army headquarters is in Lanzhou. The new Strategic Logistics Support Force has subordinate Joint Logistics Support Centers in each theater, with one in Xining for the WTC. The WTC can deploy subordinate PLAA and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units, and request additional forces from the CMC if required. Each theater will require time to fully transition from the Army dominated MR 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 theater construction and develop plans to promote joint operations from Feb. 28–29, 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 reportedly assigned approximately 100 officers to the five new theater 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 theater assets. If they remain under centralized control, the CMC would assign launch brigades to support to the theaters as required (Global Times, Feb.4 , 2016; Xinhua, April 6, 2016; China Military Online, April 7, 2016; Global Times, April 12, 2016; China Military Online, May 10, 2016; PLA Daily, March 2, 2016; MOD, January 11, 2016).

The theater headquarters likely includes service departments and other specialized elements. A joint command post structure could include a command and control center, intelligence center, communications center, information operations center. firepower coordination center, air defense operations center, special operations center, military affairs mobilization department, political work department, logistics and equipment support department, and other elements as required. The theater would likely include a main, alternate, rear, and possibly a forward command post to command operations in a conflict (PLA Daily, May 28, 2016). [2]

WTC Training

The theater contains the combined arms tactical training bases (CATTB) located at Xichang and Qingtongxia. These CATTB’s are highly developed training facilities for both combined arms and joint training with the PLAAF. CATTB’s typically contain direction, evaluation and simulation facilities. Exercise umpires, multiple integrated laser engagement systems (MILES), data collection systems, and Opposing forces (OPFOR) are employed to promote training realism and evaluation. Qingtongxia CATTB, established around 2000, includes an urban warfare training village, electromagnetic environment simulation, monitoring and control systems, as well as a 1:500 scale (900 meters x 700 meters) mock-up of the contested Aksai Chin border region. The PLAAF experimental training base at Dingxin, Gansu Province, is used for live fire and complex electromagnetic environment training. PLAAF units rotate through this large training area, which also contains a mock-up of Taiwan’s Ching Chuan Kang Air Force Base (清泉崗). A PLAAF training base at Korla contains an airfield mockup resembling the U.S. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The PLARF uses the airfield mock-ups as targets for live fire training. The PLA also employs military training coordination zones for joint exercises, and the WTC contains joint training coordination zones in the Tianshan Mountains, in Gansu Province, and in the Chongqing area (PLA Daily, Jan. 2, 2009; The Register, July 19, 2006; WantChinaTimes, Dec. 30, 2014; PLA Daily, March 2, 2006; PLA Daily, Nov.3, 2010; PLA Daily, Oct. 6, 2006).

PLA training exercises in the WTC have featured offensive and defensive mountain and cold weather warfare training and long-distance movement of units. The Stride (跨越), Joint Action (联合行动), and Firepower (火力) series of exercises have trained units, including those from the WTC, to move long distances by multiple means to reinforce another region and engage in combat. Firepower-2016 in Qingtongxia featured units from the five theaters training against a 47th GA brigade acting as a simulated enemy (China Military Online, Feb. 28, 2016; China Military Online, July 12, 2016; China Military Online, Oct. 12, 2015).

Potential PLA Operations in the Indian Strategic Direction

The primary border areas under dispute are the Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin in the west, and Arunachal Pradesh in the east controlled by India. China and India have conducted combined “Hand-in-Hand” (携手) counter-terrorism exercises on a small scale and have established high-level dialogue on border issues to alleviate tensions. There has also been tension between the two countries over Chinese activity in the border regions as well as the Indian Ocean. The WTC would have to coordinate operations with the responsible command for naval operations against India. The WTC focuses on relevant campaign scenarios to train troops for potential combat operations. PLA publications detail several campaigns that the WTC could conduct including Antiterrorism Stability Maintenance operations to combat internal unrest; Joint Border Counterattack Campaigns to defend against an attack and regain lost territory; Mountain Offensive Campaigns; and Joint Fire Strike Campaigns usually supporting another campaign, but also an independent campaign (Global Times, Sept. 5, 2012). [3]

China is rapidly improving infrastructure in the Sino-Indian border region as part of development plans for Tibet as well as to prepare for possible defensive or offensive operations. China has constructed roads to and along disputed areas, along with additional airbases, landing strips and logistics sites to support military deployments and operations. India has also improved transportation infrastructure in its controlled areas, and plans additional infrastructure construction to support its military and paramilitary forces along the border. India has also deployed additional forces to the border regions since 2012 (China Brief, Sep. 13, 2016; Times of India, Feb. 20, 2014; Daily Excelsior, Feb. 11, 2016; NDTV, July 21, 2016).

The Sino-Indian disputed borders represent isolated high-altitude regions with difficult terrain and weather conditions presenting problems for troops, weapons and equipment. Ground combat will occur mainly along roads that normally follow valleys or ridges, limiting support and cooperation between forces operating on different axes. The lack of cross-terrain mobility limits the ability of ground forces to conduct penetrating or outflanking operations against enemy forces. PLA publications stress airmobile landings in the enemy rear area to overcome the restricted terrain and enemy defensive positions. Special operations forces available to the WTC would represent highly qualified units to operate in the enemy rear area to disrupt operations and attack vulnerable lines of communications. The high-altitude reduces aviation performance and lift capabilities, and increases maintenance requirements on equipment in general, although the thin air increases the range of projectiles and shrapnel. Weather conditions would mostly limit air operations to June through September. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought in October and November without air support. Cold high-plateau regions place increases requirements on engineering and support operations, and the thin air is difficult for the troops even after acclimation. This situation reduces unit combat capabilities and increases non-combat losses. Training new recruits could affect an operation depending on the timing. New recruits would likely achieve a minimal operational capability to conduct small unit combat by late spring, which should be adequate for the restricted terrain which will limit maneuver and dictate primarily small unit operations. Depending on the timing of the crisis, the PLA could decide to delay mobilization of soldiers in the WTC to retain full combat capability of units. [4]

The Aksai Chin border terrain mock-up at the Qingtongxia CATTB depicts mostly Chinese occupied territory with only a small portion of Indian-controlled terrain. This appears to indicate a focus on a Joint Border Counterattack Campaign in response to an Indian military incursion. However, the exact purpose of the large terrain model is unclear. The border counterattack campaign was originally considered an Army offensive campaign, although some PLA books now refer to it as a joint campaign. This campaign includes initial border defense actions with a transition to the offense to regain lost territory and restore the situation. The two mountain brigades and independent mechanized brigade are the closest ground forces to Arunachal Pradesh, although the 13th Group Army trains in mountain warfare and could deploy as needed. While no PLA forces are permanently garrisoned in the Aksai Chin area, it is likely that the mechanized infantry division in Hotan (see map) would deploy to this area. Air and missile strikes would support the ground operations to annihilate and expel invading enemy forces depending on the weather, or as in the Sino-Indian Border War operations could consist of mostly ground operations. [5]

The PLA would conduct a Mountain Offensive Campaign or possibly a Joint Fire Strike Campaign if Beijing issued orders for offensive operations. A Joint Fire Strike campaign would support the border counterattack or mountain offensive, but could also represent an independent campaign. The terrain, weather, and difficult engineering and comprehensive support conditions restraining the deployment and sustainment of forces could make a joint fire strike appear more advantageous to a mountain offensive. A mountain offensive would require a substantial advantage in the correlation of forces for the attacker operating under terrain and weather restrictions. As an independent campaign, a joint fire strike could represent punitive strikes against key Indian targets. A joint fire strike campaign is a long-range precision strike by long-range rocket, missile and air forces with the objective to destroy important enemy targets, paralyze the enemy’s operational system of systems (integrated force grouping), weaken the will to resist and destroy war potential, or create conditions for other operations. The Chinese leadership could conclude that conducting precision strikes against key Indian targets was preferable to conducting difficult offensive ground operations where the defender has an advantage. [6]

Future Prospects

The creation in peacetime of theater joint commands accelerates the PLA’s plan to develop an integrated joint operations capability, promotes theater joint training and greater familiarity between the services, and provides for a rapid transition from peacetime to wartime operations. The theater commands will train units for wartime operational missions which will decrease the need for pre-war preparations and pre-battle training. Ultimately this development will increase the combat effectiveness of forces not only in the WTC, but also in the other theaters.

It will take time for the theater commands to achieve an optimal joint operational capability as the joint commands and personnel need to establish coordination procedures and working relationships. The PLA also recognizes the requirement to improve joint professional military education for its officers, which will take time to fully implement throughout the military educational institutes, graduating a quantity of officers adept at integrated joint operations. However, PLA joint operations are constantly improving and joint exercises for more than a decade provide increased joint experience and improving capabilities.

Notes

  1. This article is based on an article appearing in the Indian Military Review, Vol. 7, Issue 9, September 2016.
  2. Theater Joint Operations Command (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2016), pp. 76–82; Military Terms (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011), p. 173; Science of Joint Tactics (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2014) pp. 130–136.
  3. Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006); Military Terms (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011.
  4. Science of Army Campaigns Under High-Tech Conditions, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2003), pp. 303–323.
  5. Science of Army Campaigns Under High-Tech Conditions, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2003), pp. 303–323; Military Terms (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011), pp. 70–71.

Science of Campaigns (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), pp. 404–425.

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