Shades of Gray: China is Changing the PLA’s Ground Combat Units

Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
Why you need to know

The long-awaited changes in the operational and tactical units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have begun with a formal announcement by President Xi Jinping (習近平) in April 2017.

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The long-awaited changes in the operational and tactical units of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have begun with a formal announcement by President Xi Jinping (習近平) in April 2017. After initiating major reforms in late 2015 and throughout 2016, the Central Military Commission (CMC), service headquarters, and military regions (now theater commands) have been reorganized resulting in the reallocation of many personnel and the demobilization of an unknown number of active duty personnel. But, as part of the ongoing 300,000 man reduction, even larger cuts in personnel will follow as headquarters and units at corps/army-level and below are eliminated, re-subordinated, or restructured.

By 2020, when the structural changes now underway are scheduled for completion, the PLA should number two million active duty personnel. Though the reforms since 2015 are the most significant set of changes for the PLA since the 1950s, they are but an intermediate step, the 2020 milestone, in the PLA’s “three-step development strategy” initially announced in 2006. The strategy’s final goal was modified in 2008 and defined as “reach[ing] the goal of modernization of national defense and armed forces by the mid-21st century.” [1] As such, more adjustments to the PLA’s structure and capabilities can be expected over the next three decades as technology improves and China’s domestic and the international situations change. Throughout this process the reforms will be evaluated to determine if they meet the objectives of building a strong military to defend China’s core security requirements, capable of deterring and winning informationized wars, and accomplishing a variety of military operations other than war such as anti-terrorism, internal stability maintenance, disaster relief, and international peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations (MOD, May 26, 2015).

After a general introduction to the recently announced reforms reported developments to in the Marines and Airborne forces will be addressed.

The Announcement of “84 Corps-level Units”

In April 2017, President Xi Jinping made the first general reference to a new set of operational restructurings when he spoke of the adjustment and establishment of “84 corps-level units” (ChinaMil, April 18). However, he provided no further details and did not define what a “corps-level unit” is, nor did he indicate how these units are distributed among the four services, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force, and the newly established Strategic Support Force and Joint Logistics Support Force.

Previously, foreign analysts considered “corps-level units” to include the Army’s 18 group armies, the Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing Garrison commands, and most of the provincial Military Districts (MD), except for the Beijing Garrison and the Tibet and Xinjiang MDs. [2] In the Navy, these units included the three fleet Naval Aviation Headquarters and multiple commands, such as the Yulin, Fujian, Lushun, and two submarine bases. For the Air Force, they included the 15th Airborne Corps, the Shanghai, Nanning, Urumqi, and Dalian Air Force Bases, and several regional command posts. In the Rocket Force, they included the six numbered bases (51-56) that command launch brigades and an engineering command. [3] The new Strategic Support Force also likely commands multiple bases involved with space launch and tracking and cyber and information operations formerly under the control of the four General Departments.

Shortly after Xi’s announcement, the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao newspaper estimated the new 84 “corps-level units” will include 15 Army organizations (including 13 group armies and two experimental bases) and 28 provincial Military Districts; 10 naval headquarters including three fleet Naval Aviation Headquarters, five bases, an experimental base and a new Marine headquarters; 12 Air Force units including 10 bases, an experimental base, and the 15th Airborne; seven launch brigades and two additional bases in the Rocket Force; and seven space-affiliated and three cyber and information bases in the Strategic Support Force (Ming Pao, April 20). To date, the official Chinese media has been slow in providing details about Xi’s announcement (though new developments are mentioned almost daily). For the past few months presumably as the changes to the 84 “corps-level units” were beginning, official PLA press reports referred only to “a unit [or type of unit] of a certain Theater Command” in contrast to the practice since 2013 of frequently identifying the group army to which the unit belongs.

Theater Command Service Headquarters

When the seven military regions were abolished and five new joint theater commands (TC) established, another set of new organizations was also created: in each of the TCs a Theater Command Army headquarters was established, as well as TC Navy and TC Air Force headquarters. No TC Rocket Force headquarters were formed. The new TC Army headquarters largely perform the same functions as the Navy’s three fleets and the Air Force’s military region air forces did under the previous structure. [4] Under the principle that the “CMC takes charge of the overall administration, Theater Commands focus on combat, military services focus on construction,” the TC Service headquarters operate under a dual chain-of-command, reporting in parallel to both their joint regional TC headquarters and their service headquarters in Beijing.

TC Service headquarters, not the TCs themselves, perform direct command over the operational units of their service located in the area of responsibility of the TC. In that manner, operational units have only a single chain-of-command directly to their TC Service headquarters. The TC Service headquarters are responsible for passing orders down to units from both their TC and service headquarters and likewise keeping both higher headquarters informed of the status and operations of their units. Having operated under a similar structure in the former military region system, TC Navy and Air Force headquarters should be accustomed to working under such a dual chain-of-command, but this setup is new for the Army, where previously units reported to military region headquarters because there was no national-level Army headquarters. It is likely that it will take some time for the new system to be perfected among the joint TC headquarters, TC Army headquarters, and Army headquarters as all organizations must learn how to interact with each other and train their staffs to perform their tasks efficiently.

Additionally, TC Army headquarters have responsibilities that are not obvious from the initial announcement of their formation.

The Army

During personnel reductions and structural reforms in the mid-1980s, 24 group armies were formed. These combined arms formations usually consisted of a number of infantry and armored divisions supported by artillery, anti-aircraft, engineer, communications, and other support elements and were distributed unevenly among the seven military regions. Prior to the force reduction of 1997, Army mobile combat units included over 100 infantry and armored divisions, but only approximately 20 infantry and armored brigades and only about seven each Army Aviation and Special Operations Force (SOF) units. [5] By the end of the 2003 reduction, the number of group army headquarters had been cut by six to 18, a number that remained constant until 2017. In the course of these reductions, many divisions were eliminated or transformed into brigades (at first one brigade per division, then in recent years two brigades per division), 14 were transferred to the People’s Armed Police, one was re-subordinated to the Navy to become the second Marine brigade, and several were sent to the reserve force. [6] Some units from disbanded group armies were reassigned to new headquarters.

As a result, only two (the 40th and 47th) of the 18 group armies had similar compositions of infantry and armored units. [7] All others were uniquely configured, as were the independent combat units assigned to the Beijing Garrison Command, Xinjiang MD, and Tibet MD. In early 2017, the number of operational maneuver Army units assigned to group armies, along with independent units, was estimated to include a total of approximately 21 divisions (20 infantry of various types and one armored), 65 brigades (48 infantry and 17 armored), 12 Army Aviation units (seven brigades and five regiments), and 11 SOF units (nine brigades and two regiments; additionally, some divisions and brigades command smaller SOF units at battalion-level or below). About half the infantry divisions and brigades were classified as mechanized, either heavy or light, while the remainder of infantry units were considered motorized, with about four or five classified as mountain infantry brigades. Only six group armies and the Xinjiang and Tibet MDs had both an Army Aviation unit and an SOF unit. The decline in divisions over these two decades was as dramatic as was the rise in the number of brigades and Army Aviation and SOF units.

In late April 2017, the Ministry of National Defense spokesman confirmed that the former 18 group armies would be reduced to 13 and renumbered from 71 to 83 (ChinaMil, April 28). [8] This numbering scheme was selected to make a break from past designations, as from 1927 until now the PLA had assigned the numbers 1 through 70 to its corps/armies. Many personnel from the four disestablished group army headquarters probably will be demobilized or retired, while others reassigned to remaining headquarters.

The Ming Pao newspaper made the following associations between old and new designators and grouped them according to TCs as seen in the table below (Ming Pao April 11). So far, this schema has proven accurate, though many details of the leadership, location, and composition of the units assigned to the new group armies have not been made public. The only Theater Command not to have any of its group armies eliminated is the Eastern TC opposite Taiwan.

According to the author’s understanding of the pre-reform ground order-of-battle, the five disbanded group armies were comprised of the following infantry and armored units:

  • 14th GA: one mechanized infantry brigade, one motorized infantry brigade, one or two mountain infantry brigades, and one armored brigade
  • 47th GA: one mechanized infantry brigade, two motorized infantry brigades, and one armored brigade
  • 40th GA: one mechanized infantry brigade, two motorized infantry brigades, and one armored brigade
  • 20th GA: two mechanized infantry brigades and one armored brigade
  • 27th GA: two mechanized infantry brigades, two motorized infantry brigades, and one armored brigade

In total, approximately 16 infantry brigades of all types and five armored brigades are affected by the reductions, along with an artillery brigade, air defense brigade, and a variety of engineer, communication, chemical defense, and logistics units for each group army. Some of these units may be dissolved completely (most likely those with older equipment and any newer equipment transferred to other units to replace their old weaponry), others may be reassigned to other headquarters, some may be transformed into different types of units, assigned to the reserve force, and some are likely to be transferred the other services. Additionally, personnel billets from the Army could be cut and applied to the other services to better balance the proportion of personnel among the services.

Significantly, none of the disbanded group armies were assigned either an Army Aviation or SOF unit and the only two group armies with the same composition of infantry and armored units were disbanded. We do not know if the Chinese intend to standardize the organization of group armies during this period of reform. To do so would require the elimination of all remaining divisions or the transfer of several divisions from one group army to another. It seems likely, however, that all group armies eventually will be assigned both an Army Aviation and an SOF brigade and additional support units.

Military Districts

Under the former military region structure, the provincial MDs were under the command of the military region headquarters and commanded Military Sub-districts (MSD)/garrisons and county and grassroots People’s Armed Force Departments (PAFD). The MD headquarters themselves commanded reserve units in their provinces, while the MSDs/garrisons commanded border and coastal defense units. PAFDs commanded militia units. As part of the CMC organizational reform, the CMC National Defense Mobilization Department was given the responsibility for “leading and managing the provincial military commands” (81.cn, Feb. 4, 2016). Because their organization grade level was one step above the other provincial MDs, the Beijing Garrison and the Tibet and Xinjiang MDs were placed under the “management” of the national-level Army headquarters (ChinaMil, Jan. 12, 2016; Pengpai, Aug. 16, 2016). Pending clarification from official PLA sources, this arrangement probably means that these three headquarters report first to the TC Army headquarters in the area where they are assigned before reporting to Army headquarters in Beijing. However, MD headquarters are no longer commanded only by Army officers: an Air Force major general was reported to have taken command of Henan MD in April (Pengpai, April 12).

Moreover, a few isolated but important reports suggest that the MDs have been removed from the chain-of-command for border and coastal defense units. A report from Heilongjiang states that border defense units are being transferred to Army command and a separate report indicates that coastal defense units in Shantou have been transferred to Army command (Guangming, April 1; Pengpai, April 1). Both Army headquarters in Beijing and TC Army headquarters have a “Border and Coastal Defense Bureau/Division” within their respective Staff Departments, which would provide command to the many dozens of border and coastal defense units. One other report has noted a Guangdong Reserve Division also being transferred to the Army, but no mobilization staff organizations have been identified (yet) in either Army headquarters or TC Army headquarters to oversee reserve unit activities (Pengpai, April 7).

Changes to the responsibilities of the MD chain-of-command will probably result in MD and MSD headquarters having their staff structures modified and the number of officers assigned to these organizations reduced significantly. These headquarters and units are composed of a large number of personnel and could be greatly cut potentially reaping efficiencies brought about by better communications and transportation within the provinces.

Marines

Prior to the current organizational reforms, the Navy had two Marine brigades estimated with approximately 6,000 personnel each, based only in the South Sea Fleet. In recent weeks there have been many reports predicting a massive expansion of the Marine force, potentially up to 100,000 or more. One Army brigade, the 77th Motorized Infantry Brigade, stationed in Shandong in the Northern TC, already has been reported as being transferred to the Marines (but has not been confirmed by official Chinese sources) (China Topix, March 16). If true, this development suggests the creation of a Marine organization in the North Sea Fleet.

Some of this reporting is dubious as it refers to six brigades comprising the 100,000 person force. That would equate to over 16,000 personnel per brigade, 10,000 more than the current strength of a Marine brigade, and larger than an Army division. Other suspicious details include that this will “boost [the Navy’s] strength to 270,000 personnel from the existing 235,000.” This obviously could not include a 100,000-man Marine expansion, though increasing the size of the Navy (not only the Marines) is expected.

A more sober recommendation for the Marine force was written by Army Major General An Weiping who suggested forming a Marine formation in each of the three fleets composed of a Marine brigade, aviation brigade, support brigade, and SOF brigade (China Information Security, Jan. 7). The three additional brigades would likely be much smaller than the Marine brigade and would most efficiently come from the Army. Such a structure would probably number around 40,000 personnel, which would be approximately the size of a corps, and require a headquarters (such as is mentioned in the May 20th Ming Pao article).

Another option for increasing the size of the Marines would be to transfer one or both of the two designated Army Amphibious Infantry Divisions to the Navy and convert them to brigades. Regardless of how it is done, the Marines are likely to increase in size. This will require the Navy to concurrently build a much larger force of sea-going amphibious ships, such as the Type 071 LPD or other large ships capable of handling Marines, landing and/or air-cushion vessels, and helicopters, such as the reported Type 075 under construction (Global Times, May 9).

The only official word from the Ministry of National Defense about the Marines has been: “At present, the relevant reform measures including the adjustment of the Marine Corps are pressing ahead steadily according to plan” (ChinaMil, March 31).

Airborne

There have been unconfirmed reports of expanding the 15th Airborne Corps by converting its three divisions to two brigades each and adding an organic aviation brigade, support brigade, and SOF brigade (a support structure much like An Weiping’s suggestion for the Marines) (China Defense Blog, April 29). While that specific structure has yet to be seen, there have been multiple reports of unspecified types of Airborne brigades in recent weeks (for example see 81.cn, April 28; CNTV, April 29). Similarly, an expanded Airborne force will require much more long-distance heavy-lift transports—like the Y-20—than are currently in the Air Force’s inventory.

Implications

Changes to the orders-of-battle for the Army, Marines, and Airborne as mentioned above have many implications for future PLA capabilities and operations. First, none of these changes will happen overnight. People and units will be transferred to different locations and units will have to learn to work with headquarters and units they have never worked with before. This will certainly cause anxiety and tension for many soldiers and leaders. Modifications to what seemed like good ideas on paper are inevitable.

Fewer Army units will allow for increased levels of field training, such as seen in the trans-regional exercises of the past decade. The fewer troops spread further apart would be expected to be trained and ready to move long distances to reinforce units in other regions. All units must be prepared to operate on short notice in new locales and coordinate with unfamiliar headquarters and units. In addition to Navy and Air Force units training outside China’s borders, additional Army exercises in foreign countries are likely. More training with more advanced equipment also means more wear and tear on equipment and more time and expense for maintenance. But a smaller number of units requires less new equipment than the larger Army of previous generations. Newer, higher-technology equipment requires more highly educated, trained, and motivated personnel, who remain in service for longer periods of time, than in decades past. The PLA’s professional military education system will also undergo many changes to prepare officers and NCOs for their more advanced and complex assignments.

A smaller Army means that its proportion of the defense budget will probably decrease, even as levels of funding continue to rise. Currently, the relative personnel strength of the services to each other is unknown as is the distribution of funding among the services. Nonetheless, even as the Army gets smaller, it will likely be the largest of the services. But breaking the “Big Army” concept is an essential requirement in transforming the PLA to conduct maritime operations farther from China and aerospace operations in support of all PLA campaigns.

If the expansion of the Marines and Airborne comes to fruition, the PLA’s potential for expeditionary operations will increase significantly (pending the construction of the sea- and air-lift to move them beyond China’s borders). Expeditionary missions will strain existing PLA logistics capabilities, a problem that the Joint Logistics Support Force, in part, is intended to resolve. But new operating concepts will be necessary, such as logistics bases outside of China. Likewise, these operations demand levels of command and control, intelligence, space, and mapping support that now, to some extent, are consolidated in the new Strategic Support Force. More developments in these fields will undoubtedly occur and the PLA’s tooth-to-tail ratio will change as additional support is necessary for distant operations.

Conclusion

No matter how functionally proficient these organizational changes and increased levels of training make the PLA’s operational and tactical units, the quality of its joint TC, service headquarters, and unit staffs will be crucial for the planning, command, and control of campaigns. Success boils down to leadership in units and headquarters at all levels. Therefore, even as more changes to PLA organization are announced, it is likely there will be many more official references to the critical self-evaluation first published in 2015: Some commanders 1) cannot judge the situation, 2) cannot understand the intention of higher authorities, 3) cannot make operational decisions, 4) cannot deploy troops, and 5) cannot deal with unexpected situations (81.cn, Jan. 22). As the PLA continues its modernization and reform, the greatest unknown is whether its leadership is ready for the new challenges ahead.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.

China Brief is a primary source of timely information and cutting-edge analysis for policy-makers, intelligence and military personnel, academics, journalists, and business leaders.

TNL Editor: Edward White

Notes
  1. The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009 http://eng.mod.gov.cn/publications/2017-04/11/content_4778231.htm. In 2006, the final goal was stated as “being capable of winning informationized wars”; however, in the following two years, the PLA leadership probably realized that by 2049 warfare would have changed substantially in nature from “informationized wars” and thus left undefined the precise form of war the PLA must be able to fight.
  2. When speaking of “corps-level units,” Xi probably was referring to organizations of both corps leader-grade and corps deputy-leader grade.
  3. United States Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, Directory of PRC Military Personalities, Washington DC, 2016, pp. xxxv, xxxvi, and 177.
  4. The three fleets, the North, East, and South Sea Fleets, remain functional as the TC Navy headquarters for their respective TCs.
  5. The spokesman called these formations “corps,” previously the Chinese used the term “combined corps.”
  6. Dennis J. Blasko, “The PLA Army/Ground Forces” in The PLA as Organization Reference Volume v2.0, Kevin Pollpeter and Ken W. Allen, Defense Group Inc., 2015 p. 263. Not all units, however, were manned and equipped at full strength and were therefore grouped into three levels of readiness categories. In addition to mobile combat units, the PLA posted scores of static border and coastal defense units along China’s periphery.
  7. The remaining divisions also were reduced in size from their former Soviet organization model of four maneuver regiments to three maneuver regiments per division.
  8. The order-of-battle details in this and following paragraphs are based on the author’s analysis of open Chinese sources; they are close to, but not exactly the same as, the numbers found in the 2016 DOD report to Congress, The Military Balance 2017, and the 2016 Directory of PRC Military Personalities.
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