The introduction of new weapons and platforms into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has captured the attention of much of the world for well over a decade. However, new equipment is only one element of the PLA’s long-term, multi-dimensional modernization process. There is much to be done and no one understands this better than the Chinese themselves. Based on what PLA commanders and staff officers write in their internal newspapers and journals, the force faces a multitude of challenges in order to close the perceived gaps between its capabilities and those of advanced militaries.
New weapons, increasing defense budgets, and recently corruption tend to generate headlines in the Western press, but at least 10 other factors raise serious questions about the PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war against an advanced enemy (some of which are discussed in a new RAND report, to which I contributed a collection of sources):
1. Shared Command Responsibility
From company level to the PLA’s highest headquarters, commanding officers share responsibility for their units’ actions with political officers who are responsible for “political work,” which involves insuring the PLA’s loyalty to the party through ideological training, officer promotions, the prosecution of the “three warfares” of psychological, media, and legal war, and maintaining morale and discipline. In the eyes of Western military officers, this situation violates the principle of war of “unity of command,” in which “all force operate under a single commander.” A major training trend over the past decade has been to improve political officers’ tactical proficiencies in the military tasks their units must conduct. In theory, commanders alone are authorized to make immediate tactical and operational decisions when necessary. However, at times there may be friction between commanders and their political counterparts. That situation may be exacerbated if corruption has permeated down to operational unit commanders and political officers. This shared responsibility system may suffice in peacetime situations, but it has not been tested under the stress of fast-moving, modern combat operations.
2. Army-Dominated Chain of Command and Force Structure
Despite Beijing’s declaration that “China is a major maritime as well as land country,” the PLA’s force structure and leadership continue to be dominated by the Army. Based on numbers provided by the Chinese government, the Army (including the independent branch of the Second Artillery, the PLA’s nuclear and conventional missile force) comprises over 72 percent of the 2.3 million active duty force, with about 10 percent in the Navy and 17 percent in the Air Force. In mid-2014, China’s Army had 24 full generals (who wear three stars), the Navy had three full admirals, and the Air Force five. Currently, in the Central Military Commission (the highest military command and policy organization), the Army occupies six of the 10 seats for senior military leaders, while the Air Force has two, and the Navy and Second Artillery one each. These numbers may vary slightly over time, but the vast majority of the PLA’s senior leadership still wears green. Only Army officers have commanded the PLA’s seven military regions. Though China recognizes threats from the maritime direction have increased and its future campaigns will most likely have major naval or aerospace components, it has yet to modify its command structure to prepare for these realities. Changes to the PLA’s size, structure, and joint operations command system were announced in November 2013, but the details have yet to be revealed. Whatever changes are proposed, it is likely they will take several years to implement and trouble-shoot, likely causing disruptions and discontent along the way for those people and organizations who lose power and authority in these bureaucratic struggles.
3. Too Many Non-Combatant Headquarters
Of the approximately 1.6 million personnel in the Army, 850,000 are assigned to the 18 group armies and a number of independent combat divisions and brigades, which comprise the Army’s main combat force. This means that roughly 750,000 Army personnel are found in local force units (mainly static border defense units), logistics units, schools and training bases, and an extensive system of provincial military district, military subdistrict, and county-level people’s armed forces department headquarters. These local headquarters are under the dual leadership of the PLA and the local civilian governments at the same level and oversee reserve and militia units and are responsible for conscription/enlistment, demobilization, and wartime mobilization. They were created decades ago when China’s transportation and communication infrastructure was underdeveloped and it was necessary to have military representatives physically present at every level of local governments. Currently tens of thousands of field grade officers are assigned to these headquarters. Because of improvements in China’s transportation and communication systems it may no longer be necessary for so many non-combatants to be stationed throughout the country. A significant reorganization and decrease in these local headquarters could help reduce the size of the PLA and, perhaps just as importantly, reduce the number of mid-level and lower-level officers tempted by opportunities for graft and corruption. Such a reorganization would likely face opposition from those who would lose their relatively cushy rear area jobs in the process.
4. Inexperienced Commanders and Staff
As the PLA has stressed the need to improve its capabilities in combined arms and joint operations, a common criticism has been that “some” commanders and staff officers are not adequately prepared for the tasks of integrating multi-service and multi-arms operations. As a result, much training is conducted according to the slogan “A strong army first needs strong generals; before training the troops, first train the officers.” In particular, the PLA currently emphasizes command of joint operations at division and brigade/regiment level compared to most previous joint operations, which were commanded by Army officers at army or military region headquarters. Only in the past two years have Navy and Air Force officers commanded joint exercises. In late 2014, the PLA announced it has decided on a program “for the selection, training, evaluation and appointment of joint operation commanding officers, so as to improve the training of joint operation commanding officers.” However, nurturing qualified commanders and staff officers is a long-term process involving education, training, and experience gained through assignments at different organizational levels.
5. Understaffed Battalion Headquarters
As the PLA has experimented with conducting combined arms operations at battalion level over the past decade it has learned that current regulations do not provide for enough personnel at battalion headquarters to adequately command and control supporting units, such as artillery and engineer units, assigned to reinforce infantry or armored battalions. Therefore, units throughout the PLA are attempting to find solutions to the problem by assigning officers or noncommissioned officers (NCOs) to assist the battalion commander in his operational duties. Increasing the size of the staff is necessary before the reinforced, combined arms battalion can become the “basic tactical unit” in the Army capable of executing independent operations as envisioned in many PLA writings.
6. NCO Corps Still Under Development
In the late 1990s, the PLA initiated a program to create a professional NCO corps to assist the officer corps in leading troops and performing administrative duties. Over the past decade, NCO selection, education, and training have been emphasized and NCOs replaced officers in many duty positions. Roughly ten years after the start of this program, in 2009 the PLA announced it was adjusting the system by adding an additional senior NCO rank increasing the number of ranks from six to seven. Selected units are currently experimenting with assigning “master chiefs” battalion and brigade headquarters and trying to determine exactly what the duties of senior NCOs should be and how they relate to the officers above them. It is likely that a generation will pass before the PLA NCO corps becomes the “backbone” of the force, as NCOs are considered in other armies.
7. Multiple Generations of Equipment in Units
Because of its size, the PLA faces the challenge of units in all services being equipped with multiple generations of weapons and systems. New equipment generally is introduced to units gradually over time so that some subordinate units have advanced equipment while other units have much older gear. For example, nearly half of over 6,500 tanks in Army are Type-59 or their variants (based on the Soviet T-55). This frequently leads to problems in interconnectivity in communications and computer systems. Moreover multiple generations of equipment in one unit complicates training, tactics, and especially supply and repair/maintenance. Units must constantly revise their tactics and methods of operation based on the technology available to them. Though the PLA has the goal of increasing standardization and interoperability among units, the fact of multiple generations of equipment greatly complicates achieving their development goals.
8. Insufficient Realism in Training
Continuing the trend of the past 15 years, increasing realism in training is a major objective for the PLA. Chinese military writers frequently criticize “formalism” in training and “training for show” as undermining the value of exercises. Several “professional blue forces” have been created to serve as enemy units in confrontational training exercises in joint– and single-service exercises as well as mock combat between services. A major goal in nearly all training is to expose problems so that they can be overcome in future training. Despite the progress that the PLA has made in these efforts, the PLA leadership is aware of the force’s continuing shortcomings in training. Moreover, increasing realism in training will require additional funds, particularly for fuel and maintenance expenses and for more and better training areas and training simulators.
9. Air-to-Ground Support Still Under Development
One of the most important examples of joint operations is air support to ground operations. As new aircraft, precision guided munitions, and means of communications are entering the PLA, the force continues to experiment in how to best conduct air-to-ground attack operations. Units appear still to be testing techniques for frontline ground units to control fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft in attacking enemy units in close proximity to their own positions, a function known as close air support. In 2014, the Air Force conducted its first public demonstration of an armed unmanned aerial vehicle executing a ground attack mission. Naval aviation units and the Air Force are just beginning to conduct joint operations with each other.
10. “The Peace Disease”: Lack of Combat Experience
The PLA’s last major campaign against a foreign enemy, the short 1979 war with Vietnam, involved only the Army. The PLA considers the amphibious landing to capture Yijiangshan Island from Kuomintang forces in 1955 as its first and only joint combat experience. Both operations resulted in heavy PLA casualties. PLA writers commonly refer to its lack of recent modern combat experience as the “peace disease.” At present, only a very few of the PLA’s most senior officers have ever been in a combat situation; no NCO or private has ever been in battle. The PLA’s deployments to UN peacekeeping operations, on disaster relief missions, and to the Gulf of Aden in maritime escort activities are useful but do not substitute for combat experience. The PLA extensively studies the wars other countries have fought, but book learning or even its gradually improving training programs cannot compare to the stress of an extended deployment in a combat zone.
Nonetheless, the PLA’s combat and deterrence capabilities gradually are increasing because of improvements in its personnel system, more realistic training, updated doctrine, enhanced logistics support, and the introduction of advanced weapons, communications, and computer systems. At the end of 2014, the Ministry of Defense spokesman noted, “After many years of painstaking efforts, the modernization of the Chinese armed forces has made notable achievements. But, of course, in certain areas, we are still lagging behind when compared with the most advanced militaries in the world and more efforts need to be made.”
Even taking into account the significant improvements in PLA capabilities, senior military leaders consider time and people to be more important for successful military modernization than money and equipment. Accordingly, their time horizon spans to mid-century in a multi-generational process of evolutionary development.
Contrary to the assumption prevalent outside of China that PLA leaders are “hawks” urging aggressive or expansionist action, the factors outlined above, among others, could cause senior military leaders to advise caution in the use of force in private consultations with senior Communist Party leaders. Based on their knowledge of PLA capabilities and shortcomings, most senior PLA leaders probably prefer the use of deterrent measures and non-military means to achieve strategic objectives while the PLA continues to build its strength. An example can be seen in the East China Sea where non-military government entities have taken the lead in patrolling in the vicinity of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands with the PLA remaining mostly over the horizon.
However, if China’s civilian leaders decide to commit the PLA to battle before its modernization is complete, as loyal servants of the Party, the PLA leadership will seek to defeat the enemy quickly and decisively using all units and capabilities available. But it will also prepare for protracted conflict. China’s chances of success will vary according to where and when the battle is fought and who the enemy is. PLA confidence in winning will increase the closer to China it can operate and preferably if it confronts a lower-technology, less skilled enemy not backed by a powerful friend or ally.
Author’s note: A draft of this article was undergoing editing when the RAND report, China’s Incomplete Military Transformation, was released on February 11. As acknowledged in their report, I provided the RAND authors a database of Chinese articles I had been gathering for several years to support their effort. They used that information along with countless other sources in their work, but I was not otherwise involved in RAND’s analytical process, which concludes that the PLA suffers from “potentially serious weaknesses” that could limit its ability to fight and win future wars. As seen above, there are many areas of overlap in our analysis.
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. Mr. Blasko served as an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1992-1996; in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and Korea; and in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Headquarters Department of the Army (Office of Special Operations). He is the author of the book, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century.