China Reforms To Support Distant Operations
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly improving its logistics capabilities to help it sustain operations beyond China’s borders, but it has far to go.
“Reforming the PLA’s logistics is still very much at the foothills,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Logistics is one of those much-underappreciated aspects of network-centric warfare, as it stands at the nexus of joint operations and expeditionary, force-projection capabilities.” China has had its share of logistics nightmares. In 1949, three PLA regiments invaded Jinmen Island to unseat Nationalist forces. Troops were stranded on the beach after the high tide left landing craft stuck in the sand. Food and ammunition dried up within two days, sending the PLA to a disastrous defeat.
In 1955, the PLA saw its first amphibious logistics success when it captured Yijiangshan Island with 5,000 troops with air and naval support.
But the PLA again found itself short of critical supplies during the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Supply lines failed to deliver enough food and ammunition, and front-line troops abandoned their positions to search for sustenance. About 25,000 Chinese troops died, shocking Beijing defense planners into reforming the General Logistics Department (GLD), which handed some functions over to civilian organizations.
The past five years have seen another logistics reformation. In 2003, the Central Military Commission approved the merging of three support organizations in the Jinan Military Region into a single logistics command. The experiment was deemed a success, with the new command streamlining supply requests, improving deliveries and communication, and managing finances more efficiently.
In 2007, the GLD announced a 12point reorganization intended to help the PLA rent commercial vehicles, use commercial communications services, use civilian educational institutions for training, contract civilian warehouse and shipping companies, reduce equipment repair units, and modify military research institutes to include civil multipurpose organizations.
The changes were put to the test in the aftermath of the May 12 earth quake in Sichuan, where Chinese troops arrived quickly and began distributing food and supplies.
“The earthquake is an example of using joint services for rescue. Obviously, they are making improvements,” said Andrei Chang, China military specialist at the Kanwa Information Center, Hong Kong.
Long Way To Go
China’s military is as yet unable to reliably sustain forces beyond the country’s borders.
“The PLA will be unable to transform itself into a power-projection force without sustainable, long-distance logistics capabilities,” Bitzinger said. “At present, it still lacks the air- and sealift necessary for this. It is, of course, working slowly to increase its logistics and cargo-carrying capabilities, with new transport aircraft and the Type-071 amphibious LPD [landing platform dock] ship. However, the PLA has a long ways to go in terms of knitting all these capabilities together and integrating them with a computerized control system.” At present, China cannot transport and sustain more than a division of ground troops beyond its borders by sea or air. China has 24 Il-76 Candid transport aircraft and eight H-6 tankers.
In 2004, Beijing signed a contract with Russia to obtain 34 Il-76s and four Il-78 air refueling aircraft. One of the Il-76 aircraft was scheduled to be refitted into an AWACS aircraft. But in 2005, Russian negotiators complained that facilities in Uzbekistan needed repairs before the order could be filled, Chang said.
“The Chinese complained and threatened not to sign any new aircraft sales contracts until the matter was settled,” he said. “This is the reason China has stopped buying aircraft from Russia.” Chang said Russia is angry that China has begun copying the Sukhoi Su-27SK fighter, creating an aircraft called the J-11B fighter in violation of the 1995 Su-27SK Fighter Technology Transfer Agreement.
Russia is considering legal action, but there is little hope of a settlement. The issue will further complicate airlifter sales to China.
China’s 450 transports are mostly aging Russian-built aircraft, with about 200 to 300 Y-8 and Y-7 transports in service, if in poor condition. The Army’s aviation arm has about 500 helicopters, including Mi17 and Z-9 helicopters, with plans to procure more Mi-17s.
China has been pushing for the lifting of the EU arms embargo. Hopes were raised in November when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited and said the embargo should be lifted in 2008.