China Slims PLA, Focuses on Training
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s Army is slimming down and focusing on training and C4ISR as part of its quest for a mechanized, digitally connected force.
Over the past decade, the PLA has shrunk from about 100 to 33 infantry and armor divisions, about half of which are mechanized, said Dennis Blasko, author of “The Chinese Army Today.” “So, in other words, a ‘leaner and meaner’ force: smaller but more mobile, packing more firepower and more networked,” said Richard Bitzinger, fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Bitzinger said it will likely take a decade or more to fully implement mechanization and informatization.
“There was a period when they worked on force projection out to western China about five to 10 years ago, but the big emphasis I see today is on force training, training in what they call a ‘complex electromagnetic environment (under jamming),’ and on getting more sensor-driven information down to lower echelons of formations (regiment),” said Larry Wortzel, who served as a U.S. Army attaché in China from 1988-90.
Many divisions have been trimmed from four infantry and armored regiments to one armored and two infantry, Blasko said.
And group armies, which were once considered corps-level equivalents, are being shrunk by transforming their subordinate divisions into brigades.
“As a general rule, PLA divisions are smaller in manpower and firepower than their Western counterparts and the new group armies, with the group army brigade-battalion organizational structure, would be closer to a Western [U.S.] division in strength,” said Blasko, who was a U.S. Army attaché in Hong Kong and Beijing from 1992-96.
The PLA is forming about a dozen division- or brigade-sized rapid reaction units, including three airborne, four amphibious or marine divisions, and several special operations units — “shock troops that could be used for a variety of regional (particularly against Taiwan) or even out-of-area contingencies,” Bitzinger said. “Some have called this an army within an army.”
Blasko said the PLA’s immense size will constrain ground force modernization. Its budget is insufficient for a “truly force wide, rapid modernization and trans formation.” Army improvements are a lower priority than modernizing the Air Force, Navy and Second Artillery Corps, responsible for China’s strategic missile force. “As the force modernizes, compared to previous decades, it costs more money to attract, retain, educate and train the troops; more money to purchase and operate new equipment; and more money to logistically maintain new equipment,” Blasko said. “As a result, many — if not most —
units are still a mix of high-, medium- and low-technology equipment.” Blasko does not expect further Army personnel and force structure reductions in the coming decade.
“We can expect the PLA to retain a relatively large ground force because it still perceives the potential for problems along its land borders with 14 countries as well as an Islamic extremist threat in its western regions,” Blasko said.
The PLA also faces problems with integration issues, budget constraints, training and logistics nightmares, and command and control.
“The place they still seem to have their problems is fielding fully trained and integrated units at division or group army level on short notice,” Wortzel said. “This is a function of their recruiting and training methods. The result is that they have to deploy one or two regiments from each division or one or two divisions from a group army and then send another GA [Group Army] headquarters for command and control. This seems to have been the case even with the response to the earthquake.”
The PLA has been pushing the development of attack and utility and transport helicopters and has been talking with Russia about buying more of the latter. The shortage of helicopters was underlined during the relief effort that followed last month’s earthquake. In China’s “largest deployment ever of helicopters,” the military sent about 100 helicopters, which represented 20 or 25 percent of its fleet.
“This number was identified by Chinese sources as inadequate for the task,” Blasko said.
China has bought about 1,500 Type 96 tanks and about 200 Type 98/99s, but most of its 7,000 tanks are older Type 59s and Type 69s. Of China’s estimated 1,000 light tanks, about 400 are the new Type 63As.
“Certainly in terms of hardware, we don’t see a lot of new equipment being procured, at least relative to the size of the PLA ground forces,” Bitzinger said.