Sunday, October 4, 2009

China Slims PLA, Focuses on Training



China Slims PLA, Focuses on Training


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.