China Strengthens Vehicle Family, Expands Joint Ops
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Mechanization remains the core of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) kit acquisitions as it adds a new family of armored vehicles and sharpens its abilities to conduct joint operations while improving command and control.
The PLA is introducing modern ground force weapons into all military regions, said Dennis Blasko, author of the book “The Chinese Army Today.” The PLA is improving its tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), armored personnel carriers (APC), main battle tanks and artillery. At present, about 25 percent to 33 percent of these vehicles and artillery are new types or variants and older equipment is being upgraded with new electronic, computer and communications equipment, he said.
The PLA’s ability to adopt a new family of armored vehicles in a relatively short time and integrate them into effective combined arms formations is impressive, said Gary Li, an analyst at U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis.
A series of amphibious-capable IFVs, such as the new Type 04, based on the BMP3, has improved the PLA’s multiterrain capabilities for armored infantry.
“There is usually a battalion assigned to every armored regiment and this allows them to keep up better than before,” Li said. Another big improvement has been the introduction of the Type 05 family of advanced amphibious assault vehicles, which comes with a 30mm cannon, 105mm self-propelled assault gun and 122mm self-propelled howitzer. Some of these modifications have been spotted in service with elite coastal amphibious mechanized infantry divisions.
China has taken the chassis of the older six-wheeled WZ551 (Type 92) and built the PTL-02 100mm selfpropelled anti-tank gun, which is now assigned to anti-tank companies of infantry artillery battalions and regiments, Li said.
There is also a new family of ZBD-09 eight-wheeled APCs “well on its way to becoming the PLA’s Stryker family” of APCs, though it lacks a 122mm artillery variant at this time, said Richard Fisher, an analyst for the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington.
“Units based on these vehicles may also form the basis of the PLA’s first medium-weight airmobile units formed around new C-17 size transports expected before the end of the decade,” he said.
Main battle tanks continue to be of great interest to China, despite a global trend of moving away from large land battles using tanks.
“The PLA has finally improved its capabilities to fight a late-20thcentury mechanized war, just when it’s going out of fashion elsewhere,” Li said. However, there have been problems with new tank developments.
“The Type 99 has been much written about, but it remains a bit of a problem child,” he said, including an underpowered engine and insufficient countermeasure systems. “The fact that a new Type 99A2 is already rolling out suggests that the PLA was not happy with their ‘Abrams killer.’” The Army continues to rely on 1,500 Type 96 tanks and about 400 older T-99 tanks. “Although not as advanced as the Type 99, the Type 96 class has roughly upgraded the PLA’s armored forces from the 1950s to the 1990s,” he said.
China has also greatly improved its artillery, with rockets now featuring self-guided sensor-fused munitions similar to the U.S.-built Skeet system, Fisher said. Overall, the PLA appears to be standardizing its artillery caliber to 122mm, 155mm and 300mm. Frontline units are using new, heavy, self-propelled guns such as the 155mm PLZ-05, 122mm PLZ-07, and the 300mm PHL-03 multilaunch system, which “have given the PLA a good dose of firepower,” he said.
The mechanization effort is intertwined with the PLA’s two main vectors: jointness and informationalization. But joint operations are still difficult for the PLA, Blasko said. “In fact, the PLA is still experimenting in conducting many joint and combined arms operations that other advanced militaries have conducted for decades,” he said. Since 2006, a main emphasis in ground force training has been “transregional” exercises in which units from one military region (MR) move across MR boundaries to train in another MR, he said.
The PLA is also exploiting information technologies, including the use of laptops and smartphones, Fisher said. “Digital connectivity from national command authority to the grunt at the front is regularly depicted in propaganda coverage,” he said. The PLA has improved communication with more landline fiber-optic cable networks and satellite communications, which are now being supplemented by skywave (electromagnetic waves) and UAV systems.
The introduction of new equipment into the PLA is very important to the Chinese for “prestige reasons” as it “presents the appearance of a modern, capable force,” Blasko said. However, the PLA leadership understands that their “biggest shortfall” is not new equipment, but training personnel to operate and maintain the equipment.
The PLA also understands that the PLA command-and-control structure and many headquarters are still not organized and streamlined for modern operations. “Therefore, it continues to modify force structures, which can be disruptive until everybody is familiar with the new organizations,” Blasko said. The PLA sees this as a long-term process to build organizations to adequately command and control their new capabilities. The result will be “force reductions in the next decade,” especially if the training for “transregional” exercises satisfies senior leaders, Blasko said.