As China’s maiden aircraft carrier nears its sea trials, speculation about its capabilities, missions, level of technology and the rank of its commanding officer (CO) has increased . This two-part article adds to this discussion by applying the “grade” (zhiwu dengji) system of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to understand how the carrier might fit within the fleet structure of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The PLA assigns grades to every officer and billet, and it also assigns grades to every vessel, operational and support unit headquarters, academic institute, and research institute, each of which the PLA views as an “organization.” For the PLA, the grade system influences the relationships between personnel, as well as between every organization in the PLA’s chain of command. Grades influence personnel duties, training, career advancement, as well as every organization’s command, control and coordination. As China’s security environment changes and its military modernizes—along with the introduction of this and any future carriers—the PLAN will likely adjust personnel and vessels within its grade system, which will impact China’s military stance on-shore and at-sea.
Part 1 of this two-part article begins with an overview of the PLAN’s Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E). It then considers how a carrier could be integrated into the TO&E, drawing attention to the PLAN’s command and control (C2) structure, and discusses likely placement options for the carrier within the PLAN’s on-shore organizational structure (jidi fangyu zuozhan zhihui tizhi). Examining how the PLAN could organize its new vessel on-shore, Part 1 addresses the following key questions:
1) What grade will the PLAN assign this and any future carriers?
2) What organization will this and any future carriers be subordinate to?
Part 2 will explore the carrier’s at-sea command, control, and coordination within the PLAN’s at-sea task force structure (haishang jidong zuozhan biandui zhihui tizhi) where it must work with destroyers, frigates, submarines, support vessels and aircraft .
The U.S. military and the PLA differ with regard to grades and ranks because the U.S. military assigns grades to officers and billets, but not to organizations, whereas the PLA assigns grades to every officer and billet, as well as to every organization. Each PLAN vessel, including an aircraft carrier, is viewed by the PLA as an organization and is assigned a grade that is the same as that of its CO and political commissar (PC) who are, because of the PLA’s military and political dual leadership system (junzheng shuang shouzhang zhi), considered co-equals . An overview of the PLAN’s grade structure is as follows :
• PLAN Headquarters (haijun) is a military region (MR) leader-grade (zhengdajunquzhi) organization, and the PC is an MR leader-grade officer; however, at this level, the PLAN commander is currently a CMC member-grade (junwei weiyuan) officer. This is the only exception to the rule of the commander and PC having the same grade.
• Each of the PLAN’s three fleet headquarters (jiandui) is an MR deputy leader-grade (fudajunquzhi) organization, and each fleet commander and PC are concurrently assigned as an MR deputy commander and deputy PC, respectively.
• The PLAN’s eight support bases are corps deputy leader-grade (fujunzhi) organizations.
• The PLAN’s vessel zhidui/flotillas are division leader-grade (zhengshizhi) organizations that serve as the on-shore headquarters for destroyers, speedboats, combat support vessels and submarines, as well as some landing ships, submarine chasers and frigates.
• The PLAN’s vessel dadui/squadrons are regiment leader-grade (zhengtuanzhi) organizations that serve as the on-shore headquarters for the remaining types of vessels in the PLAN’s inventory, including some frigates.
Every PLAN organization is assigned one of 15 PLA grades, which provides the basis for the PLA’s C2 structure. Table 1 shows the protocol levels of the PLAN’s headquarters and the corresponding grades assigned to their subordinate combat and support vessels .
Table 1: Grade Structure for PLAN Headquarters and Vessel Types
MR deputy leader
Corps deputy leader
Division deputy leader
Regiment deputy leader
Frigates, large service ships, conventional-powered submarines
As a rule, no vessel can be assigned the same grade as that of the organization to which it is subordinate. For example, nuclear-powered submarines and destroyers can only have a grade subordinate to a zhidui, while frigates and conventional-powered submarines can be subordinate to either a dadui or zhidui. As a result, the grade of the organization that commands the PLAN’s carriers must be at least one grade higher than the carrier itself.
PLAN Tiered Command Structure: Four on Land and Three at Sea
According to China’s Navy 2007, the PLAN has a four-tiered on-shore vertical (zongxiang) and horizontal (hengxiang) leadership, C2 and coordination structure, and a three-tiered at-sea C2 and coordination structure. The PLAN’s vertical structure consists of the following :
• PLAN Headquarters is the highest tier, the service’s supreme command staff, and the functional department that implements leadership over all PLAN units for the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the four General Departments (General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Logistics Department, and General Armament Department).
• The three fleet headquarters make up the second tier. They comprise the “campaign component” possessing the leadership and command staff for a certain strategic direction. The three fleet headquarters (North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea) receive leadership not only from PLAN Headquarters but also from their respective MR headquarters.
• Support bases make up the third tier and are primarily responsible for the comprehensive support of all naval forces within their area of responsibility.
• Zhidui and garrisons (shuijingqu) make up the fourth tier. Garrisons, which are also division leader-grade organizations, are responsible primarily for coastal patrol, coastal defense, and protecting fishing boats.
When the fleets conduct at-sea task-force operations, the PLAN employs only a three-tiered at-sea C2 structure that includes PLAN Headquarters, the fleet headquarters and the zhidui. This structure will be further explored in Part 2.
Within the PLAN’s horizontal leadership, C2 and coordination structure, all four tiers have fairly equivalent staff and functional departments, even though their names may be slightly different:
• PLAN headquarters, support bases, and garrisons have four first-level departments: Headquarters, Political, Logistics and Equipment.
• Each fleet headquarters has two first-level departments: Headquarters and Political. The fleet headquarters does not have a Logistics Department or Equipment Department.
• Mirroring the PLAN Headquarters, the support bases and garrisons have four first-level departments: Headquarters, Political, Logistics and Equipment.
• Zhidui have three first-level departments including a Headquarters Department, Political Department and an On-shore Service Department that is equivalent to a Logistics Department.
In the PLA, C2 is conducted vertically between organizations of different grades, and coordination is conducted horizontally among organizations of the same grade within the same service or, increasingly, between services. Therefore, because the carrier will likely be part of a larger on-shore organizational structure and at-sea task force structure, the PLAN must account for the grade structure of the supporting vessels (destroyers, frigates, submarines, and supply ships), as well as the aircraft units (fixed-wing and helicopter divisions and regiments) when choosing the carrier’s grade. Interactions between the carrier and higher-, equal- and lower-grade personnel and organizations, including an on-shore headquarters and other vessels, will largely be determined by the carrier’s assigned grade.
Within the current TO&E there appear to be two options for the carrier’s grade. The first option is that the carrier will be assigned the grade of division leader and the CO and PC will have the primary rank of senior captain and secondary rank of rear admiral. The second option is that the carrier will be assigned the grade of corps deputy leader and the CO and PC will have the primary rank of rear admiral and secondary rank of senior captain . As noted earlier, the grade assigned to the carrier will affect every billet on the carrier. For example, if the carrier is assigned the grade of corps deputy leader, then the grade for every officer billet on the carrier will be one grade higher than that of a division leader-grade organization.
If the PLAN’s current organizational structure remains unchanged, then it is highly probable the carrier will be directly subordinate to a fleet headquarters. The reason for this is that a division leader-grade organization (i.e. the carrier) cannot be subordinate to another division leader-grade organization (i.e. zhidui). Furthermore, since a 2004 restructuring, the corps deputy leader-grade support bases do not command any combat vessels and all combat vessel zhidui are directly subordinate to the fleet headquarters. However, there is a slight possibility this may change once the carrier is introduced.
There are two possible options for dealing with the fact that there are no current headquarters organizations below the fleet headquarters to which the carrier could be subordinate. The possible options involve creating one of two new headquarters organizations between the carrier and the fleet headquarters. The new headquarters could be a corps deputy leader-grade organization if the carrier is assigned the grade of division leader, or it could be a new corps leader-grade organization if the carrier is assigned the grade of corps deputy leader. If the PLAN goes either of these routes, it must then consider whether to re-subordinate the combat vessel zhidui and support vessel zhidui to the new headquarters or to keep them, especially the combat vessel zhidui, as organizations directly subordinate to the fleet headquarters.
If the PLAN decides not to create an intermediate headquarters between the carrier and the fleet headquarters, then it might consider restructuring the fleet headquarters itself. Each fleet headquarters has a Headquarters Department (siling bu), which has a subordinate Operations Division (zuozhan chu) responsible for subsurface and surface vessels. During the 2004 restructuring, the PLAN abolished the Naval Aviation Headquarters in Beijing and pushed greater responsibility down to each fleet aviation headquarters. To absorb an aircraft carrier, the fleet headquarters might create a separate Carrier Division (hangkong mujian chu) under the Headquarters Department that is equal to its Operations Division and can coordinate with the fleet aviation headquarters and a carrier.
Within this organizational structure it is not yet clear how naval aviation aircraft will be organized on shore and aboard the carrier. Currently, each fleet has several air divisions (hangkongbing shi), each of which has two or more subordinate regiments (hangkongbing tuan). In addition, each fleet has independent regiments (duli tuan) or independent groups (duli dadui) that are composed of specialty aircraft, such as helicopters or reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft assigned to the carrier while at sea may or may not be assigned to independent units while on shore.
The PLAN’s vessels are organized into a command staff, which consists of the CO, PC, and executive officer (XO), plus various operational and administrative branches (bumen) . Each branch chief is an officer, who serves as a duty officer when the vessel is in port and as a watch officer on a rotational schedule when the vessel is out to sea. Before 2003, aviation branch officers were either helicopter pilots with no vessel experience or vessel officers with no aviation experience. However, in 2003 the PLAN completed training for the first group of officers with both vessel and aviation experience to serve in the Aviation Branch (hangkong bumen) for vessels with helicopters assigned. The officers first attended four years of cadet pilot training at the Naval Aviation Engineering Academy and then attended the Dalian Vessel Academy for 18 months to learn about vessels. Upon graduation, they were assigned as aviation branch chiefs on vessels to coordinate helicopter operations. The next batch of students graduated in 2008, but those students spent an even longer period of time at the Dalian Vessel Academy before being assigned to a vessel . This is most likely the same program the PLAN is using to train Aviation Branch chiefs for its aircraft carriers.
As of this writing, a grade has likely been signed, sealed and delivered to the maiden carrier. With the current grade structure in place, China’s carrier will likely be a division leader-grade or a corps deputy leader-grade organization. The assigned grade will affect every officer billet onboard the carrier, and it will also affect how this new vessel interacts with other vessels, many of which will directly support it during at-sea deployments. The carrier will be subordinate either directly to a fleet headquarters, a corps deputy leader-grade headquarters, or perhaps a newly-created corps leader-grade headquarters. The headquarters will be responsible for managing all on-shore activities of the carrier including personnel duties, training, as well as ship supply and maintenance. With the introduction of this and any future carriers, the PLAN will likely adjust personnel and vessels within its grade system to meet its security requirements on-shore and at-sea.
1. Some examples include the following: Ian Storey and You Ji, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions,” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/2004/art6-w04.htm. Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, “China’s Aircraft Carrier Dilemma,” found at https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/095c6b68-6707-4030-a142-8f07e9aeb524/China-s-Aircraft-Carrier-Dilemma—Erickson,-Andre. Russell Hsiao, “Who Will Command China’s Aircraft Carrier?,” China Brief, Volume 11, Issue, 12, July 1, 2011.
2. Hu Guangzheng, ed., Teaching Material for Comparing Chinese and Foreign Military Organizational Structure (Zhong Wai Junshi Zuzhi Tizhi Bijiao Jiaocheng), Beijing: Academy of Military Science Publishers, July 1997. 153-155.
3. Information available at: https://www.defence.org.cn/article-2-21999.html.
4. See China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence. This document can be found at https://www.fas.org/irp/agency/oni/chinanavy2007.pdf.
5. Information for this section comes primarily from the Office of Naval Intelligence’s report China’s Navy 2007.
6. China’s Navy 2007, Chapter 1.
7. In the PLA, each grade has a primary and a secondary rank assigned. The primary rank for division leader-grade officers is senior captain and the secondary rank is rear admiral. The primary rank for corps deputy leader-grade officers is rear admiral and the secondary rank is senior captain. Officers rarely receive a promotion in grade and rank at the same time. As a result, there are times when the CO and PC may have different ranks, but they are still the same grade, which is the grade of the vessel or headquarters.
8. PLAN sources translate bumen (部门) as “branch.” In the U.S. Navy, they are called departments, each of which has subordinate divisions.
9. PLA Daily, “Graduate Officers go to their posts” 22 July 2003 at https://chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2003-07/22/content_247537.htm. PLA Daily, “Dalian Naval Academy recruits pilot cadets for the first time,” 5 September 2008, at https://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-09/05/content_1462801.htm.