Assessing the Grade Structure for China’s Aircraft Carriers: Part 2

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 14


This is the second of a two-part series about the grade (zhiwu dengji) system of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and how China’s forthcoming carrier might fit into the fleet structure of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Part 1 provided an overview of the PLA’s Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E), discussed possible grades for the carrier, and what on-shore organization the carrier might be subordinate to. The carrier’s placement within the PLA’s on-shore organizational structure (jidi fangyu zuozhan zhihui tizhi) will affect personnel duties, training, and ship supply and maintenance. This part examines the possible at-sea task force structure (haishang jidong zuozhan biandui zhihui tizhi) of a PLAN carrier task force by discussing the differences and similarities between a U.S. Navy (USN) carrier strike group and a possible PLAN carrier task force group [1].

Why Focus on PLA Grades?

Every organization within the PLA, including PLAN vessels (i.e. an organization), is assigned one of 15 grades that start at the Chairman and Vice Chairmen of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (junwei zhuxi fuzhuxi) and go down to platoon leader (paizhang). With only a few exceptions in the PLA, the commander/leader and political officer of every organization are co-equals and hold the same grade as the organization. In addition, every officer within an organization is assigned one of the 15 grades. Unlike the U.S. military that has 10 officer grades and 10 equivalent ranks, the PLA has 15 grades and 10 ranks. As such, each grade has two ranks (a primary and a secondary rank), and officers rarely receive a grade and rank promotion simultaneously. Therefore, the officer’s grade, not his rank, defines his position and authority. Equally, the PLA’s grade, not rank, structure defines its command and control (C2) and coordination structure within and between organizations.

Because no PLA organization can command another organization at the same level, command is organized within a vertical structure (i.e. higher and lower organizations) and coordination is organized by a horizontal structure (i.e. at the same level), which can be within the same service or between services. As the PLA implements greater use of information technology to more effectively communicate throughout the chain of command, it has increasingly implemented a skip echelon (kuaji) C2 structure, whereby an organization two or more levels higher can command a lower echelon.

Where Does the PLAN’s Carrier Fit?

In 2004, the PLA implemented what it calls “integrated joint operations” (yitihua lianhe zuozhan). The goal was to provide a strong vertical C2 and horizontal coordination structure among all of the PLA’s services and branches using information technology as the foundation [2]. The organizational structure of the PLA, based on the grade system, will affect the at-sea task force structure of any future PLAN carrier task force, and will influence the extent to which it is “authoritative, lean, agile and efficient” [3]. Modifications to the grade system will influence China’s ability to meet its security requirements both regionally and abroad.

USN Strike Groups

Although one should not “mirror image” the organizational structures of a USN carrier strike group and a possible PLAN carrier task force, many of the same basic concepts apply to both militaries because all navies, particularly carriers, face similar logistical and operational challenges.

According to the USN’s official website, there is no real definition of a strike group, which is formed and disestablished on an ad-hoc basis; however, all strike groups have a similar composition. The same can be said of a modernizing PLAN. Typically, a USN carrier strike group might have a carrier, a guided missile cruiser, two guided missile destroyers (used primarily for anti-air warfare or AAW), an attack submarine (used to seek out and destroy hostile surface ships and submarines) and a combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship. A PLAN task force group will likely employ similar vessels.

According to correspondence with Rear Admiral (Retired) Michael McDevitt, a USN strike group includes aircraft assigned to an air wing, which is a separate major command. A USN air wing has four F/A-18 squadrons, one E-2 squadron, a helicopter squadron, and one EA-18 or E/A-6B squadron. During a deployment, the air wing embarks on the carrier as a separate entity, and debarks at the end of a deployment as a separate entity. It exists as a unit whether on shore or at sea. USN carriers are built with the berthing and life-support systems to accommodate an air wing and all of its sailors, but the air wing does not stay on the carrier when the ship is in homeport. As noted in Part 1, it is not yet clear how the PLAN will organize its carrier aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) while on shore and at sea, yet similar practices probably will apply to a PLAN carrier air wing.

Personnel Are the Key Link for Future PLAN Task Forces

The Commander of a USN carrier strike group is a rear admiral lower half (O-7) or rear admiral upper half (O-8). In addition to the Strike Group Commander, the aircraft carrier has a Commanding Officer (CO) and an Air Wing Commander or “CAG” (carrier air group), both of whom are captains with the rank of O-6 [4]. It is not yet clear what the primary and secondary ranks of a PLAN carrier’s CO and political commissar (PC) will be.

RADM McDevitt also says that, when deployed, the CAG reports to the Strike Group Commander, as does the CO of the carrier. The division of labor between the CO of the carrier and the CAG has evolved over the years so that the CO of the carrier “owns” the “airport” and all the activities that take place on or around the ship. For example, the officer running the “airport tower” (i.e. the “air boss” who is a different officer from the CAG) reports to the CO of the ship. The CAG has administrative control of the squadrons, including all the sailors assigned to the squadrons, and is responsible for the planning and operations of the aircraft once they are launched. In addition, the CAG is responsible for aircraft maintenance, but the CO of the ship is responsible for aircraft servicing, including weapons, gas, deck handling, and launch and recovery. A PLAN carrier will clarify these relationships as it learns to manage its officers and operate its equipment.

Prior to 2004, each PLAN fleet had separate destroyer zhidui and frigate zhidui, and they rarely trained together. It appears the PLAN began restructuring its fleets in 2004 in order to allow more cross-vessel coordination and training, and to prepare for the acquisition and deployment of new vessels such as aircraft carriers. It then combined some destroyers and frigates into hybrid zhidui, and all combat zhidui were made directly subordinate to the fleet headquarters. Also in 2004, each fleet consolidated all of its support and service vessels into a “combat support vessel zhidui” (zuozhan zhiyuanjian zhidui). Over the past decade, the PLAN has been conducting more combined-arms training between its surface vessels and submarines; however, most of the training appears to have been opposition force in nature rather than working together against a common target [5]. Who commands the PLAN’s carrier may depend on the missions it sets out to accomplish.

PLAN At-Sea Task Force Organizational Structure

When PLAN fleets conduct at-sea task force operations, the following three-tiered at-sea command structure (haishang jidong zuozhan biandui zhihui tizhi) applies [6]:

● PLAN Headquarters
● Fleet Headquarters
● Zhidui

The composition of the task force and its missions will help determine who is selected as the task force commander. When the PLAN creates a carrier task force and assigns its commander, it will likely select an officer with the appropriate grade who already has experience managing task force operations and training at the fleet level. Depending on whether the carrier is assigned the grade of division leader or corps deputy leader, the task force commander must be at least one grade higher. As such, the three possible grades from which to select possible task force commanders and positions assigned to each grade are as follows [7]:

● Military Region deputy leader
 – One of the PLAN Headquarters’ Deputy Commanders

● Corps leader-grade officer
 – One of the PLAN Headquarters’ Deputy Chiefs of Staffs
 – One of the Fleet Headquarters’ Deputy Commanders
 – The Fleet Headquarters’ Chief of Staff

● Corps deputy leader-grade officer
 – One of the Fleet Headquarters’ Deputy Chiefs of Staff

The number of carrier task forces the PLAN has at the time and their missions probably will narrow the options further as will whether the fleet can afford to have its chief of staff at sea for any length of time. As such, the most likely person to be selected for a combat mission is one of the fleet deputy commanders. This person is already the key link for combat operations between the Fleet Commander and his Chief of Staff. While deployed at sea, the task force commander’s responsibilities in the Fleet Headquarters will be assumed by one of the other deputy commanders or someone with the same grade who is deployed on a temporary basis from PLAN Headquarters [8].

Although the Fleet Chief of Staff is a possibility, he cannot be absent for a lengthy period of time. The reason for this is that the Chief of Staff, who basically serves the same function as a USN Director of Operations (N3), is the director of the PLAN’s Headquarters Department and serves concurrently as the director of the command post at the Fleet Headquarters. As such, he is the primary officer responsible for implementing the Commander’s decisions [9].

The PLAN also will have to select the task force’s executive officer (XO), who most likely will be one of the fleet deputy chiefs of staff.

The Task Force Commander will have discretion to establish the task force command center on his preferred vessel, which, while most likely the carrier, could also be a destroyer or frigate. Of note, when a senior PLAN officer, such as a Fleet Deputy Commander or the Fleet Chief of Staff, embarks on a vessel as the Task Force Commander, the grade of the vessel is not raised to that of the senior officer. Regardless of which vessel he embarks on, it is the task force commander’s grade, not that of the vessel, that is important in terms of C2 and coordination [10]. As such, he will be responsible for commanding all of the task force’s missions for the Fleet Commander; the Military Region or War Zone Commander; PLAN Headquarters; and the General Staff Department. Because he cannot be on duty 24 hours a day, the PLAN most likely will deploy a second officer of the same grade to fill in when he is not available [11]. The grade structure suggests this officer could be a PLAN Headquarters’ Deputy Chief of Staff.

As with a USN carrier, the CO of this and any future PLAN carriers will most likely serve as the “airport” commander who is responsible for all the activities that take place on or around the ship, including launching the aircraft. The Fleet Naval Aviation Headquarters from the Fleet Headquarters that “owns” the carrier will most likely send an air regiment commander, or possibly an air division commander or one of his deputy commanders, from the deployed aircraft unit to the carrier to serve as the equivalent of a USN CAG. This officer will coordinate his units’ missions and tasks with the Task Force Commander, the carrier CO, the Operations Director on the carrier, and the carrier’s probable Aviation Branch Chief (hangkong bumenzhang).


While we have speculated on the grade of the PLAN’s aircraft carriers, there are only a couple of viable options—division leader or corps deputy leader—that do not generate disastrous C2 relationships. Each option raises certain questions, such as what will be the grade for every person and billet onboard, and what will be the organization of the carrier’s on-shore headquarters. Although the grade of the carrier and the carrier’s CO is important, it is the grade of the carrier task force group that will define the C2 and coordination structure of the task force. The at-sea task force structure provides the combat and support leadership, command, control and coordination that brings all of the on-shore components together as a group to fight a campaign.

Even after the carrier finds its way into the grade system, what is written on paper can become a different story upon implementation when many new challenges can arise. The PLAN has likely already assigned a grade to its first aircraft carrier and associated aviation units, but it may have not fully determined or established the necessary leadership, command, control and coordination structure for on-shore and at-sea activity. Once the exact organizational structure becomes public, it will be easier to determine how the carrier will prepare itself on a daily basis and how it will fit into future task forces.


  1. Although PLA Navy sources translate biandui as “ship formation,” this article uses the term “task force,” which refers to two or more vessels in formation while at sea. The composition of each task force is determined according to its missions, which includes combat, training, patrol, navigation, and/or port visits. See Shi Yunsheng, ed., Zhongguo haijun baike quanshu [China Navy Encyclopedia], Beijing: Haichao Publishing House, December 1998, p. 705; Zhang Xusan, ed., Haijun Da Cidian [Navy Dictionary], Shanghai: Shanghai Dictionary Publishing House, October 1993, p. 252.
  2. Information Office of the State Council of The People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010.
  3. China’s National Defense in 2010.
  4. RADM McDevitt is currently a senior fellow at CNA and, while in the USN, he served as the commander of a carrier strike group.
  5. China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence, Chapters 5 and 6. This document can be found at
  6. China’s Navy 2007, Chapter 1.
  7. Each level in the PLAN has multiple deputy commanders and deputy chiefs of staff, each of whom has a different portfolio. Each level has only one chief of staff, who is the Director of the Headquarters department and has the same grade as the deputy commanders.
  8. Interview with PLA officials in November 2009.
  9. Sun Ruling, Zuozhan zhihui jichu gailun [Introduction to Basic Operational Command], Beijing: National Defense University Press, May 2011, pp. 152-159.
  10.  Interviews with PLA officials in 2006 and 2010.
  11.  Ding Bangyu, ed., Zuozhan zhihui xue [Study of Combat Command], Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 2004, pp. 166-182. Jiang Fangran, ed., Siling bu gongzuo gailun [Introduction to Headquarters Department Work], Beijing: Academy of Science Press, 2005, Chapter 15, pp. 297-330. Yitihua Lianhe Zuozhan Zhihui Yanjiu [Integrated Joint Operations Command Research], Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 2006, Chapter 3, pp. 45-70.