China in 2012: Shifting Perspectives – Assessing the PLA from the Ground Up

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 2

CMC Chair and General Secretary Inspecting the PLA

In 2012, most analysis of Chinese military developments probably will focus on the senior-level leadership changes expected to take place in the Central Military Commission (CMC) and new military equipment. To be sure, these issues are important, but in order to judge the degree of improvement in People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operational capabilities many other factors need to be assessed. These factors include examination of the PLA’s actual military operations, including the Navy’s continuing anti-piracy and other non-traditional security missions [1]; changes in PLA force structure and efforts to improve the quality of personnel; training, including experiments in command and control; and the state of military-civil integration (junmin ronghe).

The non-equipment elements of PLA modernization determine whether the new weapons that are entering the force can be operated, maintained and employed to their maximum effect and deserve greater attention. Unbalanced foreign assessments, focusing mainly on unproven weapons’ potentials, however, can lead to overestimation of PLA capabilities and result in the subsequent misjudgment of Chinese intentions [2]. Similarly, top leadership changes will be scrutinized for their political implications, but tactical and operational leaders have received much less attention despite their immediate impact on unit operational effectiveness.

Leadership and Politics of the CMC

With all eyes focused on the leadership succession, less attention will be spent on the new uniformed CMC leaders and the cascading effects felt in the four General Departments, services, military regions and lower levels of command. The chemistry among all CMC members and other senior national-level military leaders is important because of the consensus leadership practices that have been practiced since 1979. For the past two decades, the CMC chairman has reflected the collective view the entire CMC and this situation is unlikely to change in the near future (“China’s Assertive Behavior, Part Three: The Role of the Military in Foreign Policy,” China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2012).

While the senior leadership sets policy, lower level leaders must work with each other (commanders, political, logistics and armament officers) to interpret and execute that policy in units with whatever equipment and other resources are available. The PLA recognizes it is only halfway through its two-decade “Strategic Project for Talented People” to build an officer and noncommissioned officer corps capable of fighting informationized wars (China’s National Defense in 2004).

Important insights into adjustments to the direction of PLA modernization likely will be found in the new CMC chairman’s personal guidance he eventually issues to the troops, even if not this year. Such guidance actually will be the result of CMC consensus and probably will replace or modify Hu Jintao’s “Historic Missions.”

An indicator of how much progress the PLA leadership has assessed the force has made over the past decade may be revealed if Hu’s “major contradiction,” also known as “the two incompatibles” (liangge buxiang shiying), is changed in a major way. This assessment, which states, “the current level of our military modernization is incompatible with the requirement of winning local wars under informatized conditions and our military capabilities are incompatible with the requirement of performing the historical mission of our armed forces,” was first issued in January 2006 and has continued to be used as recently as this week (PLA Daily, January 17). Operational PLA commanders and staff officers have written numerous specific assessments of training, personal quality, force structure, logistics and levels of technology that support the CMC’s assessment. In particular, senior PLA generals frequently acknowledge a 20-year gap between PLA weapons and equipment and that of developed countries. This set of Chinese literature probably has received inadequate attention as measure of progress in PLA modernization.

New Equipment

This technology gap is closing in some areas. In 2012 additional tests for the PLA’s first aircraft carrier, the J-15 carrier-based fighter, J-20 stealth prototype and a variety of increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missiles, including the DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), can be expected. The foreign media will follow many of these tests closely, often taking their cues from information derived from the Chinese Internet and blogosphere. Ironically, some of these tests are conducted by the civilian-led and managed defense industries—though PLA liaison officers are assigned to many civilian defense factories and research facilities.

Less visibility might be afforded to the PLA Navy’s third Type 071 Luzhao class landing platform/dock or amphibious transport dock (LPD), which, according to Internet reports, is now in the water but has not been commissioned into the Navy. Two Type 071s are active in the force and each gives the Navy the capability to take a battalion of marines, 15-20 amphibious armored vehicles and multiple landing craft and helicopters on extended voyages beyond China’s territorial waters—its first true “blue water” amphibious capability. The development of this class of ships and potentially other large amphibious transport ships over the next decade will dramatically augment the PLA’s force projection capabilities and its ability to conduct non-traditional security missions outside of the country.

Though there is little likelihood the Chinese themselves will discuss their ballistic missile inventory and deployments in public, PLA watchers will want to see if the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) provides any further information about its 2011 judgment that the total number of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) “represents little to no change over the past year” [3]. Based on analysis of the numbers of missiles the DOD reports to Congress from 2002 to 2011 have assessed to be in the PLA, from 2001 to the end of 2007 SRBM force roughly tripled in size (starting at about 350). Since 2008, that number however has leveled off somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200 while the number of launchers has remained constant between 200 and 250. Possibly in a related development, the PLA’s land-attack cruise missile (LACM) force came online in 2008 and has grown to some 200 to 500 missiles with 40 to 55 launchers. Unfortunately, observers made no attempt to investigate the significance behind these numbers provided by the DOD.

The PLA leadership might consider the addition of the LACM force to mitigate the need to increase the SRBM force. At the same time, SRBM capabilities have improved as newer, longer range variants replaced older models expended in live fire training. Could the PLA’s long-term development plan have called for building the SRBM force in the first decade of the century and a shift in focus to the development of its LACM and MRBM (all variants) capabilities in the coming decade? Since there is little chance the Chinese will explain these developments, perhaps the Pentagon can provide its analysis in the 2012 report to Congress.

Ongoing Military Operations

The PLA has announced it will continue to dispatch naval task forces on its most high-visibility, out-of-area operation: the Gulf of Aden anti-piracy patrols (PLA Daily, December 1, 2011). This decision was made despite the acknowledgement made by Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde at the U.S. National Defense University in May 2011 that supporting the mission was causing difficulties within the PLA because of its limited number of modern ships.

The PLA Navy is in its tenth rotation of two combatants, a logistics support ship, ship-borne helicopters and Special Operations Forces personnel. Responsibility for providing ships for the mission has been shared between the South and East Sea Fleets. While the North Sea Fleet has not contributed surface vessels to the task, it has provided helicopters for half of the rotations (PLA Daily, January 6). Based on deployment patterns, five different destroyers out of about 26 and eight different frigates out of 53 along with one Type 071 LPD have been dispatched on the mission. The need for these destroyers and frigates to perform repeat missions, instead of assigning the task to other ships of the same type, supports Chen’s statement. This practice also supports the Pentagon’s assessment that only about 25 percent of the Navy’s surface ships are considered modern, though that still is a marked jump since 2000 [4].

The Gulf of Aden mission also gives the Navy opportunities to visit foreign ports and conduct exercises with foreign militaries on the voyages to and from the area of operation. In February 2011, a frigate was diverted from the anti-piracy mission to take up a position near Libya “to provide support and protection for the ships to evacuate Chinese nationals” (Xinhua, February 28, 2011), although the ship did not actually transport any Chinese citizens itself. On the other hand, four PLA Air Force Il-76 transports did assist Chinese civilian charter aircraft and cruise ships to evacuate Chinese citizens from the country (Ministry of National Defense, March 7, 2011).

While the PLA’s sealift capacity is increasing with the addition of Type 071 LPDs, its long-distance, heavy airlift capacity remains as it has for years with less than 20 Il-76 transporters. This shortcoming, along with relatively few helicopters (perhaps some 700 for the entire PLA), is understood to be a major limiting factor in the PLA’s participation in non-traditional security missions within and beyond its borders. In the last month, the Chinese media have reported on the expansion of two army aviation regiments into brigades (adding to the one existing army aviation brigade formed in 2009). More changes to the numbers of helicopters and fixed wing transport aircraft are likely in the future indicating the PLA’s long-term intention to gradually overcome this shortfall.

Reforming the Force Structure

In 2012, there may be some movement to rebalance and redistribute forces in the PLA. Officially, the Chinese state the active duty PLA consists of 2.3 million personnel, but they have not broken that figure down by service. The Army is estimated still to constitute over 60 percent of the force, but priority for development is given to the Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery (China’s National Defense in 2004). Sometime in the near future another round of personnel reductions may occur with the ground forces taking the brunt of the cuts.

In many cases, more advanced weapons require fewer crew members and may replace older systems at less than a one-to-one ratio, allowing for equipment numbers to be reduced without a loss of capability or an actual increase in capability due to advanced technologies. At the same time, advanced equipment also requires a more extensive maintenance, repair and supply system than older weapons did.

Concurrently, the PLA is looking to flatten its command structure to take advantage of new communications and computer systems, which permit faster, secure horizontal and vertical coordination. Structural changes within the General Staff Department to help oversee these developments include changing the name of the Communications Department to the Informationization Department and the formation of the Strategic Planning Department. In addition to the formation of new army aviation brigades, recent Internet postings speak of downsizing the existing armored divisions to brigades. Assessing the extent and impact of these new structures should be an analytic priority in the coming year (“New Departments and Research Centers Highlight Military’s Concerns for the Future,” China Brief, January 6).

In 2012, structural reform in the PLA’s professional military education system probably will continue in order to better prepare officers and NCOs to execute the PLA’s new doctrine within its evolving force structure. Since the summer of 2011, nearly a dozen changes to military academy names and functions have been reported. (PLA Daily, November 3, 2011; November 8. 2011). In some cases, these reforms are aimed at producing a more qualified non-commissioned officer corps—two new NCO schools have been formed from former officer academies—but the majority of cases appear to be focused on updating existing officer academies to meet the requirements of the PLA’s changing force structure, enhanced equipment capabilities and joint doctrine. Examining these reforms offers insights into how the PLA is preparing its officers and NCOs to function within its ever-changing force structure and execute its doctrine.

The new CMC may execute decisions made already or further address these force structure issues in the coming years. In either case, the PLA’s force structure is likely to undergo significant change over the decade as the Army’s clout gradually is reduced. The goal is for a smaller, more technically advanced PLA to be prepared to handle both the combat and non-traditional missions it will encounter in the future. These structural changes require well-trained personnel and probably will take years to implement through a process of experimentation to determine the appropriate solution for the PLA—a solution that will be different from other advanced militaries. While analysts may not be able to predict the final outcome, Chinese-language publications have and will continue to make this evolution accessible.

Tracking PLA Training

A “process of experimentation” also is an apt description for the training underway in all services as the PLA seeks to raise its functional and joint capabilities to execute a new doctrine that has never been tested in modern combat. The creation of the Training Department in the General Staff Department in December 2011 aims to enhance joint training management for all the services to overcome this deficiency.

As a reminder to the troops of the increasing complexity of the PLA’s joint operations doctrine, over the past two years the term “system of systems operational capabilities” has been adopted as the formula to reflect the integration of all units and capabilities, especially capabilities derived as a result of “informationization.” This supersedes the older term of “integrated joint operations,” which itself updated the original concept of joint operations.

In contrast to other militaries that have conducted recent combat operations, PLA leaders identify the lack of real combat experience as an inhibiting factor on the force’s development (People’s Daily, November 20, 2009). Accordingly, making training as realistic as possible, in conditions replicating complex electromagnetic environments, has been the objective for many years.

Unit training follows guidance issued at the beginning of every year and is adjusted around mid-year as necessary. The annual training season culminates with large joint operations from September through November in which units are evaluated through force-on-force and live-fire drills. The PLA has established a process of reviewing each exercise to uncover shortfalls to be corrected through remedial training that year or in the next training season. Senior officers still perceive many improvements need to be made to the PLA’s joint training regime. In particular, technical and logistics support to training must be upgraded and the lack of personnel “expert” in joint operations remains an obstacle (PLA Daily, December 8, 2011).

In the coming year, additional attention could be given to the command and control experiments that have been the focus of numerous training exercises. Currently the PLA is exploring command structures for joint operations at the group army/corps (juntuan) and division and brigade (bingtuan) levels so that these headquarters can control units from multiple arms and services in multiple locations simultaneously. At the center of these experiments is the temporary formation of multi-service/multi-arm functional groups (qun) for specific tasks such as reconnaissance, assault, firepower and logistics. At the same time, the PLA also is practicing how to form combined arms task forces at the battalion level and has discovered the existing battalion headquarters is not structured adequately to control combined-arms operations (“The PLA’s Evolving Joint Task Force Structure: Implications for the Aircraft Carrier,” China Brief, October 28, 2011 and  “PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part One): Joint Task Force Experimentation,” China Brief, May 20, 2011).

Command and control organization has been a major component of many trans-regional exercises, in which units move from one military region to another within China, since 2006. Large, joint exercises involving three or four military regions were conducted in 2009 and 2010, though no such exercises occurred last year. Navy and Air Force training has extended its reach beyond the traditional areas near China’s coasts and over the continent out to several hundred miles from the mainland. Amphibious training has become routine in several military regions. Second Artillery units have been included in many exercises involving the Army and Air Force, but to date no Second Artillery training in conjunction with the Navy has been reported. What new wrinkles will be reported in 2012?

In addition to active duty forces, the PLA often incorporates reserve units, People’s Armed Police and militia units into training for both combat and non-traditional security missions. Civilian elements frequently augment the armed forces in both training and during real world operations. Logistics support, especially in providing long-distance air, rail, or sea transport, as well as fuel, repair and subsistence support during road movements, is practiced regularly during exercises and disaster relief efforts. This is one aspect of the contemporary emphasis on military-civil integration (junmin ronghe).

Military-Civil Integration and Modern People’s War

Military-civil integration is regarded as an important way to enhance China’s comprehensive national power through a variety of means exploiting China’s population, economic base and natural resources. It also remains a persistently underexplored area of inquiry. The voluntary support of the civilian sector to the military in both physical and psychological ways helps lessen the need for higher defense expenditures as the PLA modernizes. Military-civil integration continues the PLA tradition of being a “people’s army” as well as a “party-army.”

The system of National Defense Mobilization Committees from national to county level, that integrates military, government and party leaders, is the basis for planning and implementation of military-civil integration. These local committees plan for many infrastructure projects to have both civilian and military purposes. They also keep track of civilian resources and capabilities that can be used to support military and non-traditional security missions. They have built joint civilian-military command centers supported by modern communications systems that are tested both in exercise and real world conditions. Though the efficiency of the National Defense Mobilization Committees probably varies from region to region, the Chinese media frequently reports on exercises that integrate military with paramilitary and civilian capabilities (PLA Daily, December 7, 2011 and February 22, 2011).

Civilian support to the military (and vice versa) is a basis for People’s War, a traditional concept that has been updated and adapted for modern times. In addition to the weapons and equipment the economy produces for the PLA, the armed forces need “the people” to understand the need for their children to serve. In the coming year, how enthusiastically and effectively “the people” support the Chinese armed forces will be an important indicator of China’s domestic stability and for PLA effectiveness as it seeks to attract more volunteers into the force (“Noncommissioned Officers and the Creation of a Volunteer Force,” China Brief, September 30, 2011).


Even considering the many improvements in PLA capabilities over the past decade, the complexities of modernization will not become any simpler, or less expensive, in 2012 and beyond. A large body of evidence exists in the Chinese media that reflects the internal assessments of PLA commanders of progress made to date and the tasks that remain ahead. Greater outside effort could be spent on analyzing the PLA on its own terms to better understand how well new equipment is being integrated into the force and the doctrine by which it will be employed. Admittedly, these areas are more difficult to analyze than new equipment capabilities and require a degree of judgment to be applied. With important information lacking, the Chinese themselves also could assist in providing direct answers to some of the questions frequently raised by foreigners, lest partial information give way to false assumptions based on worst-case scenarios.


  1. Non-traditional security missions include a wide range of non-war or military operations other than war, including, but not limited to, peacekeeping, disaster relief, internal stability and public health operations.
  2. For an example of extrapolation of intentions based on potential weapons capabilities, see Jonathan Greenert, “Navy 2025: Forward Warfighters,” Proceedings Magazine, December 2011, at
  3. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011,” p. 30.
  4. Ibid., p. 43.