China’s Marines: Less is More

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 24

Chinese Marine units

On November 3, the Global Times reported that “some 1,800 naval forces and at least 100 warships, submarines and combat aircrafts [sic]” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “Marine Corps” held a live-fire exercise called “Jiaolong-2010” (Dragon-2010) in the “disputed South China Sea” (Global Times, November 3). In light of rising tension in the region, a live-fire exercise with 100 ships, submarines, and planes by the Chinese “Marine Corps” would indeed be a big deal. A big deal– if true. Unfortunately, based on reporting about that same exercise in the official Chinese military papers and what can be seen on Chinese television, Global Times got the story wrong.

The Global Times, associated with the People’s Daily newspaper, is a relatively new Chinese source known for its stridently nationalistic articles and opinions. It is not part of the official Chinese military media system. Indeed, “Jiaolong-2010” was an important, but not uncommon, multi-battalion marine amphibious landing exercise supported by the PLA Navy. Yet, only a handful of “warships” were actually involved, along with a few helicopters, but no submarines–illustrating that for the PLA marines, often, less is more.

History of the Chinese Marines

Consisting of two brigades with a total strength of approximately 12,000 personnel, the PLA “Marine Corps” is not really a “Corps,” and it is certainly not equivalent to the United States Marine Corps [1].

The first PLA marine unit (a division) was formed on December 9, 1954, and within weeks was deployed to fight in the battle for Yijiangshan Island during the First Taiwan Strait Crisis. Over the next few years, 110,000 troops returning from Korea were formed into eight marine divisions. Yet, during the military reforms of the late 1950s the marine units were disbanded and their personnel and equipment transferred to the PLA Army. In 1974, a poor performance by the Army during the Xisha (Paracel) Island campaign caused the Central Military Commission to reassess the need for a dedicated marine force in the PLA Navy. On May 5, 1980, a marine brigade was formed in Ding’an County, Hainan and later relocated to the Zhanjiang area in Guangdong province on the mainland (Xinhua News Agency, October 3, 2009).

This brigade, known as the 1st Marine Brigade, is subordinate to the South Sea Fleet (SSF) of the PLA Navy. For nearly 20 years, it was the Navy’s only marine unit. During the three-year, 500,000-man reduction in force announced in September 1997, the 164th Division of the Army, also stationed in the vicinity of Zhanjiang, was downsized and converted into the 164th Marine Brigade and re-subordinated to the SSF [2].

The physical location of these two brigades as well their training patterns and partners indicate the marines’ primary area of operations is the South China Sea. Over the past decade, as the two marine brigades have received new generations of equipment, they have also matured through a variety of training and operational missions.

Organization and Equipment

The 2008 Chinese White Paper on National Defense provided a brief outline of the PLA marine organization: “The Marine Corps is organized into marine brigades, and mainly consists of marines, amphibious armored troops, artillery troops, engineers and amphibious reconnaissance troops.” Analysis of Chinese military media reports adds more detail to that description, though some uncertainties remain.

Both marine brigades appear to have roughly the same organizational structure while differing in the specific equipment assigned. Each brigade is estimated to consist of:
1. One or two amphibious armored battalions each composed of 30-40 amphibious tanks or assault vehicles.
2. Four or five infantry battalions, some are mechanized with 30-40 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) or armored personnel carriers (APC).
3. An amphibious reconnaissance unit probably composed of two or more smaller “frogmen” and special operations (SOF) units, including a unit with roughly 30 female scouts.
4. A self-propelled artillery battalion.
5. A missile battalion with an anti-tank missile company and an anti-aircraft missile company with man-portable surface-to-air missiles.
6. An engineer and chemical defense battalion.
7. A guard and communications battalion.
8. A maintenance battalion.

Under brigade headquarters, an amphibious armored regiment headquarters commands the armored battalion(s), one or two mechanized infantry battalions, and the self-propelled artillery battalion. This regiment is considered the main maneuver and strike unit for the brigade.

Numbers of personnel per battalion depend on the unit type, with infantry battalions probably numbering from 600-750 personnel while other battalions may be only about half as large. Total manpower for each brigade is estimated to range from 5,000 to 6,000 [3].

Unlike the U.S. Marine Corps, PLA marines are not assigned organic aviation assets. Instead, the helicopter regiment subordinate to the South Sea Fleet provides both transport and firepower support to the marines. The marines have a similar relationship for sea transport with the SSF landing ship flotilla composed of roughly 30 large and medium amphibious ships including the Navy’s one Type 071 Landing Platform Dock [4].

Over its 30 years, the 1st Marine Brigade has been equipped with four types of armored personnel carriers/infantry fighting vehicles and tanks. The Type 77 APC (copied from the Soviet BTR-50) was followed by the Type 63 APC (an indigenous design), the Type 86 (Soviet BMP), and finally the ZBD05 IFV, deployed beginning in 2005/6 and seen in the 2009 military parade. The brigade initially was equipped with Type 62 non-amphibious, light tanks (based on the Type 59 main battle tank, but smaller) and Type 63 light amphibious tanks (modified Soviet PT-76). Around 2000, Type 63A light amphibious tanks entered the PLA followed by ZTD05 Amphibious Assault Vehicles in the middle of the decade [5].

New equipment has been introduced gradually, battalion by battalion, so that the brigades often have a combination of multiple types of tanks and APC/IFV. When the 1st Brigade is upgraded, older equipment appears to be transferred to the 164th Brigade. Currently the 1st Brigade is equipped with ZBD05 IFVs and ZTD05 Amphibious Assault Vehicles while the 164th has a mix of Type 63A tanks and Type 86 and Type 63 APCs [6]. The 1st Brigade has also been equipped with the new PLZ07 122mm self-propelled howitzer; the older Type 89 122mm self-propelled howitzer is found in the 164th.

Marines, like units throughout the PLA, plan for a period of new equipment training lasting several months to years, culminating in readiness tests, before the units and armament are considered operationally capable. The marines are among the PLA’s rapid emergency response units, with the primary combat missions of amphibious operations and defense against enemy amphibious landings.


PLA marine units recruit personnel based on standards for Special Operations troops. They must be physically fit, senior middle school or higher graduates, and 5 feet 6 inches or taller (Xinhua News Agency, September 22, 2009). The marine physical fitness regimen is extremely challenging with standards such as swimming five kilometers in full combat gear within two and a half hours, running the same distance in 23 minutes, and performing 500 push-ups, sit-ups, and squats daily [7]. All marines receive hand-to-hand combat instruction.

New recruit training is conducted by the two brigades themselves (as is the practice throughout the PLA) for about three months beginning in December. Afterwards professional skill training begins for individuals and units. Small unit amphibious training starts in April or May increasing in size throughout the summer and fall. Units may spend two to three months in the field at amphibious training areas on the Leizhou Peninsula and at Shanwei or at firing ranges in northern Guangdong.

Marine amphibious reconnaissance and SOF personnel train in multiple forms of parachute, helicopter, overland, sea surface, and underwater insertion methods resulting in them having “triphibious” capabilities. They also train on underwater demolitions to clear obstacles from beaches.

Most marine amphibious training is conducted in the South China Sea with SSF amphibious lift and helicopter support, but generally not with units from other services. A major exception was Peace Mission 2005, a combined Sino-Russian exercise held in Shandong province. In August 2005, elements of the 1st Marine Brigade’s amphibious armored regiment and a Russian naval infantry unit performed a beachhead assault during the second of three phases of this 10,000-person air-sea-land exercise.

Five years later, the 1st Marine Brigade conducted its first overseas exercise in “Blue Strike 2010” from October 28 to November 11, 2010 in Sattahip, Thailand. Both sides contributed 115 marines to this four-phased exercise focused on small unit amphibious operations and anti-hijacking and hostage rescue missions. During the exercise, marines formed small Sino-Thai units to conduct segments of the training (PLA Daily, November 12) [8].

As “Blue Strike 2010” was underway, the 1st Marine Brigade also deployed multiple battalions to “Jiaolong-2010” in the South China Sea. Official PLA news sources provided more reliable and better information about the exercise than the Global Times. PLA Daily reported “1,800-plus officers and men of a marine brigade” along with “100-plus armed helicopters, mine-sweeping vessels, submarine chasers, landing ships, amphibious armored vehicles, assault boats and various direct-[fire] weapons” took part in the exercise (PLA Daily, November 4). Unlike Global Times, these reports did not mention submarines or imply participation by fixed wing aircraft, but more accurately described the array of forces involved.

CCTV-7, China’s state-run television network, carried a video report showing two Jianghu-V missile frigates providing fire support and three large and two medium amphibious landing ships launching numerous small 10-man boats carrying troops and over a dozen ZBD05s and ZTD05s swimming ashore. Two Zhi-8 helicopters delivered troops and two Zhi-9 helicopters provided aerial fire support [9].

Based on the equipment observed, one or more battalions from the brigade’s amphibious armored regiment plus elements probably from another marine battalion (in the small boats) made up the bulk of the 100-plus weapons, ships, and aircraft involved in the exercise. While relatively large for a marine exercise, “Jiaolong-2010” was not unusual and included less than half of the full brigade.

Foreign military students studying at PLA professional military education institutions observed “Jiaolong-2010.”

Foreign Contacts and Non-traditional Security Missions

The 1st Marine Brigade routinely hosts visitors from foreign militaries to their garrison in Zhanjiang. The Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Commandant of the Marine Corps visited in 2006 and 2008, respectively. PLA marines have conducted competitions with small units of marines from the United States, France, and Australia and trained with Pakistani and Nigerian marine special forces during exercise “Peace-09” off of Pakistan. In one of the earliest instances of the PLA opening its exercises to foreigners, military observers from France, Germany, Britain, and Mexico, along with foreign military students studying in China, attended the amphibious exercise “Jiaolong-2004” at Shanwei in September 2004 [10]. These visits are part of the PLA’s expanding program of conducting foreign military relations.

While the marines train for their primary combat missions, they also prepare for and conduct a variety of real world, non-traditional security missions. In recent years, they have been deployed on several disaster relief efforts, most notably to Sichuan in 2008 after the Wenchuan earthquake. Marine frogmen also provided underwater security for the Olympics and other high-profile events.

Marine SOF detachments have been deployed with each of the PLA Navy’s anti-piracy task forces in the Gulf of Aden [11]. These deployments give the marines valuable experience in small boat and helicopter operations during extended periods at sea.

One non-traditional security mission Chinese marines have not been assigned is UN peacekeeping duty. PLA engineer, transportation, and medical troops, but no combat units, from all over the country, along with People’s Armed Police border defense and civilian police forces, have taken part in about 10 UN peacekeeping missions in the past decade (Xinhua News Agency, January 19). In addition to their rapid response status, the marines have only small elements of these types of support forces, which probably contributes to why they have not been deployed on peacekeeping missions.

A few companies of marines are stationed on a handful of reefs and islands in the South China Sea along with Navy forces, including surface force, coastal defense, and naval aviation personnel. These outposts appear to fall under the SSF headquarters command through the Xisha (Paracel) Naval Garrison and Nansha (Spratly) Patrol District.


PLA Army amphibious and marine units comprise only a small fraction of the PLA’s overall ground forces [12]. On the other hand, the small size of Army amphibious and marine units allows them to be more rapidly modernized with new equipment than many other ground units. Amphibious forces also appear to receive priority for training and are in the field for long periods of time during the unit training season. As such, they are among the most operationally ready PLA units. Though other Army units train for amphibious operations, the small number of standing specialized amphibious troops and lift suggests that the Central Military Commission is not anticipating large-scale landing operations in the near to mid-term.

Without massive civilian support, Navy (and Army) amphibious lift capacity can transport only about one-third of the total amphibious force and then mostly only over limited distances (out to a few hundred miles) [13]. Depending on the enemy, weather, sealift and air support available, and the amount of armor and logistics forces to be transported, PLA marines could probably launch a multi-battalion (perhaps twice the size of “Jiaolong-2010”) amphibious operation in the South China Sea without extensive preparation [14].

PLA marines provide a model of what a smaller, modernized, highly trained and motivated 21st century Chinese force may look like. Yet, to increase their effectiveness, they need additional logistic and air support, not more infantrymen. Based partly on the example of marine force, in the coming decade, the overall PLA force structure could afford to undergo further downsizing and rebalancing among the services and within the branches of each service. To do so would continue the trend that fewer, smaller Chinese forces are now more capable than the PLA of the past.


* The author thanks Gary Li of the International Institute for Strategic Studies for his generous insights into this subject. Any errors in analysis are the author’s.
1. As of September 2010, the U.S. Marine Corps has 202,441 active duty personnel. See
2. At the same time, two other Army divisions, one in the Nanjing Military Region and another in the Guangzhou Military Region, were transformed into amphibious mechanized infantry divisions, adding to the existing Army amphibious tank brigade. See “PLA Amphibious Capabilities: Structured for Deterrence,” China Brief, August 19, 2010.
3. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010, p. 402 and Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, Naval Institute Press, 2010, p. 76. While it may be possible for the self-propelled artillery battalion and missile battalion to be subordinate to an artillery regiment headquarters, the only marine regiment headquarters identified in recent Chinese press articles is the amphibious armored regiment headquarters.
4. Office of Naval Intelligence, A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics, 13. Internet sources report the launch of the second Type 071 Landing Platform Dock in mid-November 2010. It is not yet known to which fleet the new LPD will be assigned. This class of LPD is estimated to be capable of carrying a battalion of marines, 20-30 amphibious vehicles, and two helicopters several thousand miles over a period of weeks or months. This type of ship gives the PLA a true “blue water” amphibious capability not found in the more numerous large and medium amphibious ships, which do not have living facilities for the troops embarked. The U.S. Navy has 12 ships of this class in the force with three more under construction. See “Amphibious Transport Dock – LPD” at
5. The ZBD05 and ZTD05 designators were used during the October 1, 2009 military parade in Beijing. Technical information on these vehicles (and other) can be found at the website at Army amphibious units have similar equipment as the marines. Marine vehicles are painted in blue camouflage patterns and have turret/side numbers beginning with an “H”; Army units have different green pattern camouflage, including some digital camouflage.
6. Some older tanks and APC/IFV may remain in the two brigades as modernized equipment is introduced.
7. “Women Soldiers,” webpage, August 22, 2008, at
8. Though this was the first overseas combined training exercise for the PLA marines, PLA and Thai SOF units had conducted three rounds of joint training in 2007, 2008, and 2010. The latest of the series of “Strike” anti-terrorist exercises had just taken place in October. See “"Strike 2010": China, Thailand kick off joint drill,” October 9, 2010, at
9. Video available at People’s Daily, November 3, 2010, at Still photography showing many of the same scenes is available at People’s Daily, November 3, 2010, at The large and medium amphibious landing ships observed could have launched somewhere in the range of 40 amphibious armored vehicles and probably as many small 10-man assault boats. These 10-man assault boats appear to be the vessel of choice in recent years for getting dismounted marines ashore. The forces seen in the television and photo reports probably were only part of the entire force engaged in the exercise.
10. Shirley Kan, “U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, August 6, 2009, at, documents these U.S. visits. The other foreign contacts described above are found at Xinhua News Agency, September 2, 2004, at; PLA Daily, March 3, 2009, at; PLA Daily, June 7, 2010, at; People’s Daily, September 30, 2010, at
11. Marine SOF personnel have been observed on every deployment to the Gulf of Aden. Marines can be seen in photos of the sixth and seventh rotations at PLA Daily, “China’s sixth naval escort flotilla arrived in Jedda,” November 29, 2010, at and PLA Daily, “China’s 7th naval escort flotilla begins escort mission,” November 26, 2010, at
12. The PLA Army has approximately 76 infantry and armored divisions and brigades broken down into roughly 35 divisions and 41 brigades. The Air Force commands another three airborne divisions. The 12,000 or so Navy marines are less than five percent of the service’s estimated 290,000 personnel.
13. The U.S. Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009 states, “PLA air and amphibious lift capacity has not improved appreciably since 2000 when the Department of Defense assessed the PLA as capable of sealift of one infantry division.”
14. This estimate is based on the author’s analysis and can vary according to the composition of the marine force to be employed and the amount of sealift available.