Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 20

The General Armament Department (GAD) was created in 1998 from parts of several existing national-level headquarters that dealt with various aspects of equipment development, acquisition, repair, and maintenance. With its formation, an additional senior PLA officer was added to the Central Military Commission (CMC) to promote the modernization of PLA equipment. The GAD is responsible for the entire lifecycle of weapons and equipment from before they enter the force until they are retired from service. The GAD runs a network of research and development institutes and weapons test centers, as well as space launch and tracking units. Along with the service headquarters, the GAD assigns Military Representatives to the defense industries to perform liaison and quality control. It oversees a large percentage of the PLA officers, NCOs, and civilians in the technical career track to maintain and repair equipment in the force. Some units have been authorized to recruit technical NCOs directly into the force from civilian schools to provide expertise otherwise not available.

Personnel from the GAD system are present at all headquarters down to regimental level in an armament department or office, and technicians can be found at company level. For example, every company has an armorer-clerk responsible for the management, safeguarding, and maintenance of weapons, ammunition, equipment, and ordnance supplies, as well as other clerical tasks. Armament units and depots in the GAD-system units are responsible for maintenance and repair of equipment and provision of specialized supplies, such as ammunition, for their particular service. Elements from armament units will be assigned to mobile support units to provide forward services to combat formations operating away from their home bases. GLD and GAD-system units cooperate closely to deliver the entire array of logistics support needed to maintain and sustain the combat operations of all PLA units. GAD personnel at all levels are intimately involved in the preparation for and integration of new weapons and equipment into PLA units.

The senior Chinese military and civilian leadership considers equipment modernization to be a long-term task. Because of the size of the PLA, all units cannot be modernized at the same speed. In the 1990s, CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin summarized a major tenet of PLA equipment modernization as, “Though we’re unable to develop all high-technology weapons and equipment within a short period of time, we must train qualified personnel first, for we would rather let our qualified personnel wait for equipment than the other way round.”[1] Other senior leaders have indicated it will take until about 2020 before Chinese weapons manufacturers join the ranks of “advanced world standards.” [2] Therefore it is understood, for the foreseeable future, PLA formations will be equipped with a mix of high, medium, and low technology equipment. Before new equipment is introduced into units, transformation training is emphasized. The PLA leadership acknowledges units will take time to develop proficiency to operate and maintain new equipment after it arrives. Unit combat readiness, which is evaluated in training exercises conducted according to centralized standards, may take up to several months or years to achieve after new weapons are introduced.

PLA missile, navy, and air force units have received priority for new weaponry. The bulk of new weapons entering the PLA come from China’s own defense industries, but significant new weapons have been acquired primarily from Russia and a few other foreign sources in the past 12 years. From 1994 to 2003, the PLA took delivery of over $13 billion in fighter aircraft, transport aircraft, destroyers, submarines, cruise missiles, helicopters, and air defense systems from Russia. [3] Yearly averages have increased to over $2 billion in the past three years. While this trend shows a worrisome upward spiral, the same type of weapons systems being acquired from abroad are also currently being manufactured by China’s own defense industries. The Chinese government’s decision to buy the same kind of systems from Russia that its indigenous arms industries produce is a vote of “no confidence” for large segments of China’s defense industries.

The Chinese defense industries are benefiting from authorized technology transfers from Russia, as well as from reverse-engineering some weapons bought in small numbers for experimentation purposes. Perhaps the most successful defense industry in China today is the military electronics sector, which has taken advantage of countless civilian technologies available throughout the world in addition to those developed indigenously. Many locally-produced electronics components can be added to older weapons systems to increase effectiveness at relatively low cost. Command and control in the PLA has improved significantly over the past decade from advances in optical fiber, satellite communications, and computer technology now common in all parts of China. The PLA places great emphasis on increasing the degree of “information technology application,” such as the use of training simulators, computers, scanners and bar codes, “smart cards” for purchases, as it also improves the “mechanization” of the force. “Mechanization” applies not only to transforming ground force equipment, but also to a vast assortment of logistics support equipment, such as containers, forklifts, and other machines that perform tasks previously dependent on the strong backs and legs of soldiers and militiamen.

Chinese ground forces have been last in priority for foreign weapons and have received only limited numbers of the Mi-17-series helicopter from Russia. Nevertheless, from about 1999 onwards, large amounts of Chinese-produced main battle tanks, amphibious tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and support systems have entered the force. For the first several years of this influx of equipment, priority was given to ground force divisions, while brigades were told to find ways to use “existing weapons to defeat high technology opponents.” Finally, in about 2002, some brigades were reported also to be receiving new equipment. More divisions and brigades are being restructured and re-equipped as the PLA implements a 200,000-man reduction announced in September 2003.

The PLA has not overlooked new types of logistics and armament support equipment. In particular, new equipment that allows loading and offloading of railcars and ships away from fixed infrastructure sites is being introduced into the force. New fuel trucks, pipelines, and quality inspection equipment provides greater flexibility for POL operations in the field. For example, there are many reports of new equipment and training to transfer fuel from ship-to-shore or from shore-to-ship without the use of docks. New repair vans and shelters to conduct climate-controlled, day and night repair and maintenance operations are entering the force. Many types of command vans, trucks, and armored vehicles designed to support a variety of communications equipment and computers are found in all types of units. Medical and repair units are experimenting with long-distance video and computer links that allow specialists in rear areas to help diagnose and assist in frontline operations. Just like combat units, PLA logistics and armament support units train and are evaluated according recently published standards. Logistics and armament support units regularly accompany combat units in training and also conduct functional specific training on their own.

The PLA’s distinction between the equipment-related components (as reflected in the establishment of the GAD) and the other support aspects of logistics (retained in the GLD system) highlights the Chinese military’s acceptance of the viability of high technology weapons and equipment on the modern battlefield. In order to shift from their relatively backward technological posture of previous decades, emphasis on the functions of the GAD is essential to modernization of the PLA. Chinese leaders understand mere acquisition of equipment does not result automatically in the creation of military capabilities. Therefore the PLA is developing methods to prepare both personnel and units to better operate, maintain, and support the new equipment entering the force. Furthermore, as modern equipment becomes more prevalent, PLA leaders are seeking to integrate the new gear into “systems of systems” which optimize the capabilities of individual weapons so that the net effect is greater than the sum of each individual piece of the system.

A recent article in PLA Daily online told of how “a tiny screw falling off from a radar system brought a [brigade] field exercise to a standstill.” [4] The lesson of this contemporary “parable” was that even “minor specialized elements,” such as repair, reconnaissance, and meteorological units, play important roles in overall unit capabilities. The Chinese military has proven itself to be an attentive student of modern war and is well on the way to transforming its theoretical knowledge into practical experience. While the effectiveness of these efforts has yet to be proven in combat, the PLA of the first decade of the 21st century is a much different force than its predecessor of merely a decade ago.


1. “Jiang Zemin’s Book on Technology, Army Building Viewed,” in FBIS Guangzhou Yangcheng Wenbao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese 13 Feb 01.

2. For one example, see “PRC Journal Says Jiang Zemin To Push for ‘Chinese-Style’ Military Reform,” in FBIS Beijing Zhongguo Xinwen Zhoukan in Chinese 17 Mar 03.

3. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database, dated June 22, 2004, at

4. “Let specialized elements undergo intensive and rigid training,” PLA Daily online, August 19, 2004.