Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 19

Based on its study of logistics requirements in modern conflicts starting with the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and their own performance in the 1979 “Defensive Counterattack” into Vietnam, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) included logistics reform as a basic component of its comprehensive modernization program begun 25 years ago. The need for greater integration of advanced weaponry and high technology equipment into PLA forces was highlighted after the 1991Gulf War and an examination of subsequent foreign military campaigns in the 1990s. Reorganizations and policy directives in 1998 added greater bureaucratic weight to logistics functions within the PLA, encouraging further reform. Significantly, because of its large size, the PLA is still relatively constrained by its official budget, but the Chinese military has leveraged many improvements in the civilian economy, especially communications and computer technologies, to assist its modernization. However, even as the PLA has received new equipment and practiced new methods of warfare, it has turned to the civilian sector to support the campaigns of Local War Under Modern High Technology Conditions envisioned in the future. In this regard, the PLA continues to emphasize, update, and adapt People’s War as the foundation for Chinese military operations in the 21st century.

People’s War

To prepare the country to shift from a peacetime to wartime status and to coordinate development of the civilian economy with military modernization, a system of National Defense Mobilization Committees (NDMC) extends from Beijing to county level. The NDMC system joins together government, communist party, and military leaders at all levels to oversee the functions of mobilization of civilian personnel and resources, transportation and war readiness, civil air defense, and national defense education. The NDMC system is a focal point for the integration of militia and civilian assets to support active duty and reserve PLA operations. Along with local PLA headquarters, National Defense Mobilization Committees inventory and organize civilian personnel, trucks, ships, and other materiel that may be called into service to support PLA requirements. Many local National Defense Mobilization Committees are prepared and equipped to serve as joint military-government-police headquarters in times of emergency.

The functioning of this system was recently displayed at the same time as a much more highly publicized joint amphibious exercise on Dongshan Island in Fujian province. According to the Chinese press, over the weekend of July 24-25, just up the coast from Dongshan in Zhangzhou city, approximately 3,000 PLA, People’s Armed Police, and militia personnel participated in a series of demonstrations to highlight local support to PLA amphibious operations. [5] The exercise was initiated at the command of the city National Defense Mobilization Committee, which ordered the mobilization of local citizens and militia units to provide transportation, fuel resupply, maintenance, medical, communications, and air defense support – probably for a regiment of the motorized infantry division stationed in the city. While this exercise was publicized by the national Chinese press, in recent years military newspapers have reported on many other similar exercises involving civilian and militia support to the PLA. As the article about the Zhangzhou exercise specifically states, China still counts on People’s War to help the PLA win its future battles.

Mobilization of the Chinese civilian population traditionally has been an important fundamental of People’s War, and planning for the integration of non-military personnel and materiel support in future PLA operations demonstrates a continued reliance on a modified and updated form of People’s War in the 21st century. Civilian mobilization serves Beijing’s political purpose of garnering public support for the war effort in both spiritual and material ways. Civilian personnel and facilities engaged in logistics efforts also complicate enemy attacks on the mainland (which the Chinese assume will occur) by potentially hiding military activities in a sea of apparently routine activities over wide areas of China. Integration of civilian assets into the support of military operations very likely will result in civilian casualties, which will then be used to bolster propaganda efforts by highlighting sacrifices made by “the people” in defense of China’s sovereignty. However, if China carries out extensive civilian mobilization prior to the initiation of combat, it risks losing strategic surprise as these activities likely will be observed by foreign governments. While logistics reforms contribute greatly to overall PLA modernization, they concurrently reflect the Chinese perception of the necessity for “the weak” to develop new methods “to overcome the strong.”

PLA Logistical Organization

Before looking at the organizational structure through which the PLA deals with logistical questions, it is important to understand the scope of what “logistics” typically entails. “Logistics” usually includes: supply of materials required for combat, such as food, water, uniforms, equipment, petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL), ammunition, construction materials, etc; transportation of personnel, supplies, and equipment over land, sea, and air; medical support; finance; equipment maintenance, repair, research and development, testing, acquisition, and disposal; and building and maintenance of facilities for troops in the field or in garrison. In contemporary Chinese military terminology all of these functions fall under the concept of “comprehensive support,” which includes the separate categories of “logistics support” and “armament (or equipment) support.” The PLA has two separate, but related, systems to manage its “comprehensive support” needs.

The first is the national-level General Logistics Department (GLD) which oversees “logistics support,” and the second is the General Armament (or Equipment) Department (GAD or GED) which has jurisdiction over “armament support.” Located in Beijing, the departments are responsible not only for oversight, but also for policy within their domains. The General Staff and General Political Departments complete the set of four General Headquarters Departments which are responsible to the Central Military Commission (CMC), the highest command authority in the Chinese government and communist party. In order to train and manage its human resources, the PLA categorizes its personnel as military, political, logistics, or armament (corresponding to the functions of the four General Headquarters) and technicians, who are specifically responsible for the service and maintenance of equipment, as well as instructing others in these tasks. Both the GLD and GAD supervise an array of professional military education institutes to educate and train officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from induction to senior levels of service. Dedicated logistics and armament staffs, units, and personnel (including technicians) extend from Beijing down to company level.

The GLD system is responsible for providing the general purpose supplies all PLA units need, such as food, shelter, uniforms, and fuel, as well as transportation, medical, and financial support. The GLD also oversees the PLA’s efforts to grow much of its own food and produce its uniforms, equipment, and consumable items in PLA-supervised factories. The PLA does not produce major weapons – weapons production is the responsibility of the civilian-run defense industries.

By regulation, when conditions permit, company-level units are tasked to produce non-staple food items, such as meat (mostly pork) and vegetables on unit farms. Rice and other grains may be grown at larger PLA farms responsible to higher headquarters, but much of the grain consumed by the PLA is purchased from local markets. The PLA cannot produce all the various foods and beverages needed to keep an army active and healthy, so a large portion of its provisions must be bought from the Chinese economy. This division of production and purchasing responsibilities is intended to maximize the funds available to the PLA. At the same time, improving the average soldier, sailor, or airman’s standard of living through better food and housing has been a priority to maintain morale within the forces.


In December 1998, the Central Military Commission enacted then-GLD Director General Wang Ke’s program for logistics reform consisting of:

Integration of logistics for the three services;

Standardization of supply work – e.g., centralized procurement;

Conversion of officer perquisites into cash allowances (to pay for housing, insurance, etc);

“Socialization” or “out-sourcing” of many support functions to civilian contractors;

Making logistics management more professional and “scientific”; and

Improving mobile logistics support for units away from their bases. [1]

As a result, Joint Logistics Departments (JLD) were formed in all seven Military Region headquarters by 2000. In addition, “joint” logistics staff officers, who understand the needs of all services, are being trained and assigned to headquarters staffs. Accordingly, the PLA Air Force and Navy transferred responsibility for many depots, supply bases, hospitals, maintenance and repair units to the control of the Military Regions in which they are located. The JLDs, and their subordinate logistics subdepartments, provide support functions common to all services, while supplies and support unique to a single service are provided through that service’s own separate GAD-system structure. About 30 logistics subdepartments are subordinate to the Military Regions, each consisting of hospitals, warehouses, depots, and transportation units. Logistics subdepartments form “mobile support units” to accompany combat forces in the field or at sea. These ad hoc support units are assembled from subdepartment assets based on the supported unit’s needs and mission. (As part of recent reforms in PLA reserve units, since 1999 each Military Region has established a Reserve Logistics Support Brigade.)

A reform measure intended to increase efficiency in purchasing and better utilize government funds is centralized procurement performed by the GLD Finance Department. In 2002, all one-time material purchases of 500,000 Yuan or more, investments in projects valued at two million Yuan or more, and procurement of services of 300,000 Yuan or more were required to go through an open bidding process. [2] New management and auditing procedures have been developed to make the system more efficient as well as protect against graft and corruption. Like all PLA reforms, these new processes are monitored and amended as experience dictates to make them suitable for actual conditions in the force.

A major element of logistics reform is “out-sourcing,” or contracting with local civilian entities, to provide services previously performed by members or units of the PLA. These tasks range from food storage to running messhalls, to purchase of parts and equipment repair. For example, instead of the PLA and local civilian governments each maintaining separate grain storage facilities, the PLA is experimenting with civilian-managed joint storage facilities to replace or supplement PLA warehouses. In peacetime or emergency conditions, PLA units can draw rations from these civilian warehouses and pay for them using modern “smart card” technology. Likewise, the PLA has established contractual relations with many civilian vehicle repair and auto supply shops throughout the country so vehicles may receive maintenance or repair when away from their home base. A primary purpose of out-sourcing is to save money by having the civilian community augment the PLA’s existing facilities. Reportedly, “out-sourcing” has allowed many logistics support personnel slots to be eliminated or reallocated to other purposes.

However, a significant shortfall in PLA logistics is its capability to transport and sustain large formations (i.e., more than a division of ground troops and equipment) long distances by sea or air. The PLA Navy’s amphibious lift capacity has been estimated to be about one infantry division of 10,000-12,000 personnel and equipment. [3] Likewise, if all the large transport aircraft in the PLA Air Force were operational and rigged for parachute drop and all were dedicated to that task, only about 11,000 parachutists could be delivered in a single lift, depending on how much equipment is carried at the same time. [4] To address these shortcomings, the PLA plans to incorporate civilian ships, aircraft, and crews for its wartime transportation requirements. Additionally, PLA in-flight refueling capability is in its infancy and limited to small numbers of tanker and fighter aircraft. The PLA Navy also has a relatively small contingent of large logistics support ships; the majority of its supply ships, oilers, and repair ships are mostly suitable for operations in the waters along the Chinese coast. Three different ocean-going “comprehensive supply ships” and a training ship have accompanied “fleets” of one or two navy surface combatants on several long-distance deployments in the past several years.


To date, the PLA’s logistics reforms have only used interior lines of communications on the mainland or near China’s coast. The PLA’s long-distance transport and sustainment capabilities remain limited and have not been stressed over exterior lines of communications outside of China’s borders at great distances. While the PLA’s logistics reforms may be sufficient to support local campaigns within or just beyond China’s borders, they have not been focused on extending the PLA’s expeditionary capabilities across oceans.


1. See Lonnie Henley, “PLA Logistics and Doctrine Reform, 1999-2009,” in Susan M. Puska, ed., People’s Liberation Army After Next (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2000), pp. 55-77.

2. Jiefangjun Bao, June 21, 2002.

3. U.S. Department of Defense Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, dated June 2000. Various press reports indicate that many new amphibious ships are at some stage of construction in Chinese shipyards. A number of the amphibious ships in the inventory are near or past the end of their expected lifespan and it is unclear whether the new ships that enter the force will replace or be added to those already operational. The PLA ground force and PLA Air Force both have ship transport units for operations along the coast and on China’s rivers. It is unclear if these vessels are included in the estimates of PLA amphibious lift capabilities.

4. Airborne lift data is calculated using numbers of aircraft found in International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2003-2004, (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 155. Large transport aircraft in the PLA Air Force include 20 IL-76MD, 48 Y-8 (An-12), and 100 Y-7 (An-24/An-26). There have been reports of the future acquisition of 20-30 more IL-76 heavy transport aircraft, which would significantly increase its lift capacity. In the past few years, the PLA Air Force has also increased its capability to deliver heavy equipment and supplies by parachute.

5. “China shows military muscle in weekend drill,” in People’s Daily online, July 27, 2004. The commander of the Nanjing Military Region, who observed the exercise, is quoted saying, “People’s War is the heirloom of our Party and our army. People’s War is able to help us win fights in the future. People’s War can help us finish the great cause of reunification.”