As the poor cousin of combat arms, logistics has suffered from chronic resource shortages since the inception of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). With the PLA reorganizing their forces into brigades with more firepower and mobility, logistics needed to be updated. To enable this, the General Logistics Department (GLD) of the PLA has embarked on the modernization of its combat logistics capability, which, when completed, will enable sustained operations on China’s periphery and beyond its borders.
A recent exercise by the GLD and the recent joint Sino-Russian exercise in August revealed the direction of and recent improvements to PLA combat logistics, and highlighted areas needing improvement (PLA Daily, September 23). These include improved combat uniforms and personal protective equipment, the need to develop high-mobility transport and modular equipment, and s better systemization of the logistics chain. Supplying personnel with adequate food supplies in the field also received special mention.
The PLA is changing the structure and increasing the number of its corps by removing the division from its present structure, and adopting the three-level command system of corps, brigade, and battalion (Xinhua, July 13). The new corps structure will be the heavy combined army group (corps) comprising two armored and two mechanized brigades . Similar in size to the Soviet independent Operational Maneuver Group (OMG) of the 1980s, this unit is designed for the breakthrough and exploitation of an enemy’s rear and requires a logistics capability currently not developed by the PLA .
Too heavy for amphibious operations against Taiwan, the corps is designed to drive deep into the heartland of countries on its periphery, especially through northeast Kazakhstan and along the North Korean border. China regards stability and reliable access to energy as vital to its rapid economic growth. To this end, these corps would give China the means to intervene militarily to protect energy supplies from Kazakhstan or respond to various conflict scenarios on the Korean Peninsula. The PLA has never been able to supply a mobile force adequately beyond its borders and is now in the process of equipping and training its battlefield logistics capability to ensure that it can support a mobile group in these theaters—and possibly beyond—in all weathers.
Until recently, providing personnel with food during military operations has been largely dependent on the provincial militia. This has been a huge problem for units operating on China’s periphery, and the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict exposed all the problems that occur when relying on the militia for logistics support. Ad-hoc at best, the logistics chain broke down and struggled to supply even modest amounts of food to the front line. Simply put, the PLA logistics chain has not been improved since the Korean War.
Units in mountainous and remote areas have suffered from a lack of fresh food and the provision of suitable and standardized meals throughout the country still does not occur (PLA Daily, November 6). To improve nutritional level the GLD has directed messes that “a cup of soymilk and an egg be provided for each serviceman at breakfast.” Company messes were also directed to “prepare fruit for servicemen two to three times a week if conditions permit” (PLA Daily, November 3). Compared with a Chinese soldier in the Korean War, the standard and quantity of food has, in fact, decreased and is obviously long overdue for improvement. In established messes, catering for more than 500 personnel now includes electronic ovens, freezers, and special machines to make noodles and beancurd (PLA Daily, November 6). Typically, rear echelon units have looked after themselves first, as the infantry messes are staffed at the company level and will thus have to wait for these improvements.
In the field, new mobile kitchen vehicles have been introduced. One vehicle enables four cooks to prepare four different hot meals and a soup for 300 people in less than one hour (PLA Daily, January 4). The long-held tradition of squads eating from the same rice bowl was only discontinued in 2003 due to the problems of spreading diseases such as SARS, raising questions about the PLA’s prior commitment to containing disease and contamination.
More importantly, new field water purification and environmental heath equipment has been introduced. The PLA’s Red Army Division used in OPFOR training has been re-equipped with field water purifying equipment, field showers that utilize solar energy for heating and other vehicles to assist in field environmental health measures (PLA Daily, August 25). Once these are available throughout the PLA, it will enable sustained operations without having to depend on the local population for rationing or water.
New Infantry Equipment
During the GLD exercise, the provision of individual equipment to carry loads and the extra equipment carried on operations was also identified as an issue of concern. The PLA is looking at new personal protective equipment and investing in new body armor and helmets, but the replacement and standardization of the infantry’s load-bearing equipment will be a major task.
The extent of PLA needs was demonstrated in August and September when soldiers deployed to the frontier border areas of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region were given individual medical kits procured by the Party Committee of the Wenshan Military Sub-Command Political Department (PLA Daily, September 16). Medical kits should have been standardized and available by the PLA long before now, and the kits procured are no improvement on similar kits supplied to PLA soldiers in the 1960s .
With regard to ammunition, the PLA’s new Type 95 family of small arms uses ammunition that is a different caliber than that of other countries, meaning, in contrast to previous situations, PLA soldiers have to carry more ammunition and magazines since they cannot replenish their stocks from other sources.
The PLA has introduced an array of vehicles to enable and enhance battlefield mobility. For gap and river crossings the PLA employs two types of pontoon bridges: Type 84 bridge-laying tanks, and truck-mounted scissors-type folding bridges that incorporate built-in pylons . For initial crossings there are motorized small rigid inflatable boats and an amphibious four-wheel drive vehicle, a near duplicate of the United States Second World War amphibious jeep . By placing a detachable bow and stern equipped with an outboard motor on Type 85 and Type 99 armored personnel carriers, PLA engineers can quickly provide light armored vehicles for opposed river crossings.
The GJT211A armored bulldozer provides for rapid breaching minefields and battlefield engineering tasks . Equivalent to the M9 Armored Combat Earthmover it is equipped with a large bulldozer blade in the front and a tray over the rear of the hull that houses the Type 84A rocket launched mine-clearing explosive hose system.
To ensure all weather high-altitude support, the PLA regularly operates in late autumn in Xinjiang in extreme weather conditions. In October, the PLA Daily (October 26) reported than an engineer regiment of the Xinjiang Military Area Command conducted a high-altitude cold weather exercise at 4,000 meters in the Kunlun Mountains. Comprising over 1,000 men with over 100 pieces of engineering equipment, the engineers developed new methods for providing engineer support including a rolling device that almost halves the time taken to build a bridge, new methods of camouflage suited to the terrain, and tested a new model front-end loader.
Battlefield Medical Services
Medical services on the battlefield are being modernized in line with the rest of the PLA. Currently there are three stages of medical service prior to the evacuation of injured personnel to a major army medical facility. The medics collect the patient and provide immediate first aid and transport them to the battalion aid post where they are stabilized before moving on to the field or divisional hospital for early stage treatment of their wounds. With the reorganization of the PLA into a brigade and corps structure, the corps will now contain the early stage treatment facility. The PLA is investing in their battlefield health services with armored tracked ambulances using both the Type 85 and 89 chassis. The former is armed with a 12.7mm machine gun and the latter, fully amphibious, transport wounded personnel to and from landing craft or over water crossings .
To cut costs while improving the provision of supplies in the field and in-base areas, the PLA now uses computerized outsourcing and procurement to buy equipment directly from the civilian sector, including tools, stationery, and engineering equipment. A division stationed in the eastern part of Liaoning Province was recently the assembly point for a mock emergency procurement drill staged by the GLD to test the PLA’s new computerized procurement system with local suppliers in northeast China (PLA Daily, September 26). The success of the exercise demonstrated that the system was viable and points the way for future “integrated army-civilian emergency procurement systems.”
The GLD has embarked on a major modernization campaign to bring logistics in the PLA up to the expected level of a modern military force. The larger items required for logistics support on the modern battlefield are under development or are coming into service. In the near future, the PLA will be able to conduct sustained independent operations outside China’s borders—something it has never been able to do before now, finally acknowledging that logistics is the force multiplier.
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