By Yihong Chang
Specialists within China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believe that future war in the age of information requires the Ground Forces, or army, to possess a higher mobility and greater firepower. Beginning in 1998 the Ground Forces began a process of reorganization and re-equipment. There were three specific objectives. First, to increase speed and mobility needed for either a domestic crisis, such as an ethnic conflict in the Western provinces, or a possible limited “local war” against a border state such as India. Second, to strengthen the Army’s cross-sea projection and combat capability for a possible Taiwan war. Third, to continue the reduction in the overall size of the Army while increasing its combat effectiveness.
FROM DIVISIONS TO BRIGADES
To meet these objectives, it was decided to create new light mechanized Group Army (GA) and amphibious mechanized GA units. In the meantime, the PLA will follow the concept the U.S. Army initiated: making medium type brigades their most important formation for the 21st century. These will stress lighter but more effective tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. They will also be more mobile. The PLA will also intensify its effort to turn divisions of Group Army (GA) into smaller but better equipped brigades. Within the PLA, “heavy” armies, to include No. 38, 39 and 54, are increasingly controversial.
There has, therefore, been an increase in experimentation with new army formations. Some combat troops are transforming themselves from divisions into brigades to accelerate the transition. The No. 27 GA, for instance, has cancelled the division system and turned a former division into three brigades. A similar evolution is also underway in the No. 40 GA. It is possible that these two units, once restructured, may be assigned to missions in a possible future war against Taiwan. Two or three Chinese Army armored divisions have also thinned themselves down to brigade size.
In another variation of restructuring, some heavy-duty GAs have retained some divisions and turned others into brigades, No. 1 and No. 31 GA being two cases in point. These will possibly become the first group of “medium type combat troops” to be used in the future war against Taiwan. The Tibet Command and Xinjiang Command are also moving in the same direction.
The Chinese Army sent a large delegation to visit IDEX 2001 Defense Exhibit in Abu Dhabi in May 2001. It has claimed in several internal reports since then that wheeled armored car families will become a major type of combat equipment and enable rapid deployment on the part of developed nations in the 21st century. In these reports, a special mention was made of new wheeled armored fighting vehicles, like the Russian BTR90, the French X8A and Italian Centauro. First produced in 1987, the Centaruo weighs 25 tons, carries and 105mm tank gun, and runs on eight wheels. Today the Italian army boasts some 400 Centauro. (They were used in the peacekeeping effort in Somalia.) On the average, each runs 8,000km within four months. Reports claim that performance is reliable.
Competition also seems to be arising among Chinese arms companies, apparently hoping for state funding, to develop new wheeled combat vehicles. So far, a large number of new medium type brigades have reportedly been equipped with WZ551 wheeled armored vehicle. The basic armored personnel carrier (APC) version of the WZ551 has six wheels and weighs about 16 tons. Several types of the armored car have been derived from it.
The infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) version of WZ 551 carries a 25mm automatic cannon, and equips No.52 and No.55 Mountain Brigades in the Tibet Command. The mortar type WZ551 is equipped with 82mm or 120mm mortar. The APC type WZ 551 is installed with a 12.7mm machinegun, and equips No.42 Group Army. This series of vehicle has amphibious combat capability. It will therefore, possibly, become standard equipment for medium type brigades.
NEW WHEELED COMBAT VEHICLES
The Chinese company NORINCO has developed three new wheeled combat vehicles in the last two to three years. These include a 120mm gun armed eight-wheeled tank destroyer, another eight-wheeled vehicle armed with a 120mm howitzer or mortar, and a lighter 105mm gun armed six-wheeled tank destroyer based on the WZ 551 chassis. The intention is to complete, serialize and form a wheeled armored car family of the medium type brigades under preparation.
Compared to a normal 50-ton main battle tank, the weight of most equipment mentioned above has been kept under 20 tons, except the 120mm gun armed eight-wheeled tank destroyer, which exceeds 30 tons. During wartime they can all be carried by Russian Ilyushin I176MD transport jet, which is currently used by the Chinese Air Force, or Ukranian Antonov An70 transport plane, which may be produced in China in the future. Even Xian Y8–a Chinese copy of the old Russian Anotonov An-12 still in production–is capable of carrying all kinds of wheeled armored vehicles based on the WZ551.
A CHINESE HUMMER
Additionally, the Shenyang Aircraft Factory (SAC) is marketing a new light combat vehicle nearly identical to the U.S. General Motors M998 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. Nicknamed the “Hummer” in the United States, the SAC version is called “Zhanshen,” for God of War. In the U.S. army, the Hummer succeeded the vererable JEEP and is now used for diverse missions like antitank, air defense, communications, medical evacuation and transport. SAC hopes that PLA Special Forces and Airborne forces will buy the Zhanshen. If adopted more widely in the PLA ground forces, it would accelerate the trend toward lighter and more mobile combat units.
To sum up, the PLA ground forces are in the process of building new smaller brigade size combat units armed with new lightweight combat equipment. If successful in this effort, the PLA will be far better prepared to respond more rapidly to both internal and external scenarios. It is fair to say that Beijing’s move toward developing and using lightweight combat equipment, and to emphasizing medium type brigades rather than larger divisions, will only increase.
Yihong Chang is the military analyst of Kanwa Information Center in Canada and an Asian correspondent for Jane’s Defense Weekly.
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