PLA Doctrine on Securing Energy Resources in Central Asia

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 11

An article in the April edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, written by two senior Chinese academics, reveals that China would go to war to secure its energy needs [1]. For the past few years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has reorganized the army into combined arms battle groups in order to perform this mission, which it has labeled the doctrine of “active defense.” The PLA is being organized and equipped to fight its battles deep inside an enemy’s territory, rather than on the periphery or in the Chinese hinterland as envisioned by the “people’s war” theory, which Mao himself acknowledged creates a large amount of infrastructure destruction.

Modernizing to Ensure China’s Future Energy Security

By the end of the decade, Kazakhstan will become vital to China’s energy security. China is buying up Kazakh oilfields and companies. If there were to be a problem with the flow of oil to China, its doctrinal philosophy of “active defense” means that the Chinese government will launch a pre-emptive strike to ensure the security of the state and its assets. The PLA is mechanizing much of its army and is creating at least two powerful armor heavy mechanized corps modeled after the 1980s Soviet Operational Maneuver Groups, which are designed for both breakthrough and exploitation roles in an offensive operation. Too heavy for amphibious deployment against Taiwan or for operations in China’s tropical areas, the corps is designed to ensure China’s future energy security. The force, using Xinjiang province as its springboard, would quickly overrun the defenses of any Central Asian state and would then be able to secure relevant oilfields. The PLA has already announced its readiness to go to the next stage of its development and “forge a strong military force powerful enough to take on important missions on the basis of China’s economic development” [2].

The Chinese government views stability as essential to China’s future growth and the PLA group in Shenyang will have another armor heavy corps to ensure the stability of China’s heavily industrialized northwest. An unstable, nuclear-armed North Korea would be viewed with alarm in Beijing, and the economic and military power of a unified Korea on its northwestern border could be seen as another reason for intervention. The armor heavy corps could easily cross the Yalu River and quickly occupy large parts of the country, as most of North Korea’s weapons systems are on the border facing South Korea.

Adopting a New Structure for the Modern Battlefield

In order to adapt to “informationalized warfare” and to enable more rapid decision-making on the battlefield, the PLA has decided to increase the number of army corps by removing the division and instead will adopt a three-level command system of corps, brigade and battalion [3]. Under the previous organizational system, the regiment acted as the basic tactical unit, subordinate to the division as it lacked command personnel and power within its headquarters to act independently of the division. In a modern brigade, the company is the tactical unit. Moving from the previous Russian-style corps and division structure requires few changes at the battalion or even regimental level, but it does mean a radical change in command and control arrangements since the brigade is expected to act independently once committed into operations, requiring a whole new way of thinking [4]. These new army corps will provide the PLA with an independent intervention force, able to breakthrough and rapidly exploit enemy defenses and allow it to take control of energy sources, copying the successful maneuvers by U.S.-led coalition forces that quickly regained the Kuwaiti oilfields in Operation Desert Storm.

The Armor Heavy Corps

The PLA has moved away from its triangular structure at the higher levels to a square organization of two armored and two mechanized brigades in its heavy combined army group (corps). The current Group Army (heavy) was composed of one armored and three mechanized divisions, an air defense brigade, an artillery brigade, a helicopter group (Dadui), an engineering regiment, a headquarters unit and a logistical support unit. The divisions are in the classic Soviet triangular structure down to the platoon level. This force totals around 70,000 personnel with around 600 main battle tanks (MBTs), over 300 pieces of artillery and more than 1,000 various armored support vehicles [5].

Contrast this with the new structure, which in addition to the two mechanized and two armored brigades has a brigade each of aviation, artillery, air defense and engineers each composed of four battalions, and a battalion for chemical defense, communications, corps level air defense and electronic warfare. The new PLA armored corps is envisioned to have a total of 500 MBTs, 586 tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) supported by 126 155mm self-propelled guns, 36 30-tube 122mm and 27 12-tube 300mm multiple rocket launchers, 12 DF-15D theater ballistic missiles, 48 attack helicopters and 78 other helicopters and around 2,000 other types of vehicles [6].

The corps is strikingly similar to the two sized corps operational maneuver groups the Soviet Army in Germany attempted to create in the 1980s [7]. Their mission was to be a breakthrough and exploitation force, striking deep into NATO’s rear to cause the collapse of the front line. Never fully established due to their cost and their vulnerability to NATO precision-guided munitions, this is not a concern facing PLA planners squaring off against Central Asian militaries or North Korea. The biggest organizational change in PLA armored units is within the company structure, where there are now 14 Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV) per company, compared to 10 in the old structure [8]. The company is larger by four vehicles meaning it can sustain more casualties than the previous one and still remain a viable maneuver element. The previous three vehicle platoons had trouble providing fire and movement with only two vehicles if one became disabled, whereas four vehicle platoons can lose one vehicle and still remain viable combat elements. As the combat support elements are held at the brigade and corps level, the only supporting weapons organic in the battalion are a platoon of six 120mm self-propelled mortars.

Developing the Corps

In March 2005, the PLA conducted a Battle Management C4I exercise in the Tianshan Mountains and the Taklimakan Desert to develop and test its doctrine for the new corps and brigade structures [9]. Involving more than 10,000 personnel and 1,000 vehicles, the exercise saw an army battle group formed with a headquarters having four subordinate combat groups that were not necessarily maneuver groups. The exercise concentrated on the joint tactical group, which was responsible for operations. Joint operations involving aircraft and artillery strikes in conjunction with offensive electronic warfare were practiced. The armored forces involved in the exercise operated with armed helicopters. All these aircraft movements and artillery missions, including both tubed artillery and multiple rocket launchers, would have also tested the PLA’s and PLA Air Force’s joint doctrine in airspace control. The exercise validated these concepts and demonstrated that the PLA was able to conduct modern offensive operations on its borders away from its logistics bases. The capability of the PLA to operate away from its logistic bases and having the core of an intervention force based in Xinjiang will not be lost on China’s neighbors.

To impart these new concepts to the armored units, the PLA has centralized all initial and advanced training for armored and mechanized troops in the joint armored training base in the Beijing military area. The PLA Daily reported that “in the past few years, this training base has turned out more than 60,000 armored combatants who are now playing an active role in the PLA’s three services.” The unit’s curriculum was completely revamped in line with the PLA’s new informationalized warfare strategy, providing new training outcomes for the “new-style armored combatant” [10].

To ensure that field units continue this training, the PLA has developed and tested a computer-based “fighting capability evaluation system” to enable exercise evaluations to be conducted “quantitatively” instead of subjectively. This speeds up the training cycle and reports are now ready in 40 minutes using few staff; previously, it took more than 10 personnel working one week before a report could be produced [11]. The reports can now be transmitted to commanders in Beijing almost immediately after the exercise ends.

Current and Future Developments

The opportunity costs to equip the heavy corps will be immense and two reduced-size corps could be ready within two years by stripping and diverting new equipment away from current PLA divisions. The PLA armored units in Xinjiang have already increased the readiness of its armored vehicles in the past two years and received the PLA’s newest equipment, as have forces in Sichuan [12]. To enable the future PLA to fund these corps as well as other areas of the army, there needs to be further personnel reductions. Further downsizing of the PLA will occur to enable China to secure its energy resources in Central Asia with the armor heavy corps being the instrument to do so. They will become China’s new strategic weapon.


1. Wu Lei and Shen Qinu, “Will China Go to war Over Oil?” Far Eastern Economic Review, Volume 169, Number 3, April 2006, pp. 38–40.

2. Sun Xuefu, “Forge a military force commensurate with China’s international status,” PLA Daily Online, April 28, 2006.

3. “Military to be restructured: Paper,” Xinuanet, July 13, 2005.

4. Black Sea Ministers of Defense Forum, “A Discussion of the Black Sea Region Post 9/11,” Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, May 2, 2002.

5. Wang Hui, “ZTZ-98 zhuzhantanke zhuanji,” Inner Mongolia Cultural Publishing Company, 2002, p. 74.

6. By comparison, the U.S. Army Division 86 Aviation Brigade fielded 134 aircraft including 48 attack helicopters. Wilson, John B., “Maneuver and Firepower: The Evolution of Divisions and Separate Brigades,” Center of Military History, U.S. Army, Washington DC, 1998, p. 386.

7. This comprised four brigades with a total of 415 MBTs and 96 152mm SPGs supported by heavy MRL and tactical ballistic missile brigades.

8. Wang Hui, “ZTZ-98 zhuzhantanke zhuanji,” Inner Mongolia Cultural Publishing Company, 2002, p. 77.

9. Wang Chuanfeng and Li Fengming, “Division tempers joint operation ability in Tianshan Mountains,” PLA Daily Online, March 11 2005; Wei Chun, “Battle on the Sea of Death Battlefield,” PLA Pictorial, April 1, 2005, pp. 28–31.

10. Wu Shunxiang and Zhang Kunping, “New type of armored combatants trained for Three services,” PLA Daily Online, April 4, 2006.

11. Li Jingwei, “Regiment of Shenyang MAC develops ‘fighting capability evaluation system’,” PLA Daily Online, February 13, 2006.

12. Sun Xuefu, “Forge a military force commensurate with China’s international status,” PLA Daily Online, April 28, 2006; Wang Jianmin, “Footprints of the Forerunner,” Zhanqi Bao, February 16, 2006.