PLA Transformation: Difficult Military Reforms Begin

China's Current Military Regions and a Proposed Reorganization into Military Theaters. (Source: Google Earth/Peter Wood) Full sized map available at the bottom of the page.

President Xi announced a 300,000-personnel reduction at the 70th anniversary military parade (China Military Online, September 3). The reduction represents the most significant element of the current military reforms so far made public. Less contentious elements of the reform plan regarding training, rules and regulations, and military education are already underway, with the major organizational restructuring represented by the establishment of theater joint commands yet to be announced (PLA Daily, August 24; China Military Online, March 25; PLA Daily, January 6). This new round of reforms initially announced in November 2013 will be much more extensive than previous efforts. It is certain that theater joint commands will be formed, probably resulting in some reduction in the number of regional commands, though the lack of announcement on this most significant area could indicate that issues remain unresolved, or was merely delayed for a future announcement. The creation of Chinese theater regional commands would represent a transition to a much more lean and effective military command structure.

Rumors in the press both before and after the parade announcement have speculated on a number of possible reform measures including the command reorganization. The ground forces will lose their preeminence to as the aerospace, maritime and cyber domains gain in prominence. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) academics have long-debated plans for establishing joint commands, but a reduction in Military Regions could be meeting resistance even among President Xi’s handpicked supporters in the military due to the number of officer billets that would be eliminated. The PLA press has noted some confusion within the ranks, calling for loyalty to the leadership and support for the military reforms. Building consensus for a force reduction was likely easy. Agreeing on a joint command system was likely more contentious.

Modernization Background

PLA theorists view the PLA as undergoing three stages of modernization since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In 1949, the PLA’s strength stood at 6.27 million personnel. China’s military has subsequently undergone eleven reductions, including the current reform. The first modernization stage (1949–1980s), which encompassed the end of the Chinese civil war and the revolutionary era, focused on building a large, conventional military capable of countering an invasion and a large-scale mechanized war, with nuclear warfare as a secondary focus. This kept the ground forces predominant, supported by the air force, navy and Second Artillery. [1]

The second modernization stage lasted from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Peace and development, improved relations with the Soviet Union, and the removal of the threat of large-scale war were now the main themes resulting in a strategic shift in military modernization. The focus became preparing for a local war under modern technology, especially high-tech conditions. Economic construction, along with scientific and technological progress, took precedence over military modernization. Military modernization, while benefiting from China’s economic and technological growth, focused on developing elite troops and combined-arms warfare. [2] New technology, a focus on quality, and organizational reforms followed. In the mid-1980s, the PLA reduced the force by one million troops, accompanying the formation of combined-arms Group Armies. A further reduction from 3.23 to 3.19 million occurred by 1990 (Xinhua, September 3).
The end of the Cold War and the advent of the information-centric Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has helped drive the third and current stage of modernization (mid-1990s–present). PLA modernization focused on winning a local war under informationized conditions. Modernization driven by emerging scientific and technological developments focused on building an informationized military to support national strategic interests and comprehensive national strength. This entails a new type of mechanization of the force, with integration of networked command information systems and joint force groupings down to the tactical level as a main feature. [3] Beginning in 1997, a 500,000-troop reduction occurred. Low-strength units were either demobilized or transferred to form a new national-level People’s Armed Police (PAP) force to respond to internal emergencies. Another reduction took place between 2003 and 2005, with 200,000 troops cut, drawing down the PLA from 2.5 to 2.3 million. Many of these troops were non-combat personnel, redundant staff and administrative billets (Xinhua, September 3).

During this latter period, the PLA began a three phase modernization plan. This included strategic plans for national defense and military modernization to lay a solid foundation by 2010; accomplish mechanization and make major progress toward informationization by 2020; and largely reach the goal of building a modern armed forces by mid-century (State Council Information Office, January 20, 2009). There is some evidence that this modernization plan might have been supplemented or supplanted by an accelerated plan focusing on developing an integrated joint operations capability (China Brief, July 17, 2014).

According to China’s 2013 White Paper, The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, current PLA troop strength is made up of: ground force units, including 18 Group Armies and independent units with 850,000 officers and enlisted personnel; PLA Navy (PLAN), total strength of 235,000 personnel; and PLA Air Force (PLAAF), with a total strength of 398,000 officers and enlisted personnel (State Council Information Office, April 16, 2013). No numbers were given for the Second Artillery Force (SAF), but Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense stated in a recent report to the Legislative Yuan that the SAF has increased from 140,000 to 150,000 personnel (Central News Agency, August 31).

Official Information on the Military Reform Plan

The most significant military reform effort since the mid-1980s was announced at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in November 2013 of (China Brief, November 20, 2013). The announced reforms will touch on a number of important areas aiming to create a rebalanced joint force. The most significant area is optimizing the Central Military Commission (CMC) joint headquarters structure and establishing theater joint commands. Additional areas include strengthening the command information system, joint training, military education, restructuring and reducing the force, increasing new type operational forces, improving civil-military integration, instill discipline and loyalty, as well as rooting out corruption and a peace-time mentality. These moves will support the development and implementation of an integrated joint operations capability, and reduce the dominance of the ground forces. The winners are the PLA Navy and the Second Artillery Force, as well as the PLA Air Force focusing on air-space operations (China Brief, December 5, 2014; China Brief, April 9, 2014; China Brief, April 12, 2013).

President Xi’s announced force reduction of 300,000 personnel will leave the PLA with a total force of two million. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense spokesman reported that the reductions would occur incrementally, with completion by the end of 2017 (China Military Online, September 3). A PLA Daily article from before the parade announcement appeared to debunk some of the more radical theories about the reforms. The author, from the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), stressed that the reforms would build a modern force with Chinese characteristics, noting that there were still significant structural contradictions and an accumulation of institutional obstacles. While dampening speculation on radical reform, significant changes for the PLA were nevertheless highlighted. Importantly, leadership and command-system reform, including the establishment of a joint operational command system will facilitate the development of integrated joint operations. Additionally, the article’s author notes that reforms will focus on optimizing the force structure, building new type operational forces, deepen civil-military integration, and change policies and regulations. These latter changes are likely aimed at curbing corruption in procurement, promotions, training and education. (PLA Daily, August 28).

A more recent article in PLA Daily by an author at the National Defense University also called attention to a number of deep-seated issues that have slowed the PLA’s modernization and are harming China’s national defense. The PLA must scientifically determine the future form of warfare, combat methods, and new concept weapons. The leadership has expressed that the PLA must develop modern scientific management and informationized construction for greater efficiency. Military reform planning requires a system engineering approach with scientific organization guided by a top-level design. This is required to transform the military to win modern wars with a comprehensive and integrated approach to avoid the shortcomings of previous reform efforts. Only in this way can the PLA hope to eventually catch up with the revolution in military affairs (PLA Daily, September 4).

The Rumor Mill

Prior to the 70th Anniversary Parade news sources began to report that details of the military reform plan would be made public. Though Chinese media has reported several proposals, there was detailed coverage of a “liberal” plan that would radically overhaul the PLA. This plan includes formation of four theater commands and reorganization of the four General Departments and Ministry of National Defense. All of the services would face some reductions, with the ground forces reduced to 360,000 personnel, and the PAP transitioning into a National Guard (South China Morning Post, September 2; South China Morning Post, September 2; Bloomberg News, August 31). The PLA has been reluctant to divulge its plans, and the PLA press has announced the punishment of 15 people for disseminating online rumors including “inside information” on the military reform plan (China Military Online, September 2).Though many of the rumors are based on speculation, some certainly reflect aspects of various reform proposals put forth within the PLA.

Some things are certain. Non-combat units and administrative staff will be cut, and units with older weapons and equipment will reportedly be targeted for demobilization (Xinhua, September 3). A review of the PLA force structure reveals a handful of Group Armies (GA) that could be demobilized due to a preponderance of older systems. Several lack special force and army aviation brigades/regiments, indicating a lower priority than GAs with both of these new type operational units. Based on rumors that reductions would occur primarily in the norther tier facing less of an external threat and that three GAs from this area would be demobilized, the following are likely targets for demobilization: 27th GA, Beijing MR; 40th GA, Shenyang MR; and 47th GA, Lanzhou MR (see the accompanying map). Additional candidates could include the 14th GA, Chengdu MR, and possibly the 20th GA, Jinan MR. Press reports indicate that troop strength in the southern tier—southwest facing India and the southeast responsible for a Taiwan crisis, as well as the South China Sea and Vietnam—would not experience major cuts (Want China Times, September 4).

Another recent report presented rumors indicating that four theater joint commands would be established: a Northeast theater including Shenyang and Beijing Military Regions (MR); a Northwest theater based on Lanzhou MR; a Southwest theater based on Chengdu MR; and a Southeast theater formed from the Guangzhou, Nanjing and Jinan MRs. From a strategic perspective, this consolidation makes sense, although the elimination of MRs could meet with resistance even among President Xi’s supporters in the PLA over the large number of officer billets eliminated with the move from seven MRs to four theater joint commands. The report also stated that the PLAN and PLAAF personnel would increase, though there was no mention of the SAF. Finally the report states that the theater joint commands would not command troops, although this would appear unlikely, as it would be counterproductive to create joint commands, but not allow them to command and train the joint forces they would employ (Want China Times, September 4; South China Morning Post, September 5).

Another rumor reports that the seven MRs will be consolidated into five theater joint commands. This would represent a less drastic reduction than the above four theater proposal, resulting in less push back within the military. This proposal could include a northeast theater (Shenyang and Beijing MRs), northwest theater (Lanzhou MR), southwest theater (Chengdu MR), southwest theater (Guangzhou and Nanjing MRs), and essentially a reserve joint command based on Jinan MR with responsibilities for experimentation and providing forces to other theaters as required. Another option would transform Beijing and Shenyang into joint commands responsible for capital defense and protection of the North Korean border, with Nanjing, Guangzhou and Jinan MRs forming a southwest theater. An area of speculation with some merit is the ratio of forces. Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant at on the Chinese Military Disarmament Control Council speculated that the ratio of ground, air and naval forces would end up as 2:1:1, a dramatic shift from the current estimate of about 4:2:1 (Global Times, September 6; Want China Times, September 6).

Prospects for the Future

President Xi appears to have consolidated enough power within the PLA to implement the most significant military overhaul since the mid-1980s, something his predecessors Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were not able to accomplish (China Brief, February 4). With calls for loyalty and support for the reforms in the PLA press, there are indications that some resistance remains, and it seems unlikely that the more radical reforms outlined in some press reporting will come to fruition. However, the reforms will still be broad and deep, changing the PLA institutionally.

The military reforms present risks of disruption to the entire military system while affecting long-entrenched special interests. However, they are viewed as absolutely necessary, as the leadership believes the PLA is falling further behind the Revolution in Military Affairs and developments in the world’s advanced militaries, necessitating an accelerated transformation effort. As important as equipment and structural changes may be, a change of mentality is critical to the PLA reform efforts. Changes so far, even the announced force reductions, represent the relatively easy, non-contentious adjustments. The forthcoming command-system reform will significantly alter the PLA organizationally, changing the balance of power within the PLA, promoting jointness in the officer corps, and enabling significant movement toward joint capabilities. If future reform announcements adequately address these areas, particularly the command system, the PLA’s transformation efforts will begin to accelerate.

Kevin McCauley currently writes on PLA and Taiwan military affairs. He previously served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Taiwan during 31 years in the federal government. Mr. McCauley has written numerous intelligence products for decision makers, combatant commands, combat and force developers, as well as contributing to the annual Report to Congress on China’s military power.

1. Outline of China’s Third Military Modernization, (Beijing: PLA Press, 2005), preface p. 9; Xinhua, September 5.2. Outline of China’s Third Military Modernization, (Beijing: PLA Press, 2005), preface pp. 9–103. Outline of China’s Third Military Modernization, (Beijing: PLA Press, 2005), preface p. 10.