Responding to the Epidemic in Wuhan: Insights into Chinese Military Logistics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 7

Image: PLA Army medics arrive at Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan (Hubei Province) on February 13 to assist with COVID-19 medical relief efforts in the city. Per state media coverage, the flights that brought these and other PLA medical personnel to Wuhan represented “the first time for China's domestically developed large transport aircraft Y-20 to take part in [a] non-military action… [and] the first time for the Air Force to send large and medium transport aircraft on active service to carry out urgent air transport tasks on a large scale.” (Source: China Daily, March 3)


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has portrayed its response to the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in heroic terms: battling against an insidious enemy, PLA personnel courageously and tirelessly helped to mitigate the disaster in the epidemic-ravaged city. The PLA has even made the amazing (and highly improbable) claim that it accomplished this while suffering zero infections within its own ranks (China Military Online, March 3). Despite the hype, the crisis has provided an opportunity for the PLA’s newly reformed logistics system to test its ability to mobilize resources in exigent circumstances.

The Joint Logistic Support Force (联勤保障部队, Lianqin Baozhang Budui) or JLSF, which was created in September 2016 as part of Xi Jinping’s larger overhaul of the military, has been at the forefront of the PLA’s response. [1] The JLSF’s role in Wuhan illuminated several key strengths of the PLA logistics system—including centralized control, effective use of information technology, and civil-military coordination—while also suggesting potential deficiencies. At a minimum, the crisis likely resulted in “lessons learned” that could improve the JLSF’s role in supporting commanders during wartime.

An Evolving Logistics Force

A key dilemma for PLA logistics is how troops and materiel can be transported across long distances and sustained away from their home bases. Such operations could be required in a variety of circumstances—including a large-scale natural disaster, civil unrest, or as part of a wartime mobilization in which reinforcements would be sent from the interior to the frontlines. For two decades, the PLA has made progress in alleviating this challenge, through measures such as: introducing regulations under which supplies could be requisitioned from the local economy; building civilian transportation infrastructure to military standards; and upgrading information support for logistics operations. Various exercises have also been held to test the PLA’s ability to operate across theaters. [2] However, the organization of the logistics system posed a continuing obstacle: key capabilities were balkanized between the General Logistics Department and the seven Military Regions, each of which controlled separate Joint Logistics Departments.

Reforms to the PLA’s logistics system aimed to diminish this challenge by promoting a centralized organizational structure. Cobbled together from the previous system, the JLSF consists of a headquarters (coincidentally located in Wuhan) and five Joint Logistic Support Centers (联勤保障中心, lian qin baozhang zhongxin), or JLSCs, each aligned with one of the five Theater Commands [3]. The JLSCs in turn oversee a vast array of resources, including mobile logistics brigades, refueling stations, supply depots, and military hospitals. This system encourages visibility and standardization across the joint logistics enterprise, while diminishing the influence of the theaters: JLSF headquarters, responding to Central Military Commission (CMC) orders, can facilitate the timely movement of critical resources across theater boundaries. While the JLSF has supported more than 50 PLA exercises (China Daily, October 21, 2019), the Wuhan crisis was the first time it was put into practice to respond to a national emergency.

Contributions to Epidemic Control in Wuhan

The JLSF’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic occurred in roughly three phases between January and March 2020. Although the coronavirus had been circulating in Wuhan since November, JLSF involvement did not occur until the week of January 21. This coincided with Xi’s January 20 remarks to the Politburo on the need to strengthen epidemic control, though it is unclear whether he provided specific guidance to the PLA in his capacity as CMC chairman that triggered the mobilization: none was publicly reported. [4] Nevertheless, within a week the Central Theater Command General Hospital (subordinate to the Zhengzhou JLSC) had dispatched 66 doctors to two civilian hospitals in Wuhan; the JLSF had arranged transportation and housing for 450 medics from three cities (China Military Online, March 12); and three JLSCs (Zhengzhou, Guilin, and Shenyang) had assembled and transferred medical gear to Wuhan via rail, including 200,000 masks and 10,000 sets of protective clothing (Xinhua, January 26).

Next, on February 1-2, the JLSF facilitated the transit of 950 medics, as well as 70 tons of medical supplies, from several parts of the country to Wuhan. Chinese media reported that these personnel, some of whom possessed experience dealing with the SARS and Ebola epidemics, were drawn from hospitals subordinate to the five JLSCs, and arrived via a combination of air, rail, and bus transportation (which included both civilian assets and military units, such as the PLA Air Force’s relatively new Y-20 heavy transport aircraft) (Beijing Daily Online, February 25). These medics supported the transfer of the Huoshenshan (火神山) Hospital, which had been hastily constructed as a makeshift treatment location, from the Wuhan city government to the JLSF, and treated patients at that facility.

Finally, between February 13 and 17, the JLSF coordinated the arrival of another 2,600 military medics in two batches. These personnel, who represented all of the PLA’s services, departed from 19 cities and arrived in Wuhan via bus, air, and rail transportation (China Military Online, February 13). In total, the JLSF coordinated transportation and sustainment for more than 4,000 military medics from its subordinate units and other parts of the PLA, and brought thousands of units of critical medical supplies to Wuhan over a six week period.

Image: PLA medical personnel prepare facilities at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan (Hubei Province), February 3, 2020. The hospital was rapidly constructed in late January – early February for use in PLA medical relief efforts. (Image source: Xinhua, February 28)

Key Strengths

By facilitating the transfer of medical personnel and supplies from various theaters, the JLSF demonstrated at least a minimal capability to support trans-regional operations. Several features of the system contributed to this outcome. One factor was effective central leadership. JLSF commander LTG Li Yong (李勇) is a Theater Deputy Leader grade officer who previously served as a deputy chief of staff of the Central Theater Command (Peng Pai, December 1, 2018). As with other senior leaders, his appointment signified Xi’s confidence in his abilities. Using his authorities under the new command arrangement, Li was able to mobilize resources from all five JLSCs. To his credit, he pulled off this feat despite his headquarters being located in the epidemic zone. One report indicated that he was able to mitigate the challenge by shifting some operations online (China Military Online, February 10).

Another attribute was the JLSF’s reliance on information technology, which enabled the rapid identification, delivery, and distribution of supplies from across the country. For example, one vignette stated that the Zhengzhou JLSC used bar codes, automated forklifts, and other technology to complete the delivery of several truckloads of supplies to a civilian hospital in Wuhan within a short timeframe (Xinhua, February 8). Information support also allowed doctors at the PLA General Hospital in Beijing to conduct telemedicine over 5G networks with patients at the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan (Xinhua, February 10). These examples suggest that PLA investments in “informatizing” the logistics system over the last twenty years have paid dividends. [5]

Civil-military coordination also proved instrumental during the crisis. Chinese media focused on the Military Representative Offices (MRO), which, under the control of the JLSCs, coordinate with civilian transportation agencies. More than 100 military representatives in 20 locations reportedly played a role (Jiefangjun Bao, February 16). For example, an MRO in the Shenyang JLSC worked with local railway officials to prioritize the transportation of supplies from the northeast to Wuhan (Zijing, March 3). In addition, JLSF purchasing agents in Wuhan contracted with civilian vendors to obtain necessary supplies and services. This included leasing apartments for military staff (China Military Online, March 12), opening local bank accounts to support the Huoshenshan Hospital (China Military Online, February 10), and securing life insurance policies for frontline medics (Jiefangjun Bao, February 26).

Conclusion: Implications for Wartime Operations

While portrayed in Chinese media as a complex operation, medical relief in Wuhan did not expose the JLSF to the same challenges that they would face during a war. No enemy was seeking to disrupt the PLA’s supply lines, communications systems, or databases. Moreover, the scale of the effort was much smaller than what would likely be required in wartime. Nevertheless, the crisis offered a real-world test of the JLSF’s abilities in multiple areas: exercising new command and control relationships; determining how to balance frontline vs. rear area requirements; quickly identifying and mobilizing scarce resources; maintaining reliable communications; simultaneously transporting personnel from several regions and sustaining them on the ground; and coordinating with local civilian officials and companies. PLA planners could use this experience to identify weaknesses in the logistics systems and make improvements that could better position the force to operate under more difficult circumstances.

Nevertheless, several aspects of the joint logistics system could pose problems in a larger contingency. The first of these is a potential overreliance on information technology. The success of the JLSF’s “hub and spokes” system requires information support to track supplies and facilitate requests across a distributed network. This may work effectively in peacetime, but in a conflict this system would likely be a target for China’s adversaries. How well the PLA has instituted redundant networks in the logistics system, and how quickly it can repair systems that go offline (or find “low-tech” workarounds), could be critical to its success in facilitating the rapid redeployment of supplies in wartime. Without effective risk management, the logistics system could present the same weaknesses for PLA operations that Chinese strategists perceive to be vulnerabilities in the U.S. warfighting model. [6]

The second issue relates to lingering questions about the role of the theater commanders. The new system is designed to mobilize resources across theaters by centralizing authority under JLSF headquarters, an attribute that appeared to work well in the Wuhan crisis. However, the new system stands in tension with broader PLA reforms that seek to unify theater-level joint operations under the theater commanders. How the system will actually function in wartime is unclear, though a professor at the PLA Logistics Academy speculated that the JLSCs could be “chopped” to the theaters (Peng Pai, November 27, 2016). A challenge for the CMC will be determining how much authority over logistics forces should be delegated to the theaters and how much should be centralized. An improper balance could hamstring PLA operations.

A final problem concerns tensions between JLSF headquarters and officials in Beijing. While the JLSF reports directly to the CMC, it needs to coordinate with the CMC’s Logistic Support Department (LSD), a separate entity that handles matters such as setting policies and overseeing construction. While the PLA’s recent reforms have sought to create a division of labor between the two organizations—the JLSF being responsible for operations, and the LSD taking charge of administration—friction between them could emerge, especially if the LSD meddles in operations. Indeed, during the Wuhan crisis, the CMC appointed an LSD deputy director to monitor discipline and ensure quality control (Jiefangjun Bao, February 15). There are no indications that this slowed the pace of operations in this particular case, but miscommunication or tensions between JLSF and LSD officials could complicate the logistics system’s ability to respond quickly and efficiently in a future contingency. 

Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University (NDU). He is on Twitter @jwuthnow. This article represents his own views, and is not intended to represent those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.



[1] Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, “Chinese Military Reforms in the Age of Xi Jinping,” China Strategic Perspectives 10, NDU Institute for National Strategic Studies (March 21, 2017).

[2] Dennis J. Blasko, “PLA Exercises March Toward Trans-Regional Joint Training,” China Brief (November 4, 2009).

[3] For an overview, see LeighAnn Luce and Erin Richter, “Handling Logistics in a Reformed PLA: The Long March Toward Jointness,” in Phillip C. Saunders et al. (eds.), Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2019), 257-292. See also Kevin McCauley, “Modernization of PLA Logistics: Joint Logistic Support Force,” testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (February 15, 2018). The JSLF oversees common use supplies and services, while a service-centric logistics system is responsible for more specialized items.

[4] The JLSF issued a “mobilization order” (动员令, dongyuan ling) on February 4, but this should be seen more as a political tool than a trigger for JLSF involvement, which began two weeks earlier (Peng Pai, February 4).

[5] For background on IT modernization in the PLA logistics system, see Susan M. Puska, “Taming the Hydra: Trends in China’s Military Logistics Since 2000,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell (eds.), The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military (Carlisle, PA: Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, 2010), pp. 578-584.

[6] See, e.g., Roger Cliff et al., Entering the Dragon’s Lair: Chinese Antiaccess Strategies and their Implications for the United States (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2005), pp. 60-62.