The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in the midst of the biggest reorganization and reform effort since the 1980s. Among the major changes announced, the country’s primary nuclear deterrent, the Second Artillery Corps, was upgraded to a separate service branch called the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF). In addition, the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) was set up to bolster space, cyber, electronic warfare, and other high-tech military capabilities. Finally, the ground forces received their own, separate headquarters to improve combat effectiveness. In February, China consolidated seven military regions (大军区) into five brand-new theater commands (战区) (China Brief, February 4). Perhaps most importantly, the PLA plans to cut 300,000 personnel. More changes are expected in the next few years; the PLA’s military education system, command structure, and logistics and supply systems are all likely to be overhauled.
The reorganization accompanies and complements a modernization program intended to create a 21st century fighting force that is better equipped, modular and able to meet a wide range of objectives. These reforms and the planning for them did not take place in a vacuum. Chinese military thinkers have keenly watched military modernization programs in other nations. The experience of Russia’s military reforms in the wake of the 2008 invasion of Georgia have been of particular interest, and Chinese planners have closely followed Russia’s reforms and adopted some of their signature concepts. Compounding Russian influence, Russia’s military industrial sector is expected to play an important role in the PLA’s modernization, with Russian and Soviet legacy designs making up key components of China’s newest forces.
Russia’s Military Reforms (2008-Present)
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the Russian military has been in a state of constant flux. The Kremlin recognized that major reforms were urgently needed to account for changing demographics and the growing sophistication of modern combat, but the economic turmoil of the 1990s combined with the Chechen Wars doomed several reform efforts.
Although combat readiness had improved in the 2000s, the 2008 Georgian War revealed many of the Russian military’s shortcomings. Orders were slow to travel down the chain of command, a lack of coordination between the air force and troops on the ground led to higher casualties, and a breakdown in intelligence and planning resulted in the Russian air force losing several aircraft to Georgia’s anti-aircraft missile batteries. Russian troops were able to overwhelm the overmatched Georgian army, but the after-action review left little doubt that changes were badly needed.
Shortly after the Georgian war Russia’s Defense Minister Anatoliy Serdyukov launched a sweeping reorganization of the army. Although Serdyukov’s (2008–12) reorganization is only one component of a broader, ongoing three-stage plan of rearming and modernizing Russia’s military by 2020, the reorganization has been by far the most controversial aspect of the modernization. In the span of four years, the Russian military did away with many of its long-held practices. Russia significantly reduced the size of its officer corps; the military moved away from a Soviet divisional model of organization to a NATO-like brigade structure.  Supply and logistics jobs were outsourced to private contractors; and the military education system was radically altered.
Proponents of the reform argue that the changes improved the combat readiness and professionalism of the army. Opponents counter that while reform was necessary, Serdyukov’s initiatives were poorly thought-out and resulted in widespread chaos and demoralization. Serdyukov’s reforms were met with fierce opposition from Russia’s military establishment and remain a source of derision. And while Western analysts dismissed the criticism as personal resentment over losing coveted sinecures, there is anecdotal evidence that the transition to private contractors led to serious service and supply disruptions (Ekho Moskvy [Russia], June 3, 2015). Moreover, even defenders of the reforms have admitted that the army continues to lack the promised high-tech and high-precision weaponry (Nezavisimoe Voennoye Obozrenie [Russia], July 23, 2010). The controversy surrounding the changes ultimately proved to be Serdyukov’s undoing; he was sacked in 2012 and tried for corruption. Serdyukov’s dismissal and trial seem to have placated critics of the reforms; his successor, Sergei Shoigu, has managed to keep most of the changes made by his predecessor.
Following Russia’s sudden annexation of Crimea and the ongoing campaign in Syria, pundits have been quick to declare the Russian military to be a revamped, modern fighting machine—seemingly vindicating Serdyukov. Some Chinese commentators have also expressed admiration for Russia’s latest military reforms and have openly urged the PLA to use the reforms as a model for their own efforts (People’s Daily Online, October 5, 2015). Such views are by no means universal; PLA National Defense University Professor Wang Baofu has pointed out that in both Ukraine and Syria Russia is mostly using Soviet-era weaponry and technology. A combination of troop reductions and the increase in military élan has given Russia some renewed military success, but its army is still largely a conscript force reliant on outdated weaponry (PLA Daily, November 27, 2015). Russia’s large-scale snap exercises such as Vostok and Zapad have also impressed both domestic and foreign observers, but the 2014 Vostok exercises in the Far East exposed persistent problems in coordination and an acute shortage of modern military equipment (RIA Novosti, September 23, 2014).
On the surface, the PLA’s reorganization and reform plan overlaps with several key objectives of Russia’s recent military reorganization. Military strategists in both countries agree that organizing rapid reaction forces with an integrated command-and-control structure is a top priority. Even though Chinese military experts do not believe that copying the U.S. military model is feasible for either China or Russia, the Western brigade structure of command is generally favored (NetEase, February 16).
China has closely followed the evolution of Western armies and there is speculation that China will transition from a mixed division/brigade structure toward one predominantly made up of brigades. In 1999, two divisions within the 20th Group Army, the 58th Mechanized Infantry Division and the 60th Motorized Infantry Division, were reorganized into brigades. Both units had a decorated history starting from the Korean War and were chosen to be part of an experiment into using a brigade-level command structure. Russia’s experience with moving to a brigade structure has been more contentious, and since 2013 two elite divisions, the 4th Guards Kantemirovskaya Tank Division and the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division have been reconstituted. Ostensibly the move was made to preserve historical traditions of legendary units, but there is reason to believe that Russian commanders have not entirely bought into the Western-style brigade system of command. Indeed, the creation of an additional three divisions in the Western military district was announced in January of this year (EDM, January 19).
The announced troop reductions may be the most important element of the PLA reforms. So far, only the Nanjing Military Region Art Troupe has been axed, but there are plans to do away with units that have outdated equipment, and personnel that serve in various non-combat related capacities. The cuts along with the creation of new theater commands necessitate major changes in army billeting. The changes may prove to be painful in the short term; Russia’s experience in consolidating its military districts led to significant resentment over inadequate military housing. To create a more efficient command structure, the PLA must trim its officer ranks and increase the number and quality of non-commissioned officers (NCOs), another priority shared with Russia (EDM, April 17, 2012; China Brief, October 28, 2011). This will be a difficult endeavor; at the battalion-level, units are often understaffed, while higher up there is a proliferation of noncombat headquarters that are staffed by both commanding officers and Political Commissars (政委).
Little is known about the plans to “deepen the reform of army colleges” and the wider military education system, but changes will have to be made to better prepare officers for the demands of modern warfare. Today’s officers are expected to learn several increasingly complicated weapons systems over the course of their careers, something that requires strong fundamentals. The Chinese military education system differs from both the U.S. and Russian models, and is often criticized as being too theoretical and lacking realistic practical experience. Serdyukov’s attempts at revamping the Russian military education system were rolled back by his successor, and there is little to indicate that China’s efforts will be any easier.
Another daunting aspect of the reforms is the need to replace outdated weapons systems and equipment. Despite the growth in defense spending and procurement, many PLA units continue to use Cold War–era relics. During the latest Stride-2015 (跨越) military exercises in Zhurihe (朱日和), Type 59 tanks (in service since 1959) were deployed alongside more modern equipment (NetEase, February 16). Such outdated equipment is impossible to integrate into modern communication systems, and the vast quantity of antiquated weapons will take years to replace. Making matters worse, the Chinese arms industry has struggled to produce indigenous high-quality weaponry. In the crucial sphere of air-defense, despite making gains in the last fifteen years, China still suffers from inadequate capabilities. The Chinese HQ-9 (红旗-9) SAM system has been billed to be an improvement over the U.S. MIM-104 Patriot and the Russian S-300, but China has struggled to attract foreign buyers (Sina, April 8, 2015). China has been able to copy the Russian S-300, but according to Russian experts the reverse-engineered model is inferior to the original (Nezavisimoe Voennoye Obozrenie [Russia], November 27, 2015). Beijing is still covered by Russian-made S-300 systems.
China’s R&D allocations have grown from $3.1 billion in 1997 to an estimated $40 billion in 2013 (amidst an almost exponentially growing defense budget), but China continues to trail both Russia and the United States in crucial technologies such as stealth and aircraft engines (USNI News, November 10, 2014).  To address the technology gap, China has turned to both espionage and leveraging the private sector through the strategy of “integrating the army and the people, locating military potential in civilian capabilities” (军民结合, 寓军于民).  One area where Chinese manufacturers have been able to make gains is in guided missile technology; according to Chinese sources, Chinese know-how now surpasses that of the Russians (Sina Military, March 4). China is also ahead in developing a fifth-generation fighter plane, the J-20. Overall, China’s defense industry is encountering a similar problem to Russia’s: more spending does not necessarily result in the procurement of new equipment in the quantity needed for true rearmament. With the Russian armament industry backed-up with domestic orders, the PLA will have to largely rely on Chinese capacity to meet ambitious refurbishment goals.
The political dimension of the unfolding PLA reforms is also worth comparing to Russia’s efforts. President Xi Jinping has stressed that China needs to build a modernized, powerful army with Chinese characteristics that is loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and able to protect national security and national interests (People’s Daily Online, March 3). The CCP’s direct command of the PLA has always been a non-negotiable aspect of China’s system, and there is no indication that Xi Jinping wishes to attenuate the party’s guiding role as part of the PLA’s modernization. In terms of geostrategic vision, Beijing has voiced concerns that the international environment is becoming increasingly uncertain and that dangers posed to Chinese security have grown (People’s Daily Online, March 3). On the surface such a view of the world is largely in congruence with the Kremlin’s position, but that is where the similarities end. Beijing has shown no indication it wants to be a standard-bearer for any putative anti-Western bloc. Instead and despite the occasional tough rhetoric, Beijing has opted for a gradual chipping away of the status quo where it sees it to be unfair to China’s long-term interests. That said, some PLA officers have called for greater protection of “overseas Chinese and overseas Chinese interests,” in a language uncannily similar to Putin’s justification for the Georgian War and Crimea’s annexation (Global Times, October 25, 2011). Analogous language was included in China’s 2015 Defense White Paper (China Daily, May 26, 2015). Whether PLA’s reforms lead to an increase in assertiveness remains to be seen.
One area where decades-long doctrinal views may finally shift is in regard to foreign bases. The Chinese anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa demonstrated the difficulty of repairing and supporting ships out at sea, and to that end China has already reached an agreement with Djibouti to establish its first foreign base (China Brief, January 26). Traditional reluctance notwithstanding, China’s growing naval capabilities, coupled with growing international responsibilities and interests in potentially unstable developing countries, may result in a more active Chinese global military presence.
The PLA has embarked on an ambitious course of reform and restructuring. Replacing outdated equipment alone will be a major challenge that will stretch far beyond 2020. China has closely studied the successes and mistakes of Western and Russian military reform efforts, gaining insight into best practices and potential pitfalls. While it is too early to render any judgment, the PLA should not be underestimated in its capability to carry out big changes; it successfully carried out major troop reductions in the 1980s and 1990s, rebuilt the military education system after the Cultural Revolution, and gave up control over many sectors of the Chinese economy.
1. The Soviet army was organized into divisions that were usually comprised of 5–6 regiments, including support and fire regiments. The total number of soldiers varied from as few as 5,000 to upwards of 20,000, with most divisions having around 12,000 troops. The NATO brigade structure typically has three battalions plus supporting units. Usually a brigade consists of approximately 3,200 to 5,500 troops, roughly half the size of a Soviet division.
2. Roy Kamphausen and David Lai (Editors) The Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 2025, (Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. War College Press: 2015), p. 145.
Yevgen Sautin currently works in the financal sector. He received an M.A. from the University of Chicago and speaks and reads Chinese and Russian. Mr. Sautin was a David L. Boren Fellow at the National Taiwan University and a Junior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.