The PLA’s New Calculus for Force Posture

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 12

“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu declared. Historically, China has faithfully adopted this maxim by launching a diplomatic offensive prior to military action either to deceive other countries of its true intentions or to justify its actions. Chinese Defense Minister and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Command (CMC) General Cao Gangchun’s visit to five Asian states this past April is a case in point. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is going on a peace offensive in order to disguise its subtle change from a defensive force to one that is overtly offensive.

Organizational Changes to Units Deployed on China’s Borders

Like other militaries, the PLA calculates force posture based upon geography as well as the force’s role. For the most part, China’s security center of gravity has not shifted from the north, northwest or southwest of China. China’s deployment of forces on its land borders has almost always been defensive. Since the 1950s, forces in the southwest have been composed of light units due to the tropical swamps and jungles in the region. Likewise, due to Tibet’s high altitude, PLA units have been structured to operate as mountain units. Only on the east coast, due to the issue of Taiwan as well as China’s fear of attack by the United States, has China deployed offensively oriented units.

While there has not been a huge project of capability redeployment, there have been notable organizational changes. China’s offensive mechanized forces are now more heavily focused in the northwest due to Xinjiang’s critical role in China’s energy needs. In addition, China, like other naval powers in the Asia Pacific, has enlarged and updated its amphibious capability as part of the modernization of the PLA Navy (PLAN). Most prominently, the PLA has engaged in the worrisome accelerated deployment of short-range and theater ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan by initially redeploying remnant Cold War forces from the Sino-Russian border.

Training for Conflict

To ensure that the PLA is able to perform under informatized conditions, the PLA has invested in realistic training. Nevertheless, considerable resources to improve command and control (C2) have yet to bear fruit due to problems that have been exposed during training. The recent joint C2 exercise linked command centers and units from Beijing with those in the Guangzhou, Shengyang and Chengdu Military Regions (MRs). The exercise was commanded from the Guangzhou MR headquarters “to work out the deployment and cooperation between the Army, Navy and Air Force when ‘separated by hundreds of kilometers’ in the Guangzhou region” (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 10). “To ensure the joint training command is up to speed,” another article noted about the exercise, “various arms and services and various units are linked to each other via networks with their equipment capable of effective coordinated operation.” Based on the principle of “integrating military with locality and field locations with fixed locations,” the article continued, “they set up multiple sets of fiber optic transmission systems and used the method of integrated platforms, integrated networks and integrated applications to connect the major command systems in the cooperation zone, thus ensuring that commanders at all levels are able to transmit and receive telegrams, data and images real-time at their levels of command” (Renmin Wang, March 2).

The importance of training the C2 systems in the Guangzhou MR cannot be underestimated as the MR headquarters is responsible for the South China Sea and for Taiwan. The C2 exercise demonstrated that the different commands were not using the same standard operating procedures, thereby creating a major problem for C2 in potential scenarios. In response, Hu Jintao and the CMC have reinforced the need for standard operating procedures and have called for all headquarters units to read and adopt the new regulations for operation (PLA Daily, March 30). This exercise exposed flaws that previous artificial command post exercises did not. In the past, a simulated enemy’s victory would have caused problems for the losing command staff’s promotion prospects. For instance, the Peace Mission 2005 exercise held with the Russians last year was stage managed to the extent that the exercise lost any relevance for operational training except for the TU-95MS cruise missile carriers, and the continued training of airdropping procedures.

Realistic and Joint Training Emphasized

With the PLA starting to develop their own version of the 1980s Soviet Operational Maneuver Groups and the U.S. Army’s mechanized and armored divisions in Desert Storm, training in command and control and battle management systems will be intensified (GI Zhou Newsletter, November 11, 2005). The structure of the PLA’s new self-propelled gun (SPG) battalion, itself a copy of the US Army’s Paladin SPG battalion, is an indication of the PLA’s increasing reliance on automated fire control systems linked with signals intelligence and unmanned air vehicles (Bingqi Zhishi, January 2006). This will not only require additional specified training but also the extension of the length of military service, an ever increasing reliance on volunteers or an increase in personnel wages. This informationalized training is now being emphasized with four integrations—Goal Orientated Integration, Integrate Peacetime and Wartime Needs, Integrate High and Low Technologies and Integrate Military and Local Resources (Qianwei Bao, January 18). Joint training is the priority emphasis for the PLA in 2006 to enable force modularization—the building of battle groups.

Trials of New Structures and Command and Control for Joint Operations

In the Chengdu MR, the PLA for the past two years has been developing joint operational training to develop new methods of fighting under informationalized conditions. The commander of the program admits there is still a long way to go, though these methods have created a structure to push further developments. Many units in the PLA do not have the new organizational structures or equipment to exploit these new systems as they are “in a mechanized or semi-mechanized state with low informatized systems” (Zhangqi Bao, February 16). This statement reveals that the new brigade structures have not yet been fully implemented throughout the PLA.

In Sichuan, part of the Chengdu MR, a “light mechanized infantry experimental group,” known as an airmobile trials unit in Western terminology, has been developed to test these new joint concepts. Eighty percent of the unit’s equipment is new or modernized and is not available to other PLA units. This unit has quadrupled the firepower of the unit it was formed from, with only 30 percent of the original personnel. The unit is entirely airmobile—all vehicles are able to be slung underneath or stored inside the unit’s helicopters. Unless the PLA Air Force’s (PLAAF) heavy-lift helicopters were transferred to the PLA’s army aviation force, this implies that the unit is a joint PLA/PLAAF unit (Zhanqi Bao, February 16). New equipment includes a high mobility amphibious vehicle with an automated fire control system equipped with cannons and missiles. The unit therefore relies on maneuverability, surprise and advanced fire control systems to bring its firepower to bear. The unit appears to be a larger version of the PLA airmobile unit stationed in Xinjiang, which tested air mobile operations as well.

Mobilization Issues

The PLA, like the late Soviet army, keeps the majority of its most modern equipment in store for use in a potential war; earlier versions and only small amounts of the more recent equipment are utilized in training. Although this ensures new equipment during times of mobilization, it also leads to problems of personnel unfamiliarity with the modernized equipment and breakdowns due to poor maintenance. Furthermore, the mass mobilization of modernized military equipment alerts an opponent to one’s intentions. The PLA is aware of these problems and in the last three months of 2005, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee issued a series of proposals to incorporate the four integrations in wartime manpower mobilization and to improve upon rapid manpower mobilization systems (Zhongguo Guofang Bao, November 21, 2005; Zhongguo Guofang Bao, December 12, 2005).

In retrospect, the underlying purpose of General Cao’s trip to ensure that “everything is well and we are no threat” was to misdirect China-watchers. While observers were fixated upon Cao’s every word, the PLA quietly restructured its organization and improved upon its C2 and joint training. These changes may not indicate that Beijing is preparing for war, though they certainly do allow the PLA to operate as a far more lethal fighting force.