The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is Known, Unknown, and Speculation (Part 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 4

China's military reforms have the potential to dramatically change the composition of China's top military body, the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Note: This article is part of a series examining changes to China’s Military organizational structure and personnel. Part 1 examines what is known and unknown. Part 2 contains speculation as to changes that may occur in the future.  Parts 1&2 are available as a single document at the bottom of this page.

As discussed in Part 1, the “unknowns” about China’s ongoing military reorganization far exceed the “knowns” as the major changes are revealed in a deliberate yet piecemeal fashion. Part 2 moves further into the realm of speculation, focusing on two key areas. The first area of speculation addresses the complex and understandably politically sensitive area of reforming the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) cumbersome grade and rank system to meet the requirements of the reorganized system. This process will affect every member and organization in the PLA; some will benefit and some will not. It is likely to be a challenging process. The second area of speculation examines the various ways that the top leadership organ of the PLA, the Central Military Commission (CMC), might evolve to better “command” as well as represent the interests of the PLA and Chinese armed forces overall. Understanding the dynamics of these two speculations, as well as the outcomes, will be essential building blocks for future analysis of the motives and the implications of this iteration of PLA reorganization and reform.

Possible Changes to the PLA’s System of Grade and Ranks

In the PLA, every organization and officer is assigned a grade from the platoon level to the CMC to designate their position in the military hierarchy. Organizationally, units can only command other units of lesser grade levels. Officers are assigned grades along with military ranks. Each grade from military region leader down has two assigned ranks, while some ranks, such as major general, can be assigned to up to four grades. This is one of the PLA’s defining features, as an officer’s grade is more important than his rank. [1]

Although no official reports on the reorganization have mentioned a change to the grade system, there are at least four possible adjustments based on the changes that have occurred. First, the Military Region (MR) Leader and Deputy Leader grades will likely be renamed Theater Leader and Deputy Leader, respectively. Second, the Division Deputy Leader grade may be renamed Brigade Leader. This would reflect the fact that over the past decade the PLA has been shifting several components from a division and subordinate regiment structure to a brigade structure with subordinate battalions. In addition, there is a third possibility that the entire structure may be reorganized by adding or eliminating both a Leader and Deputy Leader grade or adjusting units from one grade to another. For example, there has been speculation that all Corps Leader- and Deputy Leader-grade operational and support organizations, such as group armies and the 15th Airborne Corps will be downgraded to Division Leader; however, the Corps Leader and Deputy Leader grades likely will remain for functional and administrative departments (gwy.yibys.com, September 9, 2015). A fourth possible adjustment is to abolish the entire grade structure and rely solely on ranks. The grade structure originated with the PLA’s predecessor, the Red Army, in the 1920s and underwent several adjustments since then; however, it will have to be replaced with some type of structure indicating rank. [2] One of the driving forces to change the grade structure is presumably the result of a previous round of reforms. In 2003, 200,000 personnel (85 percent of whom were officers) were downsized, their positions taken by an expanded corps of tens of thousands of noncommissioned officers (NCOs). Though they filled an important personnel gap, they currently have no grade themselves and are referred to as “acting” (代理) leaders.

There is also speculation that the entire rank structure may be altered in an attempt to clarify and simplify the personnel system and make seniority, authority, and responsibility levels more transparent. [3] As shown in Table 1 of Part 1, each grade up to MR Leader has a primary and secondary rank where, as a general rule, officers receive a rank promotion every four years up to colonel and a grade promotion every three years up to Regiment Leader (China Brief, February 4). After that, the rank and grade promotions, which are rarely simultaneous, are based on available billets, requirements and mandatory retirement ages. Furthermore, mandatory retirement ages are based on their grade, not their rank or time-in-service. [4]

One Grade, One Rank?

Based on a review of various unofficial media reports, one possibility for rank structure reform is that the PLA will cease to have two grades per rank, wherein one rank can be assigned to more than one grade. This is a logical step in rationalizing the PLA’s rank system, a process that began with the PLA’s eighth force reduction of one million personnel that started in 1985 and reduced the number of MRs from 11 to 7. As part of the 1985 reform, the PLA transitioned from 18 grades to 15 and reestablished ranks in the PLA in 1988. From 1988–1994, each grade had three ranks, before the system was simplified to two grades per rank.

Senior Colonel Rank

A second possible rank structure reform involves the abolition of the senior colonel (大校) rank, or that the PLA will re-introduce a new 4-star flag officer rank—or both (gwy.yibys.com, September 9, 2015). Senior colonels currently may have positions in the grades of division deputy leader, division leader, or corps deputy leader-level. Based on their grade and position, the retirement age for senior colonels ranges from 50–58 years old. Elimination of this rank would be a reasonable step to take in conjunction with the options for restructuring grades, units and responsibilities discussed elsewhere in this paper.

4-Star Flag Officer

One of the driving forces for the adoption of a “4-star” flag officer rank is the PLA’s growing foreign military relations program, such that a “4-star” general or admiral meets with his “4-star counterpart.” Although this matters in terms of protocol from a visual perspective, it does not necessarily mean that they are co-equals. [5]

To date, one of the challenges for U.S. military leaders has been to figure out who their PLA counterpart has been. As a general rule, the U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef) and China’s Defense Minister (DefMin) are considered counterparts and host each other; however, it is important to keep in mind that they are not true counterparts in terms of responsibilities. [6] In addition to hosting the DefMin, the SecDef has also hosted five of the six CMC vice chairmen during visits to the U.S. [7]

The question is who will receive four stars. One possibility is that all CMC vice chairmen and members and some Theater Leader-grade officers will receive a fourth star, while certain Theater Leader- and Deputy Leader-grade officers will have three stars, Corps Leader- and Deputy Leader-grade officers will have two stars, and Division Leader-grade officers will have one star. There are many other options, each with downstream consequences for rank, grade and structural reforms. For example, one alternative approach is that Corps Deputy Leader-grade officers could receive one star and the Senior Colonel rank could be eliminated; such a move would require redefining the organizational positions and associated rank for all billets at the colonel to major general levels—a major undertaking for any military. Table 1 shows a possible grade and rank structure and demonstrates the complexity of the system. For purposes of this article only, the following unofficial acronyms are used: DM (Defense Minister), JSD (Joint Staff Department), PWD (Political Work Department), LSD (Logistics Support Department), and EDD (Equipment Development Department), PLAA (PLA Army), PLAN (PLA Navy), PLAAF (PLA Air Force), PLARF (PLA Rocket Force), PAP (People’s Armed Police), and HQ (headquarters).

Table 1: Possible Grade and Rank Restructuring

Grade

Rank

Organizations

CMC Chairman

Vice Chairmen

None

Possible 4-star general

CMC Member

Possible 4-star general

DM, JSD, PWD, LSD, EDD

Theater Leader

Possible 4-star general

PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF, PLARF, PAP, 5 Theaters

Theater Deputy Leader

3-star general

3 Theater Navy HQ, 5 Theater Air Force HQ, possible Theater Missile Force HQ, some academic institutions, equipment research academies

Corps Leader

2-star general

Group armies; airborne corps; Rocket Force bases; some administrative and functional departments; some academic institutions

Corps Deputy Leader

Possible 2-star general

Naval bases; PLAAF bases and command posts

Division Leader

1-star general

Divisions, naval zhidui (flotillas), air divisions, airborne divisions, aircraft carrier

Brigade Leader

Colonel

Brigades, air wings, strategic missile subs

Regiment Leader

Lt Colonel

Regiments, naval dadui (squadrons) destroyers, nuclear powered subs

Regiment Deputy Leader

Major

Frigates, conventional powered subs

Battalion Leader

Major

Battalions; flight and maintenance groups

Battalion Deputy Leader

Major

Company Leader

Captain

Companies; fight and maintenance squadrons

Company Deputy Leader

Captain

Platoon Leader

1st lieutenant

Platoons

Who Will Be on the CMC?

One of the biggest unanswered questions so far is who will be on the “new” Central Military Commission and when will it reflect the new PLA force structure. Currently, the two vice chairmen and eight members of the CMC since the 18th Party Congress in 2012 continue to serve in their same positions (MOD, January 1; www.81.cn, January 28). Table 2, which provides a matrix with eight possible CMC manning options (O-1 to O-8) ranging from a very small CMC to a large CMC, demonstrates the complexity of the process. Each option poses a different set of senior level personnel issues with potential political as well as interpersonal ramifications for the leadership.

Prior to 2016, the leaders of the General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD) were CMC Members because that was the grade of their organization, while the commanders of the PLAN, PLAAF, and PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) were “upgraded” based on a “policy promotion” (政策升级) to CMC Member grade even though the grade of their organization was only a MR Leader grade. As a result, it is reasonable to anticipate that anyone who serves as the leader of a CMC Member-grade organization in the future will also be an automatic CMC Member. It is also reasonable to expect that commanders of the services will continue to serve on the CMC. However, it is not necessary that every Theater Leader grade officer will automatically become a CMC Member. For example, there is no indication that the Theater-grade leadership positions at the Academy of Military Science, the National Defense University and the People’s Armed Police will be added to the CMC.

It is assumed that the CMC will continue to have two uniformed vice chairman; however, this too could change. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, there were various uniformed vice chairman-level billets, including a secretary general, deputy secretary general, first vice chairman, executive vice chairman, and first secretary. [8] In addition, the number of uniformed vice chairmen has also ranged from six or more in the 1970s to three in the 1990s and early 2000s. As such, there would be a precedent for adding a third vice chairman.

The following bullets briefly discuss the information in each option.

· Option 1: The CMC retains the same members as prior to the reorganization.

· Option 2: The PLA Army commander is added.

· Option 3: The commander of the Strategic Support Force is added. This would follow the precedent set by the inclusion of the commander of the Second Artillery commander on the CMC.

· Option 4: The commanders of the five theaters are added; however, to further confuse the issue, if the Central Theater is, in fact, only a Theater Deputy Leader-grade organization, then the possibility exists that it the commander will not be able to be a CMC Member, because he would have to “skip a grade.”

· Option 5: Given the increasing emphasis on the People’s Armed Police (PAP) as a component of the CMC, there is a slight possibility that the commander could be added.

· Option 6: Given that the reorganization focuses on a three-tiered structure of “CMC—theater commands—troops” command system and an administration system that runs from the CMC through various services to the troops, the commanders of the administrative organizations (PLAA, PLAN, PLAAF, PLARF, and PAP) are not included, such that only the operational commands (e.g., theaters) and PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) are included (www.81.cn, November 26, 2015).

· Option 7: The Commander of the Strategic Support Force is not included because the Strategic Support Force is not a service.

· Option 8: Only the Defense Minister, Chief of Staff (e.g., Chief of the Joint Staff), and Director of the Political Works Department are included (Sina.com, January 11). [9] This is a possibility, because the Logistics Support Department and Equipment Development Departments may be downgraded to Theater Leader, since the previous General Logistics Department and General Armament Department were already one-half step below the General Staff Department and General Political Department, and their counterparts from the MR Leader down to the Regiment Leader grade organizations were all one full grade below the Headquarters Department and Political Department.

Table 2: CMC Member Options

Grade

O-1

O-2

O-3

O-4

O-5

O-6

O-7

O-8

CMC

Member

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

LSD

EDD

DM

JSD

PWD

Theater Leader

PLAN

PLAAF

PLARF

PLAA

PLAN

PLAAF

PLARF

PLAA

PLAN

PLAAF

PLARF

PLASSF

PLAA

PLAN

PLAAF

PLARF

PLASSF

5 Theaters

PLAA

PLAN

PLAAF

PLARF

PLASSF

PAP

5 Theaters

PLASSF

5 Theaters

5 Theaters

When determining who can serve as a CMC Member, both time-in-grade and time-in-rank must be taken into consideration. The July 2010 group of promotions demonstrated the path to full general, which combines rank and grade promotions consisting of three observable steps (China Brief July 22, 2010, and China Brief, August 5, 2010):

  • Step One: Lieutenant generals (LTGs) in a MR Deputy Leader-grade move laterally to a second position in the same grade.
  • Step Two: After three or so years, they receive a grade promotion to an MR leader-grade position, and
  • Step Three: After three years or so as a LTG in an MR leader-grade position, they receive a rank promotion to full general. [10]
  • In order to become a CMC member-grade officer, an officer first serves in one of the above MR leader-grade billets; however, not every officer who serves in one of these billets becomes a CMC member.

Historically, previous CMC Members have held their 3-star rank for a minimum of two years before they became CMC Members. Therefore, although at least four of the theater commanders and the new PLA Army commander currently have held the grade of MR Leader for more than two years, they only received their third star in July 2015 and may not be eligible to receive a policy promotion to CMC Member until they have at least two years’ time-in-rank, which means mid-2017 (China Brief July 22, 2010, and China Brief, August 5, 2010). [11] In recent practice, however, there have been a number of exceptions to the time-in-grade and time-in-position standards that appeared to be the pattern in 2010. [12]

It is not yet clear who will become members of the CMC and exactly when the change in personnel will occur. This may be a phased in process over the next 20 months, or it might not occur until the 19th Party Congress in late 2017 when several members are due to retire. Whatever happens, there should be a large changeover in the CMC. Based on the existing pattern of age requirements (retire at age 68; continue to serve at age 67), six members should retire, while four members of the current CMC could stay on based on age, including Fang Fenghui (April 1951), Zhang Yang (August 1951), and Wei Fenghe (February 1954). Zhang Youxia (July 1950) will be 67 and, although on the cusp of retirement, should also still be eligible to remain. A potential CMC lineup in 2017 would include Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang as vice chairmen, Zhang Youxia as the Defense Minister and perhaps vice chairman, and Wei Fenghe continuing as commander of the Rocket Force.

The timeline for revamping the CMC, should it happen before the 19th Party Congress, has several possible steps. Prior to 2017, in conjunction with changes now underway, the CMC might be expanded from 10 uniformed vice chairmen/members to 11 or 12 with the addition of the Army (GEN Li Zuocheng) and possibly the Strategic Support Force commander (LTG Gao Jin). [13] These changes would pose two “process” issues in that Li is not a member (full or alternate) of the Party Central Committee–and the CMC is a Central Committee organization. And LTG Gao, while an alternate member of the Central Committee, has only been in an MR leader grade position as President of the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS) for one year and only a LTG since Aug 2013.

The expansion of the CMC at this time remains in question. One possible course of action is that Li could be added to the Central Committee at the next plenum in the fall of 2016 and Gao could be promoted to full general this summer, paving the way for him to also be promoted to the CMC at the next plenum. Alternatively, any change to the CMC could wait until 2017 permitting due course retirements and reducing policy exceptions for promotions.

Conclusions

Although official Chinese and PLA media articles have laid out the general policy issues and reforms at the CMC, service headquarters, and theater command levels, there has been no indication about who will become the new generation of CMC leaders. Other important details, such as the organizational structures of the services and theater commands or the details of how operational units will be affected by the reforms, have also not yet been announced. Even after the official announcements are made, many gaps in the information made public, such as the structure for the first-, second- and third-level administrative and functional departments for the various organizations, remain. Constant close attention and continuing analysis is necessary to better understand the inner complexities of this complex bureaucratic structure.

The past two years must have been a period of high anxiety for many PLA personnel as they awaited word on how their jobs would be affected by the reforms. Some, though probably not all, operational units equipped with older generations of weapons likely will be cut from the active force; some units, such as large caliber towed antiaircraft artillery units in the Army and Air Force, may be transferred to the reserves. A variety of local headquarters could also be consolidated or eliminated. Some personnel billets traditionally allotted to the Army could be assigned to the other services to better balance the force.

In the next few years, those who were not demobilized will nonetheless have to cope with even more change as units are shifted among headquarters and possibly reorganized internally. As the various headquarters become operational, it will likely take some time for all the functional offices to adjust to their new duties and de-conflict overlapping responsibilities. At the same time, many personnel will feel increased scrutiny from the super-charged discipline inspection and audit agencies tasked to root out corruption.

A peacetime objective of the reforms is to reduce graft and corruption in the PLA. Success in this regard will be visible through disciplinary actions taken against those identified through more active inspection and auditing protocols. However, the PLA’s success in its battle with corruption will be hard for outsiders to judge, given the sensitivities surrounding the problem and its relationship to larger political issues in the Party and country as a whole.

In this period of transition from the old to new system, it is possible that combat readiness in some units could suffer until all the kinks are works out. While the stated goal is to increase the deterrence and combat capabilities of the PLA, the true effectiveness of these reforms cannot be judged until the PLA is put to the test of modern, extended combat against a capable opponent.

So far, there is little evidence pointing to the emergence of a more balanced, truly joint force before 2020. Even after personnel reductions and organizational changes are finished, the Army will likely be more than twice as large as any other service. For some time into the future, Army officers will continue to dominate the CMC and theater command headquarters indicating the degree of difficulty the PLA faces as it attempts an historic shift to abandon the “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea,” as proclaimed in the 2015 white paper on “China’s Military Strategy.” Increasing the percentage of non-Army officers in senior leadership positions, especially at the CMC level and potentially including theater commands, will be a gradual process taking many years. It will also require changes in the PLA’s system of academies and universities to better prepare officers from all services to assume joint leadership and staff assignments.

Nonetheless, the senior PLA leadership appears to be cognizant of the problems it faces and recognizes that this series of reforms will take years to implement and fine-tune. More changes will be necessary in the decades ahead. These reforms are but the latest chapter in a multi-decade, multi-generational military modernization and transformation process that began in the late 1970s and is scheduled to continue until the mid-century target of 2049, the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. [14]

Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at Defense Group Inc. (DGI) and a concurrent Senior China Analyst with the USAF’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI). He is a retired U.S. Air Force officer, whose extensive service abroad includes a tour in China as the Assistant Air Attaché. He has written numerous articles on Chinese military affairs. A Chinese linguist, he holds an M.A. in international relations from Boston University.

Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. Mr. Blasko was an army attaché in Beijing from 1992–1995 and in Hong Kong from 1995–1996. He is the author of The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).

John F. Corbett, Jr., an Analytic Director with CENTRA Technology, Inc. since 2001, specializes in China, Taiwan, and Asian military and security issues. He is a retired US Army Colonel and Military Intelligence/China Foreign Area Officer (FAO), and has served as an army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong. He has published articles in The China Quarterly and The China Strategic Review and has contributed chapters to the NBR/U.S. Army War College series of books on the Chinese military.

Notes

1. See Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, eds, The PLA as Organization v2.0, p. 10–15. <http://www.pla-org.com/downloads/>.

2. Zhu Jianxin, Guo Fei, Ji Haitao, Officer System: Comparison and Reforms (军官制度:比较与改革), Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, December 2006, pp. 36–37.

3. The PLA did not have a rank system until 1955 and subsequently abolished it in 1965. The current rank system was implemented in 1988.

4. Xu Ping, ed., Record of New China Implements Military Rank System (新中国实行军衔制纪实), Beijing: Gold Wall Press, June 2010. According to the Chinese Military Encyclopedia, the first ranks Regulations were passed on July 1, 1988 and amended on May 12, 1994. The Regulations were amended again on July 1, 1998. The Regulations were last amended on December 20, 2002. The 1988 Regulations re-established officer ranks after they were abolished in 1965. Of note, the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed a Military Service Law in May 1984 that laid the ground work for reinstituting ranks, but the follow-on PLA Officer Rank Regulations were not implemented until 1988. The 1984 Law was amended on December 29, 1998. Song Shilun and Xiao Ke, eds., Chinese Military Encyclopedia (中国军事百科全书), Beijing: Academy of Military Science Publishers, July 1997, Volume 4, p. 392. <http://www.china.com.cn/chinese/zhuanti/xian/450665.htm>; <http://www.bl.gov.cn/doc/rwb/2002_12_20/76725.shtml>. The Military Service Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国兵役法) was adopted on May 31, 1984 by the Second Session of the Sixth National People’s Congress.

5. Pollpeter and Allen, Chapter 3 on the Ministry of National Defense, p. 85–116.

6. See Kenneth W. Allen, Christopher M. Clarke, John F. Corbett, Jr., and Lonnie D. Henley, “China’s Defense Minister and Ministry of National Defense,” in Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, eds., The PLA as Organization v2.0, <www.pla-org.com/downloads/>.

7. Kenneth Allen and Phillip C. Saunders, “PLA Foreign Relations under Xi Jinping: Continuity and/or Change?,” National Defense University, Forthcoming mid-2016; Other examples of the mis-match between U.S. and Chinese counterparts during state-to-state visits include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), heads of the Air Force and Navy, and commander of Pacific Command. The CJCS has been a rough equivalent to the two CMC vice chairmen, but was also considered a counterpart to the former Chief of the General Staff (COGS), who served as the director of the General Staff Department. It is not clear who CJCS’s new counterpart will be under the reorganization. The responsibilities of the new Joint Staff Department (JSD) and its Director are much more limited in scope than the responsibilities of the former General Staff Department and the COGS. At least five functional subdepartments were removed from the GSD and resubordinated to become new CMC functional organs. Other GSD responsibilities were assigned to the new Army Headquarters and the Strategic Support Force. As such, while the Director of the JSD may be first among the leaders of the CMC subordinate staff elements (except perhaps for the Director of the General Office) it does not appear that he will be a true counterpart to the U.S. CJCS in terms of duties and responsibilities. Whereas the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) and the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) have direct PLA counterparts (e.g., the PLAAF and PLAN commanders, respectively), the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA) previously did not have a direct counterpart until the new Commander of the PLA Army was appointed in January. Meanwhile the Commander of Pacific Command (COMPACOM) has visited China more than any other person holding a leadership position. Although he does not have an exact counterpart, various Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (DCOGS) and MR Commanders have hosted him and vice versa. He will most likely continue to deal with the new theater command commanders and Deputy Chiefs of the Joint Staff Department.

8. “The Central Military Commission,” in Hu Guangzheng, ed., China Military Encyclopedia Version 2, Military Organization (军制) Volume 1. Beijing: China Encyclopedia Publishing House, July 2007, p. 22–31.

9. Although the head of the former General Staff Department was identified as the Chief of the General Staff (总参某长), the head of the new Joint Staff is known only as the Chief of Staff (参谋长).

10. Since the rank-to-grade adjustment in 1994, all Military Region (MR) leader-grade officers in the PLA have received their third star, but it is not always at the same time they assume their billet.

11. Li Zuocheng, Song Puxuan, Liu Yuejun, and Zhao Zongji were all promoted to full general on July 31, 2015. The commander of the Central Theater, Han Weiguo only received his second star at the same time.

12. Six of the ten officers promoted to full general/admiral in 2015 were exceptions. ADM Miao Hua moved to a MR-grade position in 2014 with less than two years as a LTG; then was promoted to full admiral having served in two MR-grade positions in one year. Five others were promoted after having only served two years or less as a LTG and/or less than three years in a MR-grade position. In hindsight, one could speculate these were “policy” exceptions preparing the way for the current reorganization now underway.

13. Generals Li and Gao were born in October 1953 and April 1959 respectively, meaning that they would be eligible for the CMC based on mandatory dates of retirement. Dates of birth are from DOD’s Directory of PRC Military Personalities, March 2015.

14. See Phillip C. Saunders and Joel Wuthnow, “A First Cut at the Organizational Restructuring of the Chinese Military,” National Defense University’s Joint Forces Quarterly, forthcoming, early 2016, for additional information about the reorganization.