The PRC 60th Anniversary Parade: Equipment on Display, Not Military Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 19

Tongzhou Airfield Second Artillery Contingent (L) and Tongzhou Airfield Barracks North (R)

The Chinese press has announced that 52 types of “new weapon systems” will be on display in 30 vehicle and 12 air formations during the October 1st military parade portion of the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PLA Daily, September 17). Fourteen dismounted formations from active and reserve People’s Liberation Army (PLA) units, military academies, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and militia will follow the tri-service honor guard. All personnel will wear new (Type-07) camouflage, service, or dress uniforms issued in recent years.

Based on what can be deduced from other official media reports, unofficial Chinese blogs and internet postings, and public satellite images (i.e. Google Earth), outside observers can verify what the Chinese have said and make a pretty good prediction of what will be seen during the parade. Yet, the new uniforms and newly painted equipments on display indicate little about actual Chinese military capabilities. The more pertinent issue for Chinese military experts is how the parade reflects military doctrine and how the preparations for this event impact the annual training schedule for the personnel and units involved.

All of the Chinese Armed Forces on Parade

This is a parade of the entire Chinese armed forces, not just the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The Chinese armed forces are a “party army”: their loyalty is pledged to the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), not the state (People’s Republic of China). The first mission defined by Party General-Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Hu Jintao in his “historic missions in the new century” is to safeguard the Party’s governing position (Xinhua News Agency, October 25, 2007). Every parade formation, except for the honor guard, will be led by two leaders or two vehicles. These pairs represent unit commanders and political officers. In the Chinese armed forces, the commander and political officer are jointly responsible for the actions of their unit. There are many examples where both commander and political officer were relieved of their duties when something went wrong.

By law, the Chinese armed forces are composed of 1) the active and reserve units of the PLA, 2) the PAP, and 3) the militia. The PLA is composed of three services, the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and an independent branch, the Second Artillery—the strategic missile force composed of both nuclear and conventionally-armed ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Each element of the armed forces has a primary mission: the PLA is focused primarily on defense against external enemies; the primary role of the PAP, in conjunction with the civilian Ministry of Public Security police force, is internal/domestic security [The security tasks of the PAP were enumerated recently in the Law on the People’s Armed Police Force of the People’s Republic of China passed on August 29, 2009.]; while the militia may provide support to both external and domestic security missions. As secondary tasks, the PLA and the PAP may support the other in their primary missions.

According to Chinese doctrine (for example, see The Science of Campaigns), all elements of the armed forces are to be integrated with civilian support into joint campaigns to fight local wars under informationized conditions or conduct “non-traditional security” missions (e.g. anti-terrorism, disaster relief operations, internal stability functions, public health security).

In any mission the armed forces undertake the Chinese leadership will seek to mobilize the public to support their efforts politically, economically, and materially as necessary. In that regard, while stoking national pride the 60th anniversary parade aims also illustrate to the Chinese population that the last decade of double-digit increases to the defense budget have resulted in tangible progress (China Brief, September 10). This is a people’s parade and the uniformed participants fully understand that they need the public’s support as they continue to operate within the modernized “strategic concept” of People’s War, which originated as a political-military strategy invented by Mao Zedong.

Also according to Chinese doctrine, military parades contribute to China’s overall, multi-layered posture of strategic deterrence (e.g. deterring conventional attack on Chinese territory or sovereignty, deterring nuclear attack, deterring further steps toward Taiwan independence, and deterring the “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism, and extremism”). The Science of Military Strategy, published by the Chinese Academy of Military Science, the country’s premier military research institute for the development of military strategy, operations, and tactics and which is directly controlled by the Central Military Commission, states:

“Demonstrating momentum by showing the disposition of the strength to the enemy is to display clearly one’s deterrent force for bringing about psychological pressure on and fear to the opponent and thus to force him to submit. Such deterrent forms as large-scale military review, joint military exercise, and military visit, etc, are usually adopted” [1].

The “enemies” that Beijing seeks to deter may be individuals or groups of terrorists, separatists, or extremists either in China or along its borders or may be state actors which challenge its sovereignty. Thus, the parade is intended for both domestic and foreign audiences. The Chinese leadership will hail it as a measure of their transparency in military affairs.

Parade Preparations Reveal Much

A Google Earth satellite image of Beijing taken in June 2009 covers the “Parade Villages” at the Tongzhou and Shahe military airfields near Beijing. The preparations and training that have been underway at these sites for five months are clearly visible even to an untrained eye. Foreign journalists have been allowed access to the Shahe “Parade Village” to observe living conditions and training for dismounted personnel marching in the parade (China Military Online, September 11).

Multiple ground and air rehearsals have been conducted along the parade route down Chang’an Boulevard and the Chinese blogosphere is abuzz with close-up photos and videos of equipment and personnel. Analysis of Google Earth imagery matched with rehearsal photographs reveals much of what will be seen on October 1st.

Earlier this year, barracks and vehicle parking lots were constructed along the main runway at Tongzhou airfield. Open unit parking lots for 30 vehicle formations are visible on the Google Earth imagery. At the time of the image, nine units were on the runway assembling or practicing driving in formation. The standard formation seen in 1999, four rows of vehicles with four columns led by two vehicles (for a total of 18 vehicles per formation) is evidenced once more on the runway.

Near the north end of the runway, perhaps the most prominent sight is the perfect formation of 18 armored personnel carriers painted white, denoting their subordination to the PAP. Main battle tanks, armored fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, multiple rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, and ballistic and cruise missiles of the Second Artillery are all recognizable on the runway and parked in open lots.

Among the parked vehicles, many formations are green (generally indicating Army units) and four can be seen to be blue (indicating Navy, Marines, Air Force, or Airborne). In addition to the 18 vehicles that will drive in the parade, each unit has a few spares in case of maintenance problems.

The Second Artillery contingent is seen at the southern end of the airfield. Five types of missile systems can be seen: 19 DF-11 short-range ballistic missiles, 19 DF-15 short-range ballistic missiles, 19 DF-21 medium-range ballistic missiles, 14 DF-31/31A intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 19 DH-10 cruise missiles. (There has been no sighting yet of the new JL-2 SLBM, which is eventually expected to be deployed to the Navy.) Significantly, the 14 DF-31/31As present at the airfield comprise a very large percentage of the total number of DF-31/31As deployed. According to the 2009 National Air and Space Intelligence Center report on the “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat,” less than 15 of each of the DF-31 and DF-31As have been deployed.

While, like the Chinese say, the weapons on display have been made in China (albeit some under license from Russia and France), it is evident from the rehearsal photographs that more than half of the systems are the same as or modifications or upgrades of weapons seen in the 1999 parade. Unlike previous parades, however, communications and logistics support vehicles will also participate.

The 12 formations of aircraft to over-fly Beijing will include China’s newest fighter, the J-10, other fighters and fighter-bombers (J-8, J-11, and JH-7), airborne refuelers, early warning and control aircraft, and multiple types of helicopters.

Many of the weapons in the parade are considered “assassin’s mace” (shashoujian) weapons in the Chinese literature. However, the fact that so many different types of weapons from all services, to include communications and logistics vehicles, are included in the parade represents Chinese military doctrine that calls for all weapons, new and old, to be integrated into campaigns. “Assassin’s mace” weapons will be used in joint campaigns with other elements of firepower, mobility, and special operations integrated with systems to prosecute electronic and information war. Yet, according to PLA doctrine, “information warfare is a means, not a goal” [2].

The Parade and Military Organization and Training

Whether or not the new equipment has been seen officially in public before, military enthusiasts and analysts inside and outside of China have been monitoring the status of nearly every weapon (if not all of them) in the parade. Long before the parade rehearsals, websites such as the excellent had photos and specifications for the majority of Chinese gear to be seen in the parade.

The appearance of equipment in the parade says nothing conclusive about how widespread it has been deployed to the force. For example, the Type 96 and Type 98/99-series main battle tanks were both seen in 1999. Only 10 Type 98 tanks led eight Type 96s in a mixed formation suggesting there were only 10 Type 99s deployed within the whole of the PLA at that time (a second formation composed entirely of 18 Type 96s preceded the mixed formation in the 1999 parade). This year a full formation of 18 Type 99 will be followed by a second formation of 18 Type 96 series tanks. Currently only about 200 Type 98/99 series tanks are estimated to be deployed to the force, but some 1,500 Type 96-series are found in units throughout the country. These two most advanced main battle tanks make up less than one-third the 6,700 tanks in the PLA (total number found in the 2009 Department of Defense Report to Congress).

This year, much larger formations of Second Artillery missiles will be paraded as compared to the 1999 performance. At that time, nine each of the early models of DF-11 and DF-15s, six DF-21s, and three DF-31s were included. Despite it making a showing at the 1999 parade, according to the 2009 Department of Defense Report to Congress, the DF-31 was not deployed operationally until some seven years later in 2006. Full formations of these ballistic missiles (perhaps ranging from 12-18 missiles depending on type), as well as the recently deployed DH-10 land-attack cruise missile, will be in the parade. However, the numbers of each type of missile seen in the parade do not correspond to the actual numbers of missiles found in operational units. Again according to the Department of Defense Report to Congress, 700-750 DF-11s, 350-400 DF-15s, 60-80 DF-21s, and 150-350 DH-10s missiles are in PLA units (the number of each type of launcher is usually less than the number of missiles available).

The set-piece parade formations of personnel, vehicles, and aircraft also provide no insights into how the PLA has restructured itself over the past decade. The structure of army divisions has been modified; new brigades have been created (many from former divisions). The mix of equipment in the parade does not provide any clue to how these divisions and brigades are organized.

What is more important is that the parade does not reveal how well-trained the troops are to actually use these weapons. While marching or driving in precise formations is rigorous work requiring a high degree of discipline and stamina, the parade formations have absolutely no tactical value or relevance to how units actually move, shoot, and communicate in battle or are integrated into larger systems-of-systems necessary for modern war.

Parade personnel and equipment will miss an entire season of unit field training. Yet the impact is greater than just for the personnel and equipment involved in the parade. In order to assemble sufficient soldiers of the proper height, many subordinate units in the larger organization will have to contribute personnel to create a detachment of the proper size to march in the parade. Units also must send clerks, cooks, medics, and mechanics to support the marchers. Parent units can consolidate those left behind for training or train at less than full-strength, but the parade will have an impact on many units’ annual training schedules.


The individuals and units involved in the execution of the parade can rightfully be proud of their accomplishments. It will be no small maintenance accomplishment to get so many pieces of military equipment to complete the route without breakdown after months of slow formation driving. Participation undoubtedly increases unit esprit and confidence in the soldiers and their leaders. Many small unit leaders will likely have improved their own leadership skills to motivate subordinates during what certainly have been trying times during parade practice. The logistics effort to support this commitment also gives the units experience at operating away from their home bases (even if in nice barracks along airfields). Therefore, some benefits accrue from this event, but these intangibles say little about the warfighting or “military operations other than war” capabilities of the Chinese armed forces.

No judgment about Chinese military capabilities can be rendered simply by watching this parade. And more importantly, based on the weapons on display no judgment can be rendered as to the Chinese intention behind the deployment of these weapons. The best that can be said is that these weapons are inventory—but from the parade itself, we do not know how many have been deployed into units or if the units have developed personnel capable of planning for their employment, operating them to their maximum effectiveness, and supporting them in the field under the stress of combat.

The 60th anniversary parade is one milestone in China’s long-term, multi-faceted military modernization process. It will be major morale boost for the force and a source of national pride for the Chinese public, but the parade should not be misinterpreted by attributing unwarranted intentions to this single event.


1. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005, p. 223.
2. The Science of Campaigns. National Defense University Press, both 2000 and 2006 editions make these points.