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People's Liberation Army


China's ground forces are currently comprised of approximately 75 army maneuver divisions. Approximately 20 percent of these divisions are designated "rapid reaction" units: combined arms units capable of deploying by road or rail within China without significant train-up or reserve augmentation. China is continuing the process of reducing the size of its army. The 500,000-man force reduction currently underway will streamline the force and facilitate funding to equip its "core" infantry, airborne, mechanized and aviation units with more advanced weapons. The army is supported by a large reserve-militia force numbering more than 1.5 million personnel and a one million man armed police force.

Chinese military strategy underwent a fundamental reformulation in 1985, based on the assessment that the improving relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union had greatly reduced the probability of a new world war, and consequently increased the salience of regional conflicts. This new strategy, initially articulated in "Strategic Changes to the Guiding Thoughts on National Defense Construction and Army Building," is termed "active" defense (also known as "strategic," "frontier" or "peripheral" defense). The new "limited war under high tech conditions" strategy focused on a major conflict or limited war along China's borders. In contrast to the previous People's War of trading space for time, the new concept called for a forward strategy that would take the fight to the enemy's territory. A new "fist force" for rapid response to regional conflict was intended to include a few units of well-equipped, high-tech ground, naval and air forces. This new force projection emphasis was reinforced by the lessons of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Particularly since the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict, the PLA has devoted considerable resources to the development of special operation forces (SOFs). These units likely have been assigned specific missions and tasks in a variety of Taiwan contingencies, to include locating or destroying C4I assets, transportation nodes, and logistics depots; capturing or destroying airfields; destroying air defense assets; and, conducting reconnaissance operations.

Traditionally, China's ground forces have been highly cohesive, patriotic, physically fit, and well trained in basic skills. In addition, they are generally strong in operational and communications security, as well as in the use of camouflage, concealment, and deception. Major weaknesses are lack of transport and logistic support. Ground force leadership, training in combined operations, and morale are poor. Most soldiers who enter the army are peasants with a poor education, and one-third of China’s ground forces leave active duty each year. Consequently, the PLA lacks a large body of experienced professional soldiers who are trained to operate sophisticated equipment.

The PLA is still a party army with nepotism and political/family connections continuing to predominate in officer appointment and advancement. The soldiers, for the most part, are semi-literate rural peasants; there is no professional NCO corps, per se. Military service, with its low remuneration and family disruption, is increasingly seen as a poor alternative to work in the private sector. China's leadership is aware of these weaknesses and is trying to address them in its overall modernization program. Thus, increasingly in the future, officers likely will be promoted on merit as opposed to connections, and the ratio of higher educated volunteer servicemen to conscripts likely will increase.

The People's Liberation Army began a modernization effort following the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, which made it clear to China's top commanders that a large and ill-equipped army was not a reliable instrument of national security policy. Since the 1980s, China replaced the regional and field army organization and divided up the nation's troops into 7 Military Regions.

Military Region Responsible Regions
Beijing Military Region Capital region and northern China
Shenyang Military Region NE China
Jinan Military Region Eastern China (North Sea Fleet)
Nanjing Military Region SE China (Taiwan, East Sea Fleet)
Guangzhou Military Region Southern China (South Sea Fleet)
Lanzhou Military Region Western China (Xinjiang)
Chengdu Military REgion SW China (Tibet)

The PLA ground forces consisted of conventionally armed main and regional units and by the late 1980s made up over 70 percent of the PLA. It provided a good conventional defense but had only limited offensive potential and was poorly equipped for nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare.

There was little evidence of the use of armored personnel carriers during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict in 1979, and tanks were used as mobile artillery and as support for dismounted infantry. Artillery forces emphasized towed guns, howitzers, and truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers. In the 1980s some self-propelled artillery entered service, but the PLA also produced rocket launchers as a cheaper but not totally effective alternative to self-propelled guns. There was a variety of construction equipment, mobile bridging, trucks, and prime movers. A new multiple rocket launcher for scattering antitank mines appeared in 1979, but mine-laying and mine-clearing equipment remained scarce.

Regional forces consisted of full-time PLA troops organized as independent divisions for garrison missions. Garrison divisions were static, artillery-heavy units deployed along the coastline and borders in areas of likely attack. Regional forces were armed less heavily than their main-force counterparts, and they were involved in training the militia. They were the PLA units commonly used to restore order during the Cultural Revolution.

By the late 1980s the PLA ground forces, which relied upon obsolescent but serviceable equipment, were most anxious to improve defenses against armored vehicles and aircraft. Most equipment was produced from Soviet designs of the 1950s, but weapons were being incrementally upgraded, some with Western technology. One example of upgraded, Soviet-design equipment was the Type 69 main battle tank, an improved version of the Type 59 main battle tank, itself based on the Soviet T-54. The Type 69 main battle tank had improved armor, a gun stabilizer, a fire control system including a laser range finder, infrared searchlights, and a 105mm smooth-bore gun. In 1987 the existence of a new, Type 80 main battle tank was revealed in the Western press. The tank had a new chassis, a 105mm gun, and a fire control system. Production of the Type 80 tank had not yet begun. The PLA was believed to have atomic demolition munitions, and there were unconfirmed reports that it also had tactical nuclear weapons. In any case, nuclear bombs and missiles in the Chinese inventory could be used in a theater role. The PLA had a scarcity of antitank guided missiles, tactical surface-to-air missiles, and electronics to improve communications, fire control, and sensors. China began production of the Soviet Sagger antitank missile in 1979 but lacked a more powerful, longer range, semiautomatic antitank guided missile. The PLA required a mobile surface-to-air missile and an infantry shoulder-fired missile for use against helicopters and certain other aircraft.

Sources and Resources

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