China’s military modernisation & its implications for India: Part II – Overview of reforms

New Delhi, April 11 (IANS) The most important initiative as part of these reforms was the reorganisation of China’s seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC), which is responsible for the overall management of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The CMC is both a state institution and a CPC organ. But the CPC holds de facto control over it, as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is also the Chairman of the CMC, i.e., President Xi Jinping.
Currently, other six members of the CMC are Vice Chairmen General Xu Qiliang (from PLA Air Force [PLAAF]) and General Zhang Youxia (PLA), General Wei Fenghe (Defence Minister), General Li Zuocheng (Chief of the Joint Staff Department), Admiral Miao Hua (PLAN) and General Zhang Shengmin (PLA Rocket Force).
In January 2016, the CMC’s four general departments — staff, politics, logistics, and armaments — were reorganised into 15 “functional segments, including seven departments, three commissions, and five directly affiliated bodies”.
The CCP deemed the earlier four general departments as representing the Soviet-style top-down chain of command and highly bureaucratic decision-making. In its place, the reorganised CMC streamlined the command by giving it to the respective agencies, while retaining the final decision-making authority with Chairman, CMC.
The new agencies included the general office, joint staff, political work, logistical support, equipment development, training and administration, and national defence mobilisation. Chinese sources describe the reorganised CMC as doing overall decision-making and management, while theatre commands focus on operations, and the forces (existing and newly created).
Moving towards jointness with the theatre commands
According to the ‘Science of Military Strategy’ (2013), before introducing jointness, the PLA operated in silos and was attuned to the previous-generation mechanised warfare age. The document therefore recommended the re-orientation of the PLA towards “integrated joint operations under informatised conditions”.
Indian and Western strategic experts argue that the PLA has studied the US military campaigns in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2002), learned from them, and absorbed it into their own system.
For instance, the demonstration of the American military in joint fighting, new technologies, rapid troop deployment capability across theatres and out-of-area operations convinced the CPC and the PLA to put in place its plans for joint war-fighting — the PLA generals use the term ‘integrated joint command’ — in case hostilities break out against the US and neighbours such as Japan, Taiwan and India.
In February 2016, the PLA introduced five theatre commands responsible for the territorial defence of the North, South, East, West, and Central regions. These commands differ from the US military, whose combatant commands span the globe. The new PLA commands replaced the seven military regions — a concept dating back to the 1950s (though their numbers changed throughout history, as per the reorganisation of the regions), in which they had become too ground force-focused.
The difference between the military regions and the theatre commands is that the former were more administrative, while the latter focused on combat operations. The theatre commands report directly to the CMC and combined command of various forces, including the PLA ground force, PLAN and PLAAF. The theatre commands fight together under informationised conditions to achieve a specific objective or “strategic direction”, for instance, the reunification of Taiwan.
The new theatre commands represent external orientation as these commands are primarily structured based on threat perceptions facing the specific Chinese border. For instance, the Western Theatre Command — the largest command, directly faces India, focusing on the contentious Line of Actual Control (LAC). It also oversees Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions. Similarly, the Southern Theatre Command is focused on the South China Sea, where China has an ongoing maritime dispute with Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Pertinently, these theatre commands aimed to integrate the command of various forces, reduce the elite stature of the PLA ground forces officers, and strengthen the PLAN and PLAAF. But Indian strategic analysts note that the PLA’s predominance persists. PLA ground force officers still dominate leadership of the new commands especially the eastern, western, and southern.
And they get the majority of the promotions: since the beginning of the reforms, Xi has promoted 20 officers from the ground force, ten from the PLAAF, and four from the PLAN to positions of generals. Their continued dominance suggests the promotions have been used to placate the officers, who may have resisted the PLA’s joint command as it threatened vested interests, including the anti-corruption drive. So, it appears that Xi may have diluted the intensity of reforms in some places to ensure that overall the train of PLA reforms is not derailed.
Upending the dominance of ground forces through demobilisation
After its debacle in the 1979 Vietnam war, Deng criticised the PLA as bloated and needing disciplinary measures. He therefore ordered one of the largest demobilisations in PLA’s history, with active personnel cut from over 6 million (1975) to over 4 million (1982). In the current reforms, the PLA has cut more than 300,000 personnel. Overall, since the 1970s, China has cut over 4 million personnel, mainly within the Ground Force, while enhancing the size of the PLAN and the PLAAF.
This demobilisation of troops, especially of the infantry, reflected the fundamental revision of the earlier military doctrine that China no longer required substantial ground forces to defend its territory. In other words, the reduced quantity of the PLA troops was to be “compensated by increased quality” of soldiers and equipment.
This was particularly evident in the case of the PLAN, where evolving threat perceptions from the US led the PLA to opt for long-range naval aviation and offensive submarine capability.
Establishing new forces for better “integration” and “informatisation”
Also, as part of the reforms, two new services were created: Strategic Support Force (SSF, 2015) and the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF, 2016).
SSF: It is the PLA’s cyber, space, and electronic warfare service branch. Its focus on emerging technologies points to China’s recognition of the global trend that “informatisation” or information-based/data-driven combat operations are at the core of contemporary military advancement.
The SSF reports directly to the CMC and not to any of the theatre commands, enabling joint operations for all the theatre commands through the CMC, acting like their “information umbrella”. Its creation has improved the PLA’s ability to fight information wars vis-a-vis its adversaries.
The SSF administers two deputy theatre command-level departments: the Space Systems Department, responsible for military space operations and the Network Systems Department, responsible for information operations such as cyber attacks and cyber espionage campaigns, for which China has gained notoriety in recent years.
JLSF: It was created to manage the implementation of a joint logistics support system. It comprises the support forces for inventory and warehousing, medical services, and transport. In addition, it works closely with the theatre commands to provide the appropriate general logistics support as required.
The outbreak of Covid-19 proved to be the first test for the JLSF’s logistical capabilities. The force is headquartered in Wuhan (at Wuhan Joint Logistic Support Base) — the epicentre of the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in 2019-20.
It had therefore an important role to play in transporting medical personnel, equipment and other supplies, and working with the civilian companies to provide logistical support. Besides, it also delivered Chinese Covid-19 vaccines to China’s allies such as Pakistan and Cambodia. Western analysts like Meia Nouwens have assessed JLSF’s performance in executing logistical operations during the pandemic as “reasonably effective”.

(To be continued)

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