Analysis: Cutting the PLA to the corps
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of China’s communist party, is undergoing a series of radical reformations. The slashing of 300,000 personnel by 2017 is just one aspect of this radical makeover.
The latest development revealed in late August is that the PLA will do away with all its group armies (or corps), of which there are currently 18. This will affect some 850,000 troops assigned to mobile combat units. The remainder of the 1.55 million-strong ground force is composed of soldiers serving in regional garrisons.
Modern warfare emphasises mobility, nimbleness and modularity backed by high-tech weapons and robust C4I networks. The group army structure does not lend itself to such flexibility, and so it will be supplanted by between 25 and 30 divisions that report directly to their respective theatre commands.
The current order of battle (ORBAT) lists 38 divisions in the PLA, so the ground force is clearly earmarked for a major reduction in available divisions. This suggests that some divisions will be reduced to brigade size, while others may be done away with altogether.
The PLA already possesses many brigades, since the military started transforming towards more versatile units some time ago. This process of forming brigades will undoubtedly receive new impetus with the doing away of field armies.
It is too early to predict which divisions will be abolished. However, the Central Theatre Command seems the best candidate to lose divisions since it contains a large reserve force of five group armies plus the Beijing and Tianjin Garrisons.
If the PLA seeks to be more a more mobile, combat-ready force, it makes sense to reduce this reserve force and push combat troops to theatre commands adjacent to Taiwan, India and North Korea, for example.
The PLA’s 18 group armies are presently divided into two categories depending on their capability. Category A corps are more elite, receiving better equipment, more resources and sufficient manpower.
These include (with their respective theatre command in brackets) the: 1st (Eastern), 13th (Western), 21st (Western), 27th (Central), 38th (Central), 39th (Northern) and 54th (Central) Group Armies, a total of seven.
Category B corps, of which there are 11, are not as well off in terms of equipment or status.
China’s Defence White Paper released in May 2015 said the PLA would continue to reorient from theatre defence to trans-theatre mobility.
‘In the process of building small, multifunctional and modular units, the PLA Army will adapt itself to tasks in different regions, develop the capacity of its combat forces for different purposes, and construct a combat force structure for joint operations,' it stated.
Whichever way one looks at it, the PLA ground force is in for a major shakeup, and the future ORBAT will look quite different to what it is today.
President Xi Jinping embarked on a fierce campaign to reorganise the PLA, which has not fought a war since 1979, into a leaner and meaner fighting force. This process is well under way.
It kicked off on 3 September 2015 when Xi announced the PLA would shed 300,000 troops from its ranks. Then on 31 December 2015 the PLA created the Strategic Support Force and elevated the Second Artillery Force into a fully-fledged service called the Rocket Force.
At the same time, the four general headquarters departments of the PLA were dissolved, with 15 new departments set up in their stead. One purpose was to cede more direct control to the Central Military Commission (CMC) led by Xi.
The long-standing structure of seven military regions was also transformed into joint theatre commands on 1 February 2016. In order of protocol, these five commands are: Eastern (headquartered in Nanjing), Southern (Guangzhou), Western (Chengdu), Northern (Shenyang) and Central (Beijing).
The impending abolition of group armies will simplify the chain of command. Whereas orders were previously passed down from the CMC to the General Staff Headquarters to the military region to the group army to individual formations, now divisions will receive instructions in a more streamlined manner via its theatre command from the Joint Staff Department (which represents the CMC).
This scrapping of corps will not be simple. Bureaucratic inertia is emblematic of the PLA, where vested interests, including corrupt ones, are strong. With 300,000 soldiers losing their jobs, and the number of high-ranking positions narrowing, there will be deep-seated resistance and resentment to Xi’s master plan.
For more on the five theatre commands as they presently exist, click here.