DN - Defence Notes

PLA plans core restructuring

22nd December 2015 - 07:12 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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China's President Xi Jinping has launched an ambitious restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the force to be progressively reformed by 2020.

A 24-26 November meeting allowed the Central Military Commission (CMC) to lay out details to senior PLA figures.

The PLA will reduce in size, with Xi stating during the 3 September parade in Beijing that China would cut 300,000 troops by 2017. The majority of cuts will affect the army as it is the largest of the PLA’s four services and those being trimmed will be mostly administrative and non-combatants to improve the ‘teeth-to-tail’ ratio.

'Now, as the country progresses from a large country to a large and powerful one, defence and military development stands at a new and historic starting line. We must deepen defence and military reforms with greater wisdom and courage,' Xi explained.

It is already known that reforms will move the PLA away from a cumbersome army-centric force, with a joint command system established in which PLA ground forces, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) are treated as equals.

The latest information emerging from China suggests this command reorganisation could occur by 1 January 2016.

Three of four current general departments – General Political, General Logistics and General Armaments – will be slashed. A new army headquarters equal in stature to those of the PLAN and PLAAF headquarters will be formed, thus doing away with the advantages the ground force once enjoyed through the army-dominated general department structure.

The PLA desperately needs to evolve into an agile force able to quickly respond to contingencies in the South China Sea or the Middle East, for example. This will be achieved by reducing the current seven Military Regions (MR) structure into five joint battle zone commands. 

These strategic commands are likely to be North, East and South that cover coastal and inland areas, a Central zone encompassing Beijing, as well as a landlocked West command. The latter could be massive in size, more than a third of China’s total area, and encompassing the restive areas of Tibet and Xinjiang.

At this time it appears both the Jinan and Chengdu MRs will go. At present, each MR possesses an unwieldy hierarchy of generals and senior ranks, so merging seven into five will obviously create much redundancy.

It is still unclear how the Second Artillery Corps, the repository of the country’s tactical and strategic missiles, will be affected by the reforms. Meanwhile, the People’s Armed Police will adopt more of a national guard role.

There are changes at the very top too as greater political control is exerted. The CMC will reduce from the current 11 personnel to create a tighter-knit commission with stricter authority over the PLA. Xi underscored that the CMC’s leadership should be strengthened ‘to ensure that supreme administration and command status belong to the CMC’.

Of four existing general departments only the General Staff Department will remain intact. A PLA Daily article stated; ‘The four general headquarters’ excessive concentration of power has allowed it to become an independent leadership hierarchy overshadowing many of the functions of the CMC, affecting the commission’s centralised and unified leadership over the army.’

The reformation programme is not going to be easy, however, and will definitely face stiff resistance, especially with so many jobs being cut and with vested interests being harmed. 

Massive corruption remains and the PLA has had relatively weak oversight in the past, with officers doing as they please with impunity. The CMC will have its own discipline inspection commission to sniff out troublemakers and lawbreakers.

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