DN - Defence Notes

PLA theatre commands outlined

8th September 2016 - 10:09 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong


Revealed in late August, the latest reorganisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will see the abolition of all its group armies (or corps), of which there are currently 18.

While it remains unclear when the group armies will be dissolved, the descriptions below explain the main units and tasks of each joint command.

The theatre commands have been organised so one command should be able to deal with multiple strategic fronts, instead of multiple theatres dealing with one strategic front. The likelihood of mutual support from other theatre commands during localised tensions is thus low, unless a full-scale war broke out.

Eastern Theatre Command

This possesses three group armies: the 1st, 12th and 31st. These are identical to the former Nanjing Military Region (MR), meaning that this command has been least affected by the reorganisation. Its primary mission is to target Taiwan, and this remains the highest priority for the PLA.

Things have thus remained relatively stable along the Taiwan Strait to support this mission.

Southern Theatre Command

This possesses three group armies: the 41st, 42nd and 14th. The first two were originally part of the Guangzhou MR, and added to them is the 14th Group Army from the Chengdu MR. The latter defends Yunnan Province, with Vietnam in its sights across the border. 

However, it is relatively poorly equipped, and is principally motorised rather than mechanised. This command is also responsible for the South China Sea, so naval and amphibious forces are important to its mandate.

Western Theatre Command

This possesses three group armies: the 13th, 47th and 21st. The latter two were originally from the Lanzhou MR. This command guards the troublesome regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as the long border with India. It is the largest command of and it encompasses fully half of China’s land territory. 

Given its size, it is perhaps surprising that it possesses only three group armies. However, added to this figure are ten divisions/brigades of the Tibet and Xinjiang Military Districts.

The 13th Group Army, formerly of the Chengdu MR, is much better equipped than the 14th Group Army that was allocated to the Southern Theatre Command. Indeed, it has superior mobility, which is appropriate since it must cover a larger swathe of territory. Its inclusion into this command shows that the Indian frontier is the 14th Group Army’s prime target for any combat operations, while the other two group armies would lend support.

Northern Theatre Command

This possesses four group armies: the 16th, 39th, 40th and 26th. It is responsible for the northern frontier with Russia, Mongolia and the Korean Peninsula. The first three group armies were previously part of the Shenyang MR, while the 26th Group Army was added from the Jinan MR. 

Jinan used to form the PLA’s strategic reserve, so adding this formation makes sense, especially given the troubled relationship that has developed with North Korea due to its bellicose behaviour and insistence on pursuing nuclear weapons.

Central Theatre Command

This possesses five group armies: the 38th, 54th, 27th, 65th and 20th. The 20th and 54th were from the old Jinan MR, while the others came from the Beijing MR. This theatre command is the largest and most powerful, making it the strategic reserve of the PLA. Furthermore, two of these armies (the 38th and 54th) are considered the PLA’s trump units.

The need for such a large Central Theatre Command, of which one duty is to protect the capital, perhaps reflects the communist party’s sense of political vulnerability. It also reveals old-fashioned thinking. 

The whole idea of creating new theatre commands was so they could look after their own strategic spheres. What then is the purpose of such a monstrous strategic reserve?

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