DN - Defence Notes

PLAAF restructures its Airborne Corps

6th September 2017 - 06:09 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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Greater clarity has begun to emerge about the radical restructuring of China’s airborne force – what was once referred to as the 15th Airborne Corps – under the parent command of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). 

The airborne formation, headquartered in Xiaogan in Hubei Province, is a rapid-reaction unit held in readiness for expeditionary or mobile tasks within China and, as the country increasingly looks outwards, for overseas contingencies too.

Whilst exalting the fact that PLAAF paratroopers won 11 out of 12 events against limited competition during last month’s International Army Games, an article published on a website sponsored by the PLA cast new light on the transfiguration process. 

Up until earlier this year, the 15th Airborne Corps featured the 43rd Division (based in Kaifeng, Henan Province), 44th Division (Guangshui, Hubei Province) and 45th Division (Wuhan, Hubei Province), each of which had two regiments capable of airborne operations. 

According to the comprehensive study ‘The PLA as Organization: Reference Volume v2.0’ published in 2015, each division contained ‘several types of subordinate troops: infantry, motorised infantry equipped with light vehicles, mechanised infantry, artillery, air defence (AAA and SAM), special operations, communications, special forces, reconnaissance, engineering, helicopter, training and logistics support’.

Reorganisation

On 19 April, however, it was reported that the 15th Airborne Corps would lose its numerical designator and become simply the PLA Airborne Corps. This occurred in early May, according to the chinamil.com article. 

The corps’ six regiments (previously distributed within the three divisions) transformed and expanded into six brigades (namely the 127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd and 134th) that fall under a corps headquarters. 

As well as these six airborne combat brigades, other brigades have been created – a special operations brigade, combat support brigade and aviation brigade, each of which is elaborated below.

The 15th Airborne Corps previously had a special operations regiment, so the formation of a brigade represents an expansion of special forces and points to future uses by the PLA. Its roles include special penetration missions to destroy key enemy assets and facilities behind enemy lines. This new brigade contains the Thor commando unit that was formed in September 2011.

Next, the new combat support brigade integrates the former communications regiment, engineering detachment and chemical defence detachment. Fulfilling the PLA’s desire to create a digitised and informationised force, the brigade will also contain electronic reconnaissance, jamming, communication and other units within this unified brigade.

The aviation/air transport brigade merges both fixed-wing and helicopter assets. As heavy transport aircraft like the Y-20 and as further Y-9 medium transports enter PLAAF service, the air force’s ability to move its airborne corps rapidly over long ranges will improve considerably. The article revealed that airborne troops are already training to airdrop heavy equipment from the Y-20. 

The Y-12D light transport aircraft formally entered service last November, and this new platform will replace the Y-5C for parachute training. The PLAAF also uses the Il-76.

The corps also relies heavily on helicopters such as the Z-8, and likely the Z-18 and Z-20 in the future, for heliborne operations. The PLAAF also operates the Z-10K attack helicopter, one of which was exhibited at the Zhuhai Air Show last November.

'The airborne troops will have better manoeuvring capability and can reach destinations in every theatre.'

Zhao Jinjun, deputy chief of staff of the Airborne Corps

This reshuffle gives the renamed Airborne Corps a total of nine brigades. According to Chinese reports, two regiment-level units will be integrated into the Academy of Airborne Troops to create a new troop unit as well. 

This is a logical progression of the PLA’s desire to do away with the old four-tier corps-division-regiment-battalion structure towards an organisation that is more flexible and self-sufficient. There are now just three tiers – corps-brigade-battalion – which flattens the command system somewhat. 

This reflects the PLA ground force’s move towards a brigade structure as well, something that is more modular, flexible and capable of independent operations in multiple theatres at the same time.

The PLA-sponsored report quoted Zhao Jinjun, deputy chief of staff of the Airborne Corps, who said that fewer levels of command will produce a shorter response time and faster delivery of troops. He added that reform of the command system is ‘fundamentally aimed at improving the fast-response capability of airborne troops’.

Zhao further noted, ‘In this way, the airborne troops will have better manoeuvring capability and can reach destinations in every theatre.’ 

The Airborne Corps is equipped with its own armour in the form of the air-droppable and amphibious ZBD-03 from Norinco (export name VN10). This tracked 8t IFV is obviously a copy of the Russian BMD, although its engine is front-mounted. 

The ZBD-03 is equipped with a 30mm cannon, 7.62m machine gun and HJ-73 antitank missile in a one-man turret. The ZBD-03 could also give rise to airborne-specific variants such as a mortar, rocket and antitank missile launcher platforms.

The unit also fields towed 122mm howitzers, although a larger-calibre 155mm artillery piece is being developed now that aircraft are able to accommodate heavier loads. Such a howitzer was exhibited alongside an 8x8 105mm assault gun in Zhuhai last November.

This reorganisation also signals a major expansion in the size of the airborne unit. Previously estimated to have approximately 30,000 troops, it is not yet clear how many troops the unit will end up with, however. 

Training

The corps has been attempting to meet the Central Military Commission’s directive for more realistic training. In 2008 it was able to airdrop personnel and heavy equipment simultaneously, and by 2013 the PLAAF was dropping multiple types of equipment from various aircraft alongside mass paratrooper jumps.

In another milestone, in June 2015 the PLAAF dropped heavy equipment from an altitude of 6,000m, which opens the way for potential mechanised combat on the Tibetan Plateau. The article added that more than ten major exercises had been conducted in the past few years to verify capabilities ‘in complicated scenarios’.

Zhao explained, ‘The form of war has changed under new circumstances, and the combat system, leadership and management system, establishment and equipment, combat tasks and models and training approaches must change accordingly…We train like fighting real battles and fight battles like training, so training and realistic battle are exactly the same.’

The PLAAF is clearly carefully analysing the operations of counterparts in the US and Russia. Zhao pointed out, ‘We have to fully understand the missions, the ways to win airborne battles, the various opponents and the battlefield environment, and then determine how to exert our strengths, avoid our weaknesses and defeat the enemy.’

The training curriculum has updated 24 tactical and training methods, while more than 40 outmoded subjects have been eliminated from training. Paratroopers apparently learn to fire from a height of 400m whilst parachuting to the ground.

A strategic force

As China increasingly integrates with the global economy and invests in far-flung places such as Africa and covets resources in places like the Middle East, it feels the need to conduct operations far from home soil to protect its interests. 

China is clearly eyeing a strategic role for the Airborne Corps. The article claimed, ‘According to Zhao Jinjun, such a positioning depends on the unique and irreplaceable features of airborne troops. They boast the highest manoeuvring speed among all arms and services, and can reach places that other armed forces cannot reach or cannot reach timely, so they are irreplaceable.’

The PLA has already dropped hints about the massive expansion of the marine corps under the PLA Navy (PLAN). Presently possessing some 20,000 troops, it will grow substantially, even if claims of 100,000 are farfetched. 

Marines are believed to be stationed at a new military base that officially opened in Djibouti on 1 August. Co-locating airborne troops in Djibouti along with airlift assets would give the PLA even more intervention options in Africa and the Middle East.

Dennis J. Blasko, an American expert on the PLA, assessed in a report for The Jamestown Foundation: ‘If the expansion of the marines and airborne comes to fruition, the PLA’s potential for expeditionary operations will increase significantly (pending the construction of the sea- and air-lift to move them beyond China’s borders).’ 

However, he warned that expeditionary missions will strain existing logistics capabilities, and new operating concepts will be necessary (e.g., overseas logistics bases). Blasko added, ‘Likewise, these operations demand levels of command and control, intelligence, space, and mapping support that now, to some extent, are consolidated in the new Strategic Support Force.’

Next steps

Referring to the reorganisation, Blasko said that ‘none of these changes will happen overnight’. He warned, ‘People and units will be transferred to different locations and units will have to learn to work with headquarters and units they have never worked with before. This will certainly cause anxiety and tension for many soldiers and leaders. Modifications to what seemed like good ideas on paper are inevitable.’

The article highlighted areas of renewed focus for the future as ‘fostering the ability of vertical amphibious landing, namely sea-air combined operations, and also training to take pre-emptive steps and secure key targets and penetrating enemy defences by means of surprise attack’.

The article concluded, ‘Since…2012, Chinese airborne troops have moved faster in strategic transformation and achieved the breakthrough from light infantry to multi-unit integration, from ‘focused on rear combat’ to ‘all-domain manoeuvring’, from traditional parachuting to integrated assault, and from motorised and semi-mechanised operation to mechanisation and extensive IT application.’

An air assault capability with helicopters is a relatively recent skill set for the Airborne Corps. Indeed, relief efforts after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan proved that the PLA’s heliborne airlift capacity was inadequate. 

Heliborne assaults have a number of advantages over parachute drops, so one area worth watching is whether the Airborne Corps develops a dedicated air cavalry unit to enhance its range of mission profiles. Certainly, the inclusion of such an ‘air assault’ during the PLA’s 90th anniversary parade in Zurihe is perhaps an indication that this capability is a priority.

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