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Analysis: China's PLA moves towards expeditionary operations

12th August 2019 - 02:00 GMT | by Sonny Butterworth in London


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In possession of the second largest defence budget in the world, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in the midst of reforming its personnel, structure and equipment to achieve its aspiration of becoming a world class army by 2049.

Whereas the PLA was previously oriented towards repelling a hostile attack across its borders from enemies such as the Soviet Union, China’s desire to be able to project its power has necessitated the creation of more flexible, more professional armed forces.

While this more outward-looking stance has prioritised the development of China’s capabilities in the air and naval domains, it has also had a significant impact on the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF). In order to create a force that is capable of rapidly deploying outside of China’s borders and holding its own against a modern military force such as the US, the PLAGF has reduced its size and prioritised the reorganisation of its army, the training of its personnel and the replacement of legacy equipment. These overarching imperatives have had several ramifications on the type of military vehicles being procured and developed.

At the heavier end of the spectrum, this has resulted in the disbandment of China’s tank-heavy armoured brigades and its 6th armoured division in favour of creating combined-arms brigades. Incorporating tanks, mechanised infantry transported in IFVs and supporting elements, these brigades are more capable of operating independently against near-peer opponents.

To support this reorganisation, China has procured new MBTs to replace thousands of legacy Cold War-era Type 59s and related derivatives still in service. The most advanced of these designs is the ZTZ-99, which was developed to match the latest western and Russian MBTs. However, due to its high unit cost, fewer than 1,000 are believed to have entered service with the PLAGF. 

Instead, the cheaper ZTZ-96 series, of which as many as 2,000 are estimated to be in service, will become the mainstay of the Chinese tank fleet as legacy designs are gradually phased out. The considerable number of vehicles being deployed is particularly notable given that most other militaries have decided to operate smaller MBT fleets comprised of high-end platforms.

As part of this creation of combined-arms brigades, the PLAGF is also striving to mechanise its infantry with new IFVs, APCs and protected patrol vehicles. This has driven the procurement of more ZBD-04A IFVs to accompany tank units, as well as numerous lighter armoured vehicles such as the Dongfeng Mengshi to transport supporting troops.

People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps also operates a significant number of armoured vehicles. (Photo: Gordon Arthur)

The PLAGF has also recognised the benefits afforded by wheeled 8x8 armoured vehicles, which are cheaper to produce and easier to deploy than their heavier tracked counterparts. Given the likelihood of a future conflict involving China requiring forces to be quickly deployed across the Asia-Pacific region, perhaps to small islands, the 8x8 ZBL-09 family, which has already been purchased in large numbers, will continue to feature prominently in the PLAGF’s order of battle.

Unlike many armies, which disposed of their light tanks during the Cold War, China has retained Type 62 light tanks and Type 63A amphibious light tanks in service with military units stationed in areas where the terrain precludes the employment of heavy armour. Since many of these platforms are based on designs from the 1950s, the ZTQ-15 light tank that was officially inducted into PLAGF service in 2018 may be procured in substantial numbers to refresh this capability. 

In addition to the PLAGF, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) also operate significant quantities of armoured vehicles. For the former, the ZBD-05 amphibious IFV and ZTD-05 amphibious light tank would be integral in any invasion of an enemy-held island such as Taiwan, and will continue to be produced as this force expands from two brigades to perhaps as many as seven. Likewise, the expansion of the PLAAF airborne combat regiments into airborne combat brigades will require more air-portable ZBD-03 IFVs.

Faced with the need to replace large numbers of legacy platforms, China’s procurement of new armoured vehicles shows no signs of abating. While most of this demand is expected to be met by mature designs that are already in production, China’s defence industry has also proven that it is now less reliant on foreign technology and more than capable of producing its own innovative, next-generation equipment. Ultimately the main challenge for China will be to reform its army into a force than can effectively employ this technology on the battlefield.

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