Modernization of the Chinese Army
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Issue Book Excerpt: Modernization of Chinese PLA | Date : 11 Jan , 2015

The gross structure of how the PLA elements are organized is fairly discernible. The Army is divided into main forces (including the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF), independent formations and the reserves), and local forces. The main forces are administered by the seven MACs (erstwhile MRs), in which they are stationed, but are commanded by the Ministry of Defense so as to be readily available for operations anywhere along the borders and are better equipped and manned. Local forces concentrate on the defense of their own command areas/regions.23 The distinctions is based on the authority exercising control, whether the PLA headquarters, or the MAC.24 A brief description of the sub-categories25 is as follows:

The PLA army total strength in 1999 was 1.83 million including some 1.08 million conscripts. In 2006, the PLA army strength stood at 1.6 million. Reserve forces are undergoing major reorganization on a provincial basis and are estimated to number some 1 million.

Main Forces (Ftls). The army troops that are under the strategic command of the Headquarters PLA are designed as main forces. They include independent formations and the RRF also. These forces are likely to be made available whenever necessary, for operations anywhere.

GAs. It is the largest operational level formation of the main forces and is equated to the Western Corps. There are three types namely Type 1 (for plains). Type 2 (for mountains/jungles), and Type 3 (for frontiers/coastal areas). Since they do not seem to have any specific defensive roles, these forces are the main force offensive elements which will be employed to carry out the strategic missions as dictated in the active defense doctrine including being launched for pre-emptive missions.

Local Forces. These are also known as regional forces as they are assigned the task to defend the territorial integrity of the geographical area of their respective area commands. Depending on their location, they are also responsible for the immediate defense of the coastal areas and land frontiers. These forces comprise:

  • Border Defense Forces. Responsible for the border areas, these forces are lightly armed for early warning and acting as reconnaissance elements and scouts for main force formations as and when they are deployed in the areas for operations.
  • Internal Defense Forces. These are also lightly armed infantry forces, deployed as the need arises to maintain law and order in the peacetime. In war, they are capable of limited defense and waging guerrilla type operations. More likely to be concentrated in TAR and Xinjiang provinces. The balance would be under the ministry for internal security.
  • Garrison Units. These forces are assigned tasks of the defense of China’s coastal areas. They are deployed in static, reinforced heavy coastal artillery positions including on many of the islands on China’s eastern seaboard. They are manned through local recruitment and are least mobile. Their organization is task specific.

The PLA army total strength in 1999 was 1.83 million including some 1.08 million conscripts. In 2006, the PLA army strength stood at 1.6 million.26 Reserve forces are undergoing major reorganization on a provincial basis and are estimated to number some 1 million.27 The Orbat comprises 21 Integrated GAs with 68 infantry divisions, three airborne infantry divisions, 11 tank divisions, four mechanized infantry divisions, two motorized divisions, 10 artillery divisions, three engineers divisions (besides 14 unidentified engineer regiments under control of the 4th Department of the PLA (logistical), 19 garrison divisions, one border defense division, one coastal defense division, six unidentified divisions and 56 reserve divisions.28 These formations further fall into the category of those that are directly under the MACs and those that are under the GAs.

The Brigade/Regiment size force consisting mainly of tank (15), Artillery (26) and anti-aircraft artillery (31), are also similarly disposed. These are debate on the possible difference In the structure and equipment profile of formations designated as a brigade and regiment. Analysis indicates that those divisions downsized and placed directly under the GA or MAC is designated as brigades. Thus these formations are likely to be organically self-contained sustained or independent tactical level operations with regard to combat power, combat support and logistics. While the regiment figures only as an entity of a divisional size force, wherein the division remains as the basic tactical maneuver element.

Due to the limited airlift capability, only one division can be deployed to any part of China within 48 hours.

Since the creation of the RRF, some of the above-mentioned formations have been earmarked and consequently restricted, equipped, trained and logistically supported to fulfil their new role assigned. The forces constitute the 38, 39, 54 and 13 GAs to be rapid reaction GAs; in addition there are six Rapid reaction/Divisions from other GAs. Rapid reaction status in the PLA means that all its major elements can be deployed to any part of China in two weeks.29 The 15 Airborne Corps (located at Wuhan) basically a PLAAF formation, compressing three paratrooper divisions each with three paratrooper regiments and a light artillery regiment are also earmarked as RRF. The airlift is provided with the integral 14 Air Transport Division having, IL-76, Y-7 and Y-8 transport aircraft. Due to the limited airlift capability, only one division can be deployed to any part of China within 48 hours.30 More details are discussed under the PLAFF modernization. An estimate of currently assigned RRFs indicates the following designation.31

  • PLAAF 43rd, 44th, 45th divisions, 15th Airborne Corps (Guangzhou MR).
  • PLA 112th, 113th, 114th, one armored and three mechanized infantry divisions, 38th GA (Beijing MR).
  • PLA 115th, 116th, 190th, one armored and three mechanized infantry divisions, 39th GA (Shenyang MR).
  • PLA 127th mechanized infantry division, 54th GA (Jinan MR).
  • PLA 149th mechanized infantry, 13th GA, (Chengdu MR).
  • Seven special operations forces groups, one in each MR.
  • PLA Navy 1st Marine Brigade, South Sea Fleet.

Presently the PLA has a 70 percent conscription level (volunteer soldiers proportion was to have risen to 35 percent by end 2000) with the tenure of only two years (three years for the technically qualified personnel, for the air force and navy). It is estimated that it costs two and half times more to maintain a volunteer (contact) soldier than to maintain a conscript (compulsory) serviceman. It may be one of the reasons for the defense budget increase announced in March 2001, and would thus justify the claim of the Prime Minister that the increase in the defense budget was necessitated mainly due to the increase in the wages of the soldiers.

Implicitly, this would imply that at any one time only 30 percent of fully trained manpower would be available with the combat forces. Such a situation is likely to adversely affect the combat readiness of the PLA. If the same criterion of conscription applies to the RRF then its claimed response effectiveness is questionable. Another factor that adversely impacts the PLA’s response is the regional nature of its GA’s. Besides the forces earmarked as RRFs it is doubtful if the PLA can mobilize other GAs for operations in areas outside their area commands — from the operational readiness and logistics point of view.

…at any one time only 30 percent of fully trained manpower would be available with the combat forces. Such a situation is likely to adversely affect the combat readiness of the PLA.

Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs are responsible for the geographical regions contiguous to the Indian sub-continent. Brief details of the composition of the CMC direct command units, Rapid Reaction GAs and the Lanzhou and Chengdu MAC are as given in Appendix K.32

The main force GAs typically include 46,300 troops in up to four divisions, are known to include infantry, armor, artillery, air defense, combat engineers, communication units, EW and chemical warfare sub-units and air support elements. Although the new GAs were supposed to reflect a move for combined-arms operations, but because of lack of mechanization the bias has continued to remain on infantry dominated operations supported by armour, artillery and other units.33 The infantry divisions are of two types for operations in the plains and the mountains. The 11 armored divisions, each have three regiments and 240-320 main battle tanks but lack adequate mechanized infantry support. Artillery forces emphasized towed guns, howitzers, and wheeled multiple rocket launchers; in the 1980’s some self-propelled artillery entered service. The PLA also produced rocket launchers as a cheaper but not totally effective alternative to self-propelled guns. Their acquisition and production of the ‘SMERCH’ multi-barrel rocket launchers is in line with this same trend.

The new doctrine of “People’s War under high-tech conditions” still visualizes the infantry as the key component in combat since the mechanized forces are not as well equipped as the infantry formations or as compared to their equivalents in the Western forces. Light infantry in mountains, jungle and urban conditions are equipped on par with many Western armies but their lack of an infantry portable anti-armor guided weapon leaves them vulnerable to armor in the open.34

In 1938, the basic infantry section of the 8th Route Army comprised three teams of three to five men armed with bolt-action rifles, hand grenades and one automatic rifle or light machine gun (at least on paper).35 In the early 1980s, a typical PLA infantry section/squad comprised 12 soldiers equipped with one Type 56 (RPD) light machine gun (two-man crew), 11x Type 56 (AK 47) assault rifles and one Type 69 (RPG 7) anti-armour rocket launcher (two-man crew).36 The present PLA infantry section has now gone back to the structure of its roots — it now contains two fire teams each with a Type 74 squad automatic weapon, Type 56 assault rifles, and one of the squads has a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher. The type 74 uses a 101-round drum magazine and can use Type 56 magazines as well. The Type 81 assault rifle has also been introduced in service and is basically an improved version of the Type 56 assault rifle.37


Small Arms.38 The Chinese experimented with various small arms calibers between 5.5 mm and 6 mm before deciding on 5.8 mm as the standard small arms caliber. Identified as the 5.8 x 42 mm, the cartridge was adopted in 1989 but the rifle for it was not introduced into service until 1995. Called the Type 87 assault rifle, it is a bull pup design, which was first seen carried publicly by the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison in 1997. It can be modified to carry an attached grenade launcher. The weapon is reported as having design faults and has too many parts, especially rods, when field stripped. The rifle’s shot sight radius is improved with the fitting of an optic sight. Another, a major drawback is the 30 round magazines which protrude too far below the pistol grip and thus the rifle cannot be fired from a prone position. The light support version is equipped with a bipod and drum magazine. As a comparison, the rifle weighs 3.35 kg and is 840 mm in length. With a fully loaded drum magazine the support weapon tends to be unbalanced due to the weight of the magazine near the butt (behind the pistol grip — the feature of the bull pup design). This would make it awkward to carry and use in action.

The present PLA infantry section has now gone back to the structure of its roots — it now contains two fire teams each with a Type 74 squad automatic weapon, Type 56 assault rifles, and one of the squads has a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher.

Anti-Armor Weapons. This has been a weak point in the PLA armory. The basic anti-armor weapon is the developed version of the Russian RPG series. However, of late, there has been an induction of disposable rocket launchers also. Some of the noteworthy developments in this field are given below.39

  • Type 69 RPG Launcher. This weapon is used both in an anti-armor and anti-personnel role. The anti-personnel version has a fragment sleeve with 1,600 fragments added on the HEAT warhead. It is activated on impact and has a killing area radius of 20 meters. General support grenades include incendiary HE, specially designed for jungle and mountain operations. It contains 900 steel balls and 2,000-3,000 incendiary pellets that scatter over a radius over 15 meters on detonation. Illuminating grenades, giving illumination of 500,000 candle power for 35 seconds with a variable range from 600 meters to 1,500 meters using the braking ring. The unique bouncing anti-personnel grenade, which has a delay fuse and a warhead consisting of 800 small steel balls. On impact, it bounces off the ground to a crest of two meters height and bursts in the air over the target area. The weapon is also called the platoon level “pocket artillery”. Though this weapon is not suitable against modern armor, it performs a unique role in difficult terrain. Moreover, since very large numbers have been produced with proportionally large ammunition stocks, the weapon is likely to continue in service particularly with border defense units and regular units operating in the mountains for some time.
  • Type 70-1 62 mm Portable Anti-tank Rocket Launcher. A light anti-armor weapon intended for one-man use against light and medium armor and strong points or bunkers. The launcher has a two-part launching tube made of glass fiber reinforced plastic material. Maximum direct firing range of 150 meters.
  • Type PF 89 Individual Anti-tank Rocket Launcher. A single-shot disposable anti-armor weapon intended for one-man use. Each weapon is issued with the rocket ready loaded in the short launch tube. Effective against armor up to ranges of 300 meters and static hard targets up to 400 meters.
  • Red Arrow 8 Guided Weapon System. A second-generation guided missile system intended for use by infantry against armor and hard targets with a range of 100-3,000 meters. China further developed the missile system with the Red Arrow 8A being followed by the 8C and now by the Red Arrow 8E version. The latest version has a range of 4,000 meters. Armor penetration has been increased through the availability of tandem warhead plus standoff probe. It is a crew portable weapon fired from a ground tripod mount, and can be configured for mounting in or on a variety of wheeled or tracked vehicles. It is also mounted on the Harbin Z-9G helicopter used by the PLA aviation units as an attack helicopter40 and is similar in general appearance to the MILAN system.

The most advanced PLA main battle tank is the Type-99 based on Russian T-72 Chassis. Type-99 was first introduced in 1999 and 80 tanks were inducted by the year 2006.

Armor. Type 85-III is the last member of the Type 85 MTB family; which in turn is a descendant of the earlier Type 80 MTB. It retains some Russian tank design influence; the Type 80 family is the first series of Chinese tanks that had been indigenously designed. Type 85 is considered the second generation with even further departure from Russian designs. The Type 85-III is powered by a 1,000 hp diesel engine and the hull and turret are protected against both kinetic and chemical energy attacks. It is fitted with a 125 mm smoothbore gun as the main armament. Additional features include a GPS and explosion detection/suppression systems.

The latest generation described as A New Beast from the East of which details are not openly available is the Type 90-II MBT (MBT-2000). First revealed in the late 1991 and compared to earlier Chinese MBTs, it has significant improvements in the three key areas of MBT design concept: armor protection, mobility and firepower. The MBT is a 48 tonne tank powered by a 1,200 hp diesel engine (resulting in a power to weight ratio of 25 bhp/tonne) of British origin (similar to the engine powering the Challenger 1 and 2), with a French SESM ESM-500 automatic transmission. Its main armament comprises of a 125 mm smoothbore gun. The hull is of welded steel construction with an additional layer of composite armor at the front. Explosive reactive armor has been added to the glacis plate and the nose of the tank.

Standard equipment includes an anti-neutron linear for crew compartments, collective NBC system, explosion/fire detection and suppression system and infrared reflection paint. Presently the tank is undergoing trials.41 The most advanced PLA main battle tank is the Type-99 based on Russian T-72 Chassis. Type-99 was first introduced in 1999 and 80 tanks were inducted by the year 2006.42

Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). In 1991, North China Industries Corporation (NORINCO) announced that it had developed the Type 90 APC family which consists of 10 variants. This has also been referred to by some Chinese sources as the Type 91 APC. The basic design is probably based on the Russian BMP-2. Depending on the model, it is fitted with 320 hp or 360 hp diesel engine. The standard APC has a crew of two and a troop complement of 13 infantry personnel. The weight of the APC is 14.5 tonnes thus the engine imparts a power to weight ratio of 22 bhp/tonne. The variants are: infantry combat vehicle, anti-tank missile launcher, tracked armored command vehicle, 82 mm self-propelled mortar, 120 mm self-propelled mortar, 122 mm self-propelled howitzer, 130 mm self-propelled rocket launcher (carrying only 30 rockets), tracked armored ambulance and tracked armored recovery vehicle.43 The existence give new Chinese 6×6 wheeled APC was first revealed in early 1986. NORINCO has also developed an 8×8 version of this APC. The former are being fitted with Red Arrow ATGW systems. The family of these vehicles are capable of being employed in a wide range of roles, including 82 mm and 120 mm mortar carriers and armed with a wide range of weapons including 12.7 mm machine gun, 25 mm cannon, and 90 mm or 105 mm guns.44

China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation have developed a long-range unguided artillery rocket system called the M-1B. According to available information, the rocket has a diameter of 350 mm, carries a 100 to 150 kg conventional warhead and is capable of ranges up to 80-100 km.

Artillery. The conventional artillery is based on the Type 59-1, 130 mm field gun and 152 mm as a medium caliber. 105 mm and 122mm constitute the basic calibre for light and mountain formations. 122 mm and 152 mm caliber weapons have the self-propelled version in GAs that have mechanized formation in their Orbat. Late in 1988, the prototype of a new Chinese 155 mm SP gun-howitzer was unveiled for the first time. A total of 30 projectiles are carried in the vehicle, which is NBC protected and is fitted with night vision equipment, presumably for both the driver and commander. The prototype of the 203 mm (8 inch) SP gun was built in the mid-1990s but by mid-2000 the system had not been fielded. The towed version is in service and has a range of 40 km with ERFB projectile and 50 km with ERFB-Base Bleed projectile.45 The Type 59-1, 130 mm field gun is being replaced by the Type 88, a comparatively modern Chinese developed gun that features a NATO standard 155 mm caliber. This gun can fire upto 39 Km range and it can be fielded as a towed or self-propelled version.46

An effective multiplier in the form of Multiple Rocket Launchers are being developed and being inducted into the PLA. In 1999, reports from Hong Kong stated that NORINCO had developed a new long-range artillery system, also called super-range rocket gun, with a caliber of 406 mm and range of 360 km. An earlier super-range rocket gun had a maximum range of 180 km. No firm details to the design of the actual rocket or its propellant system have yet been released. The new system is mounted on a modified version of the same 8×8 chassis as the M-11 ballistic missile carrier that has good cross-country mobility. Each platform can carry up to six launch tubes with an automatic loading system to increase the rate of fire. At this time it is not clear as to whether the rocket tubes are loaded. A typical super-range rocket gun company would consist of six launchers, command vehicle, communications vehicle and ballistic correction radar systems.

The guided rockets can be fitted with various types of warheads including high explosive, incendiary, ground penetration, cluster and anti-armor sub-munitions. The effective radius of each such rocket depends on the warhead fitted, but is typically claimed to be 450 meters. The rockets are highly accurate and it is claimed that each rocket is fitted with a GPS, TV, infrared and laser sensors for ballistic correction, which has the longest range of all the Russian unguided surface-to-surface systems. Chinese sources mention that the launcher system has a minimum range of 40 km and a maximum range of 100 km. The A-100 is seen as a complementary MLRS to the previously fielded 320 mm (4-round) WS-1 that has a maximum range 80 km and the WS-1B with an enhanced range of 180 km.47 The A-100 is based on GPS, a fully computerized targeting and potentially advanced ammunition and reportedly with the PLA since 2002.48 In addition, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation have developed a long-range unguided artillery rocket system called the M-1B. According to available information, the rocket has a diameter of 350 mm, carries a 100 to 150 kg conventional warhead and is capable of ranges up to 80-100 km. The launch platform is a truck, which is a 6×6, 10-ton cross-country truck.49

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23    Barry Turner, ed, The Stateman’s Year Book 2001.

24    Dennis J Blasko, “PLA Ground Forces —Organisation and Structure,” a study for presentation at the CAPS/RAND Conference of 2000.

25    Information compiled form numerous open sources.

26    Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, “Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development,” August 2006, p.  31.

27    Barry Turner, n. 23.

28, site maintained by Xinhuii with special help from Ardy Van Den Henvel, analysis by Mr. Chan.

29    Ibid., p. 1.

30    Ibid., p. 2.

31    Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, n. 26., p.  29.

32    lbid.

33    The White Paper on Chinese National Defense 2000 states that — “The basic realization of standardization and serialization of the Army and general-purpose armaments has enhanced the capabilities of fire repression, ground assault, battlefield maneuvrability, battlefield intelligence and reconnaissance, operational command and protection, and has thus met the demand of combined operations.” While this may, for the time being be the PLA’s Key Result Area, it presently is only aspiration and may take a while longer to be fulfilled.

34    Martin Andrew, “The People’s Liberation Army in the Future”, from, p. 13.

35    EF Carlson, “The Chinese Army: Its Organization and Military Efficiency, 1940”. Institute of Pacific Relations,1940, pp. 27-28; SB Griffith, The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson: London, 1968), p. 386.

36    HW Jencks, From Muskets to Missiles: Politics and Professionalism in the Chinese Army, 1945-1981, (Westview Press: Colorado, 1982), p. 279.

37    Martin Andrew, n. 34., p. 14.

38    Ibid., p. 1.

39    Ibid. Also see Jane’s Infantry Weapons-1977-98.

40    Asian Military Review, Vol. 8/Issue 8, December 2000/January 2001, p. 42.

41    Jane’s Armour and Artillery, 21st Ed. 2000-2001, pp. 4-8.

42    Anthony H. Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, n. 26., p. 40.

43    Ibid., p. 269.

44    Ibid., p. 417

45    Ibid., pp. 583 and 682.

46    Ibid., n. 42., pp. 45 and 46.

47    Ibid., pp. 758-759.

48    Ibid., n. 42., p. 47.

49    Ibid., p. 759.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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One thought on “Modernization of the Chinese Army

  1. India ( in Real terms) is fully Equipped to engage China incursions in the Ladakh region.
    Although Indian Army has its limits vis ‘a vis Chinese Army, PLA also has its limits and weaknesses. In any case , under no conditions would the entire PLA might be deployed against any 1 country simultaneously ( like a Total War Scenario).

    So Indian Army is in fact well set (pound for pound) to engage PLA in the first Round of engagement.
    Question is How and Where – the Latter is the most important question.

    In fact an engagement( hopefully a Successful one) may even be necessary to get to gauge your own level of MatchFitness , and also to discipline the Rank and file – To enter the Real War decade as it were ( thats what next decade and a half is going to be like) Officially.
    Afterall whats the point of Billions of Dollars worth of modernisation unless its actually used…

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