Innards of the PLA
The epilogue of the 18th CCP Congress, which witnessed the generational change in Chinese leadership, also recast the PLA’s apex decision-making body, the CMC. A crucial decision on that count was taken by the outgoing general secretary of the CCP and president of the country, Hu Jintao, who decided not to follow the footsteps of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who stuck to power of the chairman of the CMC even after he laid down office as the general secretary and the president.
The PLAAF and the PLAN have had their footprints rise not just in the Taiwan Straits but also in South China Sea and even the two oceans, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Hu retired from the CMC chairmanship, creating the possibility for his successor, Xi Jinping, to chart his own course as the new chairman of the CMC, of which he was a vice chairman for about two years. Xi reportedly possesses quite a constituency amongst the upper echelons of the PLA because in one of his earlier assignments, he had served, first, as the personal secretary to the then defence minister Geng Biao in 1979, soon after he graduated from Tsinghua University.
He has also been a first secretary to the PLA’s Nanjing Military Region and Fujian Military District (1990–1996); first political commissioner, PLA Services and Arms, Reserve Artillery Division, Fujian (1996–2000); director, PLA National Defence Mobilisational Committee for Fujian province (1999–2002) and concurrently Jiangsu province, Nanjing city (1999–2003); and finally, first secretary, Nanjing Military Region and Zhejiang Military District (2002–2007).
His wife, Peng Liyuan, is a major general with the PLA Song and Dance troupe. Peng is a soprano who is very well known in China. Her public appearances and performances though have more or less stopped after Xi Jinping was elevated to the Polit Bureau Standing Committee at the 17th Party Congress in 2007.
The positions at the CMC, starting with the two vice chairmanships, were distributed on the basis of group loyalties and balancing interests. Specifically, this was a negotiation between the second-generation generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou (PLA elders, as they are known) and senior officers with no known group identities. Of course, Hu and Xi had their favourites/protégés.
On the other hand, at the professional level, the PLA is undergoing a transformation that began almost coinciding with the Tiananmen Square episode, where Deng and his group of “wise old men” asked the PLA to prove its loyalty to the party government. The PLA has made major enhancements in its budgetary provisions since Jiang took over in 1989 in the midst of the crisis.
…despite the PLA’s feverish pace of modernisation, the PLA leadership accepts that at least in the near term, it would lag behind the massive military-industrial complex of the United States.
From 1989 to 2002, till Jiang laid down office, the expenditure growth witnessed an annual average growth of 16 per cent, while during Hu Jintao’s tenure, the corresponding figure was a shade lower, at 15 per cent.
Meanwhile, the roles of the PLA ground forces and both the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Navy (PLAN) have expanded enormously. The PLAAF and the PLAN have had their footprints rise not just in the Taiwan Straits but also in South China Sea and even the two oceans, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The PLA’s immediate concern is to maintain the status quo in cross straits relations. This, in effect, means that the mainland Chinese wants to dissuade any fissiparous tendencies amongst the leadership of the original Taiwanese and motivate the Guomintang to get closer to Beijing on the path of eventual assimilation.
In the process, the PLAN, the PLAAF and the Second Artillery (Missile Forces) have to follow an anti-access/area denial exercise, when the United States seeks to establish a new status quo. Anthony Cordesman and Nicholas S Yarosh, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an important paper, “Chinese Military Modernisation: Force Development,” “Attempts to discern a systematic hierarchy among Chinese war-fighting principles usually identify two concepts – ‘Active Defence’ and ‘Local Wars Under Conditions of Informatisation’ – at the top level of China’s military doctrine. In addition, the old conception of ‘People’s War has been modified and updated to remain relevant in the 21st century” (Centre for Strategic and International Studies, p. 32).
“The Science of Military Strategy, a PLA textbook on strategy, presents four pillars to ‘active defense.’ First, China will not fire the first shot and will attempt to settle any disputes by peaceful means for as long as possible. Second, China will attempt to deter war militarily or politically before it breaks out. Third, China will respond to an attack with offensive action and will seek to destroy the enemy’s forces. A fourth pillar, but presented as a part of pillar three, is that China will not be the first State to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons,” Cordesman and Yarosh noted.
They further hold that the PLA textbook acknowledges China will have to fight in the future in an environment saturated with information and intelligence technology and will be limited in scope in terms of geography, duration and political objectives.
Technologically, China has turned a corner in terms of the indigenously developed weapons systems. Veteran China watchers believe that this became possible because the state threw money to the R&D facilities and even the public sector manufacturers.
This, in effect, dictates the terms of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that the PLA is undergoing and will continue till it rides its CISR setup to strike quickly, in the deep and in a resource-intensive manner.
But despite the PLA’s feverish pace of modernisation, the PLA leadership accepts that at least in the near term, it would lag behind the massive military-industrial complex of the United States. In war-making terms, this would entail the PLA’s taking strategic and operational measures that would allow it to take on the superpower in asymmetric ways and means.
Keeping that in mind, the emphasis of the PLA’s modernisation plan is on acquiring capabilities that limit the United States in a theatre and not let its cornucopia of military superiority be brought to bear upon China.
In that light, it is important to note how China is harnessing its civilian population to multiply its forces in the cyber realm. This essentially independent bunch of Chinese info-hackers is being organised to join forces with the PLA’s own cyber soldiers to attack the command and control centres of the opposing forces right at the outset of a military campaign.
For the PLAAF and the PLAN, network centricity has arrived as an atmosphere where they play war games in a CISR-rich environment. This growing culture of knowledge soldiering is creating impacts on recruitment, training and practices of the enlisted men to the officer corps.
China, until a while ago, had the ideological concept of Mao Zhedong’s Long March and Revolutionary practices of having enlisted men progress to the officer corps. But now the military leadership is putting the onus on basic educational standards for the enlisted men or even direct recruits to officer ranks. Bitzinger (“Modernising China’s Military, 1997-2012,” China Perspectives, No. 2011/4) wrote that first, there is an attempt to improve the educational backgrounds of new officers and enlisted personnel. Today, to be inducted into the PLA as an enlisted person, recruits from rural areas must have at least graduated from middle school and those from urban areas must have graduated from a vocational high school or a three-year technical college or be enrolled in a four-year college.
…approximately half of the PLA’s officers are now recruited from civilian universities, which are regarded as providing higher-quality education than the PLA’s academies.
Officers in the PLA used to be drawn from the ranks of enlisted personnel. Some were promoted directly to become officers while others were sent to one of the PLA’s 30 or so military academies. Direct promotions have ended, however, and those remaining officers who were directly promoted have been required to attend military academies. More importantly, approximately half of the PLA’s officers are now recruited from civilian universities, which are regarded as providing higher-quality education than the PLA’s academies.
Bitzinger also observed that in addition to improving the quality of its soldiers and officers, the PLA is attempting to improve the quality of its training by increasing the realism, complexity and “jointness” of its exercises. Traditionally, training was conducted in small units belonging to a single branch (e.g., infantry, frigates or fighter aircraft) and was performed in benign conditions that included a familiar terrain, daylight and good weather. Moreover, training exercises were done either without an opposing force or with opposing forces whose actions were predetermined and briefed to the force being trained ahead of time. Now, however, training is routinely conducted on unfamiliar terrain, at night or in bad weather, and against opposing forces whose actions are not predetermined. The frequency of combined-arms (different branches within a single service) and joint (different services training together) training has also increased, as has the scale of the exercises. Some training areas now have dedicated opposition forces that simulate the tactics of potential adversaries and are even allowed to defeat the visiting unit. Finally, rigorous evaluation and post-exercise critiques have become an integral part of PLA training, with units required to meet standardised performance benchmarks or undergo remedial training.
Technologically, China has turned a corner in terms of the indigenously developed weapons systems. Veteran China watchers believe that this became possible because the state threw money to the R&D facilities and even the public sector manufacturers. The sheer volume of demand, based on these stupendous funds thrown at them, created an environment where defence-manufacturing complex had to come up to par and deliver better-quality armaments and other supporting equipment.
The result of that was seen in the production of the J-20, the completely rebuilt aircraft carrier, Varyag, the anti-ship ballistic missile, etc., which signify the qualitative leap the Chinese have made in growing an indigenous supply chain.