Asia Defense

The Meaning of the People’s Liberation Army Reforms

China goes for stronger joint operations capabilities and political stability.

The Meaning of the People’s Liberation Army Reforms
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

At the end of last year Chinese leaders began making sweeping reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the most significant since the establishment of the country’s armed forces. The primary agenda for the reform initiative is to reinforce the country’s joint operations capability with the aim of establishing organic links among the military branches of the ground, naval and air forces. In other words, China’s efforts are designed to bolster its military systems so that it has the ability to fight a modern war effectively. It is trying to do this by encouraging collective cooperation among the Army, Navy, Air Force and other military branches while implementing radical reforms related to military organizations, strategies and tactics.

China’s military traces its origins to the troops that were formed to fight a liberation war on the domestic front: a revolutionary civil war. In other words, China’s military was originally formed as an internal security force, and its military characteristics are closer to those of an army than the other branches. This is reflected in its very name, the People’s Liberation Army.

Prior to its military reshuffle, China was divided into seven military regions nationwide, each of which had a regional commander who was responsible not only for operational command and control but also for administrative activities for the military region, including the maintenance and management of forces deployed in the region. This pre-reform style of military management in China reflected the historical background of the PLA. In reforming the country’s armed forces, China’s military has abolished the seven military regions and newly activated five theater commands, each of which has a joint operation capable headquarters focusing on its own operational command and control in the respective theaters.

As for administration, the responsibility now lies with the central organizations of the respective military branches, namely the Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force. Prior to the reforms, there was no central headquarters for the ground forces, meaning that the army’s seven military regions were traditionally treated on a par with the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery Force (now the Rocket Force).

The new Army headquarters will focus on administration including overall management of the ground forces, in cooperation with the other military branch headquarters. This means that the PLA’s Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force will be more clearly defined as “force providers” while operational chain of command will flow to “force users” such as the five newly created theater commands.

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In fact, achieving stronger combat capabilities by integrating the command and control of the different branches of military forces is no easy feat. Traditionally, the ground, naval and air forces tend to have their own unique organizational cultures based on the customs and values specific to each branch. They even use differing operational terminologies. Thus, they are likely to encounter a number of challenges before they can count on close cooperation among the branches at various levels from the central strategic command to local tactical control of combat..

In general, military branches frequently face clashing interests on issues such as budget allocations. Radical reforms often produce winners and losers. Applying this general observation to China’s military reforms, it appears that the ground forces, traditionally the most powerful organization within the PLA, have now become the loser, with a weaker position relative to the naval and air forces, which are gaining momentum in the process of reinforcing the joint operational capabilities.

For example, China’s plan to reorganize its seven military regions into five theater commands will leave fewer positions for senior military officers in the Army, meaning fewer (and slower) promotional opportunities for the entire officers corps of the Army. It would be no surprise if the reforms face resistance within the Army.

The United States has been a pioneer in joint operations. Even for the U.S. though, it took until the late 1980s before it truly achieved a comprehensive integration of its joint operations capabilities. It was no easy task.

In the late 1980s, Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Flynt Nichols, who occupied influential positions in the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, respectively, co-sponsored the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which increased the powers of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and expanded the capabilities of the Unified Combatant Commands. Until the bill was eventually passed by Congress for compulsory implementation, there was no joint operations capabilities in place for the U.S. military.

The concept of joint operations is a new challenge for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to address as well. As a first step, Japan increased the powers of the Chief of Joint Staff and the Joint Staff Office in 2006. Before then, operations of the combat units had been run and managed individually by the ground, maritime and air forces under a non-compulsory, mild chain of command calling for mutual cooperation among the combat units when necessary.

It was just ten years ago that Japan first introduced joint operations to its Self-Defense Forces. Now a single specifically designated commander of the Joint Task Force will exercise command and control over subordinate units assigned from different service branches in case of armed attack on Japan or a large-scale natural disaster. This initiative represented only a first step toward a comprehensive strengthening of joint operational capabilities.

When it comes to operations to protect remote islands, better joint combat operations is an important task for Japan, and one it must address urgently. In order to deploy ground forces to defend these islands, naval and air transportation is essential, as is gaining and maintaining control over the air and maritime spaces around the islands. Close cooperation and coordination among ground, maritime and air components will be critical to successful defensive operations of the islands.

Amphibious capabilities in particular are necessary for rapid deployment of forces when an armed attack is imminent or for operations to retake islands that have been occupied. While the amphibious operation may be small in scale, it will require truly joint capabilities, orchestrating ground, maritime and air operations as well as logistics. Beefing up joint operational capabilities has become a significant challenge for Japan to address, while China is faces similar problems with its drastic military reforms.

Political Control

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Another issue that has been raised by China’s military reforms is related to political control over its armed forces. The old PLA structure relied heavily on the General Staff Department (operations), the General Political Department (political guidance), the General Logistics Department (logistics support), and the General Armaments Department (development and procurement). These four departments exercised strong authority under four senior army officers.

Now these four departments along with other organizations have been regrouped into fifteen subsidiary organs directly under the Central Military Committee chaired by Xi Jinping. These organs include seven departments such as the Joint Staff Department, three commissions, including the Discipline and Inspection Commission and five special offices, such as the Strategic Planning Office. The success of the reform initiatives will be largely dependent on the central government’s ability to control these functions effectively.

Again, China’s reforms may face resistance within the armed forces. Strong political leadership will be crucial. Xi’s military reforms involve ambitious experiments in politics and society. Among other issues related to China’s rise in recent years, they will certainly attract the attention of military experts everywhere in the world.

Noboru Yamaguchi is a former Lieutenant General in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and is currently a professor at the International University of Japan.