Two Chinese armored brigades clashed in a week-long training exercise at the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia in 2015. Both brigades were equipped with identical armored vehicles and weapons. The Blue opposing forces brigade (OPFOR), however, was organized and fought in the fashion of a United States brigade combat team.
The Red friendly force was crushed. “Within an hour we were hit with airstrikes, enemy satellite reconnaissance, and cyberattacks … Frankly, I never imagined it would be this hard,” said Wang Ziqiang, the armored brigade commander of the Red force. Wang’s political commissar Liu Haitao was caught on camera sobbing after the defeat. In a documentary aired on state television days before the 19th Party Congress in October, Liu said that his unit was initially very confident of victory over the Blue team, which was formerly a sister unit. “But over the course of seven days, we were beaten … we lost because we didn’t meet realistic combat standards when training our troops,” he said.
Subpar training tells only part of the story. Between 2014 and 2016, the “American” Blue team scored a total of 32 victories and one defeat against Red forces that comprised some of the best and most well-equipped units in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On average, Red forces sustained 70 percent simulated casualties after clashing with the Blue team. The PLA’s poor performance against a modern military unit gave President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping sufficient reason to seek an overhaul.
In September 2015, Xi announced sweeping military reforms that included a 300,000 troop cut, the creation of a joint command structure that has drawn comparisons with the United States’s Goldwater-Nichols Act, and a military-civilian integration program that appears to draw inspiration from the American military-industrial complex. During his speech at the 19th Party Congress, Xi set three goals for the PLA: By 2020, achieve basic mechanization, make significant progress in using information technology, and elevate strategic ability; by 2035, become a modernized defense and military force; by 2050, become a world-class military.
If Xi can fully implement his reforms while successfully fending off military and political opponents, the PLA should most closely resemble the U.S. military in terms of organization and chain of command. The reformed PLA, however, is unlikely to best the U.S. military in a conventional war given its technological gap and lack of warfighting experience. But factor in unconventional warfare tactics and next-generation technology, and the PLA may stand a chance of rivaling the world’s strongest fighting force.
Reasons for Reform
Xi’s military reforms appear to be driven by two factors: China’s need as an aspiring world power for a modern military that can fight and win wars, and Xi’s need to consolidate power in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The former factor is the more obvious of the two. While previous CCP leaders had carried out some military reform and updated the military’s weaponry, the PLA had long remained organized along the Soviet model. Combat tactics and doctrine didn’t differ much from the low-tech, ground forces-heavy style utilized during the 1950 Korean War. While militaries around the world had been moving toward joint service operations since the 1980s, the army was still the most prominent service branch in the PLA. The navy and air force played an auxiliary role.
From a national defense and overseas security standpoint, the relative backwardness of the PLA is a pressing concern for the Xi administration. China has pledged hundreds of billions of dollars for its Belt and Road Initiative, a major transnational development strategy to promote trade between China and Eurasian countries through an overland route and a maritime route. The PLA also periodically faces border issues with India and Vietnam, and maritime run-ins with neighboring countries in the South China Sea. And in the east, China has to contend with a nuclear-capable North Korea whose leadership is aligned with Xi’s political rivals.
The need for modern tactics and joint operations was firmly impressed upon the commanders who participated in or observed the training exercises in Zhurihe. Previously, training exercises were formulaic affairs that usually ended up with friendly Red teams defeating Blue teams made up of rotated units. Xi, however, required a professional OPFOR to test the combat effectiveness of PLA units more rigorously. So the 195th mechanized infantry brigade under commander Xia Minglong underwent reorganization between 2013 and April 2014 to serve as a dedicated Blue team. State media hinted that the “foreign combat doctrine” embraced by the Blue team was similar to that of the U.S. military, and its organization should more closely resemble a U.S. combat brigade.
A typical training exercise at Zhurihe would see the Blue team launch nuclear strikes, carpet bombing runs, and electronic attacks against the attacking Red force, as well as conduct nightly raids. Special forces tactics were also utilized — Blue team troops impersonating local government representatives delivering goodwill provisions to a Red team force successfully met with and captured their commander. While the Blue team was equipped with outdated Type 59 main battle tanks and Type 63 armored troop carriers, it is likely that they were simulated as M1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicles using multiple integrated laser engagement systems. Lastly, the Blue team usually emerged overwhelmingly victorious as both a defender or aggressor force.
The sobering performance of the various PLA units at Zhurihe seemed to be sufficient for Xi to convince the top PLA brass to adopt deep reforms for the military to stay relevant. The reforms that have been rolled out thus far appear to largely take reference from the United States:
- The Central Military Commission (CMC) was reorganized to accommodate a permanent joint command and control structure. This is reflected in the abolishing of the four General Departments and the creation of 15 new departments, as well as inclusion of top naval and air force generals in the CMC of the 19th Central Committee.
- The chain of command was separated into an operational chain and an administrative chain. For instance, the new military theaters oversee combat preparations, while the service branch headquarters see that the various units are organized, trained, and equipped for missions.
- The PLA is now organized around brigade combat teams as opposed to divisions.
- China’s new civilian-military integration program is geared toward the development of a military-industrial complex like the United States’
- On November 10, the CMC announced regulations governing the creation of a new civilian service.
- On November 24, state media announced the piloting of a military professional education program.
Operationally, the PLA may more closely resemble the U.S. military after reform, albeit with a Leninist dual command structure that allows the CCP to retain full control over the troops.
The success of Xi’s military reforms, however, hinges on his efforts to consolidate power in the CCP. While Xi emerged from the 19th Party Congress with greater authority, he still faces resistance from the influential Jiang Zemin faction. Top CMC members and the PLA newspaper continue to stress the importance of cleaning out the “pernicious influence of Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou,” two former CMC vice chairs and Jiang faction elites, from the military. Many of the other 64 top ranking generals who were purged under Xi’s anti-corruption campaign are also associated with the Jiang faction. Furthermore, there might be senior military leaders who aren’t clearly linked with the Jiang faction but are unhappy with Xi — Hong Kong media reported that vanished former CMC members Fang Fenghui and Zhang Yang (who was later confirmed to have committed suicide) were dissatisfied with Xi’s military reforms. Perhaps the best indicator that Xi is genuinely worried about internal resistance is the inclusion of CMC Discipline Inspection chief Zhang Shengmin in a downsized CMC.
China vs. The United States: The Gap
The PLA should become a modernized fighting force if Xi is successful in implementing his reforms, but it will unlikely surpass the U.S. military in a conventional skirmish.
Every year, America spends 3.3 percent of its GDP (about $611 billion in 2016) to develop and maintain a military force that is widely regarded as the strongest in the world. In terms of equipment, the U.S. military has 10 aircraft carriers, combat-proven vehicles like the M1 Abrams tank and the Apache helicopter, next-generation fighter jets like the F-35, advanced military communications satellites, and about 6,800 nuclear warheads. There are about 1.3 million active-duty personnel, of which under 200,000 are deployed overseas. Training standards and professionalism are high, and U.S. troops have participated in conflicts around the world since World War II.
In contrast, China spends just 1.9 percent of its GDP (about $216 billion in 2016) on its military. China’s defense ministry acknowledges a “definite gap” between the PLA’s military technology and that of other developed countries. For instance, China’s maiden aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished Soviet-era steam turbine vessel, while the PLA’s next-generation fighter jet, the J-31, lacks an advanced engine to fly at the supersonic speeds of an F-35. The Type 99 is a modern main battle tank, but it hasn’t been combat-tested. And except for a handful of senior commanders who fought in China’s disastrous war against Vietnam in 1979, most of the PLA’s 2 million-strong military is lacking in combat experience. Worse, the PLA has to overcome a severe professionalism problem: Under Jiang Zemin’s era of dominance (1997-2012), senior military officials had to bribe their way up the ranks, training exercises were routine and conducted for show and profit, and the military had a problem with binge drinking.
Bypassing the Gap
To match or even surpass the United States, the modernized PLA will resort to the unconventional means that it has already been experimenting with in recent years.
In his bestselling book The Hundred-Year Marathon, Pentagon consultant Michael Pillsbury described simulated war games between the American military and the PLA where the Chinese side “was the victor” whenever it “employed Assassin’s Mace methods.” Assassin’s Mace, or shashoujian, are weaponry that the PLA has developed to cripple or bypass technologically superior militaries. Such weaponry includes anti-satellite and anti-aircraft carrier missiles, high-powered microwave and electromagnetic pulse weapons, and radar jammers. Because Assassin’s Mace weapons are far cheaper than carriers or next-generation fighter jets, they are a cost-effective way for the PLA to gain an advantage over more powerful militaries that rely on satellites, networks, and the internet for communications.
Getting China-manufactured components into the high-tech military hardware of other countries is another way that the PLA can gain an edge. Microchips made in China are known to be counterfeit in some cases or actual spyware in others. In 2010, the U.S. Navy found that it had bought 59,000 fake computer microchips from China. These chips were meant for use in missiles, fighter planes, warships, and other equipment. Reuters reported in 2014 that the Pentagon had approved the use of Chinese magnets in the construction of the F-35’s sensitive hardware. In the best case scenario, the made-in-China parts work as advertised and no harm is done. In the worst case scenario, the Chinese parts could cause catastrophic system failure or serve as surveillance devices for the PLA.
Perhaps more disturbing is what the PLA could potentially develop. Stuart Russell, an artificial intelligence scientist at the University of California in Berkeley, released a short film on November 13 which highlighted the devastating capabilities of fictional autonomous “slaughter bots” — using tiny weaponized AI drones, malicious figures eliminate politicians and activists in broad daylight. Russell’s vision of the future is stark, but China could make it a reality. Presently, China is at the forefront of drone manufacturing and has a sizable slice of the civilian drone market (Dajiang Innovation alone has 70 percent of the global market share). Meanwhile, Beijing plans to spend $100 billion to grow its semiconductor industry under a Made in China 2025 program. It is not inconceivable that the PLA could eventually develop advanced AI-powered drones and put them to use, even if their ethical use becomes a concern. The CCP has proven that it has no scruples about crushing “anti-revolutionaries” (political opponents, students at Tiananmen, ethnic minorities, and religious groups), and its military will likewise pursue asymmetrical hybrid warfare tactics to achieve its ends against external foes.
Finally, the PLA is a legitimate cybersecurity threat. In recent years, PLA cyber units have successfully breached the networks of U.S. businesses, infrastructure companies, and the government. In May 2014, the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments against five members of the former General Staff Department’s Unit 61398 for hacking Westinghouse Electric, the United States Steel Corporation, and other companies. Chinese hackers backed by the state also allegedly breached the computer system of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, compromising the private data of its 4 million current and former government employees. Militaries that rely on cyber networks for communications may find their operations severely hampered in a conflict with the PLA.
This year, four U.S. Navy vessels were involved in collisions in the East China Sea. Internal investigations indicated that crew negligence was to blame. But the particularly severe collisions of destroyers USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain with commercial ships, as well as the frequency and close timing of the accidents, have led government investigators and technology experts to consider the possibility of the warships being targeted by cyber attacks. If cyber sabotage is indeed a reason for the collisions, then the PLA is suspect.
Xi Jinping’s military reforms appear to draw inspiration from the U.S. military, and serve the dual purpose of modernizing the PLA and consolidating his control over the CCP. A modernized PLA will unlikely surpass the United States in a conventional engagement, but the outcome will scale toward the PLA if it uses unconventional tactics and weapons. In this scenario, the PLA is set to become the largest “American” military force to pose a threat to the U.S.
Translated by Larry Ong.
Don Tse is the CEO and co-founder of SinoInsider Consulting LLC, a consulting and research company based in New York City.
Larry Ong is a senior analyst with SinoInsider Consulting LLC.