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The Early Returns of China’s Military Reforms

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Asia Defense

The Early Returns of China’s Military Reforms

China’s increased capability for joint operations means Taiwan must rethink the Chinese military threat.

The Early Returns of China’s Military Reforms
Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown stronger since the 2016 military reforms, which have gradually been expanded to cover units “from the neck down.” The PLA’s reforms were aimed at streamlining units with overlapping functions and re-organizing components into a force with integrated joint operations capabilities, a goal yet to be reached.

Despite that, the integration of units has gradually shown its impact, which can be seen in the PLA’s extension of reach beyond borders.The transformation of the former army-centric seven military regions into the current five theater commands to reach a balance of power between services is especially meaningful and so is the integration of militia forces through the National Defense Mobilization Department (NDMD) of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of Communist Party of China (CPC).

The PLA’s Extended Reach

Following the military reforms in 2016, the PLA has maintained a more active presence in the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait by effectively combining the combat capabilities of its naval aviation and air force and integrating theater commands. Most notably, according to data made public by Japan’s Ministry of Defense, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighter jets more than 1,000 times from April 2016 through January 2017, beating the previous record of 944 times in 1984 during the Cold War era. Military aircraft from the PLA caused 73 percent of these scrambles.

That the PLA was able to dispatch aircraft so frequently might have a lot to do with the integration of theater commands. According to information made public by Japan’s Ministry of Defense, most of the Chinese military aircraft that triggered scrambles were from PLA Navy (PLAN) Aviation, with some from the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). PLAN Aviation used to be responsible for most flight missions over East China Sea and Taiwan Strait. The PLAAF’s participation in such missions indicates that the resources of theater commands have been successfully integrated and that PLAN Aviation and PLAAF are likely to share airports and logistics facilities in years to come. This is a development worthy of more attention.

The many training exercises of PLA aircraft and those aircraft’s approach to Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) were meant to show off the PLA’s capabilities and, more importantly, to see how its combat tactics play out while testing Japan’s air defense capabilities. South Korea was put in similar situations as well. The PLAAF started sending aircraft to enter the Korean ADIZ (KADIZ) in January 2017, prompting protests from South Korea.

The PLA’s dispatch of aircraft to execute flight missions on a constant basis means that its flight and ground crews have become more competent. Even militia forces have been re-assigned with new logistics tasks at air bases, and are no longer restricted to previous direct combat support missions. This is made possible by an integration of military and civil resources.

The change in logistics capabilities is the most significant point to be gleaned from the PLA activities described above. As people love to say, “Air combat heroes owe half of their success to ground crew.”

The Chinese Threat by Air…

On November 18, 2017, a Tu-154 electronic surveillance plane of the PLAAF flew over the Miyako Strait near Okinawa Island before heading south for a so-called “long-distance training flight” along the eastern coast of Taiwan. Several days later, for two consecutive days on November 22 and 23, the PLAAF sent more planes to conduct similar training flights. The planes included Su-30 fighter jets, IL-78 aerial refueling tankers, and Y-8 electronic warfare aircraft. The moves were interpreted by many analysts as PLA steps toward conducting training under realistic conditions.

PLAAF spokesperson Senior Colonel Shen Jinke divulged in an interview with the media on November 24 that the H-6K bombers involved in the long-distance training flights took off from an air base in Shaanxi province. It indicates that the strategic force of the PLAAF has actualized a deployment in depth, and is not just concentrating its aircraft in coastal air bases. Several of the H-6K bombers that flew over the Miyako Strait took off from an air base on the Guanzhong plain in Shaanxi province. They flew in formation while heading for points beyond the first island chain in the West Pacific Ocean. All of the aircraft completed their training missions and patrol flights within days of getting the assignments. The description above hints at the PLAAF’s joint operations and long-distance flight capabilities.

The H-6Ks taking off from Shaanxi should long to the 36th Bomber Division of the PLAAF, which was attached to the Lanzhou Military Region before the 2016 military reforms. Theoretically, the division should have been assigned to the Western Theater Command after the military reforms, but it was put under the Central Theater Command instead. That decision recognizes the Central Theater Command’s cross-sea combat support capabilities and the considerable improvement that the PLA has made in integrating joint operations capabilities across theater commands, especially in the formulation of a standard operating procedure for integrating intelligence resources and monitoring airspace across theater commands. The long-distance training flights mentioned above mobilized aircraft from at least two theater commands. If the Southern Theater Command gets involved in training flights of the kind in the future, it will mark further improvement in cross-theater command mobility.

It was believed that the Central Theater Command, tasked with the mission of defending the capital city of Beijing and assigned the role of a main reserve force that provides mobile support to other theater commands if needed, should be commanded by an army general. Against expectations, Yi Xiaoguang of the PLAAF was tapped to command the Central Theater Command in August 2017. Yi, born in 1958, was a special-grade pilot who had been president of the Air Force Command Academy. In 2014, he became a deputy chief of the general staff of the now-defunct General Staff Department (GSD) of the CMC. He was generally expected to become the next commander of the PLAAF, but he was appointed as commander of the Central Theater Command instead.

The most probable reason for the appointment was that as a deputy chief of the general staff of the GSD, Yi was mainly responsible for joint operations. Yi’s appointment as commander of the Central Theater Command represents conformity to the PLA’s guiding principle that “Theater Commanders take responsibility for operations.” It also means the PLAAF could play a bigger role in providing mobile support.

The Central Theater Command has the PLAAF’s airborne troops, namely the former 15th Airborne Corps, under its control, though part of the airborne troops have been moved to the Northern Theater Command. The PLAAF’s airborne troops are still headquartered in Hubei Province. They are the backbone of the PLA’s aerial mobility support force. The Central Theater Command is the right place for them. This could help explain why Li Fengbiao, former commander of the 15th Airborne Corps, is now deputy commander of the Central Theater Command.

… And By Sea

In late November 2017, China also started sending naval vessels to cruise on the open seas beyond the first island chain, a posture demonstrating its intention to pose a threat from the air and the sea at the same time. China’s maritime militia in particular deserves more attention after the 2016 military reforms.

During the early years after the founding of People’s Republic of China (PRC), civilian ships of all sorts were tightly regulated. The Chinese Communist Party authorized departments of the armed forces across the country to manage the maritime militia. In the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands between China and Vietnam, China’s maritime militia cooperated with their naval counterparts to fight the Vietnamese. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Republic of China (ROC) considered that in a PRC invasion of Taiwan, the PLA would mobilize thousands of diesel-powered boats and sailboats managed by the maritime militia.

The maritime militia mobilization system was once weakened to the extent of near collapse after Chinese fishermen started sailing to the open seas for deep-sea fishing. However, the maritime militia mechanism was restored in 2013. In 2012, as the Beidou satellite navigation system developed by China on its own was opened for use by the private sector, local grassroots organizations of the CCP offered subsidies to fishermen to help them gain access to the navigation system. Reserve units have thus been able to manage the maritime militia in a real-time manner. The Beidou satellite navigation system has become more widely used on fishing vessels since 2015, when Sansha city of Hainan Province, which administers China’s disputed territories in the South China Sea, offered free installation of the Beidou system and fuel subsidies to fishing vessel owners as an incentive for them to comply with the government’s policy on the matter.

Nowadays, the PLA provides subsidies to fishermen via provincial military commands so as to encourage them to be organized as a maritime militia, manage them as such, and put them under the command of theater commands they are subordinate to. These fishermen-turned-militias started receiving relevant training in 2016 as auxiliary forces to the navy. Without official military status, the maritime militia is more flexible in its use, making it more difficult for other countries to counteract.

China takes advantage of its maritime militia to add leverage to its sovereignty claims in maritime disputes. For example, militias have been used to harass foreign vessels in sea areas which China lays claim to. Some ships have seized sonar buoys released from U.S. Navy ships, while others used fishing nets to obstruct foreign warships from operating in disputed seas. Chinese fishing vessels sailing in groups even surrounded foreign warships to discourage them from taking further action. Use of methods similar to those adopted by maritime militia could prevent direct a military confrontation from happening. It could also put China’s opponent in a situation where use of force is not a good option. If necessary, the fishermen are to take the blame for all that happens.

China makes use of its militia-cum-fishermen to maintain a constant presence in disputed seas in hopes that it can establish its sovereignty claims in such a manner. Meanwhile, should a maritime conflict with another country happen, fishermen would be more easily taken as victims, which could help China gain international sympathy. If other countries rely on warships to claim sovereignty over disputed seas, they are very likely to fall into a public opinion trap set by China.

From the discussion above, we can see that the post-reform PLA has achieved conspicuous improvements in integrating combat capabilities. Theater commands, after integrating the capabilities of subordinate units of different services, have acquired more flexibility in deploying troops. Most notably, the PLA’s activities beyond its borders have been transformed from the previous single theater command mobility mode to the current cross-theater command mobility mode, which is more capable of launching deep strikes.

Taiwan may need to adjust its assessment of military threats from China depending on the PLA Army Central Theater Command’s mobile deployment capability in the launch of an attack on Taiwan and the effects that the newly-established NDMD of the CMC has achieved in mobilizing reserves and militias after the 2016 military reforms.

Dr. Ying Yu Lin is assistant professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan.