Generally speaking, airborne troops are the elite of a country’s military. They comprise paratroopers who parachute from fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, placing emphasis on high mobility. Going behind enemy lines using the tactics mentioned above, airborne troops can conduct a converging attack with friendly ground forces.
Different from their counterparts in other militaries, the airborne troops of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used to be known as the 15th Airborne Corps under the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and were commanded by a major general at the grade of corps commander. The 15th Airborne Corps was composed of three divisions: the 43rd, 44th and 45th. In the 1990s, it went through several rounds of expansion to move toward the scale of a group army. The 15th Airborne Corps, based in Xiaogan, Hubei province, was made directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission (CMC), serving as rapid a reaction force and part of the strategic reserve. With the modernization of the PLA in recent years, the 15th Airborne Corps also acquired stronger fire power and higher mobility. Following the military reforms initiated in 2016, the term “airborne brigade” started to appear in Chinese media. After the restructuring of the military in 2017, the four-tier commanding system (corps-division-regiment-battalion) has been flattened to three tiers (corps-brigade-battalion). At the same time, the 15th Airborne Corps was renamed simply the Airborne Corps.
The Airborne Corps’ new commander, Major General Sun Xiangdong, is from Hubei province. Sun spent most of his military career in airborne troops. He had been chief of staff first of the 15th Airborne Corps and later of the Airborne Corps. In 2018, Sun was appointed as commander of the Airborne Corps. Promoted to the rank of major general in 2016, Sun had participated in the Chinese military parade in Beijing in 2009 and the military parade at Zhurihe Training Base in 2016. He also had an outstanding performance in the search and rescue efforts in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. This track record shows that Sun is well-qualified for the commander position.
What’s worthy of note is that former Airborne Corps commander Major General Liu Faqing, of the PLAAF, had also been chief of staff of the 15th Airborne Corps before he became commander of the Airborne Corps. Liu’s predecessor Li Fengbiao followed the same pattern, serving as chief of staff first before becoming commander of the 15th Airborne Corps later. This shows that in the highly specialized airborne branch, promotions are given only to members of the branch. From the examples above, we can see how promotions are determined in the Airborne Corps, which will make us become better able to predict personnel changes in the future.
Because of the importance of the Airborne Corps, the PLAAF normally has a lieutenant general who has commanded the airborne branch before as one of its deputy commanders. Examples include Li Lianghui, Jing Xueqin, and Ma Diansheng, who had all been PLAAF deputy commanders and were promoted to the rank of lieutenant general. This indicates that whoever takes such a position is tapped for further development in the military. For example, Li Fengbiao was appointed in 2016 as Central Theater Command deputy commander and chief of staff (in the grade of theater command deputy commander). Li was later promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in July of the same year. Li was able to become Central Theater Command deputy commander possibly because of his service and experience in the airborne branch. The airborne troops are also headquartered in the Central Theater Command, where their function as a mobile support reserve force can be fully exploited.
Yi Xiaoguang, commander of the Central Theater Command, is also of the air force. People used to believe that the Central Theater Command should be commanded by an army general because it is not only responsible for the defense of the capital city but also serves as the general reserve force that provides support when necessary. But in August 2017, Yi, of the air force, became commander of the Central Theater Command. Yi, born in 1958, had been a pilot of the first class and president of the PLAAF Command College. In 2014, Yi served as deputy chief of joint staff of the former General Staff Department (now the Joint Staff Department). He was widely considered to be the next PLAAF commander but he ended up becoming commander of the Central Theater Command. The most possible reason for the appointment was that Yi was primarily engaged in joint operations affairs while he was deputy chief of joint staff. Putting Yi in command of the Central Theater Command represents a way of thinking that corresponds to the PLA’s guiding principle, “Theater commands are responsible for operations.” With an air force general as commander of the Central Theater Command, the air force can play a bigger role in providing mobile support.
Furthermore, the air arm of the Central Theater Command includes the Airborne Corps. Although some of its subordinate units have been moved to the Northern Theater Command, the Airborne Corps is still based in Hubei province and the major provider of mobile support from the air. Considering the missions that the Airborne Corps is assigned, the Central Theater Command is the right place for it.
Nevertheless, when former Airborne Corps Commander Liu Faqing was appointed as deputy commander of the PLA Army (PLAA) (theater command deputy commander grade) in October 2018, it was quite out of expectation. Although inter-service transfers are no longer news in the PLA, most of these transfers involved political commissars who transferred from one service to another. This was the first time that a general of the airborne branch has become a leader of the army. The appointment of an airborne branch general as deputy commander of the army might be aimed at helping the army develop aviation and special operations capabilities. In the ongoing restructuring of the army, combined arms brigades, combined arms battalions, and army aviation are on the priority list for development.
As another example, former Army Air Corps Department Director Major General Yuan Jichang has become PLAA deputy chief of staff. Despite having earned the title of first-class helicopter pilot, Yuan is a little too old for his position and has limited knowledge of air assault, aviation, and special operations, which happen to be the missions of the Airborne Corps. In light of this, the appointment of Liu to the army might be intended to beef up the army’s air assault capability and air-land coordination training, introduce training courses adopted by the Airborne Corps to the army’s air assault brigades, and indoctrinate army personnel in ideas about the army’s new types of fighting forces. The development of air assault brigades (now only two, one the 121st brigade of the southern theater command and the other 161st brigade of the central Theater Command) invites further observation.
Dr. Ying Yu Lin is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Institute of Strategic and International Affairs National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi Taiwan. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. His research interests include the PLA and cybersecurity.