For over a year now, China has been implementing a series of major military reforms aimed at transforming the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a fully ‘informatized’ fighting force – one capable of conducting sustained joint operations, military operations other than war, and missions related to China’s strategic deterrence to protect China’s core national security interests.
Inherently, the reforms address what is known in China as “two gaps”: the general lack of PLA capabilities compared to advanced global peers or technologically-superior adversaries, and the inability of the PLA to align its capabilities with China’s changing strategic requirements.
At the same time, the reforms are also political, aimed at consolidating Party control over the nearly autonomous military branches, and mitigating entrenched institutional barriers and multiple deficiencies within the PLA, including inter-service rivalries, inadequate training, and ultimately, rampant high-level corruption.
While the reforms should be viewed in the context of China’s gradually evolving military strategy, technological advancement, and institutional change, their scope also reflects the magnitude of problems and challenges that preclude the PLA from realizing Xi Jinping’s “dream of building a strong army.”
Overview of 2016 Reforms
Starting at the highest echelon of command, the first wave of reforms, announced in early 2016, established a new command structure, with one Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission (CMC). The JSD replaces the former four General Departments (General Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armament). Under its umbrella are 15 functional sections, three commissions and five directly affiliated offices that are now responsible for PLA administration, defense planning and strategy.
The second round of organizational restructuring involved the inauguration of three new services – PLA Ground Forces (PLAGF), PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) and PLA Strategic Support Forces (PLASSF), all backed by the Joint Logistics Support Force. This change was meant primarily to reduce the historically entrenched dominance of the PLA Army over other services, and enable the PLA to develop and leverage joint military capabilities.
Notable in this context is the establishment of PLARF, which is responsible for China’s arsenal of nuclear and conventional ballistic missiles, as a full service on par with the PLA Army, Navy, and Air Force. The PLARF replaced the Second Artillery Corps, which was previously as an independent branch of the Army.
Among PLA watchers, the Strategic Support Force has received a great deal of attention.
Inherently, the reforms address what is known in China as “two gaps”: the general lack of PLA capabilities compared to advanced global peers or technologically-superior adversaries, and the inability of the PLA to align its capabilities with China’s changing strategic requirements
The PLASSF consolidated and restructured operational elements of the PLA General Staff Department (GSD), mainly the First Department (1PLA, operations department), Second Department (2PLA, intelligence department), Third Department (3PLA, technical reconnaissance department), Fourth Department (4PLA, electronic countermeasure and radar department), and Informatization Department (communications).
In other words, the PLASSF integrated China’s space, cyber, information and electronic warfare operations with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance units that are essential for China’s strategy of pre-emptive attack and asymmetric warfare in multi-domain conflicts.
The third tranche of reforms focused on revamping major Chinese military commands – from the previous seven “Military Regions” to five joint Theater Commands: East, South, West, North, and Central.
Comparable to the US Combatant Commands, the new Theater Commands should directly allocate forces and resources on specific strategic directions determined by potential external threats. The resulting operational adaptability is then projected to enhance the PLA’s joint training and operational readiness, particularly for conducting high-intensity joint military operations and transitioning from peacetime to wartime.
The next wave of PLA reforms, planned for 2017, will likely focus on revamping human resource management and training at the operational level – i.e. developing professional officer corps, adjusting promotion paths, ranks, salaries, education, technical proficiency, recruitment and personnel training.
For example, the PLA aims to improve the abilities of officers to perform both command and staff duties, increasing training realism for joint and combined arms operations, and standardize ranks in combined arms combat units. Moreover, the PLA will likely accelerate personnel and force structure cuts to complete the 300,000-man reduction announced by Xi Jinping in 2015.
Notwithstanding the comprehensive nature of these reforms, which will likely take years to implement, the ability of the PLA to integrate its military activities within and across services to attain new levels of military effectiveness will continue to face a wide range of internal constraints.
Achieving effective institutional horizontal inter-service integration counters the deeply entrenched centralized and hierarchical strategic and organizational culture of the PLA, which elevates Party ideology over professional military thinking
While the PLA has increased its niche asymmetric technological advantages since the mid-1990s, particularly in the development of reconnaissance-strike complexes – including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, torpedoes, rocket sea mines, satellite constellation, drones, and cyber and electronic warfare assets that may provide China defensive options and offensive choices – the ability to conduct joint operations that would support “new historic missions” remains limited.
At its core, the key challenge for the PLA is this: achieving effective institutional horizontal inter-service integration counters the deeply entrenched centralized and hierarchical strategic and organizational culture of the PLA, which elevates Party ideology over professional military thinking.
Ultimately, as China becomes more technologically advanced, its military effectiveness will be increasingly shaped by China’s ability to align its strategic goals with conceptual, organizational, and technological advancements. These, however, must be also viewed in the relative and comparative context of other countries’ strategic developments.
Michael Raska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.