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Organization of the People¶s Liberation Army The People¶s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing a transformation that began as early as the late 1970s. This transformation has grown in intensity and scope since the early 1990s to include modernization not only in organization but also in capabilities. This transformation is meant to ensure that the PLA is better suited to meet its missions. At present, the PLA is not yet sufficiently organized to meet all of these missions but the transformation is not complete and will continue on for the foreseeable future. Missions The PLA¶s missions can be broadly divided into three categories: domestic, Taiwan, and international. Within these categories are the ³historic missions´ of the PLA: ensuring continued military support for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); defending China¶s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security; protect China¶s expanding national interests; and lastly, help ensure a peaceful global environment. The PLA¶s fundamental mission, fitting a political party military, is to support the CCP. The PLA¶s role, as Scott Tanner explains, is ³ultimate guarantor of the Party¶s hold on power.´1 The PLA has not had to actively fulfill this mission since the Tiananmen Square incident as the People¶s Armed Police, the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and other government and party organs have stepped up to become the primary actors in fulfilling this capacity. Nevertheless, the PLA will always retain this mission, a fact that Hu Jintao made clear in his expositions on the PLA¶s roles in 2004 and 2005. The other domestic mission of the PLA is defending China¶s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security. National security is not strictly a domestic concern as China¶s
Murray Scot Tanner. How China Manages Internal Security Challenges and Its Impact on PLA Missions. RightSizing the People s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China s Military, Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, 237-280. Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007. p. 40
interests have expanded beyond its borders, but those aspects of national security will be discussed below. The numerous conflicts along China¶s borders that the PLA has been involved with throughout its history, as well as the large percentage of PLA troops that participate in border defense indicate that this mission is one of great importance for the PLA. Primary concerns are areas of ethnic unrest like Tibet and Xinjiang; strategic thinkers in China are concerned that a combination of internal unrest and outside interference has real potential of weakening the CCP.Other concerns are territorial disputes like the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands. Taiwan, at least from the perspective of PLA and CCP leadership, also falls under the PLA¶s mission to defend territorial integrity, but the complexity of that issue merits its own discussion. National interests include the resource rich areas in the East and South China Seas. Since these areas are under dispute, the PLA is responsible for ensuring that other countries do not seize control of these areas and force China out. Finally, the PLA is also responsible for defending China against unconventional threats such as terrorism, a mission that is particularly important in the less stable frontier regions in which ethnic separatists operate. Taiwan is another crucial mission for the PLA. Preventing Taiwanese independence is crucial for the CCP to maintain its legitimacy. In fact, Murray Scot Tanner suggests,
³Many Chinese security intellectuals appear to believe (as Dr. Scobell has hinted earlier) that if the CCP leadership were to launch a precipitous attack to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, and that operation failed the resulting popular fury could result in the CCP¶s overthrow.´2
This task is tied up not only in the historic mission of defending China¶s territorial integrity but also with the PLA¶s fundamental mission of supporting the rule of the CCP.
The PLA also has an international scope to its missions. Most of these missions are regional concerns near China¶s borders. China¶s rise depends to a great extent on maintaining access to energy resources, much of which reaches China by way of sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Farther away, China has become involved in the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden as well as becoming increasingly involved in peacekeeping missions worldwide. These activities are meant to protect China¶s national interests as well as promote world peace, the last two ³historic missions´ mentioned by Hu Jintao. Organization To understand whether or not the organization of the PLA is sufficient to accomplish its missions it will be helpful to divide organization into the leadership structure, the different armed services, and military regions. Shortcomings in any of these areas could undermine the entire PLA¶s capability to fulfill its missions. It will also be important to examine how the revolution in military affairs has changed not only aspects of the organization of the PLA but also its capabilities. Simply put, without the necessary tools, the PLA would be unable to accomplish its missions. The national command body of the PLA is the Central Military Commission (CMC), which is made up of the Paramount Leader, heads of departments, service commanders, deputy department heads, and vice chairs. The CMC is responsible for PLA command, planning and organizing the implementation of PLA programs, creating military laws and regulations, and defining service and department missions and responsibilities. Although the CMC is subordinate to the CCP Politburo, the infrequency with which the Politburo meets as well as the overlap in leadership means that the CMC has a lot of freedom in leading military affairs.
CMC decisions are implemented by the four general departments, which have both national level and military region branches. The General Staff Department (GSD) manages operations, intelligence, communications, and military organization and mobilization. The General Political Department(GPD) is responsible for personnel, propaganda, and the political commissars. The General Logistics Department(GLD) handles financial issues, capital construction, environmental programs, and resupply. Lastly, the General Acquisitions Department(GAD) acquires armament and manages the space program.The general departments at the military region level report to both the regional commander as well as the national level departments which allows for functional control by the CMC. The PLA is divided into five armed services: the PLA Ground Forces, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), the PLA Navy (PLAN), the PLA Second Artillery, the nuclear and strategic missile branch, and the People¶s Armed Police (PAP). The PLA Ground Forces makes up about 70% of the entire PLA and is the largest ground force in the world at approximately 1.7 million members. It is divided into 18 group armies made up of infantry, artillery, engineers, etc. The PLA Ground Forces are organized around a defensive force structure. For instance, the large number, almost half, of PLA troops responsible for border defense and territorial security are arranged with small numbers of lightly armed troops arrayed along the border with reserves farther in capable of reinforcing the forward positioned troops. The PLAN has about 250,000 members that are divided into three fleets: the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet, and the South Sea Fleet. The PLAN currently is also participating in anti-piracy operations far from Chinese territorial waters in the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN does have two battalions of marines, roughly 12,000 personnel, which are subordinated to the South Sea Fleet and orientated towards sea invasion.
The PLAAF has a large number of fighters and bombers, but many of these are obsolete. Previously, the PLAAF was primarily structured towards air defense but its mission has been expanded to now include both offensive and defensive capabilities. This has required a change in capabilities that will be discussed below, but to summarize the PLAAF is becoming a smaller but more capable air force. The Second Artillery Corps is the custodian of China¶s nuclear and conventional missile arsenal. The nuclear mission is threefold: deter nuclear aggression against China, prevent coercion of China by other nuclear powers, and confer great power status. The conventional missile doctrine includes several potential roles as explained by Evan Medeiros, ³(1) deterrence combat; (2) counter-missile attacks; (3) blockade attacks; (4)disturbance attacks; (5) mobile force combat; and (6)firepower combat.´3 Although the Second Artillery could fulfill these roles in conflicts with any of its regional neighbors, much of the conventional missile doctrine appears to be orientated towards Taiwan. The PAP is approximately 1.5 million strong following the enlargement made in response to Tiananmen. 800,000 are responsible for internal stability, and the remainder is employed for border defense, infrastructure protection, firefighting, and emergency response. The PAP has a dual command structure made up of the CMC and the State Council via the Ministry of Public Security. The PAP by law is kept separate from the PLA, although in times of war, the PAP can serve as light infantry in support of the PLA and the PLA can fulfill supportroles for the PAP during emergencies. The last key feature of organization is the division of China into seven military regions, listed in order of creation and named for the city out of which they are based: Shenyang, Beijing,
Evan S. Medeiros. Minding the Gap: Assessing the Trajectory of the PLA s Secondary Artillery. Right-Sizing the People s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China s Military, Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, 237280. Carlisle, Penn.: Strategic Studies Institute, 2007. p. 166-7
Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu. Each military region has its own general departments. Different regions have different strategic orientations based on their location; for instance, Shenyang is orientated towards Russia and Korea. Military regions are subordinate to the CMC as Dennis Blasko explains, ³Under normal conditions, the order to move any but the smallest military units for operational purposes must originate in the GSD at the direction of the CMC.´ Even in emergencies, military region commanders are not given operational authority; rather temporary operational headquarters would be created based around the military region but likely commanded by officers higher up in the hierarchy. The ³revolution in military affairs´ is the name given to a worldwide phenomenon caused by the far-reaching impact of modern technology on war fighting. For China, this revolution has had several impacts, two of the most important being the introduction in military thinking to address the problem or possibility of ³limited wars under modern hi-tech conditions´ and the ongoing modernization of PLA capabilities. The possibility of having to fight ³limited wars under modern hi-tech conditions´ follows the examples of the Falklands War and the First Gulf War. Chinese thinkers have come to consider scenarios in which conflicts are decided rapidly in as little as a single campaign using hi-tech capabilities to strike high value targets and achieve victory. The PLA emphasizes the importance of preemption, counter-attack, and joint operations; the first two ideas stem from the grand strategy of Active Defense, the latter is taken from the examples mentioned above. As for capabilities, every service in the PLA is acquiring weapons and technology to make them more capable for a wider variety of missions than just defending against a war of invasion, the primary concern from the PLA¶s foundation through the 1970s. These acquisitions
programs are funded by a steadily increasing military budged, but these increases have remained in proportion with the overall increase in China¶s booming economy. With the combination of new systems and an expanded mission, the PLAN is the overall winner of China¶s force modernization. The PLAAF is caught in a transition from bloated numbers and obsolete platforms to a smaller and more capable service; part of this transition is a move towards indigenously designed capabilities instead of purchasing planes from other countrieslike Russia. The Second Artillery throughout its history has updated its nuclear arsenal without drastically increasing numbers. Conventional missile modernization has led to efforts to acquire anti-access capabilities such as anti-ship ballistic missiles. The capabilities of the PLA Ground Forces are also modernizing, but its immense size makes updating weapons, vehicles, etc. expensive and difficult. Moreover, certain crucial capabilities still lag behind such as helicopters and transport. Assessment The PLA¶s organization does allow it to accomplish its fundamental domestic mission of supporting the CCP. The CMC is subordinate to the head of the CCP, the Politburo. While there are parallel military leadership bodies, they have little authority. The CCP has complete control of the PLA so therefore it can expect the PLA¶s support of its rule. Considering the large size of the PLA and the PAP, guaranteeing the rule of the CCP is a mission easily within the PLA¶s abilities to fulfill. The PAP is the primary service in ensuring internal security, the PLA can be ordered to step in, either in a support role to the PAP or as the primary enforcer of CCP rule as it was during Tiananmen. The current organization of the PLA is less well suited to the other domestic mission of defending China¶s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security interests. While it is
true that there are very little existential threats to China from without, the smaller scale ³limited wars under modern hi-tech conditions´ presents a challenge that the PLA is not yet capable of facing for three reasons. First, the PLA¶s command structure does not give enough operational freedom to the military regional commanders for them to respond quickly and effectively to conflicts that become limited wars. Chinese military thinkers themselves emphasize the rapidity of these conflicts and the potential for a single campaign to be decisive. Given that, the lack of operation authority at the regional level where the units are stationed creates a time lag that is serious disadvantage in fast-paced conflicts. Some aspects of the PLA¶s organization do mitigate this threat however. The defensive force structure allows border forces to blunt an attack and can provide time for the CMC command to respond, and the practice of forming ad hoc command structures around the military region headquarters can overcome the lack of operational authority. Second, the modernization of the PLA¶s capabilities has been significant but the PLA still lacks or lags behind in certain capabilities needed for border defense and territorial security. The PLAAF uses many practically obsolete fighters and bombers; newer and more modern fighters and bombers are being produced or purchased but the deficiency is still felt. Additionally, the PLAAF will need to address the problem of trying to provide air defense over a very large territory with a decreasing number of planes as the higher cost of newer planes leads to fewer being acquired. Helicopters will continue to be a weak point in PLA capabilities until either indigenously designed helicopters fill the need or the United States lifts arms embargo. This vulnerability was felt particularly severely in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake. Third, the PLA¶s ability to conduct joint operations currently seems limited. While it is not necessary for the PLA to model itself completely after U.S. joint operations practices, it has
only been emphasizing the study of joint operations since the early 1990s and has had little opportunity to practice joint operations in that time. Moreover, the command structure keeps joint operators separate; in essence, ground troops and air strike fighters may both be active on a battlefield but it is more along the lines of coexistence than cooperation. A limited ability to conduct joint operations is serious as Chinese military thinkers recognize its importance in ³limited wars under modern hi-tech conditions´ given the examples of its effectiveness during the First Gulf War and the Falklands War. Much of whether or not the PLA could accomplish its mission in regards to Taiwan depends on how a conflict with Taiwan came about and whether or not the United States became involved. Absent U.S. involvement, the PLA could possibly succeed in a conflict with Taiwan. The Nanjing military region is orientated solely towards Taiwan and the Jinan military reserve contains strategic reserve forces including airborne forces that could readily be mobilized in the event of a conflict with Taiwan. The PLA¶s capabilities are not sufficient to guarantee victory given Taiwan¶s advanced military and the difficulty of invading a well-defended island, but it certainly has the ability to severely punish Taiwan with its submarines and conventional missiles. The modernization of the PLA will likely mean that down the road the PLA will have sufficient air capabilities to augment its naval, missile, and ground forces. In the event of a conflict with Taiwan in China fears the involvement of the United States, the PLA would likely depend on anti-access capabilities, like anti-ship ballistic missiles, and a rapidly concluded invasion to decide the conflict before the United States can become involved. The PLA¶s current organization is not well suited for this possibility for the same reasons that ³limited wars under modern hi-tech conditions´ present a challenge to the PLA. These
challenges will be especially difficult if the PLA failed to keep the United States out of the conflict as the U.S. military enjoys advantages in power projection, technology, and experience. The PLA¶s international missions are to defend China¶s expanding national interests and to help ensure world peace. The PLA¶s organization is insufficient to accomplish these goals. The practice of dividing China into seven military regions is beneficial for defense and domestic issues because responsibility is clearly laid out and the command structure is in place for the CMC to operate. It makes it difficult, however, to fulfill international missions that are not linked to any particular region; for instance, the PLAN¶s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Furthermore, the PLA services have been organized and orientated towards defense. The PLA lacks much of the necessary power projection capabilities to fulfill international missions. Even securing interests in the South China Sea and the East China Sea would be challenging for the PLA¶s nascent blue water navy and PLAAF. However, the PLA is still undergoing a transformation that seems like it will result in a far more capable military force. The PLAN is experiencing a proliferation of new platforms and the PLAAF is becoming more capable as well as newer planes are acquired. The inclusion of the heads of the various PLA services in the CMC may allow the CMC to overcome its defensive force structure when conducting international missions by using the central command structure to carry out those missions. Conclusion Currently the PLA¶s organization is insufficient to accomplish all of the PLA¶s missions. International missions and Taiwan are particularly challenging missions for the PLA. However, the PLA is undergoing a transformation in organization and capabilities that will bring these missions within the reach of the PLA to accomplish.
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