The report that the PLA Ground Forces now constitute less than 50 percent of the entire force is a measure of just how far the Chinese have been able to reach in the transformation of their military. This means that not only is the PLA losing its continental orientation – aimed at fighting adversaries on its border – but also developing greater regional reach and technological sophistication.
The changed balance of the 2.035 million force means that the technology-intensive parts of the PLA – its Air Force (PLAF), Navy (PLAN), Rocket Force (PLARF) and Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) – are growing.
In this, as in many other things military, the Chinese are following the model of their principal adversary, the United States, which maintains a global military capability. The US fields a 1.3 million highly technology-intensive military which breaks down to, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), an Army of 467,250, Navy of 323,950, Air Force of 322,800, and a Marine Corps of 184,400.
Beijing More Worried About Global Prowess?
In terms of numbers, the PLA GF could now be anywhere between 8,50,000 to 9,75,000 as compared to India’s 1.2 million man Army. The PLAN could be 2,40,000, PLAF 3,95,000, PLA Rocket Force 1,00,000 and SSF 1,75,000.
These PLA GF numbers are likely to dip further to anywhere from 5,00,000 to 6,00,000.
Essentially, as China becomes more powerful, defending the homeland becomes a lesser concern than projecting power abroad.
In any case, China has a vast internal security apparatus and a huge paramilitary establishment and militia to take care of homeland security.
This process has been accelerated by reforms rammed through by Xi Jinping since 2013, whose first phase will end around 2020. In this phase, the entire higher command system has been dismantled and reoriented, the Military Region system abolished and replaced by theatre commands, the PLAGF’s unique leadership role in the PLA reduced by giving them their own PLAGF headquarters, like those of the PLAN and the PLAAF.
The 2nd Artillery Force, which handled China’s nuclear and missile assets, has been upgraded and renamed PLA Rocket Force, and an entirely new Strategic Support Force has been created to centralise and integrate the PLA’s cyber, space, information dominance capabilities.
Subsequently, in September 2016, China also established a new Joint Logistic Support force, which is, however, an establishment subordinate to the Logistic Support Department of the CMC.
The Role of CMC & Its Chairman
The higher direction of the PLA, done through the Central Military Commission (CMC), of which Xi is the chairman, has also been drastically reformed. Xi reduced the new CMC to just 7 members from the 11 that were there earlier.
The four General Offices that ran the system were done away with and replaced by 15 functional units that included the Joint Staff Department, Political Work Department, Logistic Support Department, the Equipment Development Department, each headed by a CMC member, all Generals. The other 11 offices were headed by junior military officers.
In China, the Ministry of Defense is merely a showpiece institution. The military is run by the CMC which is a Communist Party of China outfit. The PLA, as has been stated repeatedly, is not the military force of the People’s Republic of China, but that of the Communist Party.
And the command runs through the Chairman of the CMC and its members, to the Theatre Commands and the military units. XI also wears another hat, commander-in-chief of the Joint Operations Command Center. Not surprisingly, the new higher direction system has been christened the “CMC Chairman Responsibility System.”
Xi’s Renewed Focus on Data and Maritime Security
In his speech at the 19th Party Congress in November 2017, Xi Jinping repeated his mantra that the military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on “how to win when it is called upon.”
The CPC would help create a powerful and modernised military, technology would be the core of its combat capabilities with an emphasis on innovation. The milestones laid out signified the total mechanisation of the Chinese military by 2020, the completion of “modernisation” by 2035 and a world-class military status by 2050.
When Xi took charge of the country and the military, the latter’s morale was low and corruption had sapped its professionalism. Ranks were being sold and money made on virtually everything that was bought.
Since then, he took recourse to draconian measures to straighten things out – top most officers like Generals Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou and, more recently, Zhang Yang and Fang Fenghui were sacked and jailed, regulations were issued banning liquor, banquets and ordering officers to serve along with ordinary soldiers for a certain period every year.
Some of these developments were spelt out in the White Paper issued in May 2015. The two key themes of the document were, first, the importance of technology in the area of information and the trends in long-range precision strikes by manned and unmanned platforms.
And second, the importance of the maritime mission of the PLAN which would thereafter combine its existing mission of “offshore waters defence” towards “open seas protection,” in other words develop a blue-water reach.
What India Can Learn From Xi
In all this, the PLA was tasked to fight and win “informationised local wars.” Such wars would require the effective harnessing of Command-Control-Communications-Intelligence-Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems by the PLA joint forces and defeat the enemy’s C4ISR systems and forces. Information dominance would be the real strategic high ground.
China is training its forces to take on possible contingencies with the world’s leading power, the US.
But in the process, it will develop capabilities which have implications for India. Despite a lot of talk, we are far from taking the kind of steps the Chinese have taken to integrate their three services and restructure their command and control structure.
To achieve their goals, the Chinese are also spending serious money where India’s budgets have been skewed by high manpower costs and lack of governmental support. According to the IISS, China spent $150 billion, three times as much as India, in 2017. Of course the US outspent everyone with $603 billion.
But the more important lesson has been the need for the political class to take charge of the process, understand the issues and ram through the reforms. If it was the Goldwater-Nichols Act that gave the big push in the US, it is the Chairman of the CPC, Xi, who has provided the necessary momentum in China. In India, the political class have been supremely indifferent, with the result that we have a dysfunctional defence system.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)