The Buzz

China’s Evolving Military Strategy and the Reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army

On December 31st, 2015, President Xi Jinping inaugurated the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) as new branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), indicating the start of PLA reform and reorganization noted at the November 2013 Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee.

What has followed is the most substantial restructuring of the PLA since it was modelled on Soviet military forces in the 1950s. So far, much of the analysis of this reorganization has focused on the President Xi’s purges and the consolidation of PLA power under Communist Party (CCP) and Central Military Commission (CMC) control and oversight. However, that view offers only a partial explanation for the ongoing reforms. The reorganization is part of a decades long process of military strategic thinking and force structure development rather than simply a power play from President Xi.

There are good reasons why the reorganization of the PLA has also been compared to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that reconfigured the U.S. Department of Defense and clarified the chain of command to allow for effective implementation of joint operations utilizing all military branches.  The current PLA reforms have their roots in the PLA response to the effectiveness of the U.S. military during Operation Desert Storm— a success made possible by the Goldwater-Nichols reforms. In 1991, in the the immediate aftermath of Desert Storm, Colin Powell stated, “You will notice in Desert Storm nobody is accusing us of logrolling and service parochialism and the Army fighting the Air Force and the Navy fighting the Marine Corps. We are now a team. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation helped that.”

It is no coincidence that China took its first major step towards strategic reform in 1993, when Jiang Zemin stated the new PLA strategy must be focused on “winning local wars that might occur under modern especially high-technology conditions.” Essentially, this encompasses the capabilities and strategies that helped the U.S. rapidly win the Gulf War: precision-guided munitions, information superiority, ground-, air-, and space-based C4ISR, and coordinated joint operations.    

Although China did not publically focus on these concepts until it released its 2004 Defense white paper—by which time they had been renamed “informationalized” or “informationized” warfare—the PLA has focused on developing a fighting force to win an informationized war since 1993. This strategic focus is exemplified by substantial shifts in its force structure, weapons procurement, and strategic development.

President Xi’s announcement of a 300,000 troop reduction of the PLA Army (PLAA) marks the third major cut in army personnel since 1997, totaling 1,000,000. The PLA has also shifted its focus away from the historically dominant ground forces and towards bolstering the Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF). Both are seen as crucial for informationized warfare.

Furthermore, the December 2015 promotion of the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) to a full military branch, and the creation of a Strategic Support Force (PLASSF)—which will focus on space and cyber—also indicate that strategic priorities of the PLA have shifted to information-based joint warfare, and an emphasis on technology while being able to fight the full spectrum of conflicts from irregular to strategic warfare.

The PLA’s weapons development and procurement efforts have also focused on developing the ability to implement informationized warfighting strategies like anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD). In the mid-1990s China’s entire conventional missile force was 50 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) only capable of reaching Taiwan. Now, the PLA possesses 1,200 SRBMs, the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), an array of air, land, and sea launched cruise missiles, and strong air defenses. This has expanded the range of of China’s conventional forces to cover the entire first island chain and potentially parts of the second island chain. Additionally, Chinese space capabilities have grown from 10 satellites in 2000 to 181 in 2016.             

Yet, writing strategy papers and spending money on weapons is substantially easier than properly reorganizing and directing a military’s human power. In this regard China has two substantial problems. First, China has never fought a modern war and no amount of sophisticated training guarantees successful implementation on a hot battlefield. Second, the pre-reorganization PLA was profoundly ill-equipped to direct a fighting force in an informationized war that necessitates effective coordination of joint forces.