PLA overhaul is in line with Chinese ambitions: The Tribune India


Maj Gen GG Dwivedi (retired)

Former Defense Attaché in China

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is expected to be 95 years old, has played a central role in China’s emergence as a major power. It has its roots in the “Nanchang Uprising” of August 1, 1927, the day when communist revolutionaries like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai revolted against the Kuomintang National Forces. In 1929, Mao defined the role of the PLA as the army of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The two most powerful organs in the People’s Republic of China – the CPC and the PLA – share a symbiotic relationship. The PLA is well represented in the Politburo and the Central Committee, the party’s main decision-making bodies. The communist leadership at the time gave top priority to modernizing defense, as the military is seen as a vital component of the “comprehensive national power” of the state.

By assuming the role of “fifth generation leadership” in 2012, President Xi Jinping launched the process of military transformation with a dual purpose; prepare the armed forces for China’s growing global role and establish firm party control over the PLA. The transformation process resulted in a revision of the role, battle doctrines and organizational structures.

For strategic direction, a “White Paper on National Defense 2015” was released emphasizing “active defence” and the shift of naval strategy from “coastal defence” to “offshore waters defence”. with protection on the high seas”. In 2017, at the 19th meeting of the CPC, the timelines for the reorganization of the PLA were formalized, i.e. to achieve mechanization by 2020, basic modernization by 2035 and transformation into a world-class force by 2050. According to the “National Defense White Paper 2019”, the thrust was on “Defence in the New Era”. The 14th Five-Year Plan and Vision 2035 envisioned the creation of high-level strategic deterrence, the integrated employment of the armed forces, and the cultivation of a new kind of military talent.

The PLA has taken a comprehensive approach to new ways of waging war; involves a balance between “preparing for war” and “preventing war”, in addition to conducting “grey zone warfare” alongside conventional warfare. The PLA has embarked on the exploitation of disruptive technologies, particularly information warfare, strategic space, cyber, electronic and psychological warfare capabilities. A revised combat doctrine based on “computerization and intelligence” reflects the centrality of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic technologies.

To implement the new doctrines, the Central Military Commission, the top defense body, was restructured, with President Xi appointing himself as commander-in-chief to exercise direct control over the PLA. At the operational level, the 17 military regions of the army, air force and navy were reorganized into five theater commands. The Western Theater Command, responsible for managing the entire border with India, also covers Tibet and Xinjiang. In addition, 84 corps-sized formations were created, including 13 operational corps, organized into combined arms brigades capable of rapid deployment.

The revised mission of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) involved moving from “territorial air defence” to encompass both defense and attack, in addition to building an “airspace defense force” and power projection capabilities. It should have around 1,300 4th and 5th generation fighters, including a few squadrons of J-20 and F-31/J stealth fighters in its inventory over the next two years.

The PLA Navy (PLAN) is on a quest to gain reach to the “distant seas”. Its ships now sail regularly in European waters. PLAN is also interested in the Arctic (Polar Silk Road), the next maritime frontier. Numerically, China already has the largest navy in the world with more than 350 ships, although it lags behind the United States in capacity. By 2035, PLAN plans to have over 450 ships. China’s Coast Guard is the largest in the world with over 100 ocean platforms.

China’s “Rocket Force” arsenal, previously estimated at 250-300, is expected to increase to around 700 by 2027. China has nearly 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles, including DF-41, capable of delivering up to 10 warheads with a range of over 12,000 km. The number of DF-21 and DF-26 medium-range missiles has increased from 16 to 200 over the past few years. China is also known for developing the “hypersonic glide vehicle” and “hypersonic cruise missile”.

China’s defense budget has increased nearly tenfold over the past two decades, from $22.93 billion in 2000 to $230 billion in 2022. Since Beijing has historically underreported its military spending, actual expenses are estimated to be much higher.

China’s ongoing military reform process is the biggest military upheaval seen in generations. It is well aligned with national goals and objectives. Beijing’s aggressiveness, especially after Xi came to power, is evident in its military activities in the South China Sea, across the Taiwan Strait and on the LAC against India. Aware of the PLA’s lack of operational experience, the communist leadership used these incursions to reinforce its army.

The hyper-pace of defense infrastructure development, the advanced deployment of warfare assets in Tibet and Xinjiang, the provocative activities along the LAC, the incorporation of new defense and border laws amply manifest the evil designs of the Dragon. Beijing apparently has no intention of resolving the border issue, as evidenced by progress in political-diplomatic and military talks. The PLA is likely to continue its policy of “nibble and negotiate” in the field of “war in the gray zone”.

Given the gravity of the situation, it is time for our decision makers to take the right strategic direction by putting in place the national defense policy and joint combat doctrines as well as structures to conduct limited operations in multiple scenarios. Anomalies regarding the role of the CDS, theater commands, border management, integrated development of military infrastructure and “procurement with acquisition procedures” must be ironed out as a matter of priority.

The PLA is undergoing a profound transformation with aspirations to undertake expanded global missions, which will dramatically shift the balance of the power matrix. The world must be ready to face an even more aggressive China in the times ahead. For India, this is potentially a wake-up call.


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