China’s incomplete military transformation: assessing the weaknesses of the PLA

Chinese soldiers attend a winter training session Jan. 28 in freezing temperatures in Heihe, northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

Chinese soldiers attend a winter training session Jan. 28 in freezing temperatures in Heihe, northeast China’s Heilongjiang province.

Media reports of China’s new J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters, “carrier-killer” anti-ship ballistic missiles and anti-satellite weapons have unnerved many in the Pentagon.

But a new report to be released on Wednesday by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), outlines the various Achilles’ heels of the Chinese military, including opportunities the US military could exploit.

Defense News got first rights, before its release, on reviewing the report, entitled, “China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army.”

Sponsored by the USCC and produced by the International Security and Defence Policy Centre of the Rand National Security Research Division, the report is based on the premise that understanding where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) falls short of its aspirations, or has not fully recognised the need for improvement, is just as important as recognising the PLA’s strengths.

The report looks at two critical shortcomings: institutional and combat capabilities. On institutional issues, the PLA faces shortcomings regarding outdated command structures, quality of personnel, professionalism and corruption. Combat weaknesses include logistical, insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special-mission aircraft, and deficiencies in fleet air defence and anti-submarine warfare.

“Although the PLA’s capabilities have improved dramatically, its remaining weaknesses increase the risk of failure to successfully perform some of the missions Chinese Communist Party [CCP] leaders may task it to execute, such as in various Taiwan contingencies, maritime claim missions, sea line of communication protection, and some military operations other than war scenarios.”

The report sifted through over 300 Chinese-language articles from CCP publications, along with numerous books and studies, including important books on strategic missile forces issues, such as “The Science of Second Artillery Campaigns” by Yu Jixun.

The PLA’s own weakness assessments revolve around a concept alternately referred to as “two incompatibles” or “two gaps.”

“Indeed, PLA publications are replete with references to problems in many areas, and discussions of these problems often highlight what Chinese writers refer to as the ‘two incompatibles, reflecting their assessment that the PLA’s capabilities are still unable to (1) cope with the demands of winning a local war under informatised conditions and (2) successfully carry out the PLA’s other [historic] missions.”

Although the two incompatibles and two gaps refer to the same concept, the literature uses them to highlight different traits. “Mentions of the two incompatibles are intended to state what the problem is, while mentions of the two gaps seek to diagnose why the problem exists and, often, how to solve it.”

With the first incompatible, problems identified as “broad and endemic” are training, organisation, human capital, force development and logistics. Training has not kept pace with modernisation. Organisationally, China’s military is not prepared to address continued “problems related to administrative structures and mechanisms” and remaining “institutional obstacles and structural conditions.”

Force development suffers because the PLA is not an informatised force but rather a 20th-century mechanised force. Other commentators quoted in the report are even harsher in their assessments of force development.

“According to CMC [Central Military Commission] Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang, although the PLA seeks to become an informatised force, it is not fully mechanised.” Logistics has been cited in PLA literature as an area of “weakness, specifically being at an ‘insufficient … modernisation level … to win informatised local wars.'”

In the second incompatible, the report states that literature points to comparable problems of training, organisation and logistics, but less on force development. Training for the new missions is “insufficient” since “traditional ideas and habitual practices have not been drastically changed.” Organisational issues, such as human capital, are also a problem, as “the overall level of talented personnel in our army does not meet the requirements for fulfilling its historic mission in the new century.”

The “construction and development” of PLA logistics are “not meeting the requirements” because there is “insufficient support capability for the requirement of fulfilling the historical missions.”

The report illustrates numerous examples of weaknesses in the PLA.

These include bungling and disagreement between state bureaucracies and the PLA during the 2001 P-3C aircraft collision off Hainan Island; the 2003 “severe acute respiratory syndrome” crisis; the 2006 Kitty Hawk incident with a Chinese submarine; the 2007 anti-satellite missile test; and the mismanagement of humanitarian operations for the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

During the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts, Premier Wen Jiabao had difficulty soliciting the full support of the PLA and People’s Armed Police. Reportedly, the PLA refused to co-locate its disaster response headquarters with one being run by the State Council.

Corruption is abundant, according to the report. In 2000, the director of military intelligence in the PLA’s General Staff Department was arrested. In 2012, the former deputy director of the General Logistics Department was detained. In 2014, the vice chairman of the CMC, Xu Caihou, was arrested.

There is the possibility, according to the report, that the co-vice chairman of the CMC, Guo Boxiang, could be charged with corruption as well.

The PLA’s seven military regions group large provinces and urban areas together and do not reflect today’s power projection requirements. This makes it hard to “meet the needs of commanding multidimensional operations under high technology conditions.”

The report indicates the PLA has limited amounts of new equipment to train on, and difficulties integrating new and old equipment. In 2014, the PLA’s main battle tank fleet consists “overwhelmingly of first- and second-generation tanks.”

The Navy’s 4,000-ton Type 054A frigate is considered a “mini-Aegis” vessel, but the ships are small and cannot carry enough long-range missiles for an actual area defence capability or handle a saturation attack from anti-ship missiles, particularly supersonic and hypersonic variants. The Chinese Navy also lacks anti-submarine warfare capabilities, most likely because the military has focused on anti-access rather than expeditionary deployments.

The report suggests deterrent actions the US could take. These include intentionally revealing the development and testing of new capabilities designed to “exploit specific PLA weaknesses, releasing details about new operational concepts that enable these countries to capitalise on PLA vulnerabilities, or highlighting training and exercises that demonstrate the ability to take advantage of gaps in the PLA’s capabilities.”

If deterrence fails, the US could work to present the PLA with challenges that are “fast paced, unexpected, and intended to overload or outmanoeuvre a slow-moving decision system that could have difficulty keeping up with a rapidly developing situation.”

The report outlines 16 “critical assumptions” based on assessments made by the authors. The authors of the report are: Michael Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen Gunness, Scott Harold, Susan Puska and Samuel Berkowitz.

Preservation of the CCP will remain the top priority of the party, state, and military leadership, and the CCP will remain in control of the PLA.

“Despite its verbal and sometimes physical aggressiveness, the CCP tends to avoid conflict and wants to sustain a peacetime environment to ensure the strength of another pillar of legitimacy — economic development.”

The objective of improving the PLA’s integrated joint operations must dominate plans for organisational restructuring and training reforms, and a joint operations capability “must be realised sooner rather than later, to ensure that the PLA will be able to deter or, if necessary, win future informatised local wars.”

Even though the PLA Army’s traditional dominance over the Air Force and Navy could forestall restructuring and improving the military, the Army will continue to attempt to keep its established position.

“The PLA’s transition to integrated joint operations will be incremental over the medium to long term. Tough decisions will be deferred or watered down if they affect the entrenched power of the CCP.” Due to the Army’s influence, “continental thinking will continue to dominate in operational art and leadership thinking.”

China’s recruitment and short rotation of personnel will not change drastically in the short to medium term.

“China’s military personnel system will continue to be plagued by undertrained and inexperienced officers and men in the areas of modern combat, which will impede the force’s ability to apply modern equipment and concepts effectively in line with China’s concepts for force employment in future joint operations.” This means that the number of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCO) will remain too small, poorly trained, and inexperienced to “transform combat power as rapidly and decisively as senior leaders wish.”

Chinese leaders will continue to believe that nuclear weapons underpin China’s status and function as a central component of its broader suite of strategic deterrence options.

“If we are incorrect and Chinese leaders do see the strategic utility of nuclear weapons as declining, the leaders may choose to emphasise other aspects of strategic deterrence — such as long-range conventional strike, counterspace or cyberwarfare capabilities — more heavily than nuclear forces.”

The authors further assume that Chinese strategists will continue to see nuclear weapons as a means to deter nuclear coercion.

“If we are incorrect and China begins to see nuclear weapons as more useful in tactical roles, it could result in the development of tactical nuclear capabilities that most Chinese strategists thus far have seen as unnecessary and potentially destabilising.”

The report further assumes that China will continue to see the US as the primary focus of its nuclear force modernisation. However, that might change if other neighbours, such as India, continue to modernise their nuclear capabilities. This could force the Chinese to focus on “theatre-range nuclear deterrence and strike capabilities.”

China will continue to have a large defence budget needed for recruitment, training, and “retaining highly qualified personnel; conducting necessary operations and maintenance; and investing in a wide range of force modernisation programs,” such as big ticket items — aircraft carriers, stealth fighters and national security space capabilities.

China will continue to qualitatively and quantitatively strengthen its nuclear deterrent capabilities without sharp trade-offs between nuclear force modernisation and conventional force modernisation. If the authors are incorrect and the economy declines or government spending shifts to curtail defence spending, the Chinese military could be forced to make trade-offs. This includes the possibility that China might either have to slow its nuclear force modernisation efforts in order to procure big-ticket conventional weapons or the opposite.

If the report is wrong to conclude that the absence of civilian oversight is a weakness, the US might incorrectly believe that the “PLA is less efficient or effective at generating combat power because of the absence of oversight and coordination.” If China can successfully coordinate without extensive civilian contribution, a US war-fighting strategy that seeks to “complicate Chinese military operations by striking at the seams of civilian and military coordination may be misplaced.”

If the author’s conclusions are right, the US might “complicate China’s ability to generate combat power if it could induce doubt into the minds of the Party about the honesty and fidelity of the PLA to the broader leadership of the CCP.”

Also, the report suggests the US might seek to cause “the PLA to doubt the wisdom of the broader policies of the Chinese state and to question whether the line agencies of the government are actually supporting their mission or are leaving the PLA to fight on its own without sufficient economic, diplomatic, policing, or other forms of institutional support for its security mission.”

The authors state that in the unlikely event that the “broad community of PLA watchers” have “grossly overestimated its ability to evaluate the relationship of observed exercises to effective combat capabilities,” then it would require a “major reassessment of our knowledge of the PLA” and would fall in line with recent statements from former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and former US Pacific Commander Adm. Robert Willard that the US has “consistently underestimated China’s capacity to innovate and catch up in the military domain.”

The report assumes there is a large gap between academic and foreign-area offices in the PLA with those who have actual operational control. This will make military dialogue and engagement difficult for the US and suggests that those in operational control are hawkish and “immune to outside influences.”

There is a general lack of professionalism in the PLA. This is evident in morale and discipline problems. Much of this originates from China’s “one-child” policy, which has created the “‘little emperor’ phenomenon of spoiled children.”

This had produced recruits who are not tough enough to withstand military discipline. Roughly, 70-80 percent of personnel are from one-child families.

“Recruits usually need two years to adjust to life within a unit through tough routine training and psychological counselling.”

The report assumes there will be no major change in Sino-Russian relations. If this is incorrect, the authors suggest it could change China’s external security environment. A downturn in relations could force China to reallocate more military resources in response to Russian provocations.

If relations improve and Russia continues to intimidate Europe, the US could be forced to reallocate military forces to NATO and reduce military plans to reorganise and reinforce its forces in the Asia-Pacific.

The report doubts there will be “drastic” technological surprises from China’s military. However, if China should make a quantum leap in the areas of directed-energy weapons or hypersonic technology, it could force China to rethink its force modernisation requirements and the way it conducts military campaigns in the future.

Source: Defense News – Report: China’s Incomplete Transformation


Categories: Defence & Aerospace

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2 replies


  1. China says its long-range aircraft carrier killer ballistic missiles confound US spies | China Daily Mail
  2. Civilian companies doing research and development for Chinese military to save money on defence budget | China Daily Mail

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