Chinese-built J-10 fighter
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) is the world's largest army. It includes all branches of the military: the Chinese ground forces, navy (including marines and naval aviation), air force, Strategic Artillery Corps (strategic missile force), People’s Armed Police (PAP). In 2005 it had 2.3 million troops with 1.7 million in the army, 220,000 in the navy and 420,000 in the air force. The PLA also controls scores of military schools, academies, institutes and hospitals. It runs programs for elementary children in which they dress in riot-fighting uniforms complete with shields and helmets.

The PLA was founded in 1927 as a guerilla force and fought the Japanese wartime invaders and the Kuomingtan. It was led many years by Lin Biao (See History). At its height in the 1970s, the P.L.A. contained more than 4 million soldiers.

One PLA slogans goes: “Without the people, there is no people’s army...Without the people’s army, the people have nothing.” The PLA embraced the Maoist idea of abolishing rank and for many years wore hand-me-down uniforms to maintain the revolutionary spirit of “plain living and hard struggle.” In the Korean war and battles against Vietnam in 1979 it used "human wave" strategies at great costs.

After the humiliating defeat in Vietnam in 1979, the PLA reduced its numbers and boosted it technology and established a clear chain of command. Since end of the Mao era, the government has put economic concerns ahead of military concerns. Many military schools, academies, institutes and hospitals were brought under civilian control.

Central Military Commission

The Chinese military is led by the Central Military Commission. It had 11 members, including a chairman and three vice chairmans and separate leadership positions for the army, navy, air force artillery corps and army forces in different parts of the country, in 2004. The chairman of China’s Central Military Commission is China’s highest ranking officer. The vice chairman of the commission is China’s second highest ranking officer. The chairman has traditionally been the leader of China. The other members are either military men loyal to him or men who have links with other powerful politicians. How the members are selected is a mystery.

The Central Military Commission (CMC) is the leading military organ and the supreme military command and decision-making body, through which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leads the country’s armed force — the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and military and reserve forces. The commission is known as the “Chinese Communist Party Central Military Commission” in the Party system, and the “State Central Military Commission” in the government system. The two commissions are one identical institution with two names, in order to fit in both state government and Party systems. [Source:]

“The CCP dates its origin back to the “Central Military Department” formed in June 1928 as the highest military command organ for the Chinese Red Army. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949, the People’s Revolution Military Commission of the Central People’s Government was formed as the leading military organ for the country’s armed forces. In 1954, the first PRC Constitution created the National Defence Commission and Defence Minister in the State government as its military organs. At the same time, the People’s Revolution Military Commission was abolished and replaced by the CMC re-created within the Party system.

“The fourth PRC Constitution passed in December 1982 created a new body — the State CMC — as the country’s decision-making body in military affairs. The state is headed by the Chairman, who is the commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces. In practice, the State CMC is exactly identical to the Party CMC in membership, making the CMC a leading military organ for both the Party and state government.

“The CMC is headed by a Chairman, who answers to the CCP’s Central Committee in the Party system and to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in the state government system. Within the Party system, the CMC Chairman is elected during the Party Congress, which is held every five years. In the government system, the CMC Chairman is elected during the National People’s Congress, also held every five years. The position of the CMC Chairman has always held by the Party and State supreme leader, from Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, to Jiang Zemin. The Chairman for both CMCs until early 2013 is the Party Secretary-General and PRC President Hu Jintao..

“The CMC normally has 2~3 Vice Chairmen, who are uniformed officers actually in charge of the running of the CMC. There is normally a split responsibility between these Vice Chairmen, e.g. operations and training, political, logistics, and equipment and modernisation. In its history, the CMC also had the “First Vice Chairman” and/or “Executive Vice Chairman”. The latter functioned as the de facto head in the daily running of the CMC. Additionally, one of the Vice Chairmen normally serves concurrently as the Defence Minister in the State government.

Army of the People's Liberation Army

Special forces training

The PLA army contains 1.7 million troops 14,000 tanks, 14,500 artillery pieces, 453 helicopters. By some estimates only 10 percent to 15 percent of the PLA is ready to be deployed on combat.

Military parades are still held that feature goose-steeping soldiers, procession stands with dignitaries and displays of the latest military hardware. These days they also feature women in berets, black boots and miniskirts.

Being a member of PLA used to be something one could brag about. Soldiers had traditionally gotten preferential treatment for housing and jobs but this is no longer the case as the free market has made society more competitive. Now even mid level bureaucrats and translators have higher status and earn more money than soldiers. Pensions for retired soldiers are small. Tens of thousand of veterans have staged demonstrations calling for higher pensions. In 1996, four veterans killed themselves to protest their poor treatment. In response to demonstrations in the mid 2000s soldiers were told they would receive subsidies and benefits they were promised.

Soldiers are paid about 4,000 yuan every year in the army, while their living expenses are covered. Those who have university education can also received a subsidy of 6,000 yuan for each year of study to cover university tuition fees. The army also offers employment assistance to its soldiers after they finish their contracted terms of service. [Source: Meng Jing, China Daily November 30, 2009 page17]

The PLA is regarded as the most secretive of the world’s large armies. Little is known about its fight capability. It is said to be full of Chinese Communist Party spies. There is some discussion of bringing the PLA under civilian control.

Chinese Navy

The Chinese Navy contains 250,000 sailors, 63 submarines, 18 destroyers and 34 frigates. The navy is relatively weak compared to the United States. It has no aircraft carriers, compared to 24 out of the world’s 36 possessed by the United States, and has 263,064 tons of naval vessel compared to 2.86 million tons possessed by the United States (the world’s total is 4.04 million tons).

China relies on the United States Navy to keep important shipping lanes, vital for its trade, around Asia open. Chinese navy ships docked in Guam in October 2003. American navy ships docked in Zhanjian in southern Guangdong Province a month earlier.

Feeling threatened by American naval power, China has been modernizing its missiles, submarines, radar, cyber-warfare and anti-satellite weapons. Aircraft carrier battle group with submarines and surface ships are expected to be deployed in 2020.

The Chinese navy is currently extending its reach in the Pacific, with the goal of establishing a “blue water navy” and, some say, has the aims of displacing the United States as the predominate power n the western Pacific and being able to blockade Taiwan long enough for other forces to overwhelm the island’s defenses. Chinese nuclear-powered submarines have been seen with satellites and reconnaissance planes cruising off of U.S. military bases in Saipan and Guam and in Japanese waters near Okinawa. In response to those and other threats the United States has placed 60 percent of its submarines in the Pacific, compared to 40 percent in the Cold War era.

Chinese destroyer

China is in the process of trying to convert its surface navy into a modern cruise-missile navy. In 1996, China bought two Sovremenny-class Russian destroyers, with SS-N-22 anti-ship missiles, from Russia. As part a $4 billion package in 2001, China purchased more naval weapons, including two more Sovremenny-class Russian destroyers, bring the total to four. As of 2005, China had deployed two of these destroyers outfit with supersonic Sizzler cruise missiles.

China plans to convert more decommissioned navy ships into fishery patrol vessels and use them to extend China’s reach on the South China Sea in a relatively benign way.

Chinese Air Force

The Chinese Air force contains 470,000 airmen, 115 bombers, 456 jet fighters, and 400 ground attack jets, including around 200 Su-27-s and 30 Su-30s.

The Chinese have had little success developing sophisticated supersonic fighters. A program to develop a jet fighter, the F-10, began in the 1980s but didn’t manage to get a prototype into the air until the late 1990s. Eventually the Chinese just gave up on the project and upgraded its air force by purchasing 50 Russian-made SU-27 fighters at bargain prices in 1992 after the break-up of the Soviet Union and have plans to assemble 150 of these fighters themselves.

The Sukhoi SU-27s is the top of the line Russian fighter. Comparable to an F-16s, it shoots air-to-air missiles and can reach speeds of twice the speed of sound. The Chinese reportedly are totally satisfied with the planes and complain about the difficult in getting spare parts. And maintenance.

In 1996, China bought 50 Russian attack jets. In July 2001, it signed a $2 billion deal to buy 45 Su-30 MKK ground attack fighter jets. In 2002, it ordered 40 more of the same planes plus 300 PM2 anti-aircraft missiles. In 2003, it signed a $1 billion deal for 24 more Su-30MKK fighters. The Su-30 is all-weather, multi-purpose fighter. The planes and the PM2 missiles strengthened China's ability to attack Taiwan.

China launched a new advanced fighter jet, the Jian-10 (J-10), in late 2006. It is almost entirely built in China with the exception of the Ukraine- and Russian-made turbo-fan engines. China has tested an even more advanced fighter, the J-11B, which is said to have stealth capabilities. It is expected to have 2,000 warplanes by 2020, including 150 fourth-generation planes equipped with sophisticated avionics.

The Chinese have tested an AWACS-style radar plane — the KJ-2000 — and plans volume production of the plane in 2008. Based on a Russian model, the KJ-2000, it is said to be able to track 80 to 100 targets at one time.

Most of the Chinese air force, however, is comprised of 450 Korean-War-era fighters. China has no long-range strategic bombers. It still lacks midair refueling, space-based information services, and airborne reconnaissance and battle management platforms. Many of the Su-27 spend too much on the ground for lack of maintenance.

History of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) traces its origins to the August 1, 1927, Nanchang Uprising in which Guomindang troops led by Chinese Communist Party leaders Zhu De and Zhou Enlai rebelled following the dissolution of the first Guomindang-Chinese Communist Party united front earlier that year. The survivors of that and other abortive communist insurrections, including the Autumn Harvest Uprising led by Mao Zedong, fled to the Jinggang Mountains along the border of Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Joining forces under the leadership of Mao and Zhu, this collection of communists, bandits, Guomindang deserters, and impoverished peasants became the First Workers' and Peasants' Army, or Red Army — the military arm of the Chinese Communist Party. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Using the guerrilla tactics that would later make Mao Zedong internationally famous as a military strategist, the Red Army survived several encirclement and suppression campaigns by superior Guomindang forces. But party internal politics forced the Red Army temporarily to abandon guerrilla warfare and resulted in the epic Long March of 1934-35. The Red Army's exploits during the Long March became legendary and remain a potent symbol of the spirit and prowess of the Red Army and its successor, the PLA. During that period, Mao's political power and his strategy of guerrilla warfare gained ascendancy in the party and the Red Army.

“In 1937 the Red Army joined in a second united front with the Guomindang against the invading Japanese army. Although nominally cooperating with the Guomindang, the Chinese Communist Party used the Red Army to expand its influence while leading the anti-Japanese resistance in north China. By the end of the war, the Red Army numbered approximately 1 million and was backed by a militia of 2 million. Although the Red Army fought several conventional battles against the Japanese (and Guomindang troops), guerrilla operations were the primary mode of warfare.

“In the civil war following Japan's defeat in World War II, the Red Army, newly renamed the People's Liberation Army, again used the principles of people's war in following a policy of strategic withdrawal, waging a war of attrition, and abandoning cities and communication lines to the well-armed, numerically superior Guomindang forces (see Return to Civil War , ch. 1). In 1947 the PLA launched a counteroffensive during a brief strategic stalemate. By the next summer, the PLA had entered the strategic offensive stage, using conventional warfare as the Guomindang forces went on the defensive and then collapsed rapidly on the mainland in 1949. By 1950 the PLA had seized Hainan Island and Tibet.

When the PLA became a national armed force in 1949, it was an unwieldy, 5-million-strong peasant army. In 1950 the PLA included 10,000 troops in the Air Force (founded in 1949) and 60,000 in the Navy (founded in 1950). China also claimed a militia of 5.5 million. At that time, demobilization of ill-trained or politically unreliable troops began, resulting in the reduction of military strength to 2.8 million in 1953.

20080310-Supera SA 312.jpg
Marines boarding a Supera SA 312 helicopter

Maoist Military Tactics

Mao's military thought grew out of the Red Army's experiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s and formed the basis for the "people's war" concept, which became the doctrine of the Red Army and the PLA. In developing his thought, Mao drew on the works of the Chinese military strategist Sun Zi (fourth century B.C.) and Soviet and other theorists, as well as on the lore of peasant uprisings, such as the stories found in the classical novel Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin) and the stories of the Taiping Rebellion.

“Synthesizing these influences with lessons learned from the Red Army's successes and failures, Mao created a comprehensive politico-military doctrine for waging revolutionary warfare. People's war incorporated political, economic, and psychological measures with protracted military struggle against a superior foe. As a military doctrine, people's war emphasized the mobilization of the populace to support regular and guerrilla forces; the primacy of men over weapons, with superior motivation compensating for inferior technology; and the three progressive phases of protracted warfare- -strategic defensive, strategic stalemate, and strategic offensive.

“During the first stage, enemy forces were "lured in deep" into one's own territory to overextend, disperse, and isolate them. The Red Army established base areas from which to harass the enemy, but these bases and other territory could be abandoned to preserve Red Army forces. In the second phase, superior numbers and morale were applied to wear down the enemy in a war of attrition in which guerrilla operations predominated. During the final phase, Red Army forces made the transition to regular warfare as the enemy was reduced to parity and eventually defeated.

Korean War, the Soviet Union, Lina Biao and the People's Liberation Army (PLA)

After the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China's new leaders recognized the need to transform the PLA, essentially an infantry army with limited mobility, logistics, ordnance, and communications, into a modern military force. The signing of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in 1950 provided the framework for defense modernization in the 1950s. However, the Korean War was the real watershed in armed forces modernization. The Chinese People's Volunteers (as the military forces in Korea were called) achieved initial success in throwing back United Nations (UN) troops and, despite the PLA's first encounter with modern firepower, managed to fight UN forces to a stalemate. Nevertheless, China's Korean War experience demonstrated PLA deficiencies and stimulated Soviet assistance in equipping and reorganizing the military. The use of "human wave tactics" (unsupported, concentrated infantry attacks) against modern firepower caused serious manpower and materiel losses. Chinese air power also suffered heavy losses to superior UN forces. Finally, shortcomings in transportation and supply indicated the need to improve logistics capabilities.

“In the early 1950s, China's leaders decided to reorganize the military along Soviet lines. In 1954 they established the National Defense Council, Ministry of National Defense, and thirteen military regions. The PLA was reconstituted according to Soviet tables of organization and equipment. It adopted the combined-arms concept of armor- and artillery-heavy mobile forces, which required the adoption of some Soviet strategy and tactics. PLA modernization according to the Soviet model also entailed creation of a professional officer corps, complete with Soviet-style uniforms, ranks, and insignia; conscription; a reserve system; and new rules of discipline. The introduction of modern weaponry necessitated raising the education level of soldiers and intensifying formal military training. Political education and the role of political commissars lost their importance as the modernization effort progressed.

“The military's new emphasis on Soviet-style professionalism produced tensions between the party and the military. The party feared that it would lose political control over the military, that the PLA would become alienated from a society concentrating on economic construction, and that relations between officers and soldiers would deteriorate. The party reemphasized Mao's thesis of the supremacy of men over weapons and subjected the PLA to several political campaigns. The military, for its part, resented party attempts to strengthen political education, build a mass militia system under local party control, and conduct economic production activities to the detriment of military training. These tensions culminated in September 1959, when Mao Zedong replaced Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai, the chief advocate of military modernization, with Lin Biao, who deemphasized military professionalism in favor of revolutionary purity.

“The ascension of Lin Biao and the complete withdrawal of Soviet assistance and advisers in 1960 marked a new stage in military development. The Soviet withdrawal disrupted the defense industry and weapons production, particularly crippling the aircraft industry. Although the military purchased some foreign technology in the 1960s, it was forced to stress self-reliance in weapons production. Lin Biao moved to restore PLA morale and discipline and to mold the PLA into a politically reliable fighting force. Lin reorganized the PLA high command, replaced the mass militia with a smaller militia under PLA control, and reformulated the Maoist doctrine of the supremacy of men over materiel. Lin stated that "men and materiel form a unity, with men as the leading factor," giving ideological justification to the reemphasis on military training. Political training, however, continued to occupy 30 to 40 percent of a soldier's time. At the same time, Lin instituted stricter party control, restored party organization at the company level, and intensified political education. In 1964 the prestige of the PLA as an exemplary, revolutionary organization was confirmed by the "Learn from the PLA" campaign. This campaign, which purported to disseminate the military's political-work experience throughout society, resulted in the introduction of military personnel into party and government organizations, a trend that increased after the Cultural Revolution began.

Modernizing the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the Post-Mao Years

The military modernization begun in the late 1970s had three major focuses. First, under the political leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the military became disengaged from civilian politics and, for the most part, resumed the political quiescence that characterized its pre-Cultural Revolution role. Deng reestablished civilian control over the military by appointing his supporters to key military leadership positions, by reducing the scope of the PLA's domestic nonmilitary role, and by revitalizing the party political structure and ideological control system within the PLA.

“Second, modernization required the reform of military organization, doctrine, education and training, and personnel policies to improve combat effectiveness in combined-arms warfare. Among the organizational reforms that were undertaken were the creation of the state Central Military Commission, the streamlining and reduction of superfluous PLA forces, civilianization of many PLA units, reorganization of military regions, formation of group armies, and enactment of the new Military Service Law in 1984. Doctrine, strategy, and tactics were revised under the rubric of "people's war under modern conditions," which envisaged a forward defense at selected locations near China's borders, to prevent attack on Chinese cities and industrial sites, and emphasized operations using combined-arms tactics. Reforms in education and training emphasized improving the military skills and raising the education levels of officers and troops and conducting combinedarms operations. New personnel policies required upgrading the quality of PLA recruits and officer candidates, improving conditions of service, changing promotion practices to stress professional competence, and providing new uniforms and insignia.

“The third focus of military modernization was the transformation of the defense establishment into a system capable of independently maintaining a modern military force. As military expenditures remained relatively constant, reforms concentrated on reorganizing the defense research-and-development and industrial base to integrate civilian and military science and industry more closely. Foreign technology was used selectively to upgrade weapons. Defense industry reforms also resulted in China's entry into the international arms market and the increased production of civilian goods by defense industries. The scope of PLA economic activities was reduced, but the military continued to participate in infrastructure development projects and initiated a program to provide demobilized soldiers with skills useful in the civilian economy.

Image Sources: Defence Talk

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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