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Xi's New Army: Reforming the PLA into a Modern Military

Updated: Jul 17

By: Kyle Lim

Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on one of the most ambitious military reforms in its history. What does this mean for the PLA’s structure and capabilities?

The honor guards of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Navy, Army, and Air Force march in Russia’s Victory Day parade in May 2015 in Moscow. (via Global Times)

The honor guards of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s Navy, Army, and Air Force march in Russia’s Victory Day parade in May 2015 in Moscow. (via Global Times)

The nature of warfare is always changing. Wars fought a decade ago are significantly different than wars fought today. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the importance of leveraging cutting edge technology such as drones. Ukraine’s military has used unmanned combat aerial vehicles built to carry missiles such as the Bayraktar TB2 and smaller UAVs used for reconnaissance to devastating effect. However, the real innovations Ukraine has adopted have been subtler. What has really given Ukraine a fighting chance is not just technology but the institutions that adopted these systems, found best practices, and distributed new battle doctrines to frontline units. All too often, analysts get overly enamored with individual weapons systems like tanks, aircraft, or drones. What really matters is how these systems are organized. For example, what is the nature of the service branches that contain these forces and employ these weapons? Which branches are prioritized, and which are sidelined? China’s recent actions such as the increased military activity around Taiwan, gray-zone actions in the South China Sea, or spy balloons over the U.S. did not come from nowhere. These activities are the result of the institutions that make up China’s military. What strengthens China's military power is not just technology, but the institutions that govern their use. Let’s delve behind-the-scenes — beyond individual weapons systems — to an analysis of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) organizational reforms since 2016.

In 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping began the first phase of one of the largest military reforms in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These reforms were split into two phases: the “above-the-neck” reforms which began in 2016 and the “below-the-neck” reforms in 2017. The first phase sought to reorganize the PLA at the top levels of the branches, regional commands, and the Central Military Commission. Meanwhile, the “below-the-neck” reforms included changes to the operational-level formations of the various service branches. These reforms, completed in 2020, were the culmination of several decades of developments and were intended to modernize the PLA to fight a modern war.

History and Evolution of the New Round of Reforms

The PLA has undergone multiple rounds of reforms since the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Xi’s reforms, by Chinese accounts, are the 11th round of reforms since then and are by far the largest. Previous reforms under Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were unable to implement the required restructuring changes critical for joint operations or fully deemphasizing the PLA Army (PLAA). These failures can be attributed to weak influence over the military, lack of political strength, and corruption in the PLA. Xi’s political skill and charisma seem to have overcome these issues, amounting to the most important and most extensive round of reforms as of yet.

These reforms are intended to modernize the PLA and prepare it to fight a modern war against a peer competitor. Chinese military theorists have applied a number of terms to describe how they want a modernized PLA to fight. Terms like “joint operations'' and “information warfare” are regularly used, with the former referring to conducting operations with all the branches – such as the air force, navy, and ground forces – in close cooperation with each other under a unified command-and-control system. The latter advocates for a type of warfare that uses information systems to improve the effectiveness of military forces, such as by enhancing the ability to conduct precision-strikes on enemy forces and positions. Information warfare also includes electronic warfare, the use of deception, operations security (OPSEC), and psychological operations (PSYOPS) to disrupt or defend against enemy actions. Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is also a vital part of information warfare. Both joint operations and information warfare require a unified command-and-control system, in which data and commands can be shared with the entire force.

Chinese military thinkers first realized the need for a modern force embodying joint operations and information warfare after the U.S.’ performance in the 1991 Gulf War, which showed the power of an information-integrated modern force equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and led by a capable C4ISR system able to coordinate U.S. and coalition forces. Victory against a largely-obsolete Iraqi force with little coordination was overwhelming. The PLA’s doctrine up until 1991 was primarily characterized as a “People’s War”. This meant employing large but technologically unsophisticated ground formations and mass mobilizing the Chinese people to fight a total war against an invading great power. Chinese military thinkers viewed their own forces as similar to Saddam’s military, and seeking to avoid their fate, sought to adopt a doctrine similar to the Americans. Now under Xi’s reforms, this has been transformed into “Informatized Local Wars”, embodying the concepts of information warfare and joint operations.

Theater Commands - Streamlining Command & Control

At the heart of Xi Jinping’s reforms were the replacement of the seven military regions with five theater commands as well as the disbanding of the four General Departments and their replacement by 15 smaller General Military Commissions in late 2015. That same year, the PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) and PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) also became their own branches, and the PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Army (PLAA), and PLA Air Force (PLAAF) all received changes. These will be discussed in more detail later.

What caused the transition from military regions to theater commands? Official statements cite four reasons: to streamline the command structure, strengthen the ability to conduct joint operations, increase readiness, and make military policy regarding enemy actors more coherent. The previous military regions were highly bureaucratic, dealing mainly with day-to-day peacetime functions which severely constrained wartime operations. In the event of war, an ad hoc system would be used instead. Theater commands are more geared towards wartime command-and-control and have greater control over forces in their area. These theater commands are now responsible for wartime operations and war planning while the branches are responsible for force-building.

China’s theater commands take a note from the U.S.’ unified combatant commands (COCOMs), organized geographically, and formed in order to facilitate better coordination between service branches. U.S. COCOMs meld ground, air, naval, and other forces into a single, multi-domain “joint force” in which C3 is integrated and shared across the entire force. China seeks to emulate this joint force.

PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF) - New Branch on the Block?

In addition to the creation of new theater commands, Xi also elevated the Second Artillery Force, which was responsible for the PLA’s conventional and nuclear land-based missile forces, to a full branch, renaming it the PLA Rocket Forces (PLARF).

The PLARF’s arsenal includes conventional ground-launched short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles. According to the 2022 China Military Power Report by the U.S. Department of Defense, the PLARF launched around 135 ballistic missiles for testing and training in 2021, more than the rest of the world combined. It continues to grow its inventory of DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles as well as develop new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The Second Artillery Force was formed in 1966, two years after China’s first successful nuclear weapon test, as a secondary force beneath the other PLA branches. For most of its existence, the Second Artillery Force was subordinated to the civilian National Defense Science and Technology Commission when outlining Chinese nuclear policy and planning, but that changed to the PLA General Armaments Department after 1998. With the creation of the PLARF, the organization may have a stronger voice in determining Chinese nuclear posture and nuclear force structure.

Although the PLARF’s elevation to a full branch is significant, its forces remain under the Central Military Command. Additionally, some of its units are split between multiple theater commands, signifying that the PLARF exists outside them. In this way, the PLARF as an independent branch may be less groundbreaking than it may seem. The formal elevation of the PLARF is actually a continuation of policies over the past 15 years of increasing status within the PLA, shown by the equivalency of ranks between the Second Artillery commander and commanders in the full branches and a similar bureaucratic structure composed of a Political Department, Logistics Department, Armaments Department, and Command Academy.

What do these efforts mean? The PLARF has “emerged as the biggest winner in the reforms,” while also being “the service least affected by the reforms.” It has emerged with greater organizational clout and a greater ability to control its forces independently of the theater commands compared to the PLAN, PLAA, and PLAAF. For the PLARF, this is a double-edged sword. While it retains its independence as the service least integrated into the new theater command system, it could cause issues when conducting joint operations. However, the more strategic nature of nuclear and conventional missiles compared to the other services mitigates this.

The PLARF is essential for China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which leverages long-range missile capabilities to deny access to U.S. forces in China’s periphery. In wartime, China would use ballistic and cruise missiles to destroy U.S. military bases in the Pacific as well as any warships within range. With A2/AD being the basis for any considerations on both sides, the PLARF has a vital role to play in any future conflict in the seas around China.

PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) - Tip of the Informationalized Spear

The PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) is another new branch created under Xi’s reforms. If anything represents Xi’s desire to shift to “informationalized warfare,” it is the PLASSF. Similar to the PLARF, it was not created from scratch but rather from preexisting formations, a method often used by PLA policymakers called a “bricks not clay” approach coined by Western observers. The PLASSF was created from various space, cyberspace, electronic, information, communications, and psychological warfare units mainly from the PLA’s General Staff Department, an organization that primarily dealt with C4ISR.

The PLASSF consists of two deputy theater command-level departments. The Space Systems Department is responsible for the PLA’s space operations such as space launch and support, space surveillance, information support, telemetry, tracking, control, space warfare, R&D, and maintenance of satellites. The Network Systems Department is responsible for information operations, including electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, and psychological warfare.

With the growing importance of military space operations since 2015, the PRC has placed a premium on space operations, putting considerable resources into both civilian and military projects. China has always used “civil-military fusion” to bolster its military efforts, and the PLA has historically been deeply involved in all Chinese space activities. Supporting Chinese scientific and technological research in universities and other research organizations and collaborating with international satellite projects have been key objectives for the PLA. Chinese satellites allow them to track and monitor potential adversaries. The PLASSF is also developing methods to offensively contest the space domain using direct ascent, co-orbital, electronic warfare, and directed energy capabilities.

The Network Systems Department brings together electronic warfare, cyberwarfare, psychological operations, and intelligence gathering to not only strengthen each but also better synergize and coordinate efforts between them. This department is a major step towards conducting the “informatized war” capabilities the PLA sought after taking lessons learned from the 1991 Gulf War, which involves controlling the information domain and reducing the ability of the enemy’s C4ISR to conduct critical battlefield operations. The PLASSF would conduct psychological warfare to reduce the will to fight of both soldiers and civilians as well as prevent their command-and-control systems from functioning through both cyberattacks and kinetic strikes.

The creation of the PLASSF shows that the PLA views electronic, cyber, and psychological operations as interconnected within the umbrella of information warfare. The goal is to not just strengthen each, but rather use them in synergy with each other to fulfill the PLA’s objectives more effectively.

PLA Navy (PLAN) - China’s Premier Fighting Force

In the words of China’s 2019 white paper on national defense, the PLA Navy (PLAN) “has a very important standing in the overall configuration of China’s national security and development.” Chinese thinking has changed from an emphasis on war on land and by the coast to “open seas protection,” operations beyond China’s land borders. This shift is for several reasons, the first of which is due to China’s territorial claims over Taiwan and in the South and East China Seas, all of which require a strong maritime force. The PLAN also received emphasis beginning in 2004 with Hu Jintao’s “New Historic Missions,” one of which was the need to defend China’s growing international interests such as defending shipping lanes from pirates. China continues to undertake counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa. Another reason for the shift towards maritime operations is China’s increasing focus on great power competition with the U.S. The 2013 issue of the Chinese Science of Military Strategy argues that the U.S. “will rely on its comprehensive distant combat superiority from the ocean direction,” and that it will become “increasingly difficult to protect the homeland from the homeland and the near seas from near seas, it might even become untenable.” Hence, the enemy must be met far from Chinese coasts.

The PLAN has capitalized on these paradigm shifts and has become the recipient of an ever-growing share of the defense budget since 2004. These resources have allowed the PLAN to become a major player in the Indo-Pacific and the world. According to the 2022 China Military Power Report published by the Department of Defense, the PLAN is the largest navy in the world in terms of raw numbers with 340 platforms, the majority of these being modern warships and submarines, including approximately 125 surface combatants. China’s rate of shipbuilding is superior to the U.S.’ while also shifting to an emphasis on quality over quantity. By U.S. Department of Defense estimates, the PLAN is projected to grow to 400 and 440 ships by 2025 and 2030, respectively.

Xi’s reforms since 2016 organizationally weakened the emphasis on the ground forces by replacing the military regions, dominated by the army and led by PLAA generals, with theater commands in which all branches share equal power. This has improved the independence of the PLAN while also allowing it to act in tandem with the other branches when conducting joint operations. Although the autonomy of PLAN forces is limited by having them answer to their respective theater commands, this is somewhat mitigated by having PLAN admirals in theater command positions. The commander of the Southern Theater Command, responsible for the South China Sea, is a PLAN admiral, and although the Eastern Theater Command facing Taiwan is commanded by a PLAA general, its deputy commander is a PLAN admiral. In addition, Chinese maritime operations beyond the Indo-Pacific and the related theater commands are under full PLAN control.

The PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC) has also been significantly expanded under the reforms. Three PLAA coastal defense units and one motorized infantry brigade have been converted into marine units, growing the PLANMC from two brigades before 2016 to six brigades and tripling the force size from around 12,000 personnel to 36,000. Such forces are vital to defend China’s island claims in the South China Sea and would be frontline units in a potential invasion of Taiwan.

PLA Air Force (PLAAF) - Downsizing and Flexibility

The PLA Air Force (PLAAF), when combined with the PLAN’s aviation assets, constitutes the third-largest air power in the world with more than 2,800 aircraft. Around 2,250 are combat aircraft, including fighters, strategic and tactical bombers, and attack aircraft. China’s fighter inventory is increasingly dominated by fourth-generation fighters, and the Department of Defense predicts that they will become the majority in the next few years. Alongside the bomber fleet, the PLAAF is quickly rivaling the U.S. in terms of modern technology.

Under the reforms, the command structure of the PLAAF has been downsized and its units have shrunk. The PLAAF, in accordance with the PLA-wide transition from seven military regions to five theater commands, adapted its number of military region Air Forces from seven to five theater command Air Forces. Similarly, in tune with comparable reforms in the PLAA, the PLAAF moved to a brigade-focused organizational structure for its fighters and ground attack aircraft, abolishing many of its air divisions in favor of a focus on brigades. This was done for the same reasons as the PLAA to promote flexibility. However, the air divisions that consist of bombers remain, most likely because these units have larger missions that span across theater commands and thus require larger formations.

PLA Army (PLAA) - Sidelined, But Still Strong

The PLA Army (PLAA) is said to be the “biggest loser” in Xi’s reforms. This branch has been the target of various reforms incrementally introduced since Jiang Zemin intended to deemphasize the PLAA and equalize the service branches. From 1997 to 2018, it has lost 55% of its manpower. With PLA planners increasingly looking to the seas as the theater for future conflict, the PLAA is the slowest of the branches to modernize.

Xi’s organizational reforms mean the PLAA has lost its dominance over the other branches, with PLAN and PLAAF getting an equal seat at the table at the new theater commands. However, despite the shrinking of the PLAA’s size and command prestige, it still received much-needed reforms as befits the largest branch in the PLA. Under Xi, the PLAA has become a force more able to fight a modern, mobile war. The goal of Xi’s “below-the-neck reforms” for the PLAA was to shed the bulky, massive formations once characteristic of Chinese forces. The number of group armies decreased from 18 in 2013 to 13 accompanied by a similar decrease in the number of independent combat divisions, with some being turned into combined arms brigades. Today, the standard army group contains six combined arms brigades and six supporting brigades of artillery, air defense, army aviation or air assault, engineer and NBC (nuclear, biological, and chemical) defense, special operations forces (SOF), and service. Combined arms brigades are either heavy (armored or mechanized) or light (motorized or mountain) and contain four combined battalions plus six supporting battalions of reconnaissance, artillery, air defense, engineer and NBC defense, communications, and service.

These combined arms battalions and brigades are now the basic combat units of the PLAA. According to the PRC’s 2013 defense white paper, the PLAA is “gradually making its units small, modular, and multifunctional in organization so as to enhance their capabilities for air-ground integrated operations, long-distance maneuvers, rapid assaults, and special operations.” Keeping with the emphasis on flexibility, the PLAA is also strengthening its army aviation and air assault forces as well as SOF. Under the new group army structure, the PLAA maintains a total of 15 army aviation brigades for 13 group armies plus the Xinjiang and Tibet Military Districts in addition to 17 SOF brigades.

Continuing Issues: The Manpower Quality Question

With the last war the PLA fought being the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, is the quality of PLA commanders and soldiers good enough for a future conflict with the U.S.? The simultaneous drawdowns and disbanding of some units combined with the creation of new ones only exacerbates the issue of quality officers and soldiers. New PLA officers are required to man PLAF and PLAN systems as well as the new PLAA battalions. Many officers have been discharged as a result of the drawdowns, putting a greater emphasis on NCOs for fulfilling responsibilities. And in the PLAF, the shift from the regiment to the brigade structure requires higher-ranked officers while also creating obstacles for officers to advance. With a growing emphasis on smaller, more independent battalions, the PLA needs more competent junior and non-commissioned officers that can fight and lead on a modern battlefield.

The PLA has already begun to address these issues. The PLA’s academies have modernized and the PLAN has introduced advanced training ships to train sailors and naval aviators. Under Xi, military exercises have also been reformed. In a 2016 PLA symposium, Chinese military leaders acknowledged that there is “a large gap between the PLA’s level of training and the requirements of actual combat.” All branches of the PLA now carry out increasingly realistic and regular exercises emphasizing joint operations, with a growing amount of these being cross-service and cross-theater command. In regards to junior officers and NCOs, there seems to be increasing professionalization, trust, and importance, though Xi and senior officials are impatient with the rate of professionalization. Much effort has been put into training and recruiting NCOs with a focus on training returning conscripts as NCOs as well as commissioning college and technically skilled high school graduates.

Despite attempts at improving the quality of officers and enlisted soldiers, there are still questions about how competent PLA commanders will be in a hot war — particularly when conducting joint operations. The PLAA especially, with a massive transition to combined-arms battalions, may have issues with battalion commanders from non-infantry or armored backgrounds being able to understand and carry out their roles. Although theater commands are intended to encourage jointness between commanders, the PLA still struggles with getting commanders to cooperate with each other. Additionally, while China has put in place the Western-style command structure, the Western-style culture that emphasizes competency and independence in its junior and non-commissioned officers has yet to be seen. China is attempting to build an American-style army with the associated command structure while retaining the old Soviet-style controls and culture. Loyalty to the party is still strongly emphasized and the PLA is still struggling to retain experienced non-commissioned officers, with many veterans and college graduates seeking private sector work. New U.S. Army NCOs, on average, have twice the amount of experience as their counterparts in the PLAA.

Finally, such massive reorganizational efforts take a lot of effort, resources, and most importantly, time. Other modern militaries require multiple decades and continual changes to doctrine and procedures for things to work smoothly. Similarly, the massive overhauls in command and control will cause issues with readiness in the short term.

Looking Forward

Under Xi’s reforms, there is not one section of the People’s Liberation Army that has not been affected. Where previous attempts have tried and failed to bring the PLA into the modern age, this round introduced a slew of changes that herald a new era for the PLA. Under the “above-the-neck” and “below-the-neck” reforms, the branches of the PLA have increased their interoperability and ability to conduct joint operations while also gaining the ability to fight “informationalized wars”, using information and cyber warfare in conjunction with conventional forces. The PLAA, which once dominated the PLA, is now increasingly relegated to the sidelines as maritime operations take center stage. However, although great strides have been made in cultivating operational flexibility and jointness between services, only a future war will show if these efforts have been fruitful.

The most vital uncertain factor influencing PLA readiness is the quality of its manpower, whether it be enlisted personnel or junior and senior officers. Western analysts continue to question the capability of China’s non-commissioned officer corps. In a Western-style military command structure that gives greater independence to its lower-level officers, a culture that emphasizes an ability to think and act independently is required. Against Ukraine, Russia was unable to utilize its vast quantitative and qualitative advantage — which existed at least on paper — due to its poor quality of leadership and lackluster command and control. These were qualities that were unknown to Western observers until the war began. Likewise, it is still unknown whether China’s military culture will survive first contact in a future conflict. Leadership quality and organizational structure more broadly are unquantifiable qualities which, as the Ukraine war has shown, can only be measured in combat.

Works Cited

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Dahm, Michael, and Mike Dahm. 2021. “China's Desert Storm Education | Proceedings - March 2021 Vol. 147/3/1417.” U.S. Naval Institute.

“Full Text: China's National Defense in the New Era.” 2019. The State Council of the People's Republic of China.

Kenneth W. Allen, Brendan S. Mulvaney & James Char (2021) Ongoing organizational reforms of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, Journal of Strategic Studies, 44:2, 184-217, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2020.1730818

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McKeown, Robert. 2022. “Assessing Military Capability: More than Just Counting Guns.” U.S. Naval Institute.

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“China's Anti-Access Area Denial – Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.” 2018. Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.

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