Turning The PLA Into A Modern Joint Command

We are starting to hear murmurs and whispers about the People’s Liberation Army’s new five-year plan. Unlike the detail made public about the national five-year plan and even the White Paper on the PLA published at the end of last month, the military budget is held close to the chest.

The headline spending number we do know, from the national five-year plan: a military budget of 601 billion yuan ($92.5 billion) for 2011 and an annual increase of 12.5% for the life of the plan, restoring the double-digit annual growth derailed by the 2008 global financial crisis. But that is only the half of it. Also to be taken into account are off-budget items, spending done under the aegis of internal security and disaster relief, in both of which the PLA plays a significant role, and R&D in industries whose technologies have dual military-civilian applications. Together they likely double the formal budget number.

As for the detail that lies behind, we are told that Xi Jinping, the man slated to succeed Hu Jintao as president next year and then after as chairman of the Party’s central military commission (he was appointed as first vice-chairman last October), has signed off on a final draft. Xi is said to have good relations with the group of more than 100 fellow princelings who hold the rank of major-general and above. (As an aside, that group may prove to be an important soft factor in the coming leadership transition.)

The heading of Section XV of the national five-year plan, the one that relates to the PLA, is “Advance Military Power.” The main thrust  will be, first, to continue to modernize the PLA and to make it a more professional fighting force, particularly its officer class, and, second, to turn it into a more integrated tri-service force, commensurate with the needs of China’s growing global presence and better equipped to fight what are being called information wars. For historic reasons, ground forces have dominated the PLA. Yet the PLA Navy (PLA-N) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are at the forefront of the PLA’s modernization. Witness the new aircraft carriers, submarines, ballistic missiles, and fighter jets, in keeping with China’s desire to project regional power, particularly in the waters off its coast. The PLA command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet anything like fully reflect the growing prominence of the naval and air services, though progress is being made a great speed on the communications infrastructure. A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces that the national five-year plan envisions for ensuring domestic stability.

The process of integration is likely to be least comfortable for the army. Senior officers have already been fighting a rearguard to protect the structure of the seven military regions that Mao divided China into–and to protect the multiplicity of high ranking posts they provide. They will also have to deal with the overwhelming majority of a planned cut of 500,000 personnel during the five-year plan coming from the PLA’s 1.3 million-strong ground forces, 60% of its total strength of 2.3 million personnel (excluding 6 million militia). Better pay and conditions will be provided for those remaining.

The PLAAF has already undergone a similar slimming down, ridding itself of antiquated planes and equipment and the personnel to operate and maintain them. In the process it has become a stronger combat force through modernization of what was left. It is not just new aircraft, such as the much hyped J-20 stealth fighter flaunted earlier this year. The air force has undergone a makeover of its ability to deploy over large distances. Its relief efforts in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 showed up shortcomings in its capacity to transport men and materials from all over the country to a distant front. These failings are since being redressed.

As well as modernizing the command and communications structure, upgrading hardware will continue apace. The navy and the air force will get more by way of newest and deadliest toys than the ground forces, although there will be some arm-wrestling between the air force and the Second Artillery Corps, the missiles force, over who owns space weaponry and counterweaponry. Money to be put into advanced weapons and their development is likely to drive an expansion of the country’s state-owned defense industries, too, creating stiff competition for Western arms makers in Asia and Africa in particular where Chinese firms will be less encumbered with ethical restrictions on arms sales than Western competitors; China is currently the world’s ninth largest arms exporter with sales of $2.4 billion in 2010. The five-year plan calls for this number to double over its duration, with profits being used to fund more R&D in weaponry, particularly fighters and missiles.

Defense companies have more expertise and experience than the PLA in aviation, electronics, transportation, machine-building and especially the IT necessary for infowar and electronic espionage. They will be able to tap into the $1.5 trillion being earmarked under the national five-year plan to expand seven strategic industrial sectors. Most of the septet have technologies with joint military-civilian applications.

Industrial companies now account for two-thirds of the institutions that are licensed for weapons R&D and production. Beijing is consolidating the country’s defense contractors into fewer than 10 giant state-owned groups. State funds are also being allocated to them to attract top science, technology and engineering talent to the R&D effort, and to match similar incentives for scientists and technical personnel in PLA research and weapons plants. These defense contractors are also able to strike civilian joint ventures with foreign groups to acquire technologies around composite materials, turbine blades and flight control systems where their own lags. As with civilian heavy engineering markets, Western companies will have to decide if access to China’s domestic market is worth the trade-off of giving up technology.

However, they decide, the PLA’s supply chain is going to become more blended with civilian industry over the next five years–with consequent implications for the pace of economic reform in strategic areas where the military interest, already strong in some parts of the economy, will coagulate as a strong vested interest against change.

China continues to stress publicly the defensive nature of its armed forces. Peace has certainly been good for its economic growth. Yet the PLA’s modernization seems aimed at giving a modernizing country modern armed forces and Beijing the ability to project regional power and to protect its growing global commercial interests–or at least to create the perception of sufficient strength to do so, an important deterrent in its own right.

Thus the military five-year plan is predicated on a continuation of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. At the same time, the PLA is being prepared to play a more central role in internal security should that be needed, particularly during the coming leadership transition, and one able to deal with the cyber side of modern civil unrest should the current crackdown on dissent by traditional means prove insufficient.

This Bystander could readily conclude that while China is not expecting, or wanting, a serious military conflict during the course of the current five-year plan, or beyond, it does see itself becoming strong enough to deflect others from doing so,  especially off its own coast and around islands large and small in those waters, and to be able to engage in–and win–information and cyber skirmishes at home and abroad.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Turning The PLA Into A Modern Joint Command

  1. An excellent analysis, and your last paragraph in your post sums it up perfectly.

  2. Bob Melley

    This is as good a piece on the PLA as I have seen in awhile….I do question the budget numbers, but most of us know that they are purposely understated…….Deception being the Chinese way of life.

  3. Just where is this proof that China’s real military spending is twice the official military spending? I see nothing but old fallacies repeated over and over again. For expenditures on internal security, you really have to look at how spending is broken down for PAP and other security organizations. There are excellent articles on Internet that you can read on this. The budget allocation for PAP are not hidden and can be found. It’s too bad that most people who write on this topic do not bother to actually make use off them. And if homeland security, FBI and other organizations don’t get included in the US defense budget, why should internal security budget be counted as defense spending in China?

    PLA is going through a rapid modernization. It is doing so with a much smaller budget than America because it is not overburdened by over sea bases, multiple wars, high salary/pension for soldiers, huge nuclear arsenal and carrier groups.

    • We are neither suggesting that the PAP’s budget is somehow a surrogate for PLA off-budget spending, nor that it is secret, nor that other countries don’t make military expenditures off the formal budget of their armed forces. We are saying that China is able to undertake activities that would count as military, from using the PLA for natural-disaster relief to weapons technology research by civilian industries that get funded from other budgets than the PLA’s. –CB

  4. dylanjones

    Interesting analysis.

    Are you able to give more information about where your view that the PLA is to receive 12.5% increase in budget per annum for the next five years comes from? (your para. 2)

    Why would Xi Jinping (CMC deputy chair) rather than Hu Jintao (CMC Chair) sign off on the five year plan for the military? Are you suggesting that Xi has already replaced Hu as effective C-in-C?

    I was confused by your analysis of troop cuts. Are you suggesting that 500,000 personnel will be cut from the PLA overall, or that the ground forces will lose 500,000 (with presumably other services losing personnel as well in undisclosed numbers)?

    You suggest the arm-wrestling over the space command is between the PLAAF and the Second Artillery. In fact, the space force has been controlled by the General Armament Department of the PLA Headquarters (essentially still run by army generals as you point out earlier in your analysis, although other services would like their officers to get more slots in the General Headquarters). The wrestling is that the PLAAF would like to take it off them.

    • 1. That number is the announced increase for year one of the new five-year plan. Our sources tell us that the military plan predicates that rate of growth across its life.

      2. Xi has been closely involved in all aspects of the planning of the key five-year plans that he will, as president-assumptive, oversee. You may be reading more into ‘signing off’ than we intended. While we understand that he has approved the military budget, and that it wouldn’t have gone forward in final version without his approval, his wasn’t necessarily the ultimate sign-off. We were certainly not meaning to imply that Xi has already replaced Hu as C-in-C. Apologies if our language was misleading.

      3. The 500,000 personnel cut will come from the armed forces overall but the overwhelming majority of it will be among the ground forces. We have heard, though not been able to confirm, that the Army will take a deeper cut than 500,000 so that there is room for some modest increase in Navy, Air Force and Second Artillery Corps numbers. The reductions will be effected across the life of the five-year plan.

      4. As missiles become more flown as much as they are fired and if space become more militarized then both the Second Artillery Corps and the PLAAF will see space as a natural extension of their existing roles. There will be budget and R&D money as well as command responsibilities to wrestle over.

      –CB

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