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PLA Reforms – The Birth of PLA General Command, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force; By B. R. D

C3S Paper No. 0001/2016


On 31 December 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping conferred military flags on the newly formed People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Commands, PLA Rocket Force, and PLA Strategic Support Force, the foundation he said is aimed at ‘to realize the Chinese dream of a strong military, and a strategic step to establish a modern military system with Chinese characteristics.’ PLA Rocket Force, he said is a ‘core force of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, and an important building block in upholding national security.’

The decision to reorganise the command and administrative structures of 2.3 million strong PLA was taken during a three-day meeting convened by the Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) from 24-26 November 2015, attended by the top 200 PLA officers. The structural reforms have been tipped as ‘superb in history’ in China or ‘round 2’ of the PLA modernisation. The reforms would be unprecedented and focuses on PLA higher echelon command system including restructuring of the CMC headquarters system, implementation of the CMC multi-department command system; formation of the PLA ground forces leadership organ, improving the leadership and management system of services and arms; reorganization of the military command regions, formation of a joint operational command,  improving the joint operational command structure of the CMC; building a better operational command system between the CMC, battle zones, and the forces, as well as  leadership management system between the CMC, services and arms and the forces.

Once complete, the equation would be that of CMC directly administering and commanding all military departments, battle zones responsible for operations, and the PLA services and arms responsible for building the forces for handling complex situations and tasks. For example the PLA air force is a strategic arm, need to be built into an air-space integrated as well as offensive and defensive force catering different strategic requirements.

The erstwhile 4 General Departments of the PLA have been organized into a single multi-department command system under the CMC thus curtailing the ultimate powers of Headquarters of the General Staff , General Political Department , General Logistics Department , and General Armament Department. The move is believed to enforce the unity of command across the departments. The move is to shed the continental image of the PLA; this is evident with the addition of two more forces i.e. PLA Rocket Force and PLA Strategic Support Force in place of earlier PLA Second Artillery Force. Since the Second Artillery Force controls China’s strategic missile forces, tactical ballistic missiles, as well as the cruise missile, therefore the name ‘rocket forces’ has been thought appropriate. As far as Strategic Support Force is concerned it will integrate intelligence branches of the military information, technical reconnaissance, satellite management, electronic warfare, network attack and defense, and psychological warfare. Previously these were also scattered across various departments, integration of these would be geared towards infomatized warfare.

As far as the number of military regions is concerned, these would be down from the existing 7 and expanded in scope; since the nature of warfare has undergone tremendous changes, the regional tag to the zones demonstrates continental mindset, therefore may be abandoned altogether. That is why they have been renamed as ‘battle zone commands’ instead of ‘regions’ and would be guided by the principle of  ‘battle zones responsible for war’ and ‘service arms responsible for building the forces.’ Operational command system would also be simplified, hierarchies cut down to 3 from earlier 5.  Now it would be limited to the CMC, battle zones and combat forces.  This is believed will ‘lay a solid foundation for winning local wars under modern high-tech conditions.’

It may be remembered that during the Beijing Parade in September 2015, Xi Jinping had announced the downsizing of the PLA by 300,000 by 2017. Political officers, who exist at all levels, are likely to face the biggest brunt. However, a new organ called discipline inspection commission will also be established with in the CMC and battle zone commands to carry out the anti-corruption campaign of President Xi inside the army. Notwithstanding the new commission, the PLA would be turned into a ‘lean and mean’ fighting machine ready to face bigger challenges as China’s interests sprawls around the globe.

(Prof. B R Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He may be reached at bdeepak@mail.jnu.ac.in)

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