Last Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jingping announced that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would go through major reforms including the establishment of a joint operational command and a redrawing of China’s existing military regions. Essentially, the PLA is being consolidated under a single centralized command structure. Experts have called this the biggest overhaul of the PLA since the 1950s.
The point of these reforms is to make the PLA leaner and more lethal. Although China’s military modernization has thus far focused on upgrading technology, Xi’s announcement demonstrates that China is determined to make the necessary organizational changes to wage modern warfare. Although it has massive impacts on warfare, technology alone is not enough to win. Military historian Max Boot argues that organizational innovation is just as important as technological innovation and it is only when organizational changes are made that new technology can be used to full effect. In World War I, the introduction of new weapons like tanks and aircraft was unable to break the stalemate. It was only when armies upgraded their structure, doctrine, tactics and training in World War II that these new technologies became decisive.
China’s current military structure is based on an antiquated Soviet model and Xi’s reforms seek to make the transition to a more modern American-style design. Joint command is an extremely important aspect of 21st Century warfare, where air, land, sea, space, electronic and cyber assets must coordinate to achieve victory. The United States discovered this the hard way during the 1983 invasion of Grenada, where command and control broke down and in two cases ground units had to use civilian phones and credit cards to call in air strikes. The Goldwater-Nichols Act solved the problem of interservice command and control by transferring more authority to the Unified Combatant Commands and streamlining the military’s command structure. Xi’s reforms aim to create a similar joint system.
Currently, most of the PLA’s command authority rests in its seven military regions, each of which has its own chain of command. Furthermore, various branches of the PLA are highly independent from each other. This makes it difficult for different parts of the PLA to work together and slows down decision making in the event of a conflict. By establishing a joint command and cutting the number of military regions from four to seven, the PLA will become more efficient and a whole lot deadlier.
Another major announcement from President Xi was the decision to cut the PLA by 300,000 troops. Although Xi claims that this is a gesture of good will, many analysts believe that he really seeks to shift resources from the army to the navy a well as reduce personnel costs so more money can be spent on modernization. Indeed, the United States is taking similar measures as it cuts the Army down to 420,000 active-duty troops in order to devote more funding to the Air Force and Navy.
When paired with China’s technological advances, the organizational reforms will make the PLA a force to be reckoned with. In the past 20 years, the PLA has gone from a technologically backwards military to a modern fighting force. After watching the US military annihilate the Iraqi Army in the 1991 Gulf War, China poured resources into developing modern capabilities like cyberwarfare, missiles and submarines. In some areas, the PLA has arguably jumped ahead of the United States. The PLA’s Second Artillery Corps has hundreds if not thousands of intermediate-range land-attack missiles that are accurate down to five meters and capable of striking American bases in Okinawa and Guam. The United States has no such missiles because the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty prohibits it from acquiring them. China’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), the YJ-12, has a range of 250-400 kilometers and a speed of Mach 2.5-4. In contrast, the U.S. Navy’s primary anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, has a range of 130 km and travels at subsonic speeds. China has purchased Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), arguably the most advanced air defense system in the world. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) expects to procure stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31, by the end of the decade. While the PLA might not have completely caught up with the US military, it has narrowed the gap considerably, perhaps to the point where the United States’ qualitative edge will not be able to overcome China’s quantitative advantage.
The PLA’s modernization program is coming to fruition as China faces serious territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Last month the United States sent a destroyer to one of China’s artificial islands on a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) and this week Japan announced that it would deploy 500 troops to Ishigaki Island, 90 nautical miles from the disputed Senkaku Islands. It is unlikely that Xi’ With the Near Seas heating up, the PLA’s improved capabilities should give serious pause to the United States.
Some, like Paul Dibbs of The Australian National University, are skeptical of the PLA’s capabilities. A common argument made by skeptics is that the PLA lacks hands-on experience in modern warfare. The last major war fought by China was the Sino-Vietnamese War over three decades ago, which proved to be an embarrassment for the PLA. In contrast, the United States has fought several wars in the past 30 years. However, these analysts overemphasize the value of experience. First, while China has not fought against a capable opponent in a long time, neither has the United States. Ever since World War II, the only wars the United States has fought have been against much weaker opponents like the Taliban. The U.S. military has not faced an opponent with precision-guided munitions or anti-satellite weaponry. Experience in fighting small wars does not translate into high-intensity conventional conflicts. In 1914, the British had more experience in fighting low-intensity colonial conflicts than anybody thanks to the Boer Wars about a decade earlier. Yet the British Army was woefully unprepared to fight a conventional war against Germany, which had not fought a major war since the 1870s. When it comes to high-intensity modern warfare, the U.S. military is as inexperienced as the PLA.
Furthermore, people can be fast learners, especially under wartime conditions. There are plenty of examples of inexperienced militaries learning quickly on the job. By the time the United States entered World War II the Germans had already been fighting for two years and the Japanese has been fighting for four. Initially, the green American troops suffered several defeats at the hands of their more-experienced Axis counterparts. However, the U.S. military learned quickly and eventually triumphed in the end. Likewise, the PLA’s inexperience might cause them to lose a few battles in the beginning but they could still end up winning the war.
The PLA’s capabilities are not a trivial matter. In spite of rhetoric about China’s “peaceful rise”, its rapid military buildup and aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas indicate that China’s real intentions are not so docile. War between the United States and China is a real possibility; indeed, most cases where a rising power threatens a ruling power end in violence. The probability of war becomes much higher if China feels that it has a good chance of winning. No one fights a war if they know they’ll lose while the prospects of victory make war more tempting. Although World War I was economic madness, the European powers rushed into it in large part because they felt that the odds were in their favor and the fruits of victory would outweigh any economic losses. Many PLA officials have already expressed confidence that they can win a war with the United States and anything that boosts that confidence is cause for concern.
The reforms are not all bad news. By centralizing the PLA command structure and giving more power to the Central Military Commission (which is headed by the President), Xi’s reforms will strengthen civilian control of the military. Chinese civil-military relations have been problematic, as evidenced by a case where the PLA naval forces locked-on to a Japanese destroyer and helicopter without so much as informing the civilian government. Stronger civilian control will reduce the likelihood of rogue PLA commanders starting a war, avoiding a scenario similar to what Imperial Japanese Army officers did in Manchuria in 1931.
Furthermore, it is not certain that the reforms will be fully or effectively implemented. Many PLA generals have voiced opposition to the reforms and may move to block their implementation. Institutions tend to resist change and the PLA is no exception. The troop reductions are also a cause for concern among the PLA’s top brass. More importantly, the reforms include major anti-corruption measures that will increase military effectiveness but also decrease the amount of perks the generals receive.
Nonetheless, Xi Jingping is a shrewd political maneuverer and there’s a good chance he’ll be able to overrule his generals. The fact of the matter is that the PLA has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years and will likely grow even more capable in the near future. In the 1950s, the PLA lacked significant armored, naval, and logistical capabilities. Many troops didn’t even have rifles. Yet this underdeveloped peasant force was still able to fight the better-equipped U.S. military to a standstill during the Korean War. Imagine what a fully modernized PLA could do.