PLA’s Rapid Modernization

The US Department of Defense, “Annual Report To Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012”, colloquially known as the Pentagon Report on China [Report] varies considerably from those of preceding years. For one it confirms arrival of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as a perspective rival in the decades ahead with the focus of the Report on PLA modernization. This is a much awaited document by PLA watchers each year providing a perspective of developments in the force considered as modernizing at the fastest pace globally.

Comparing 2012 Report with those of the two preceding years (2011 and 2010) indicates not just capacity enhancement of the PLA but also a shift in the American approach towards that organization another indication that the Pentagon considers that the former Chinese Red Army has arrived on the global scene. For one the 2012 Report avoids some of the repetitive portions that are evident in the previous reports including the Annual Update. Thus Chapter 1 starts straight on the Military Strategy and Doctrine assuming that the reader is well versed with the same.

There is no change in the Chinese foreign and security policy as envisaged by the Pentagon year on year with the PLA continuing to benefit from the peaceful environment promoting national economic growth as well as modernization. The basic role of the PLA is not envisaged to  have changed from that of, “preserving Communist Party rule [seen as the primary task], sustaining economic growth and development, defending national sovereignty and territorial integrity, achieving national unification, maintaining internal stability, and securing China’s status as a great power”. Seen against the back drop of the recent political events in the country with the Bo Xilai incident seriously questioning stability and order in the higher leadership, the role played by the PLA in this crisis would need consideration.

Active Defense and preparing for, local implying regional wars under conditions of informationization continue to be the main theme of the PLA doctrine and process of modernization. The emphasis on informationisation includes extensive employment of IT and communication networks to overwhelm the adversary.  Active defense implies conducting operations employing offensive tactics under conditions favorable for winning the war and not just the battles, thus the PLA is likely to engage in a conflict only when it is sure of coming out the winner unless forced to defend national sovereignty or attacked by an opponent. From an Indian perspective the importance of maintaining an optimal gap in military capability is highlighted so that the Chinese do not gain an impression that they would be able to win which was quite apparent in 1962. On the other hand likelihood of the PLA miscalculating the opponent’s intent is also evident in subsequent engagements with the Indian armed forces in 1967 or the Vietnamese forces in 1979.

On the key issue of estimation of fiscal resources, the Pentagon Report indicates that based on 2011 prices military related spending for 2012 could be between $120 billion to $180 billion against the declared budget of $ 106 billion. The estimate for 2010 was $160 billion, using 2010 prices and  $140 Billion plus in 2009. The US estimates are in line with the general trend in accretion of China’s defense expenditure year on year.
Of particular interest is the section on the PLA’s emerging capabilities and limitations. Here a more focused analysis has been carried out of various facets including C4 ISR, cyber and space warfare.  The Report identifies substantial accretion in capability and a shift in role from single service, defensive to a wider spectrum including offensive and defensive, on shore and off shore operations. Developments include PLA Air Force’s increasing endeavor for acquiring long range strategic projection capability in protecting China’s expanded global interests.

Modernizing of the Second Artillery Corps strategic forces of the PLA is also being undertaken with development of more versatile missiles with a longer range and in greater numbers. The precision capability to strike both on land and sea is said to have considerably enhanced Chinese capability to strike beyond the so called second island chain which includes Guam and Japan. This would denote considerable accretion to the Anti Access and Anti Denial capabilities fielded by the Second Artillery Corps which in concert with PLAN could be able to carry out this strategy with greater effect. Advanced Ground launched cruise missiles also provide substantial capability to the Second Artillery. The Report however highlights some of the challenges faced thus: “PLA Second Artillery Corps faces several challenges in its force structure, including integrating both new and planned system”.

The 2012 Report for the first time highlights developments in modernization of Ground  Forces which are of interest to the Indian military given the challenges that are likely to manifest in the continental dimension. The Report highlights unlike those in 2011 and 2010 that the PLA ground forces have undertaken significant modernization including a process of transformation into a combined arms brigade force structure. Army aviation with attack helicopters and special forces capability has received considerable boost along with amphibious assault capability. Combined arms operations and ability to conduct these at long range is also emphasized. This would provide the PLA speed and flexibility in operating over varied terrain and combat situations with ease. More over the Chinese are reportedly making progress in overcoming the shortcomings identified in terms of combat experience, realism in training and ability of command and staff by use of simulators, two sided exercises and automated command tools. In line with the overall enhancement in education in China the level of the PLA officer and soldier is also expected to improve over the years.

Thus while force levels in Tibet Autonomous Region opposite India generally remain the same with two Group Armies each in the Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Region the Indian military planners would have to reassess their capability. The military stand off between China and India which has limited interaction in recent years is also evident as the Report recounts visit of senior Chinese military leaders visiting India in 2006 and 2008, thus for three years from 2009 to 2012 relations have remained strained with issues related to Chinese diplomatic aggressiveness in Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh.

To sum up Pentagon Report clearly outlines a modernizing PLA in multiple dimensions which may result in a globally deployable force, agile, flexible and nimble with the requisite mobility and fire power to attain national objectives. The Indian military may have to carry out a reassessment based on the inputs provided which may substantiate what it already knows of the PLA.
In an aside it is highlighted that the maps of India depicted in the Pentagon report show the Northern Areas as a part of Pakistan while Aksai Chin is shown separately. This aberration will have to be taken up by the Ministry of External Affairs at an appropriate forum.



More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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