Ground Forces Structure
Historically, the PLA ground forces consisted of conventionally armed main and regional forces, which were predominantly infantry troops supported by some artillery, armour, engineer, and logistics elements. Since the mid-1980s, the PLA has been developing a smaller, but more combined ground forces with rapid deployment ability, capable of both defensive and offensive operations. The PLA ground forces are thrived to achieve two transformations in the early 21st Century – mechanisation and informationisation. The former aims to replace conventional light infantry troops with armoured and mechanised troops, while the latter aims to introduce the network-centric warfare capability into the ground forces.
On paper, the ground forces total some 1.6 million men (IISS Military Balance 2005-2006), or about 70% of the PLA’s total strength (2.25 million in 2005-2006). However, this figure includes the personnel serving in mainly administrative roles with military regions, military districts, military sub-districts, and people’s armed forces departments across the country. Therefore, the size of the actual combat forces in the ground forces could be smaller, estimated to be just under one million. The size of the Army Reserve forces is estimated to be 800,000 men.
Infantry is the basic element of the ground forces. Additionally, there are seven specialised service arms: artillery, armour, air defence, engineering, signals, chemical defence, and army aviation. Prior to 1984, these specialised service arms were independent to infantry and directly subordinate to their own headquarters, but they have been since then incorporated into infantry troops to form combined-arms units (group armies and divisions).
Special operations forces are not a separate service arm, though they have been enjoying high-level of independence in budget allocation, equipment, and training. Since the mid-2000s, the special operations group of each of the seven military regions has been assigned to a group army for better integration.
Territorially, China is divided into seven military regions – Beijing, Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu, which are administrative headquarters responsible for the ground, naval, and air forces located in several provinces. The military region headquarters serves concurrently as the headquarters for the ground forces within its area of responsibility, whereas navy and air forces have their own regional headquarters under the leadership of the military region headquarters. Each military region consists of 2~3 group armies and several military districts.
The main combat power of the PLA ground forces is found in 18 group armies, which are corps-sized combined arms units with gross manpower ranging from 45,000 to 60,000 personnel. The composition of group armies varies according to their location, mission, and readiness level, but generally include 2~5 combat divisions or brigades (infantry and armour), as well as a number of combat support and combat service support units. Some group armies have also been assigned with helicopter and special forces units. The largest tactical formation of the ground forces, a group army is an “army-level” organisation in PLA’s administrative hierarchy, normally headed by a major general.
Currently, the Beijing, Shenyang, Jinan, and Nanjing military regions each has three group armies, and Lanzhou, Guangzhou, and Chengdu military regions each has two group armies. While some group armies are tasked with the defence of a specific geographic region, others are intended for deployment anywhere within the country whenever required. Some divisions within certain group armies are designated ‘rapid reaction units’, ready for deployment within 24 hours without requiring any train-up or reserve augmentation.
Each of China’s thirty provincial-level administrative entities (provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities) has established a military district (省军区). In Beijing, the military district is known as “garrison district” (卫戍区). In other municipalities, the military district is known as “security garrison district” (警备区). However, there is no fundamental difference in nature between these different organs.
A military district is an “army-level” organ in PLA’s administrative hierarchy, normally headed by a major general. Military districts are responsible for the active and reserve forces in their jurisdictions. They also work closely with local governments in supervising the development of civil defence, conscripts recruitment, and reserve and militia training in the local regional.
Depending on their location and function, a military district can include the following types of units:
Field Units – The Xinjiang Military District and Tibet Military District both have active combat units including infantry divisions and brigades, artillery brigades, and other logistics support units.
Border Defence Units – Those military districts adjacent to foreign countries have border defence units deployed along the border region to prevent illegal border crossing and intrusion. Their duties include sentry watching and border patrol.
Internal Security Units – The Beijing Garrison District and three security garrison districts in Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing all have army units specially trained and equipped for internal security, anti-riot, and counter-terrorism roles.
Reserve Units and Militia – Every military district has been assigned with some reserve units and militia troops. These are part-time soldiers receiving regular military and specialised training, and can be mobilised to become active service forces if necessary.
Each of China’s prefectural-level entities (cities and prefectures) has established a military sub-district (军分区), which is generally responsible for mobilisation plans, conscription, militia, civil defence, and supervising the activities of people’s armed forces departments in its area. A military sub-district is equivalent to an army division in PLA’s administrative hierarchy and is normally headed by a senior colonel.
People’s Armed Forces Departments
People’s armed forces departments (PAFD) are found at county-level entities (counties, districts, banners, etc.). They are responsible for militia, conscription, and military training work in its area. The PAFD was subordinate to local governments prior to 1996 and was reassigned to the PLA. A PAFD is equivalent to an army regiment in PLA’s administrative hierarchy and is normally headed by a colonel.
Last update: 20 March 2009