PLA's New Modular Force Structure
In order to meet the requirement of “fighting and winning local wars under conditions of informationisation” set by China’s military planners, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing an overhaul in its force structure since the late 1990s, replacing its massive infantry and armour formations (divisions and regiments) with smaller combined arms modular forces (brigade and battalions). The aim of the restructure is to build a smaller, but more flexible force capable of dealing with diversified security threats and accomplishing a wider range of tasks in the modern age. The transformation is also part of the PLA’s modernisation effort to simultaneously encompass mechanisation and informationisation (network-centric warfare).
Close observation of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 made the PLA realise that the warfare of the information age would be asymmetric, nonlinear, and non-contact. Long-range precision strike firepower from air-, land-, and naval platforms could quickly take out enemy’s key military and political targets, thus paralysing the enemy’s command and control system and stopping them from organising any effective resistance. Under such conditions, the main role of the ground forces is no longer to eliminate enemy forces, but to quickly capture areas of strategic importance and then put the situation under control.
The existing structure of the PLA ground forces is largely based on the Soviet model it has adopted since the 1950s. The conventional army-division-regiment structure was designed for a mechanised war of the industrial age, featuring large formations of infantry and armour troops supported by artillery. However, the 1990s Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated the vulnerability of such a force when facing a technologically advanced enemy with information dominance. The Iraqi Army, though equipped with a significant amount of armoured fighting vehicles and artillery, could hardly organise any meaningful resistance once its C3I system was destroyed and was soon defeated by the coalition forces from air before even encountering any land battles.
|Large formations of infantry and armoured troops: a scene of the past?
(Source: Chinese Internet)
As the first step towards a smaller and more flexible force, in the late 1990s, the PLA introduced brigades in its force structure. Headed by a senior colonel, these brigades are composed of several battalion-sized units, but with significantly smaller combat service support units than divisions. Overall, brigades are manned with approximately one-third to half of the strength of a division of the same arm. By eliminating the regiment level headquarters in the chain-of-command, the brigade headquarters would be directly commanding the tactical units in its operations, resulting in a more efficient and robust command and control system.
Although this new structure seemed to be an ideal solution to PLA’s ineffectiveness, a key issue was ignored. The existing organisational structure of the PLA based on the Soviet model places regiments as the smallest the smallest units capable of independent operations. Battalions, which were design to only perform a single tactical mission as part of a regiment’s tactical operations, did not have headquarters staffs and support elements like the units of similar size in Western armies. As a result, battalions previously relied on regiment headquarters for orders and instructions turned to the brigade headquarters for support.
The brigade headquarters soon found itself overloaded by the sheer responsibility of managing and commanding 7~8 battalion-sized units within its organisation. In some cases, regiments had to be retained as an intermediate headquarters between brigade and battalion level. For example, all infantry brigades now have an artillery regiment in its organisation to manage the two artillery battalions within the brigade. The marine brigade of the PLA Navy also has an armoured regiment to manage the armoured elements in the brigade. The efficiency of the brigade’s command and control was compromised by this added complexity, making brigades “enlarged regiments” rather than “downsized divisions” as the PLA had hoped.
Another problem created by the introduction of brigades is the coordination between brigades and divisions. Since not all divisions were downsized to brigades, divisions and brigades coexist in many group armies. While both units are headed by a senior colonel, the division headquarters gives orders to its subordinated regiments, while brigade headquarters gives orders directly to the battalions, causing confusions and conflictions when the two types of units operate together.
It appears that the PLA is now trying to address some of the issues that have emerged in its restructuring process by creating some independence in battalions and introducing the combined arms approach, whereby infantry, armour, artillery, aviation, air defence, and engineers from the same brigade (or even different brigades or divisions) are grouped into combined arms battle groups for training and operations. This modular approach enables battle groups to be structured according to the requirements of the mission and then easily modified in the theatre as the situation changed.
The PLA Daily (3 Jan 08) reported that during an exercise in late 2007 in the Beijing Military Region, for the first time a “combined arms battalion” was created. The unit was based on a mechanised infantry battalion, but attached with specialised units of reconnaissance, signal intelligence (SIGINT), anti-armour, engineers, and signals. The report claimed that the firepower of such a unit was “several times” greater than a conventional infantry battalion.
A second report by the Xinhua News Agency (xinhuanet.com, 21 Jan 08) revealed that a combined arms battalion exercise was carried out in the Shenyang Military Region. The battalion was composed of infantry, tank, engineers, chemical defence, missiles, and electronic warfare troops. The report also confirmed that the battalion commander, who previously had to commanded his troops alone, was supported by 6~7 joint operations staffs in his command post during the operation.
The revised training and operational doctrine of the PLA has replaced “battalion-level tactical training” (with homogeneous troop type) in the syllabus of the training handbook with “battalion-level tactical exercise” (with combined arms troops). This officially puts battalions as the smallest units in the ground forces capable of independent operations. Battalion commanders are also given much greater autonomy in commanding their subordinate units and calling for air and artillery support.
|Different service arms are being put together to form combined arms battle groups
(Source: Chinese Internet)
With this new operational model in place, instead of managing three conventional combat arms regiments and an artillery regiment, a division headquarters now may directly controls 6~9 battalion-sized combined arms battle groups, whereas a brigade headquarters controls 2~3 of such groups. This approach finally brings the operations of divisions and brigades in line with each other in order to work together seamlessly.
Under the combined arms battle group concept, while units of different service arms are still managed according to their administrative structure in barracks, they are put together to form different types of functional modules in training and operations. This requires the previous organisation-oriented command and control model to be transformed into a function-oriented model. So instead of managing subordinated units of different service arms, headquarters now must manage different functional modules (battle groups). For example, reconnaissance units of artillery, armour, and infantry within a division or brigade previously operated separately within their own service arms, whereas now in the combined arms battle group they are put together to form an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) module during training and operations.
In order to support this new operational model, the PLA is building robust tactical C4ISR networks to connect the headquarters with battle groups. In some cases, this network is even extended down to an individual tank or armoured vehicle. This network ensures that the headquarters and battle groups can not only command their own units, but also command elements allocated from other units, thus allowing the structure of battle groups to be quickly altered when the situation in the theatre changes. This could pose a challenge to the PLA, since C4ISR equipments used by different service arms and branches are often incompatible with each other.
Finally, the new operational model also demands greater knowledge and capabilities in commanding officers and staffs, especially at the battalion level. Previously battalion commanders in the PLA simply needed to closely follow the orders and instructions from their regiment headquarters. They are not used to making decisions independently. Also, most battalion commanders only possess the operations knowledge of a single service arms, but they are now asked to command a battle group consisting of almost every single services arms in the ground forces. According to a PLA daily report (25 Apr 08), during a recent exercise in the Shenyang Military Region, six battalion commanders with outstanding performance records were selected to command a combined arms battalion, and their results were all unsatisfactory.