Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 12:17 PM CST – China

Politics

Military Reform

The Top’s Priorities

In the wake of a high-profile pledge from Xi Jinping in November, details of China’s ambitious military reform program aimed at turning the PLA into a modern army have gradually been unveiled

A squad of PLA officers participate in an electromagnetic warfare training exercise, February 3, 2016 Photo by Xinhua

President Xi Jinping presents the commander of one of China’s new military zones with his colors, February 1, 2016 Photo by Xinhua

On December 31, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his role as chairman of the China Central Military Commission (CMC), announced that China would create a Rocket Force and a Strategic Support Force in addition to existing branches of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), which will take over the functions of the PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF), will take charge of China’s land, sea and air-based nuclear arsenal and its array of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Unlike Russia’s similarly named Strategic Rocket Forces, the PLARF will also have command over China’s conventional missile systems.

General Wei Fenghe, former commander-in-chief of the PLASAF, was named the new force’s first commander, indicating that the PLARF will largely inherit the role and structure of the PLASAF, while simultaneously consolidating efforts to boost China’s nuclear deterrent, counter-strike capabilities, and its ability to conduct intermediate- and long-range precision strikes.

While the creation of the PLARF has been considered a straightforward re-branding of the PLSAF, analysts have shown considerable interest in the country’s new Strategic Support Force (SSF). In his introduction to this new branch of China’s military, Xi offered no specifics beyond describing it as a “new-type combat force.” Yang Yujun, spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defense (MND), was equally vague on the actual role of the SSF, simply stating that it will play a “strategic, fundamental and supportive” role in China’s military.

According to several Chinese military pundits, the SSF will serve to centralize China’s cyber, information and space-based military capabilities. Military theorist Song Zhongping, a former PLASAF officer, suggested that the SSF, as the PLA’s “fifth service,” will comprise units specializing in space, cyber, electronic and psychological warfare, while maintaining that existing missile and satellite defense units will remain under PLA Air Force command.

While Song argues that the SSF will serve as an integrated force, Yin Zhuo, another PLA military expert, contended that the SSF will not be a single combat force, but will instead be “included in the operations of the army, navy, air force and rocket force… so as to conduct integrated joint operations.”

Although opinions publicly expressed by PLA military experts are generally viewed as semi-official, the CMC’s decision to remain tight-lipped on the role of its newest combat force has turned their comments into a major focal point as China’s military reform program is fully unveiled in the coming months.

Institutional

Besides restructuring China’s combat forces, the CMC also unveiled its blueprint for a new institutional structure for central military organs. A major stated goal of military reform has been to establish a streamlined command structure under the direct control of the CMC.

It has long been argued that a major problem with the existing command structure of the PLA is the existence of the so-called “four general departments” answerable to the CMC: the General Staff Department, the General Logistics Department, the General Political Department and the General Armament Department. Enjoying considerable autonomy from the CMC and from one another has allowed each department to accumulate strong political clout within the military and led to inefficiencies, both factors that have turned the four general departments into chief obstacles to reform.

According to the CMC announcement on January 11, the four departments and other agencies previously under their control have now been integrated into 15 organizations that report directly to the CMC.

Instead of dividing its power between four departments, the CMC now operates directly through the CMC General Office. According to a source close to the CMC, based on the military rank of their leaders, the remaining 14 organizations will each be placed into one of three categories corresponding to their relative importance within China’s military infrastructure.

The first tier in the new command structure includes the Joint Staff Department, the Political Work Department, the Logistic Support Department and the Equipment Development Department. Dubbed “the new four departments,” these bodies will take over the technical responsibilities of the old “four departments” but be permitted far less autonomy and power within the PLA command structure than was enjoyed by their predecessors.

 In addition to the new four departments, these first-tier bodies also include the newly established Training and Administration and National Defense Mobilization departments, developments which analysts believe demonstrate an increased focus on training and defensive mobilization capabilities.

It is notable that the new CMC National Defense Mobilization Department is a regrouping of the National Mobilization Committee, which was previously subordinate to the State Council, China’s cabinet.

Second-tier organs within the CMC are the Discipline Inspection Commission, the Politics and Law Commission, and the Science and Technology Commission.

As the military’s version of its civilian namesake, the PLA Discipline Inspection Commission (DIC), charged with rooting out corruption in the military, was previously subordinate to the General Political Department. Under the new institutional arrangement, the DIC appears to have gained more independence and authority within the CMC command structure. In the run-up to the launch of the new military reform program, dozens of generals and senior officers were disciplined or relieved of command as part of Xi’s ongoing high-profile anti-graft drive.

According to a defense ministry spokesman, the Discipline Inspection Commission, along with the Politics and Law Commission, would be subject to “dual leadership” from both the CMC and the central government.

The third-tier organs are five operational offices in charge of administration, auditing, international military cooperation, strategic planning, and reform and organizational restructuring.

The role of the defense ministry has, meanwhile, become even more awkward. Long considered a “virtual” ministry, with no power over actual decision making, China’s Ministry of National Defense, nominally responsible for military diplomacy, drafting and defense education, has in practice had its functions appropriated by various agencies under the CMC. Even defense ministry spokespersons reported directly to the CMC’s former General Staff Department.

Under the new institutional structure, even offices nominally subordinate to the defense ministry have been officially absorbed into the CMC. For example, the ministry’s Office of Foreign Affairs will be incorporated into the third-tier CMC International Military Cooperation Office. Under the new system, China’s defense ministry will literally become an almost virtual entity through which the CMC communicates with both the civilian governments and the armed forces of other countries.

Zones

More recently, on February 1, Xi announced the establishment of five new “strategic zones” – the North, South, East, West and Central Battle Zone Commands – set to replace China’s original seven “military regions.”

This highly anticipated move, which defense ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun described as “a historic moment,” is believed to have gone far beyond a simple renaming and reshuffling of geographical realignment. According to a vision Xi outlined when he first announced the CMC’s military reform plan in November, the regrouping of China’s regional commands is aimed at strengthening the ability of the PLA’s various branches to conduct joint operations.

While the previous seven regional commands were established with a definite priority given to the PLA Army ground force, the new five battle zones will act as a regional platform for joint operations between all PLA branches. According to a report in the Party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily, each battle zone command will “be responsible for certain strategic directions and priorities” and each “is designed to streamline joint operations with land, naval, air and rocket forces.”

According to a report in the State-owned Global Times, China’s three major fleets, the North, East and South Sea fleets, will be made subordinate to the commanders of the North, East and South Battle Zones.

While more details will continue to emerge, the effort to fashion China’s military into a modern force has gained momentum. The rearrangement of the PLA’s new command structure, streamlining of its decision-making organizations, regrouping of regional commands and reconfiguration of personnel have revealed the overall framework of China’s ambitious military reform program, as well as the vision driving it. 

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