China has just announced an ambitious reform of its armed forces, aimed at closing the gap with the US military. That’s a bit of an embarrassment to the PLA’s legion of internet fanboys, who’ve been insisting for years that the gap was closed long ago – if it ever even existed – but the reality is it’s a long-overdue wake up call for China’s complacent generals.
The Chinese armed forces are huge – with around 2.3 million regular personnel they’re the largest in the world by some distance. However, they’re also in shambles. Some reasonably modern equipment gets wheeled out for parades, but most of it is only produced in small quantities and the bulk of the PLA is equipped with 1950s-era Soviet gear. It was all pretty good stuff when it first entered service, but that was a long time ago now. A theoretically impressive inventory of about 8,000 tanks turns out to be mostly pimped T-54s; only 1,760 or so are in the class of a 1990s T-72 variant, and none are a match for a current T-72 or any western tank.
It’s the same story in aircraft, with a few squadrons of Russian-built Su-27 Flankers and a few more of locally built clones distracting attention from swarms of upgraded MiG-21s and even MiG-19s. Right down to the level of personal equipment it’s the same story, with the shiny new QBZ-95 bullpup assault rifle now standard issue but night vision, body armor and even radios are in woefully short supply. A PLA infantry company has just two radios – one each for the commander and “political instructor.” A British rifle section has 10 – two more than the number of actual soldiers.
Worst of all is the organization of this creaking mass. China is divided into seven military districts, which all operate more or less autonomously. Then there are five service branches, which also don’t talk to each other much. This makes inter-branch cooperation extremely poor, and training standards vary wildly between districts. Chinese troops can be impressive at subunit and unit level, but if they had to put a major operation together some massive cracks would quickly become apparent.
In theory, China’s military is organized along former Soviet lines, which is a fairly effective system for managing large, tank-heavy formations, but in practice the country’s idiosyncratic communist system has messed the PLA up as badly as it does everything else. The only way China could salvage its economy after decades of Party mismanagement was to basically give up, but that’s not really an option for 2.3 million military personnel. A major reform is well overdue.
The question is, can they actually manage it? They can certainly develop a new structure, but the existing commanders aren’t going to like having their considerable power and wealth taken away. The Party always has the option of shooting anyone who makes too much of a fuss, but a purge of the people with most of the guns can end badly. My personal opinion is that some kind of reform will be fudged, but the end product still won’t be anywhere close to the capabilities of the US military.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.