March 22, 2024

The PLAGF: Force reduction, mechanization, and informationization


The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) economy grew thirty-fold over as many years. In fact, it has already been nearly a decade since the PRC overtook the US in GDP when adjusted for purchasing power variables. The effort to rival the US in the military domain followed suit, with the narrative of a new Cold War among western analysts reaching near-ubiquity by the late 2010s. The US DoD’s National Defense Strategy (2022) and National Defense Industrial Strategy (2024) both echo this sentiment, framing the PRC as the single greatest strategic threat to the US. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undergone – and is in many ways still undergoing – the largest and most rapid modernization process of any armed force since World War II. Its strategic-operational concept gradually shifted from a ‘people’s war’, focused on guerrilla resistance and levying mass infantry; to ‘forward defense’, emphasizing blue water naval capabilities and regional control.

Conversely, the mantra of ‘reforms and innovation’ permeated through all aspects of the PLA’s modernization with corresponding budget allocation to the PRC’s defense industrial base. In 1990, the PRC’s defense spending was $30 billion. This number grew to $242 billion by 2023, with year-on-year growth in the high single digits. While this number is seemingly around a quarter of US defense spending, US Major General Cameron Holt warns that purchasing power multipliers enable the PRC to spend only one dollar on every 20 dollars spent in the US to get the same capability. As such, while the PRC’s defense expenditure at 1.2-1.6% GDP is well below the US’ 3.6% (or even the global average of 1.8%), these numbers aren’t directly indicative of the PRC’s commitment to military modernization given the above-mentioned purchasing power variables, civilian-military fusion, and spending on armed forces other than the PLA. Today, the PLA is being reshaped into a smaller and more technologically advanced armed force at a rapid pace, with its naval branch enjoying primacy and the establishment of two unique branches that are bespoke to the PRC’s strategic-operational objectives. That said, the PLA’s transformation remains imperfect and incomplete – more on this later.

With the PRC’s historically unparalleled economic growth coming to a halt in recent years, legitimacy pressures on the regime bring closer the likelihood of conflict with Taiwan. This has implications for the North Atlantic community and their Indo-Pacific Allies and partners. Some ‘China-watchers’, like US Air Force four-star General Mike Minahan predicted direct war with the PRC over Taiwan as early as 2025. Alarmingly, even more reserved analysts tend to deem a ‘reunification’ attempt with Taiwan more likely than not by the 2049 centennial anniversary of the PRC’s establishment. By all accounts, the PLA is now capable of seriously challenging the US and Allies in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea by cultivating a heavily saturated anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) operational environment. To this end, BCE compiled an overview of the PLA’s modernization for western stakeholders in industry, armed forces, and the public sector.

The present piece endeavors to provide an overview of PLA modernization across its five branches. These are: the Ground Forces (PLAGF), the Navy (PLAN), the Air Force (PLAAF), the Rocket Force (PLARF), and the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). The PRC’s two other armed forces, the 1.4 million strong People’s Armed Police (PAP) and 8 million strong People’s Militia fall outside the scope of this piece. Their maritime branches are discussed together with the PLAN. The PLA Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF) is discussed together with the PLASSF. The sections dedicated to each branch aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the process of modernization since 1990 rather than a detailed account of the given branch’s capabilities today.

The PLAGF: Force reduction, mechanization, and informationization

Since at least the 2007 PLA white paper, the PLAGF’s reform objectives have been ‘mechanization and informationization’. This fits into the PLA’s generational aspiration to build a smaller, modern, and more capable ground force. Historically, the PRC has had the largest standing infantry force out of any nation. However, as focus shifted from defending its land border with 14 states (more than any other country) to challenging the US in the maritime domain, the PLAGF gradually lost its primacy among PLA branches. Incremental force reduction started in 1985 when the PLA was reduced from 4 to 3 million active-duty personnel. At that time the PLAGF still formed the vast majority of the PLA manpower pool with 2.2 million standing troops. A further 500,000 personnel were discharged in 1997, followed by 200,000 in 2003, and 300,000 in 2015. This left the PLAGF with around 970,000 troops, less than half of the PLA’s 2 million active-duty personnel.

The same year, a white paper followed, which reformed the PLAGF’s organizational structure and order of battle. The PLAGF’s former divisions were downsized to light-, medium-, and heavy combined arms brigades. These were spread across 16 armies on the corps level and five theatre commands (TC), replacing the PLA’s traditional military districts. The PLAGF’s focus today is on interoperability with other branches and networked all-domain operations, allowing of course for issues of defending the mainland.

On paper, the PLAGF’s heavy equipment parc puts the PRC into the top tier of land powers. The PLAGF operates 5,400 MBTs, 750 light tanks, 7,200 IFVs, 4,300 APCs, and over 300 attack helicopters. In terms of firepower, the PLAGF’s arsenal consists of 4,100 artillery pieces (towed and SPG) as well as 1,700 MRLs. While these numbers are certainly impressive, they obscure the granular breakdown of modernization levels across PLAGF combined arms brigades.

The level of mechanization and informationization remains uneven across units, with some brigades fielding world class equipment while others relying on Soviet-era legacy hardware. As PLA-expert Dean Cheng outlined in 2020, “[while some brigades] employ data links, network-centric sensor-to-shooter system-of-systems, and field a variety of UAVs, electronic warfare platforms, and advanced combat capabilities, other units are still in the midst of simply shifting from towed artillery to self-propelled guns, improving their main battle tanks and becoming fully motorized.” Indeed, for many PLAGF brigades the task at hand is still motorization, not mechanization. Consequently, the PLAGF is on track to miss its 2027 goal of becoming fully mechanized and informationatized, notwithstanding the nebulous and classified definitions of these metrics.

Something that further muddies the water for analysts is the degree, to which legacy equipment is still in use by the PLAGF. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), out of the PLAGF’s 5,800 MBTs, nearly 2,000 were still variants of the ZTZ-59, a license-produced equivalent of the Soviet T-54 as of 2019. This was in addition to the PLAGF’s 300 Type-88 second-generation MBTs. Since then, the PLAGF’s MBT arsenal has been sized down and the third-generation Type-99 MBT has been continually entering service. However, around a third of the PLAGFs MBTs are yet to be modernized. In terms of lighter vehicles like IFVs, a rapid uptick in production is driving mechanization of the PLAGF. The Type-15 light tank entered service in 2015, but the PLAGF already operated 500 of them as of 2023, with major deliveries of the Type-19 IFV of November that year. While still only around half of the PLAGF’s estimated 50 combined arms brigades operate the Type-15, the rapid growth in production figures is illustrative of the PRC’s impressive defense industrial capacity to roll out current generation platforms.

Even though the PLAGF’s mechanization has been deprioritized within the PLA’s larger modernization objectives, new platforms are entering service at a consistent rate. This corresponds with the PRC’s strategic-operational objectives in the Taiwan Strait, with the introduction of new very long range MRLs into the Eastern TC’s PLAGF brigades; and with amphibious design compromises integrated into the capabilities of current-generation IFVs and APCs. The decision to depart from Soviet caliber legacy artillery systems to a new 155mm standard also fits into this trend.

A common critique of the PLA at large when measured against the US as a peer competitor is their lack of institutional memory. This is still pronounced when it comes to the PLAGF, the PLA’s oldest branch. The PLA has not seen any major combat since the PRC’s war against Vietnam in the spring of 1979. Then, the PLAGF performed poorly, resulting in a stalemate against the smaller and technologically inferior but more experienced Vietnamese forces. Since then, the PLAGF has been characterized by what the PLA leadership calls ‘peace disease’.

In addition, the PLAGF is also the branch of the PLA that is most stained by institutional corruption, having seen the highest number of discharges and imprisonments during Xi Jinping’s purges in recent years out of any branch. Throughout the PLA’s history, the PLAGF has also been the most prone to political appointments in key positions of command. For the purposes of western stakeholders the result may be an exploitable gap in the PLAGF’s officer corps competencies, which have also been described by domestic officials in the PRC as insufficient. While new appointments in key positions may mitigate this historical shortcoming of the PLAGF – along with a 40% pay raise in 2021 to attract university-educated talent to the NCO- and officer corps – the PLA will remain unable to match the decades of continuous warfighting experience of the US’ Armed Forces.

In sum, it must be acknowledged that the PLAGF has undergone significant modernization progress to date, which is continuing at a relatively swift pace. This is in spite of the continued prevalence of legacy systems in the PLAGF’s hardware parc, the inconsistent employment of current generation platforms between combined arms brigades, and shortcomings in institutional competencies. These reforms make the PLAGF suited for the PRC’s strategic-operational objectives, while falling way short of matching western ground forces in force composition and sophistication. Given current trends, this gap is likely to get narrower in the years to come, with full mechanization and informationization of the PLAGF very much within the realm of possibility by 2035, let alone by 2049.

[This is the first in a six-part series on the PLA’s modernization]

For a deeper discussion on any of this please contact

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