How China is transforming its military, especially in the air and at sea

Bloomberg, AP

With a series of edicts, speeches and martial ceremonies, President Xi Jinping has over the past six months unveiled China’s biggest military overhaul since the aftermath of the Korean War.

The plan seeks to transform the 2.3-million-member People’s Liberation Army, which features 21st-century hardware but an outdated, Soviet-inspired command structure, into a fighting force capable of winning a modern war.

China is shifting from a “large country to a large and powerful one,” Xi explained in November.

The restructuring will be a major focus of the country’s new defense budget, which was to be announced Saturday as the annual rubber-stamp National People’s Congress got underway in Beijing.

China said Friday it will boost defense spending by about 7 to 8 percent in 2016, the smallest increase in six years. The People’s Liberation Army, being trimmed to 2 million troops from 2.3 million, will still be the world’s largest standing military.

Spending at all levels of China’s government is being curbed because of a drop in the economic growth rate, which fell to a 25-year low of 6.9 percent in 2015 and is expected to decline further this year. For most years since 2000, China posted double-digit increases in military spending.

“A lot of countries do military reforms, but they are rarely as tectonic as what we are seeing in China,” said Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington who specializes in military capabilities. “Any single one of these elements constitutes a bureaucratic overhaul of the first order.”

Here are the key elements of Xi’s plan:

Fewer singers, dancers

The first piece of the overhaul — announced by Xi during a grand military parade through central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Sept. 3 — calls for eliminating 300,000 PLA personnel by 2017. While Xi presented the cutbacks as proof of China’s commitment to peace, they will largely target noncombat personnel and should make the country’s forces more focused and efficient.

Out are military cooks, hospital workers, journalists and some 10,000 members of the PLA’s famed singers and dancers.

Even so, China’s military will remain by far the world’s largest, with over 600,000 more active service members than the U.S., according to estimates by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

More pilots, sailors

The reorganization will also chip away at the army’s dominance, since modern mechanized warfare requires far fewer conventional troops. China needs more pilots, sailors, commandos and drone operators to achieve ambitions of projecting force farther afield.

While the land forces still account for about 73 percent of total troop strength, China is shifting resources to the navy and air force.

Those services will be responsible for dealing with the main perceived threats to China’s interests — a conflict over control of the South China Sea and a move by self-governing Taiwan toward formal independence that China has threatened to respond to with force.

Who’s the boss?

Advanced military actions such as intercepting rival aircraft, carrying out drone strikes and using special forces to extract hostages, demand the sort of close collaboration China’s army-centric military has lacked. Xi intends to fix that by reorganizing the armed forces into five branches under a joint-command structure modeled after that of the U.S.

In addition to the existing army, PLA Air Force and PLA Navy, a new Rocket Force will be responsible for China’s nuclear arsenal and conventional missiles, while a Strategic Support Force will oversee cyberwarfare and protect China’s financial system from attack.

Redrawing the map

As part of the move toward a unified command, China consolidated its seven military regions into five “theater commands” or “battle zones,” with each service reporting to a single commander. How these zones will function remains unclear.

“A lot of energy will be spent figuring out who commands who; who supports who; and most importantly who controls which budgets?” said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Many will be watching to see how far beyond China’s borders the new zones reach and how the revamped military map will shape PLA activities in regional hot spots such as the South China Sea.

Control of the skies

Seeking an edge in air combat, China invested heavily in Su-27 jets from Russia, eventually copying that technology and producing its own version, known as the J-11.

Recent years have seen the introduction of an advanced home-made fighter jet, the J-10, and upgraded H-6 bombers capable of longer missions. At least two prototype stealth fighters have flown, although it is not known what they are capable of or whether or when they will enter service.

New navy

Equally dramatic has been the transformation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy from a coastal patrol force to one capable of operating on the high seas far from base.

The most eye-catching addition has been the commissioning of the navy’s first aircraft carrier, which was purchased as an incomplete hull from Ukraine more than a decade ago then rebuilt, armed and equipped in China.

Although the carrier, christened the Liaoning, has yet to take on its full aviation complement, China announced in December that it was already building its second aircraft carrier, this time entirely with domestic technology.

China is also adding cutting-edge frigates, destroyers and nuclear submarines and by some estimates has been launching more vessels than any other nation on an annual basis. That rapid modernization is seen as aimed at asserting its maritime claims and extending its power far from its shores, raising tensions with Japan, the U.S. and Southeast Asian nations with rival territorial claims.

More missiles

China’s missile force, formally known as the Second Artillery, has one of the most potent attack capabilities of any of the world’s armed forces. Along with its nuclear force, China now fields at least 1,200 conventionally armed ballistic missiles, along with an array of land attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and — of greatest concern to the U.S. Navy — anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles that may be able to sink an aircraft carrier.

China has continued to build its stocks of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles deployed just across the strait from Taiwan, backing up its threat to attack the island should it irrevocably reject Beijing’s demand for unification.

Changing tactics

Along with its gradual shift away from Asian land war preparations, the PLA has been developing systems to prevent outside intervention in contingencies such as a campaign against Taiwan. It is doing so largely through its use of missiles and submarines, along with cyberwarfare efforts to disable opposing forces’ high-tech battle systems.

Consolidating power

Xi is also centralizing his authority by breaking up the military’s massive, back-office bureaucracy. Four existing general departments will be divided into 15 smaller units responsible for everything from training and logistics to punishing corrupt officers and ensuring soldiers get sufficient education in Marxist ideology. They will all report directly to the Central Military Commission, a Communist Party body led by Xi.

“It may be that this is a means for Xi to increase his support within the PLA, as all these new general officer billets will be filled with his people,” said Cheng.

One thing Xi has made clear: He has no plans to transfer control over the PLA to the government from the party, something foreign military experts say is needed to professionalize the services.