Major’s Squad Discusses The Capabilities Of The Chinese Army

Major's Squad

Sep 08, 2020, 09:19 PM | Updated 09:19 PM IST

People’s Liberation Army
People’s Liberation Army
  • In this part, Major’s Squad dissects the actual capabilities of the PLA.
  • The core team got together today to not only discuss the capabilities of the Chinese Army, but also how to start making podcasts and videos, the inaugural one of which was launched a few days back.

    It was going to be an interesting chat. Major asked everyone to settle down and opened with “Gentlemen, let us have a focussed discussion today, and feel free to bring in all the tech and hardware related info you want to bring on the table.

    I’d like to open this with an idea on how the Chinese Army is structuring itself. The Chinese have declared that they have reorganised their military set-up into theatre commands.

    These commands further have group armies which control mechanised Infantry divisions.

    However, these are stated to have been reorganised into combined arms brigades — which will typically operate with a mix of Infantry, Artillery and armoured assets, plus support elements.

    The divisional units will be available as support and can be attached to specific areas for either break-through, defence or support.

    As the division finds itself requiring more support, additional independent artillery or air defence brigades are made available.

    On paper, this seems to be a very capable force; however, how it operates in actual conflict is yet to be seen.

    The overall ORBAT figures for either side show a rough parity, with the Belfer study showing both sides fielding around 200,000-230,000 troops in the Leh area now, but the Indian side's troops are positioned closer, and are likely more battle-hardened and terrain acclimatised.

    In terms of equipment, the Indian Army mostly has equally capable equipment such as its T-90s, BMP-2s and well equipped signals and support units.

    But the PRC advantage lies in the fact they have heavily mechanised their Infantry battalions, allowing for a greater level of tactical mobility once the battle moves beyond the mountains, passes and choke points, into the plains of Ladakh.

    The IA needs to look at this on priority. Here, let me give you an idea of Chinese structure and ORBAT.

    Firestarter interjected with “Agreed, Sir. Also, the IA has to prepare for the fact that it needs to focus more on command and control in a heavy countermeasures environment and add more artillery firepower.

    The integral Air Defence fielded by PRC units would require AD suppression missions by the IAF, but suppressing mobile artillery would be far harder for them.

    It would also cover up for the time on target challenges likely to be faced by the IAF as they grapple with dispersed operations and logistical issues caused by PRC's attempts to use missile attacks to suppress IAF bases in turn.

    Similarly, the IA's AD network needs to be supported even more, with the DRDO Quick Reaction Surface-to-Air Missile (QRSAM) offering a good answer for suppressing any PLAAF attempt to use airpower, either helicopter or fixed wing.

    With the QRSAM system headed for user trials, its trials and induction process should be expedited.

    The Army is also looking for light tanks — these make perfect sense to cover up for the mobility challenges faced by heavier T-72 and T-90 units.

    They will allow the IA to rapidly support Infantry units for either defence or even breakthrough and exploitation, plus offer a counter to the PRC's light tanks.

    The Russian Sprut series units make logistical sense with their main armament-sharing common ammunition with T 72/90 (125 mm Gun), though it is very likely that a domestic equivalent developed by the DRDO and L&T consortium using a proven advanced turret either from a western OEM or the T-90s would likely add more combat capability and would also be more supportable. A mixed purchase could be contemplated.”

    Anshul added, “I think India has options but the Government of India has to provide the budgetary support to equip the forces accordingly, while the IA, too, has to think of moving beyond an Infantry-centric strategy and think of using domestic options to win the firepower battle. Domestic artillery, command and control, plus missiles, can swing the conflict far more than limited imports. The PRC threat is not going away anytime soon and will only escalate.”

    Mihir raised his hand to Anshul to intervene and said, “Understanding enemy Army is not just about its hardware. We need to have a deeper knowledge on its ideology and what drives them.

    Major replied, “But we did have a detailed discussion on the same in our previous session. Please do add if you have something.”

    Mihir says “Sure, Sir. The modern People’s Liberation Army has been profoundly shaped by the lessons of Operation Desert Storm. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the PLA remained a force that relied on mass and numerical superiority to deter its principal adversaries: The United States and the Soviet Union. The speed at which the Iraqi military collapsed in the face of the Allied offensive, however, forced the PLA’s leadership to confront the idea that the quality of equipment, networked systems, and precision munitions would beat sheer mass and raw volume of firepower on the modern battlefield.

    In the years that followed, the PLA gradually evolved into a military that, in many ways, replicated the military, and in others, applied its own unique thinking and philosophies to the question of war.

    The product is the PLA’s theory of “systems warfare”: it envisions war not as a 'mere' clash between uniformed armies in a physical battle space, but as a confrontation between a continuum of operational systems that span multiple domains: land, air, sea, space, cyberspace, psychological and political.

    As such, it seeks to build a well-balanced ‘operational system’ that can comprehensively dominate the enemy's counterpart.

    The path to victory is not through the annihilation of the enemy's forces, but is achieved by degrading/destroying the enemy's operational system and forcing a collapse.

    In the physical battlespace, this manifests itself as the ability to carry out rapid strikes on enemy command centres, communications nodes, and logistics nodes to bring about a disruption in the enemy’s operational tempo.

    In the non-physical space, it sees itself waging what it calls an ‘informatised war’⁠— via electronic, cyber, and psychological warfare.

    The intent is to degrade the enemy’s information system and disrupt its decision cycle.”

    Firestarter was nodding his head on every word and immediately said, “To that end, the PLA was forced through a series of rapid reforms, not just to its equipment, but also to its organisation and leadership. The most profound series of reforms commenced in 2015, planned and executed by a high-level body set up directly under the Central Military Commission.

    These reforms reduced manpower, re-structured the traditional “military regions” into NATO-style joint “theatre commands”, and re-trained senior officers by the hundreds⁠ — educating them in new technologies, and methods of war, in dedicated training centres.

    At the same time, the country’s growing industrial strength was leveraged to develop and procure modern equipment, including fighter aircraft, combat vehicles, naval vessels, drones, a slew of land-attack missiles, and more.

    The same issue of structuring and restructuring comes out of this thinking and planning, which I was trying to say earlier.”

    Major added, “See guys, many components of the PLA’s warfighting system are aspirational. In particular, its theories of victory are a work-in-progress, many aspects of its doctrine are being debated and fine-tuned, and the command structures to wage this new form of war are still being set up and refined.

    Its recent conduct in the confrontation with the Indian military in Ladakh was characteristic of the old PLA⁠ — using mass to achieve local superiority and melee weapons to inflict casualties.

    Further, its attempts at psychological operations and information war were amateurish, often coming under ridicule for ham-fistedness and a lack of subtlety.

    There was little-to-no evidence of a refined, well-drilled military successfully dominating a continuum of domains in a systems confrontation, as Mihir clearly stated”.

    Anshul jumped in saying, “But Sir, we must also not forget that the PLARF is the undisputed world leader in terms of land-based missiles. According to a 2019 report released by the United States Department of Defence (DOD), the land-based missile force is undergoing significant increase in numbers, in almost all categories.

    In terms of conventional warfighting, the PLARF is responsible for conducting medium- and long-range precision strikes, with land-based conventional missiles against key strategic and operational targets of the enemy.”

    Mihir said, “And that is why, in contrast to the rapid reforms being thrust upon the PLA, the Indian military appears to have been stuck in a time warp, with very few options to fight a sub-conventional campaign that straddles the thin line between peace and war.

    In a recent paper by Arzan Tarapore, he argues that that the Army finds itself hamstrung by an ‘orthodox offensive’ doctrine that seeks to impose costs on an adversary through the capture of territory.

    Further, he asserts that within this framework, the Army is overwhelmingly geared towards carrying out classical combined-arms offensives, in a handful of chosen sectors while holding the line in most others.

    As such, it lacks the theoretical framework and the tools to effectively counter and coerce a modern adversary that wages ‘war’ across multiple domains.”

    Major said, “Brilliant points, Mihir! I want to go back to the missile capability that Anshul was talking about. Let’s hear more about it.”

    Anshul said, “Roger that, Sir! China fields roughly 750-1500 SRBMs, 150-400 MRBMs , 80-160 IRBMs , 90-100 ICBMs and 270-540 GLCMs. While the variation in their missile inventory is bewildering, I will try and limit this discussion to those missiles which are likely to be employed in a Sino-Indian conflict.

    Here, everyone can have a look at this table:

    1. Surface-to-Surface missiles go by the acronym DF (Dongfeng).

    2. Sea-launched missiles go by the acronym JL (Ju Lang).

    3. Cruise missiles go by the acronym CJ (Chang Jian).

    Anshul continued, “It is believed that DF-11, DF-15, DF-16 and DF-17 carry only conventional warheads. DF-21, DF-26 and CJ-10 are capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional warheads, while DF-31, DF-41, DF-5 and JL-2 are purely meant for nuclear strike role.

    The PLARF is organised into bases, sometimes called armies, with each base commanding a number of brigades, and each brigade commanding a number of battalions.

    As a rule of thumb, each base operates between 3 and 5 brigades, with a mix of conventional and nuclear-capable brigades in each.”

    Major asked him, “Anshul, do you have anything more pictorial that we can use, to understand the ranges, specially with respect to India?”

    Anshul got up saying, "Yes, Sir, let's have a look at this map.”

    And, he hung a map on the wall.

    Mihir exclaimed, “This helps understand better. And also, how it puts India in the range of Chinese missiles.”

    Firestarter asked, “Doesn’t PLARF have operational command over the conventional missiles and act in coordination with the theatre command to employ these assets? However, nuclear missiles remain in the exclusive control of the Central Military Commission.”

    Anshul replied, “Yes! But each brigade has a dedicated Warhead Transport Battalion based near major railheads. These battalions also have hundreds of vehicles to transport warheads, with multiple vehicles leaving the brigade HQ to confuse enemy surveillance.

    The Central Base Depot, which stores warheads, is strategically located inside Mount Taibai among the Qin Mountains in Central China. The underground complex is protected from blasts by granite, and from intrusion by infrared surveillance, video cameras, fingerprint access control and face recognition.

    The concept of a central storage location reflects Chinese nuclear policy and the Central Military Commission’s interest in maintaining control of China’s nuclear weapons.”

    Major said, pointing at the map, that, “PLARF employs deception tactics by keeping Nuclear Warheads Rail Mobile at all times to ensure survivability against a Nuclear First Strike. As part of a deterrence strategy, nuclear warheads are moved back and forth from Taibai to missile bases by railroads, roads and by air. Nuclear warheads are uniquely numbered and can only be mated to a uniquely-numbered missile.

    China has been seeking to increase the credibility of its nuclear retaliatory capability by dispersing and concealing its nuclear forces in difficult terrain, improving their mobility, and hardening its missile silos.”

    Anshul continued, “Very true, Sir! But coming back to the capability part, I would like to go over some details here. The DF-26 missile is believed to be targeted at US PACOM bases and assets in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

    The DF-31, DF-41 and DF-5 are assumed to be targeted at North America and Europe. The DF-11, DF-15 and DF-16 are mostly targeted at Taiwan and Japan. Despite being committed to important targets globally, a third of their conventional missile inventory can be repurposed against important army bases, C2 Nodes, air bases, ammunition dumps and missile storage sites in Northern, Central and Eastern India.

    The CJ-10 ALCM is invariably carried by the H-6 Long Range Bombers, which have been routinely seen in Hotan and Kashgar.

    However, the CJ-10 LACM and the DF Series SRBMs can be launched from multiple sites near the LAC in Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan, Yunnan and Qinghai.

    Also, the JL-2 missile is carried by the PLAN Type-94 Submarine. The Type 094 is armed with 12 JL-2 SLBMs, each with an estimated range of 8,000-9,000 km. Each missile carries one warhead.

    The Type 094 and JL-2 is China's first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.

    The Type 094 is expected to reach mid-Pacific undetected and launch multiple JL-2 against targets in the United States.

    However, the Type 94 can be easily repurposed to strike targets in India from multiple locations in the Indian Ocean.”

    Major got up and said, “That was great, Anshul. Thanks for this excellent and detailed info. I guess we can call it a day! It was indeed a great discussion, as always. For the next time, I want to shift gears a little and have a chat on the ongoing Abraham Accord. It will be great to review what’s happening in our extended neighbourhood. In geopolitics, nothing is either simple or clear, as it seems. Let us have a chat next time on how the new alliances in the Middle East impact us, especially given the Indo-China standoff. Jai Hind!”

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