Combing Through an Invaluable Resource on the People’s Liberation Army


Kevin Pollpeter and Kenneth W. Allen, eds., The PLA as Organization v2.0 (Vienna, VA: Defense Group Inc., 2015).


One of the great tragedies to befall a new book is to be overtaken by events within weeks of its publication. The greatest tragedy, however, is for an excellent book to be ignored because the novelty of new developments wrongly suggests the past is no longer pertinent to the present. The launch of wide-ranging Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) restructuring at the end of November may lead some would-be readers and China specialists away from The People’s Liberation Army as Organization v2.0. Nothing could be worse for developing a meaningful appreciation for what is occurring in China and its military. As the PLA moves forward with its most dramatic restructuring in a half century, detailed understanding of its organization will prove critical in the coming months as external observers try to track the reforms.

For the next few months and possibly years, watching the PLA will become more difficult and time-consuming. The PLA always has been more transparent than it has been given credit for being — so long as Chinese-language resources were used — but the organizational overhaul underway could force analysts to rebuild their databases nearly from scratch. For example, the PLA uses Military Unit Cover Designators (MUCDs) to publish information about units separate from their unit name. The most famous of these MUCDs is Unit 61398, a component of the PLA General Staff Department’s Third Department, which conducts signals intelligence and computer network operations. The new organizations being created by the PLA will require new MUCDs, and the reorganization of existing formations may mix up the known sequences currently associated with particular departments. Building up the MUCD database is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process that often takes advantage of inadvertent leaks on the Chinese Internet and access to the now-shuttered internal military newspapers. The new-look PLA may stop using sequences or other clues that identify exactly what unit is associated with which top-level department.

If this sounds dense and complicated, that is because analyzing the PLA from open sources is a difficult task. Without these MUCDs, tracking important issues like training and the deployment of equipment becomes impossible. This is but one element of the grunt work that makes higher-level analysis possible. It is one thing to observe the latest acquisition of equipment — like China’s recent acquisition of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles — but an entirely different thing to identify where the equipment is deployed, for what purpose, and how ready the PLA is to use it.

The continuing importance and relevance of this work, despite capturing the PLA as it was circa 2012–2013, is twofold. First, this is a baseline work from which all organizational analysis of the emerging PLA can begin. Knowledge of its contents will help bridge the next few months or years of information scarcity and help make sense of the clues that will appear in PLA publications. Second, some parts of this volume, such as the chapter on the Ministry of National Defense, remain directly relevant to the PLA today without any further research or extrapolation. The PLA is changing, but some elements will remain the same or operate in the same capacity.

Like its predecessor published by RAND more than a decade ago, The PLA as Organization v2.0 covers the Chinese military’s principal organizations, such as the services and the four general departments, but adds the PLA’s most likely wartime command structure and an analysis of the People’s Armed Police. The editors also explicitly note that this book is intended to serve as a reference guide rather than a book to be read from cover to cover. The two most significant departures from and improvement over the original RAND volume are the disciplined inclusion of Chinese terminology for nearly everything, and the discussion of sources at the beginning of each chapter. There is no other place to find the formal Chinese names for nearly every organizational element in the PLA in addition to unit names, rank and grade, and much more.

One of the volume’s editors, former Assistant Air Attaché Kenneth Allen, opens the book with a chapter explaining the overarching elements of PLA structure and function, including administrative departments, party committees, and military regions. This chapter also provides a clear description of the PLA’s grade system (officer ranks are primarily for engaging foreign militaries) (pp. 10–15), civilians’ status within the PLA (p. 17), and how to identify PLA personnel by their uniforms (pp. 17–18). Other useful elements include a complete list of PLA educational institutions (pp. 32–39, 61–66) along with an appendix of key terminology and concepts that address the different levels of PLA structure from the Central Military Commission (CMC) down to the regiment (pp. 40–50). Perhaps even more than other elements of the volume, this opening chapter is descriptive and matter-of-fact; however, it provides the basic terminology that any analyst can use for detailed Chinese-language research. This chapter will continue to be relevant, because it address the organizational concepts connecting different levels of the PLA to one another.

Some of the organizational details in The PLA as Organization 2.0 can be found throughout other recent sources — such as Office of Naval Intelligence and National Air & Space Intelligence Center reports on the PLAN and PLAAF — but nowhere else can one find anything of substance on the Ministry of National Defense (MND). Four experienced authors, all current or former U.S. intelligence officials, combined their notes to investigate whether MND is a substantial organization in its own right or a shell organization for other PLA elements — what the Chinese call “one organization with two plaques” (yi ge jigou liang kuai paizi, 个机构两块牌子). The authors conclude the MND’s key function is to manage relations with non-PLA organizations, both domestically and abroad, allowing the PLA to “preserve its position as a self-referential and semi-independent ‘xitong’ (sub-system) within [China’s] power structure” (p. 87). Despite MND’s constitutional authority over military matters and its once-prominent position for so-called dual political-military elites like Lin Biao and Peng Dehuai, the party’s CMC actually performs the work of “commanding and managing the military” typically associated with ministries of defense (pp. 88–89). The authors also provide a comprehensive overview of MND’s organizational structure and its overlap with offices in various parts of the PLA as well as MND’s engagement with the outside world. They also conclude with a useful list of information gaps relating to the MND’s role in Chinese policymaking. Despite MND’s basic hollowness, the minister’s memberships in the CMC and State Council place him in many policymaking and coordinating groups (pp. 105–106). How MND’s role will evolve in the coming months remains unknown, but the increasing emphasis on military-civil integration suggests the MND could become a critical organization if Xi Jinping’s requested strategy becomes reality.

The next four chapters systematically address the General Staff Department (pp. 120–44), General Political Department (pp. 145–156), General Logistics Department (pp. 157–198), and the General Armament Department (pp. 199–234). If the General Political Department chapter is less comprehensive than The PLA as Organization v1.0 in explaining the department’s daily responsibilities and the role of political commissars, the depth and detail of the General Armament Department (GAD) chapter more than compensates for any shortcomings. This chapter offers substantial improvement because at the time of the first publication, the GAD was newly established and it was not clear how expansive the department’s responsibilities would be.

The GAD chapter illustrates the problem of ground force dominance in the PLA’s central institutions, which appears to be motivating Xi’s proposed creation of a separate ground forces’ headquarters. The GAD has focused on ground force, nuclear, and space technology research, development, and acquisition. No officer outside the ground forces ever became one of the many GAD deputy directors, and it appears the PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery manage their own equipment development and acquisition (pp. 199–200). The chapter also identifies the GAD’s subordinate bureaus and their functions, enumerating an alphabet soup of bureaucracies that range from the mundane to the unique Science and Technology Committee (kexue jishu weiyuanhui, 科学技术委员会), which now reports directly to the CMC. Led by a military region leader-grade officer, this committee reports directly to the CMC, employs a wide range of experts inside and outside the PLA, and oversees at least 51 expert groups that advise military leaders on a range of technology issues (pp. 201–202, 206–209). While, as in other chapters, ultimate judgment of the GAD’s effectiveness goes beyond the scope of the book, enough material is provided for intrepid researchers to begin evaluating the question.

The next four chapters explore the ground forces, PLAN, PLAAF, and Second Artillery (now the PLA Rocket Force). Each chapter chronicles the organizational evolution of each service. Both the ground forces and the PLAN chapters provide more up-to-date information than The Chinese Army Today and The Great Wall at Sea. The section on the Second Artillery explores the expansion of its capability and prestige. The services section also benefits from a short chapter on the People’s Armed Police, China’s paramilitary force founded in the 1980s and one of the key organizations for internal security.

The final chapter, by the Heritage Foundation’s Dean Cheng, addresses the PLA’s probable wartime structure as identified by Chinese military writings. The chapter’s structure follows PLA thinking, beginning with lessons learned about modern warfare being integrated into the PLA’s “military theory” (junshi lilun, 军事理论) “and from there to its organization” (p. 414). The discussion of military theory provides several key features of “local war under modern, high-technology conditions,” including high operational tempo, emphasis on joint operations, and the paramount importance of command, control, communications, and intelligence for all sides of a conflict. According to Cheng, these features lead to a doctrinal emphasis on “key point strikes” (zhongdian daji, 重点打击), because the military objective is now to paralyze the enemy rather than pursue a Clausewitzian war of annihilation (p. 415). To fight this kind of war, the PLA recognizes the need for new joint campaign structures, since China’s previous wars were ground force-centric and barely involved the PLAAF and PLAN (pp. 416–417). Lessons from the U.S. wars in the Balkans and Iraq have led to updates of PLA doctrinal regulations on the nature and organizational requirements of China’s next war. For example, “key point strikes” became “constrain the enemy with precision strikes” (jing da zhi di, 精打制敌). Also, the PLA, at least in writing, pushed for full integration not just of forces, but also of domains and battlespaces (pp. 423–427). According to Cheng, these beliefs necessitate new command structures (pp. 430–435), and the creation of the Strategic Support Force appears to validate Cheng’s analysis. The only comparable analysis with this kind of detail is the series of China Brief articles by retired Department of Defense analyst Kevin McCauley focusing on unit integration under these new concepts.

Cheng’s analysis is necessarily speculative, given that the precise command arrangements remain unknown, perhaps even within the PLA, after the dissolution of the military regions under the new reform regime. Chinese military writings written for open consumption focus on the underlying philosophy behind what the PLA wants to accomplish while refraining from identifying concrete organizational issues. Accordingly, Cheng and the other contributors do reference specific PLA guiding documents that have not been published in their entirety, such as “Essentials” (gangyao, 纲要) or “Regulations” (tiaoling, 条令) Occasionally, summaries of these important documents can be found in the PLA Daily or Xinhua. They are worth considering because they are official pronouncements about military policy rather than less authoritative analyses of military affairs.

The best use of The PLA as Organization v2.0 is in conjunction with a good service-specific book, such as The Chinese Army Today or The Great Wall at Sea. The organizational details and Chinese-language terminology in The PLA as Organization v2.0 combine well with their empirical data on history, equipment, doctrine, and missions. For those with Chinese language ability, many of the chapters contain appendices or otherwise mark useful terminology. This volume has been in the works for quite some time, and it was worth the wait.


Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation, and the author of Analyzing the Chinese Military: A Review Essay and Resource Guide on the People’s Liberation Army (2015) from which parts of this review are excerpted.


Photo credit: Dan