Walk, Don’t Run: Chinese Military Reforms in 2017


Both [Iraqi Security Forces’] tactical and institutional performance is improving. They must now be tied together. The big challenge in 2008 will be finding an adequate number of leaders to lead this institution that is large and increasingly capable. We’ve been growing young second lieutenants through the military academies for about three years, but it’s really difficult to grow majors, lieutenant colonels and brigadier generals. It simply can’t be done overnight [emphasis added].

Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Statement before the House Armed Services Subcommittee On Oversight and Investigations, June 12, 2007


Over the past year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) started implementing a series of major changes to its national and theater (regional) levels of command, the “institutions” that plan, command, and sustain joint operations. With no modern combat experience in complex combined arms or joint operations and according to conclusions found in their own self-examinations, the maturation of the PLA’s command structure has not kept pace with the new weapons and capabilities that have entered the force over the past two decades. The fundamental factor in building these new headquarters is improving the quality of commanders and staff personnel, a complex process, which as Gen. Dempsey noted, does not happen quickly in any military force.

The current batch of reforms are the latest phase in a multi-decade, multi-dimensional military modernization process begun in the late 1970s. More changes and modifications will be necessary to accomplish the goal of completing military modernization by the mid-21st century (year 2049). The senior PLA leadership is sober in its assessment about the force’s progress over the past four decades and the tasks remaining ahead. It realizes that time and adjustments to the PLA’s operational mindset and leadership style are as important for modernization as are new equipment and increased defense budgets.

As the PLA evolves toward a more maritime-oriented force and away from its traditional army-heavy continental defense structure, it requires a more joint command structure. The changes underway seek to remedy multiple shortcomings identified for years in the Chinese military literature. If successful, these reforms will mark a final break from the Soviet system adopted in the 1950s, but for many reasons, the PLA will not adhere strictly to an American or other western organizational model.

All services of the PLA aim to improve their joint and combined arms capabilities to accomplish the missions of strategic deterrence, warfighting, and military operations other than war. Despite the new equipment entering the force and its new command structure, the Chinese military leadership at all levels acknowledges a multitude of deficiencies relative to other advanced militaries that the PLA must continue to overcome.

In the coming year, a different set of changes will be made in units at the operational and tactical levels. The army is set to bear the brunt of most personnel and force structure cuts. At the same time, the smaller army is building “new types of combat forces” and capabilities that allow it to contribute to maritime operations and campaigns beyond China’s land borders. After force structure adjustments are accomplished, new cycles of joint training to hone the integration of capabilities from all services can be expected.

A Brief Review of Reforms to Date

The Central Military Commission (CMC), led by Chairman Xi Jinping and 10 senior generals, remains as the highest command and policymaking organization for China’s armed forces. Its previously small staff has been greatly expanded to 15 joint, functional departments, commissions, and offices, taking over the responsibilities and much of the personnel from the former four General Departments (General Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armament), which were disbanded in early 2016. So far, however, the composition of the 11-member CMC has not changed but is likely to be adjusted around the time of the 19th Party Congress in 2017.

A new national-level army headquarters has been formed (previously the four General Departments acted as the army headquarters and somewhat as a joint staff) and is organizationally equivalent to the other PLA services, the navy, air force, and the newly established “Rocket Force,” which was upgraded from an independent branch of the army. In addition, the CMC created a new Strategic Support Force and Joint Logistics Support Force. The former is responsible for national-level space, electronic warfare, and cyber operations, while the latter provides general-purpose finance, housing, uniforms, food, transportation, and medical support for all services.

The former seven Military Regions have been abolished and five joint Theater Commands (East, South, West, North, and Central) established. Previously Military Regions were staffed almost exclusively by army officers and commanded army units in peace and war and, during emergency or war, could also employ navy and air force units as required. Navy units were assigned to three fleets (North, East, and South) and air force units to Military Region Air Forces, which reported to their respective national headquarters. Military Regions also organized and supervised the majority of joint training throughout the force.

In time of war or crisis, Military Region headquarters would transform into joint war zone or theater (zhanqu) headquarters, structured for the specific mission assigned. Additional command and staff personnel could be sent from Beijing to assist these ad hoc joint headquarters. The new Theater Commands, as permanent joint organizations, are intended to minimize any disruption during the transition from peacetime to crisis/wartime footing. With the primary function of the Theater Commands directed toward operations, the power of the former Military Region commanders, who some analysts considered as having too much autonomy from central authority, has been greatly curtailed.

An important new headquarters also has been created: each Theater Command has a subordinate army headquarters to match the other theater services headquarters (the three fleets and five theater air force headquarters). Theater service headquarters are the key intermediate links in the chain of command from the CMC to the theaters for joint combat and contingency operations and the service headquarters in Beijing for “construction” (such as personnel, education, equipping and maintaining units, and basic and functional training) to the operational forces in each service. Rocket Force units remain subordinate to their national headquarters in Beijing, but conventional units could temporarily be assigned to support theater operations. There is considerable overlap of responsibilities among the old and new headquarters. It will likely take several training and operational deployment cycles to trouble-shoot the system to ensure that planning and orders from the various headquarters do not conflict with each other.

The 15 elements directly subordinate to the CMC and the five Theater Command headquarters are joint organizations, manned by staff personnel from all services, including the Rocket Force. Throughout 2016, Theater Command headquarters conducted training to prepare officers assigned to joint headquarters to handle their new responsibilities, which now extend beyond their own service experience.

The senior leadership of the new joint organizations, however, is currently made up primarily of army officers, with a few exceptions. In order to truly develop a joint force, non-army officers are expected to eventually assume a larger percentage of senior leadership and staff billets. One challenge which may slow this development is the need to formalize and implement a PLA-wide program to develop joint-qualified officers through education, training, and assignments. Over the past decade the Military Regions and services experimented in preparing officers for joint assignments by attending academies of other services and temporary duty in units of other services. Some codification of these experiences and promulgation to the entire force is likely to occur in the future.

The national and theater level headquarters reorganization resulted in an unknown number of personnel reductions from the disbanded staffs. Many more personnel and force structure cuts are necessary in 2017 in order to finish the 300,000-man reduction announced by Xi Jinping in 2015. Several group armies, divisions, and brigades likely are targets for elimination or transformation into smaller or different types of units. Some redistribution of billets and units from the army to the other services is possible to better balance the proportions among the services. For example, the army’s two amphibious infantry divisions and one amphibious armored brigade could be transferred to the navy to expand the PLA’s marine forces. Such an expansion would probably require the concurrent transfer of a corps-level headquarters element for command and control and, perhaps, some artillery and helicopter units for support. Additionally, though most of the personnel in the Strategic Support Force and Joint Logistics Support Force wear army uniforms, disaggregating their numbers from the army would further help reduce the army’s predominance. Nonetheless, even if all the 300,000 cuts are applied to the army and additional personnel are reassigned to other services, the army will still remain the largest of the four services with over half of the PLA’s soon-to-be 2 million active duty soldiers.

Reasons for Reform

Contrary to the muscular musings of many Chinese military media pundits, the PLA’s senior leadership is much more realistic and moderate in its assessments of China’s military capabilities relative to advanced foreign forces. Within the Chinese-language military literature official, authoritative commentary and writings and interviews of senior national-level leaders as well as operational commanding officers frequently point to major shortcomings in the force and problems discovered in training that must be corrected.

Often assessments of capabilities are attributed to statements made by the CMC chairman, such as Hu Jintao or Xi Jinping, and expressed in a formulaic manner, abbreviated to a catch-phrase often consisting of a combination of a number and a few descriptive words. The generalities in these slogans are backed up by a large body of additional evidence often buried in longer articles describing various accomplishments. This commentary is likely the basis of many political study sessions held within units at all levels. The ultimate purpose of these internal critiques is to motivate the troops and encourage them to work harder in the PLA’s arduous process of military modernization not to enlighten (or deceive) foreign observers. By examining several of these self-evaluations, it is possible to understand the motivations behind the ongoing reforms.

None of these assessments have ever been included in an official defense white paper targeted at foreign audiences and only rarely do they get translated into official English-language media translations. For example, a July 2016 article discussing Xi’s “dream of building a strong army” contained the following paragraph:

But the modernization level of the Chinese army is inadequate to safeguard national security, and it lags far behind advanced global peers. The Chinese army is not capable enough of waging modern warfare, and officers lack command skills for modern warfare.

Though exact English translations of the terminology may vary, the first sentence is known in Chinese as the “two large gaps” (liange chaju henda) and emphasizes a general lack of PLA capabilities compared to potential unnamed foes, while the second sentence refers to the “two inabilities” (liange nengli bugou), which reinforce the gap between PLA capabilities and the requirements of modern war, but also identifies major leadership problems in PLA officers. Both of these assessments can be traced back to at least 2013 (after Xi assumed the CMC chair), and they update general assessments from the Hu Jintao era.

Beginning in 2015, the frequent appearance of a new formula, the “five cannots” (wuge buhui), underscores problems in combat leaders. Specifically, it states that “some commanders” cannot 1) judge the situation, 2) understand the intention of higher authorities, 3) make operational decisions, 4) deploy troops, and 5) deal with unexpected situations. This is a remarkably stark evaluation of both small unit and higher level operational leaders and an indictment of the PLA’s training, education, and assignment systems. Despite being directed at “some” commanders, leadership problems are widespread enough that the 2016 series of “Stride” and “Firepower” brigade-level, army trans-regional exercises specifically were aimed at “solving” the “five cannots” problem.

Improving the abilities of officers at all levels to perform both command and staff duties has been a perennial training emphasis. This goal, too, has been given formulaic treatment of “in training soldiers, train officers [or generals] first.”

Recently, the PLA has focused on training commanders and their staffs in all services to command and control both joint and combined arms operations. Yet, some officers  are still criticized for not being willing to use new forces assigned to them, while others, usually at battalion or brigade level, complain of not being trained adequately to command and coordinate the actions of units from different branches. The lack of staff officers at the battalion level compounds this problem but may resolved through experiments assigning staff officers and non-commissioned officers to assist battalion command personnel. Standardizing the composition of the battalion staff will be a major step in making combined arms battalions the “basic combat unit” capable of independent actions on the battlefield, a goal defined nearly a decade ago. In September 2016, one infantry brigade reportedly began a certification process to ensure its battalion commanders are ready to conduct combined arms operations and further established requirements for leaders from brigade to squad level.

Many of these issues were summarized in an April 2016 English-language article which quoted a researcher in the Human Resources Department at the Xi’an Political Academy:

… [Military reform] must address the shortage of officers who have a deep knowledge of joint combat operations and advanced equipment…. We have developed and deployed many cutting-edge weapons, including some that are the best in the world, but there are not enough soldiers to use many of those advanced weapons…. In some cases, soldiers lack knowledge and expertise to make the best use of their equipment.

For decades, the PLA has looked to its training program to identify and solve problems inhibiting its combined arms and joint capabilities. Increasing training realism is always at the top of its priorities. Nonetheless, in June 2016, CMC Vice Chairman Gen. Fan Changlong “warned against formalism and fraud in military training and exercises” in articles in both Chinese and English. Despite the PLA’s official policy to make training more like combat, some commanders and staff continue to game the system to make themselves look good by falsifying data or lessening requirements.

Most of the criticisms cited above involve army units, but similar evaluations apply also to the other services and to additional functional shortcomings such as logistics support and in night combat. When possible, official Chinese English-language translations were referenced above, but for every English translation scores of similar evaluations can be found in official Chinese-language sources. Though the PLA faces many organizational, technological, and training challenges, the key factor necessary to rectify these shortcomings is improving the skills of its officer and emerging non-commissioned officer corps.


Chinese military writings frequently summarize the challenges facing the PLA as breaking “Big Army” thinking. Nearly 90 years of army-dominance now is recognized as hindering the development of joint operational capabilities, especially in the maritime, air, and space domains. The organizational reforms underway are a major step in diminishing the influence of the army, but are insufficient by themselves. Major changes are also required in doctrine, personnel policy, professional military education, and training. As the PLA breaks the “Big Army,” the other services will rise in prominence and in size relative to the army. In time, it is likely that senior navy or air force officers will become Theater Command leaders and more joint exercises and operations will be commanded by non-army officers and joint staffs. But, fully implementing these changes will take longer than the 2020 target date for completion of the latest round of organizational reform.

The recently announced decision to “build a rank-centered military officer system” is potentially an important development if it provides non-army officers additional pathways to higher level joint command and staff assignments. It may also presage reform at the battalion level where (consistent with the former Soviet system) majors with 12 or less years of service usually have been assigned as commanders and political instructors and designate lieutenant colonels to fill these increasingly essential billets. However, this is speculation as the details of a “rank-centered” system have yet to been revealed.

What is certain, however, is that a capable PLA army will continue to be indispensable for China’s strategic deterrence posture and for defense of its land borders. Moreover, the service aims to enhance capabilities that can contribute to joint operations beyond the mainland. For example, army commanders now have a variety of means to strike opponents out to 150 kilometers beyond their front lines, including long-range multiple rocket launchers and artillery, attack helicopters, special operations teams, electronic warfare, possibly cyber weapons, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Joint trans-regional division and brigade exercises over the past decade are preparing units for contingencies outside the regions where they are based. These new army capabilities are supported by an ever-expanding array of ground, air, and space reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to locate and identify potential targets. Integrating new military capabilities, along with support from the civilian sector, into a larger whole is the now the focus of doctrinal development and is often expressed by the mathematical formula 1 + 1 > 2.

The tranche of reforms that began in late 2015 is but the latest step in the PLA’s long-term process of modernization. New problems are identified as every change is implemented and during every training cycle, resulting in the need for more modifications to plans and procedures. The senior PLA leadership is fully aware of the challenges confronting the force, as well as an assortment of other problems, such as corruption, economic growth, and demographics, that are shared by all Chinese leaders. Notwithstanding China’s assertive or aggressive activities in the region, now and for several years into the future, the PLA leadership likely is not looking to test the degree of success that military reform has achieved by initiating unprovoked direct combat operations against a determined opponent, especially one allied with or backed by the U.S. military.


Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), served 23 years as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. Mr. Blasko served as an Army attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1992-1996; in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and Korea; and in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency and Headquarters Department of the Army (Office of Special Operations). Mr. Blasko graduated from the United States Military Academy and Naval Postgraduate School and is the author of the book, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century.