Is China’s military ready to fight Asia’s next major war? Over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made tremendous progress in modernizing its weapons and platforms, with notable advances ranging from precision-guided missiles to surface ships to cyber and space capabilities. However, progress has eluded the PLA in another area: becoming a modern joint force. The unique capabilities resident in its four services (the army, navy, air force, and rocket force, in addition to the new Strategic Support Force) still cannot be effectively combined to carry out complex military operations, such as island landings, blockades, and joint missile strikes. Yet those are exactly the types of missions that the PLA might need to carry out in future conflicts against highly-capable opponents. PLA organizational reforms implemented in 2016 reduced some roadblocks to greater jointness, but problems remain including ground force dominance and an officer corps with limited joint expertise. A key task for PLA reform is trying to reduce these obstacles. Are they up to the challenge?
Historically, the PLA has been a “green” military — organized, trained, and manned to conduct ground combat missions, such as repelling a land invasion and ensuring domestic stability. Two key changes have created the need for the PLA to become more “purple” (a term used in the U.S. military to denote jointness). First is the changing character of war. Most advanced militaries have become more joint over the last few decades, resulting in operational successes such as the 1991 Gulf War — in which U.S. forces used land, sea, and airpower together with stunning lethality. This success required the ability to share intelligence and information freely across the services. Watching from China, the PLA knew it had to adapt or be left behind. Second is the expanded missions the PLA faces in response to changing security threats. Challenges posed by the Taiwan independence movement in particular drove the PLA to pay more attention to joint operations like amphibious assaults and blockades. The PLA also needed to find ways to counter potential U.S. involvement in and beyond Taiwan.
Prodded by these imperatives, the PLA made some initial strides towards jointness in the 1990s and 2000s. First, the PLA developed new doctrine for joint campaigns and produced new educational materials in the joint operational arts for its officers. Second, PLA training increasingly included combined arms and long-distance maneuvers, though true joint training (involving in-depth cooperation between multiple services) remained relatively infrequent and superficial. Third, the PLA experimented with a joint logistics system to reduce supply chain inefficiencies. Fourth, new tactical networks were introduced to ensure that PLA units from different regions and branches could communicate on the battlefield. Nevertheless, progress under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao was limited because of weak civilian leadership and strong resistance from those, such as the PLA ground forces, that would have had to sacrifice autonomy and resources to build a joint force.
After Xi Jinping became Central Military Commission chairman in late 2012, the PLA took aim at the remaining obstacles to jointness. As we discuss in a new National Defense University monograph, based in part on discussions with senior PLA officers over the past year-and-a-half, an initial tranche of reforms led by Xi focused on reorganizing the PLA to improve its joint operations capabilities. A centerpiece was establishing a joint command-and-control system that will operate in both peacetime and wartime. This overturned the previous system in which naval and air forces reported to their respective service headquarters during peacetime, while ad hoc joint headquarters would have been hastily set up during a crisis. Other changes included the creation of a Strategic Support Force that will consolidate space and cyber functions, and a Joint Logistics Support Force that will ensure the flow of supplies. Both organizations will likely be useful to joint commanders during wartime.
These organizational changes remove some impediments to jointness, but a key remaining obstacle lies in the PLA force design and personnel. PLA force structure is still weighted heavily to the ground forces. The army represents about 70 percent of the PLA’s 2.3 million active duty personnel (compared to only 35 percent in the U.S. military). Most senior command and staff billets continue to be filled by army officers, which limits the PLA’s ability to draw on the unique expertise and experience of naval and air force officers. Another weakness is in the educational arena. PLA officers are only exposed to joint warfighting concepts late in their careers, if at all. By contrast, all U.S. officers are given multiple exposure to joint coursework beginning in the middle of their careers, as required by law. Finally, the PLA does not have a joint assignment system. Most officers spend almost all their careers working in one service, and often only in one place. There is no requirement to serve in “joint billets” with officers from other services to secure promotion. In short, the PLA still lacks what might be called a culture of jointness. A major focus of PLA reform in the next couple years will be reducing these impediments. That will likely include some significant changes.
Rebalancing from the Army to the Other Services
In September 2015, Xi Jinping announced that the PLA’s size would be reduced from 2.3 to 2 million. Most likely, the heaviest cuts will be to the ground forces. The navy and air force, by contrast, will grow in relative terms and might increase in absolute terms as well. According to one unofficial report, for instance, the PLA marine corps will expand as much as five-fold. PLA army reserve forces will also decrease while the reserve components of the other services will expand.
Elevating Non-Army Offices
Although a majority of senior PLA leaders will continue to wear green uniforms, an increasing number of navy and air force officers will occupy key billets. An initial example was the recent promotion of former North Sea Fleet commander Yuan Yubai to become the head of China’s Southern Theater Command, the joint command responsible for the South China Sea.
Bolstering Joint Education
During a visit to the PLA National Defense University in March 2016, Xi Jinping laid down a marker when he highlighted the importance of training officers “capable of leading joint warfare.” This will likely result in more extensive requirements for joint education, including for junior-level officers.
Revamping the Assignment and Promotion System
PLA interviewees note that China’s military is considering revising the personnel system so that officers have more opportunities (and possibly requirements) to work in joint billets and to serve in different places. If coupled with changes in the promotion system, this should produce officers with a wider range of experience, including assignments in joint headquarters where they would learn how to work with officers from other services. This would be an important change. The U.S. military only developed a true culture of jointness when joint assignments were mandated as part of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.
The Big Hurdles
The major challenge for Xi and his fellow reformers will be overcoming resistance to these changes from within the PLA. Rebalancing the services, adjusting the criteria for promotion, instituting new educational requirements, and updating the personnel system all impact the interests of the services (especially the army) as well as individual officers. As Xi is certainly aware, prior PLA reforms often suffered due to the unwillingness of some in the PLA to sacrifice their “iron rice bowls” for the greater good. Another potential challenge is inter-service rivalry, which could increase as PLA budget growth continues to decline. To counter potential resistance, Xi will rely on a mix of carrots and sticks. Key incentives could include ensuring job security for senior officers, providing compensation (such as guaranteed civilian employment) for lower level officers who do lose their jobs, and cultivating support for reform “winners” outside the ground forces through additional funding and promotions. The major disincentive to opposition will be the threat of punishment. Over the past five years, the PLA has carried out an anti-corruption campaign targeting graft in key sectors, such as the logistics and personnel systems. This has already snared several senior officers, including former Central Military Commission Vice Chairmen Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. In addition to cleaning up corruption, that campaign might also deter opposition to reform and remove key opponents. A major reshuffling of officers set to occur later this year will also provide a chance to remove or sideline those not fully on board with the reforms.
The success of the next phase of reform will depend on Xi’s continued personal involvement. So far, Xi has demonstrated commitment in a variety of ways: making more appearances at PLA events than Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, devoting more of his time to PLA issues, and by expending political capital to target officers like Guo and Xu (both appointed by Xi’s predecessor). A loss of focus by Xi or his successor, expected to become Central Military Commission chairman in 2022, could lead to a stalled transition towards a more joint PLA. Such an outcome wouldn’t be surprising: Jointness in the U.S. military after World War II came about in fits and starts, with persistent problems of inter-service collaboration on display in cases such as the 1980 failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran. U.S. reforms only succeeded when top civilian leaders were committed to the process — most notably as a result of Congress’s intervention in the 1980s.
Assuming sustained attention by Xi, what might be the implications for the United States and its allies and partners? First, a more “purple” PLA would pose a greater “anti-access/area denial” threat to U.S. forces. Greater inter-service cooperation, effective joint command mechanisms, and a more capable officer corps could all improve the PLA’s ability to carry out operations targeting U.S. forces, such as coordinated missile strikes against U.S. surface ships. Second, others in the region could face a more potent potential adversary. For instance, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces could face a PLA better able to blockade key sea lanes in the South China Sea, or to conduct an amphibious assault in the Senkakus. Third, Taiwan will have to wrestle with a PLA better able to deter unwanted political moves by Taipei and carry out operations, such as blockades and island landings, that threaten the island’s security. Overall, a more joint PLA could alter a regional military balance already moving in China’s favor.
Washington needs to respond, in the first instance, by ensuring continued improvements in jointness in the U.S. military — the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, for instance, supported this goal by clarifying the role of the combatant commands, elevating the status of U.S. Cyber Command, and other steps. U.S. defense planners also need to incorporate ongoing PLA changes into their assessments, paying special attention to how “software” upgrades in PLA organization, training, and personnel affect PLA operational capabilities. One ideal place to do this is in the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military, but policymakers should also support open source resource by think tanks and academic experts. Finally, the U.S. military needs to work with its allies and partners to identify new operational challenges posed by a more capable PLA and to develop effective responses. That requires continued high-level commitment to defense and intelligence cooperation with other Asia-Pacific militaries.
Joel Wuthnow is a Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs (CSCMA) at the National Defense University (NDU). Phillip C. Saunders is the Director of CSCMA. The views expressed in this essay are the authors’ own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.