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Xi Jinping Wants A More High Tech PLA

October 29, 2017

PLA Type 99 tanks in 2015.

With the 19th CPC National Congress over and done with, Xi Jinping held court with the PLA’s top commanders on October 26, a Thursday, to reiterate the institution’s new goals. With Xi’s power totally consolidated after last week’s congress, which enshrined “Xi Jinping thought” in the constitution, China’s absolute ruler set medium and long-term benchmarks for the armed forces.

According to Xi the PLA’s adoption of information technology for their command structure along with mechanization should be completed in three years, with 2020 as their deadline. Another decade and a half is set for completing “modernization” that will end by 2035. These are in line with the 13th five-year plan of military development, Xi said. The generous timespan is remarkable for what it implies–an almost complete rebuilding of China’s military, whose current arsenal is already superior to most NATO countries and is unmatched in East Asia.

The details of Xi’s meeting on October 21 are in a press release from the Ministry of National Defense:

Xi said that during the past five years, the CMC has endeavored to build an army that follows the command of the CPC, is capable of winning battles and has a fine style of work.

It has been upholding the Party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces, innovating military strategy, governing the army by law and promoting civil-military integration.

Xi praised the 19th CPC National Congress a success, saying that by the year 2020, mechanization will be basically achieved, and the modernization of the national defense and armed forces should be basically completed by 2035.

Though the PLA’s current incarnation is far removed from its doldrums in the 1970s, when it was still reliant on raw numbers and combined arms operations, it isn’t a stretch to assume huge capability gaps are still plaguing its force structure. A lot of old equipment remains in service alongside token fourth and fifth-generation hardware. This is apparent with the air force, whose most modern aircraft are outnumbered by airframes built in the Mao era.

The PLAAF’s only long-range bomber, for example, is an old twin engine Soviet model with recent upgrades. There aren’t enough large transports either since China’s aerospace sector has only begun rolling out indigenous models like the four engine Y-20.

The army has its own hangups. Although capable of rapid deployment, there is substantial evidence pointing to a severe shortage in rotary assets. Its only attack helicopter, the Z-10, entered service a handful of years ago, arriving decades after so many other countries managed to do the same. Locally made helicopter transports aren’t any good since China keeps importing Russian Mi-17’s.

Even the PLAN isn’t without its shortcomings. While Chinese shipyards are now racing to launch complete carrier strike groups, the branch’s single aircraft carrier is not suited for combat. Taking note of these deficiencies lessens the imagined threat posed by China’s hard power. The PLA as a whole is nowhere near ready for violent expeditions in its far abroad, but that’s where it’s heading and getting there means it needs a lot of new stuff.

So aside from unquestioning loyalty, Xi is correct to insist the PLA must spend another 20 years on self-improvement.

Xi got the ball rolling upon taking office in 2012. Since then he has trimmed the fat from the bloated military by reorganizing its deployment, reducing numbers, and dismissing corrupt top brass. The most recent change imposed by Xi  was promoting three loyal generals to the Central Military Committee (CMC) on October 25, a Wednesday, after the Party Congress ended. On Thursday he again told his soldiers–and as Chairman of the CMC they are very much his soldiers–what matters the most, a message he’s been hammering at since July:

Senior officers, as the backbone of the campaign to build a strong army, should be loyal and obedient to the Party, be good and smart at combat and endeavor to reform, Xi said.

They should be efficient in commanding their forces, strict in discipline and set an example by performing their duty with spirit and diligence, he said.

The armed forces should improve political education and combat training and push forwards all projects of the 13th five-year plan of military development, he said.

Military reform projects should not be delayed and the armed forces should be placed under strict discipline. The armed forces are also urged to plan future work according to the guidelines of the 19th CPC National Congress.

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