PLA Airborne Corps - Capabilities
The rear battlefield is always the main battlefield for airborne troops, where they have to deal with difficult reconnaissance, communication, maneuvering and replenishment due to the unclear situation and unfamiliar topography.
After more than 10 years of transformation construction, the airborne force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has changed from a kind of single arm called "infantry with parachute on back" to "flight combined corps" composed of over 20 professional arms such as artillery, aviation, missile, scout, chemical defense, engineering, electronic countermeasure, signal and others. A new strategic air strike force with capabilities of quick reaction, long range nonstop service and heavy equipment assault is rising quietly.
In terms of the scale and equipment of airborne troops, the U.S., Russia and China rank the top three in the world, and the American and Russian airborne troops both participated in actual combats and are neck and neck in strength. Compared with them, Chinese airborne troops are inferior in equipment and experience, but they have made remarkable progress in recent years by following the American and Russian training standards.
Since the 18th CPC national congress in 2012, Chinese airborne troops have moved faster in strategic transformation and achieved the breakthrough from light infantry to multi-unit integration, from "focused on rear combat" to "all-domain maneuvering", from traditional parachuting to integrated assault, and from motorized and semi-mechanized operation to mechanization and extensive IT application.
The 15th Airborne Corps was developed into a combined arms force, with the goal of being able to conducting independent operations in a limited conflict. The airborne troops would be used for a pre-emptive attack on an enemy's key rear area targets, though this mission requires total control in the air. Reflecting this concept, the 15th Airborne Corps has been elevated to a strategic force.
Due to limited airlift capabilities, only one of the Corps' three divisions can deploy to any part of China within 48 hours. If all large transport aircraft in the PLAAF were operational and rigged for parachute drop, the US DOD estimated in 2009 that China could deliver about 5,000 parachutists in a single lift – less if equipment is carried at the same time. PLA in-flight refueling capability is also limited and can support only small numbers of fighter aircraft.
In the 1980s the Chinese possessed the capability to conduct airborne operations of at least regimental size against objectives within a 900-kilometer radius. In the late 1990s the airlift capability of the PLAAF consisted of 10 IL-76 heavy lift, Yun-8, and Yun-7 transports, as well as Mi-17, Mi-8, S-70c, Z-8, and Z-9 helicopters. Thus, the PLAAF could only lift one division of 11,000 men with light tanks and self-propelled artillery. Reports claim that a 10,000 man airborne division was transported to Tibet in less than 48 hours in 1988.
In response to the new historic missions’ requirements to protect China’s global interests, the PLA Air Force is attempting to increase its long-range transportation and logistics capabilities, to achieve greater strategic projection. However, in 2012 the US DOD assessed that it was likely the PLA Air Force’s primary focus for the coming decade would remain building the capabilities required for Taiwan contingencies.
The 15th Airborne Army could be employed in a land-based light infantry role although it would forfeit the tactical advantage it enjoys as an airborne force. Chinese doctrine envisages the use of airborne troops, although the limited numbers and types of transport aircraft and helicopters available are limiting factors.
Airborne operations include:
- Parachute Operations. Carried out by paratroopers and followed, if required, by air-landed troops trained and equipped for air transportable operations.
- Air Transportable Operations. Limited operations to quickly reinforce border areas or to maintain internal security within China. In addition, these specially trained air transportable troops could be used in operations in countries peripheral to China.
- Helicopter-Borne Operations. During the Cold War, because of a shortage of helicopters, only extremely limited operations could be carried out. This capability improved, however, as more helicopters became available.
The Chinese are expected to use their airborne forces in the following roles:
- seizure of important areas, routes, and crossings in advance of major thrusts or to protect the rearward movement of Chinese forces,
- sabotage missions against nuclear delivery means, support units, and guidance equipment,
- disruption of troop control, movement and logistic support by operations against headquarters, communications centers, and rear areas installations,
- support of amphibious landings,
- assistance to guerrillas, and
- internal security missions.
Parachute operations are divided into several categories. Strategic Operations involve the use of only one or possibly two airborne divisions in special circumstances such as:
- seizure of airbases, seaports or islands of strategic importance,
- support of deep penetrations following a breakthrough of the enemy defenses, and
- holding vital terrain in the case of a major invasion of China.
Tactical Operations of regiment or battalion size on the main axis in support of an army group or army offensive, timed to allow ground forces to link up with the airborne troops within 1 to 3 days. Special Purpose Operations are conducted by parties of up to battalion strength in any area with the tasks of sabotage, disruption of comrol and logistics operations, and in support of guerrillas.
Little is known about the manner in which the Chinese carry out their airborne operations, but it was assumed during the Cold War that for the most part they follow Soviet methods. A division uses about four to six drop zones (DZs) and a regiment uses one or two. Reserve DZs are normally selected for use in an emergency or by subsequent waves. DZs are about 3 to 4 kilometers in size and, if circumstances permit, may be on or outside the objective itself. The fly-in is protected by fighter cover. All available fire support is used to neutralize enemy air defense weapons along the flight path. Drops are normally made at night.
China's airborne troops have played a vanguard role in many disaster relief efforts, as well as in joint military exercises with foreign units. If necessary, Airborne troops can arrive in any part of China within several hours to carry out their mission. It has become a combined fighting force rather than just a mobile infantry corps, specializing in a wide range of roles, from artillery to engineering units. All of its members, including medics and cooks, are trained in the combat skills required of all paratroopers. The men are intensively trained, and their orders are simple -- move fast, survive the worst.
Following the requirement of accelerating the transformation and development of the airborne troops and enhancing their combat capability, Chinese airborne troops got on the way of heavy mechanization. China purchased several batches of IL-76 transport planes from Russia, the Y-8 fleet kept growing in scale, and a series of heavy equipment represented by the ZBD-3 airborne armored infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) were commissioned.
The Chinese airborne troops, like the Army, witnessed the upgrading process from "motorized" to "mechanized" and then to "information-based" and became a new service integrating transport aviation, infantry, artillery, missile unit, armored unit and other professional technical services.
According to some military experts, Chinese airborne troops are occupying an increasingly strategic position and role as they evolve from "single structure" to "multi-unit integration", from "specialized in specific aspects" to "all-domain combat", from "tactical cooperation" to "battle assault", and from "extensive operation" to "accurate strike".
The new strategic positioning of Chinese airborne troops is that they are a strategic service in the national armed force system, a force of emergency maneuvering responsible for all-domain combat, and a strategic fist directly controlled by the highest command.
Heavy equipment airdrop is an important indicator that gauges the airborne troops' maneuvering and fire strike capability on the battlefield. The Chinese airborne troops have progressed by leaps and bounds in the field of airdrop and parachuting in the past 10-plus years.
In 2000, they dropped 30 pieces of battle materials continuously; then they made technical breakthroughs and could ensure the airdrop of various vehicles and artillery; in 2008, they realized simultaneous airdrop of personnel and heavy equipment. At that point, the airborne troops primarily realized mechanized main battle equipment, equipment airdrop and all-round battlefield maneuvering.
Since the 18th CPC national congress in 2012, the airborne troops began to implement the realistic training concept of combining training with actual combat in light of the CMC's requirement for "earnestly carrying out realistic military training". In August 2013, the airborne troops had the first mixed continuous airdrop of multiple types of equipment via multiple types of aircraft and massive group parachuting, indicating that they had primarily formed the capability of large-scale airborne combat.
In June 2015, they carried out the first successful airdrop of heavy equipment at the altitude of 6,000m, breaking the bottleneck of mechanized combat on the plateau and filling the blank of heavy-duty airdrop above the altitude of 4,000m. In the fall of 2016, airborne troops had the first successful mixed loading and airdrop of all-terrain vehicles, a certain type of rocket gun and airborne IFVs above the altitude of 4,200m.
The ZBD-3 airborne combat vehicle is a crawler-type vehicle, developed in series. Its chassis has much room for improvement and may give rise to a range of vehicle types such as airborne mortar vehicle, airborne rocket gun vehicle and airborne anti-tank missile launcher.
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