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PLA Airborne Corps
15th Airborne Corps

In early May 2017, the 15th airborne corps was reorganized into the "corps of PLA airborne troops", and the former division units affiliated to it were split into several brigades. Meanwhile, the former special operations regiment was expanded into the special operations brigade, while the new combat support brigade and air transport brigade were also formed. Moreover, two regiment-level units were integrated with the Academy of Airborne Troops to form a new troop unit.

The establishment and commanding system of the new airborne troops also have been adjusted accordingly. Public information shows that before the reform, the 15th airborne corps adopted the four-tier commanding system, including corps, division, regiment and battalion. After the reform, the commanding system is flattened to three tiers, including corps, brigade and battalion, which complies with the "division to brigade" trend in PLA's overall reform. Military experts held that the "corps - brigade - battalion" system is more efficient than before and the "special brigades" can enhance combined combat capability.

After the reform, the airborne troops cancelled the designation of "15th corps" that carries a strong imprint of the Army to further reinforce the concept of an independent arm of service within the Air Force.

Military analysts believe that in addition to the reduction of commanding levels and change of designation, another highlight of the airborne troops reform is the expansion and elevation of several "special brigades".

First of all, the special operations regiment that was directly affiliated to the corps were expanded into a special operations brigade. While increasing the special forces in the airborne troops, this also indicated one of the future directions of the airborne troops - special operations. This brigade mainly carries out special penetration operations, including killing key figures of the enemy and destroying the enemy's command, control, reconnaissance and communication facilities.

The Thor Commando under this brigade is the "best of the best". Formed in September 2011, this special operations force, "the most special of the special forces", should be able to "give the enemy a deadly blow at key junctures and critical moments", said Fan Xiaojun, the then political commissar of the airborne troops.

The airborne troops also formed a combat support brigade, which consists of the former communication regiment, engineering detachment and chemical defense detachment of the former 15th airborne corps. In the age of IT-based warfare, supportive capabilities such as electronic reconnaissance, interference, communication, battlefield setup and opening, and various defense tasks take a very important position in battles. Therefore, forming a unified support brigade is necessary for combined combat.

An air transport brigade was also formed, which consists of the former air transport regiment and airports. Public information shows that the PLA airborne troops were equipped with the Y-12 light transport plane in November 2016, which meant Y-12 will replace the Y-5C airborne training plane comprehensively to undertake tasks such as basic parachuting and daily parachute training.

Airborne forces are an integral part of the Air Force, not of the ground forces. Although nominally part of the PLAAF Order of Battle, in reality the 15th Airborne Corps is directly controlled by the Central Military Commission. As a special branch of the PLA Air Force with a strategic designation, the airborne is tasked with responding to fast-developing emergencies and special missions. China's airborne forces consist of three divisions located in the Guangzhou Military Region and are part of the PLA's strategic reserve. The Airborne force strength is estimated to be at around 30,000 men.

China has capable personnel in the elite 15th Airborne Corps. It composes three divisions of 30,000 troops operating under the aegis of the air force. They are some of the best trained troops with the Chinese military. They are trained for a wide range of activities, including parachute jumps and air assault. In addition, in order to enhance its capabilities, the 15th Airborne Corps received the most advanced weapons available to the Chinese military, including modern combat armored vehicles.

Through the transformative construction for over a decade, by 2012 the airborne force of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) developed from the singular arm of "parachute-packed infantry" into a "flight group army" composed of 20-plus professional arms such as artillery, aviation force, guided missile force, reconnaissance force, anti-chemical force, engineering force, electronic countermeasure (ECM) force, communication force and so on. It's a quiet rise of an air strategic strike force of multi- arms combination and capable of rapid response, long-range direct projection and heavy equipment assault. The so-called 'flight group army' is tantamount to a Group Army moved in the air.

The transformation is highly significant: In the past, the PLA's airborne troops were always hindered by the light equipment standard of "one person one rifle". Except for the capability of parachuting, the paratroopers were skilled exactly like traditional infantry soldiers. The division inventory was similar to that of a normal infantry division except that it has no tanks and only limited artillery, antitank, and antiaircraft weapons.

The year 2005 marked the opening of a new page in the history of the PLA airborne force, as the PLA airborne force was successively equipped with the automated command system, the paratrooper assault vehicle and the paratrooper combat vehicle in this year. After that, the PLA airborne force realized a series of leaps in its development based on "allowing combat vehicles to fly and be airdropped to the ground again" as follows:

  • The PLA airborne force successfully conducted a test by one-time consecutively airdropping 30 small items of equipment based on the platform of domestically-made transport aircraft, exceeding the record of one-time consecutively air-dropping maximum 22 small items of equipment set by a foreign airborne force.
  • Successfully conducted a test by consecutively airdropping 3 items of heavy equipment based on the imported large transport aircraft, and implemented the airborne landing of the "personnel together with the heavy equipment" for the first time, making China become one of the few countries which have grasped this key technology after the U.S. and Russia.
  • The commander of the PLA airborne force can send his command directly to an infantry company, motorized infantry battalion, special operation detachment and even individual soldier airdropped to the ground by using the airborne command aircraft and the systems of satellite positioning, navigation and communication.

Over the course of the first decade in the new century, the scope of the land areas in China's vast territory for the PLA airborne force's drills has been wider and wider from the northeast China’s snowy field to the islands in the South China Sea, from the hundreds of thousands of mountains to the roof of the world and from the lakes and plains to the forests in the mountains. The PLA airborne force has maintained such a high parachuting safety rate that it has reached the world advanced level, after it was equipped with 10-odd new types of parachutes including a type of paratrooper parachute, armed wing parachute and powered wing parachute.

A new airport at the Zhurihe Training Base under the Beijing Military Area Command (MAC) of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) was completed in summer of 2012 in the hinterland of the grassland in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Paratroopers can be soon airdropped to the vast grassland for drill and then return by transport aircraft. In the past, due to the absence of airports in some unfamiliar training fields, the airborne troops had to travel long way to return to their home bases by trains or buses after fulfilling long-distance airdropping drills, which greatly reduced the efficiency of their all-area combat training. Not only the PLA airborne force can be airdropped to the northern vast desert for training and return to their home bases on the very day, but also the planes of air force aviation troop units, naval aviation troop units and army aviation troop units of the PLA can land at the airport of the training base to conduct joint drills with armored troop units of the PLA ground force.

Li Fengbiao, Chief of Staff of PLA Air Force Airborne Troops, said in 2009, "We have improved the combat effectiveness of our troops step-by-step. We can perform all-around and rapid mobile operations under many difficult conditions." China's airborne corps is one of the sharpest weapons in the country's armory, essential to safeguarding its national security and strategic interests. In peacetime, China's airborne troops are given the country's most honorable title -- protectors of the people.

Chinese airborne troops do not have sufficient transportation capabilities. There is a limited number of Il-76 and Y-8 transport aircraft in their disposal. Thus China has been investing heavily in its strategic transport fleet. China, recently began producion of two new indigenously developed transport aircraft, the Shaanxi Y-9 medium-range transport, and the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter.

At present, more China-made Y-20 large transport planes are commissioned and have formed stable combat capability, and the Chinese airborne troops that once didn't have enough large transport planes are moving in the direction of higher level of integration and heavy equipment and stronger capability of maneuvering and fast response.

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  • Chinese Airborne forces
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  • Ken Allen. "PLA Air Force Organization" The People's Liberation Army as Organization: Reference Volume v1.0, James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N. D. Yang eds. (Santa Monico: RAND; 2002)

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Page last modified: 25-12-2019 18:42:50 ZULU