PLA Organization

The Communist Party of China (CPC) continued its ongoing purge of the People's Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF), reshuffling what it described as "84 corps-level units." The 84 newly restructured corps-level units fall under the 15 main departments of the PLA. The April 2017 purge was ordered by Chinese president Xi Jinping, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that controls the PLAGF and its mother unit, the People's Liberation Army or PLA.

All 84 new units are at the combined-corps level, which means commanders hold the rank of major-general or rear-admiral. The unit members would be regrouped from existing forces given the military was engaged in cutting its troop strength by 300,000, one of a range of reforms introduced by Xi in 2015.

This report is ambiguous. At first blush, it suggested a major re-wiring of the PLA order of battle at the corps [ie Group Army] level, but upon closer inspection it appears to be no such thing. There were only 18 active Group Armies as of early 2017, while the PLA Air Force and PLA Navy might each be imagined to each have half a dozen two star command billets. So the remaining 54 [ie, 84 - {18+6+6}] two stars must be staff rather than line officers, of some sort. This is a personnel resuffle-purge, not an institutional reorganisation.

The corps-level units were rebuilt after Xi kicked off the overhaul in late 2015. These include provincial military commands, military academies and universities that come directly under the Defence Ministry, and head offices of the land, navy, air force, and rocket force. Centred around a new, condensed structure of 84 units, the reshuffle builds on Xi's years-long efforts to modernise the PLA with greater emphasis on new capabilities including cyberspace, electronic and information warfare.

Decided by the CPC Central Committee and the CMC, the reshuffle was important in building strong armed forces through reform, said Xi said 19 April 2017. It will also have a profound influence on meeting the targets of enhancing the military in a new situation and building world-class armed forces, Xi noted. Identifying the 84 units as crucial parts of a new system, Xi called on them to safeguard China's sovereignty, security and development interests. President Xi Jinping demanded military units be absolutely loyal to the Communist Party.

The PLA continued in 2015 to convert divisions to brigades with the idea this will increase effectiveness by boosting overall combat capabilities. This is part of an overall modernization effort to streamline the force and reduce non-combat positions such as political entertainment units or headquarters staffs. Another element is placing non-commissioned officers in positions traditionally held by officers or by having civilians take over those duties.

The white paper issued 16 April 2013 disclosed, for the first time, how the army, navy, air force and the second artillery corps of the People's Liberation Army are formed. According to the white paper on "the diversified employment of China's armed forces," the PLA Army mobile operational units include 18 combined corps, plus additional independent combined operational divisions (brigades), and had a total strength of 850,000. The combined corps, composed of divisions and brigades, are respectively under the seven Military Area Commands: Shenyang (16th, 39th and 40th Combined Corps), Beijing (27th, 38th and 65th Combined Corps), Lanzhou (21st and 47th Combined Corps), Jinan (20th, 26th and 54th Combined Corps), Nanjing (1st, 12th and 31st Combined Corps), Guangzhou (41st and 42nd Combined Corps) and Chengdu (13th and 14th Combined Corps).

By 2001 the PLA was following the concept the US Army initiated with the Stryker Brigades, making medium type brigades the most important formation. These stress lighter armored personnel carriers and artillery. The PLA created new light mechanized Group Army (GA) and amphibious mechanized GA units. The PLA also intensified its effort to turn divisions of Group Army (GA) into smaller but better equipped brigades. The future of the PLA's "heavy" armies, such as No. 38, 39 and 54, was increasingly unclear. There was an increase in experimentation with new types of army formations. Some Divisions were transformed into brigades to accelerate the transition to a smaller overall force. Two or three Chinese Army armored divisions thinned down to brigade size. The No. 27 GA, for instance, turned a former division into three brigades. A similar evolution was also underway in the No. 40 GA. These two units, once restructured, may be assigned to missions focused on Taiwan. Some heavy GAs retained some divisions and turned others into brigades, No. 1 and No. 31 GA being two cases in point.

As of 1998, Army troops totalled 1.87 million, of which the infantry troops were about 900,000, the armored troops were around 150,000 persons, the artillery troops were about 120,000, the air defense force was approximately 100,000 persons, the garrison troops were some 360,000, and the professional troops were about 240,000 persons. The key points of the PLA's force disposition had been re-diverted to the southeast area of Chinese mainland since the signature of the "PRC-Russia Bilateral Force Reduction Agreement."

China's ground forces are divided among approximately 20 group armies, more than 40 maneuver divisions, and some 40 maneuver brigades. More than a dozen of these divisions and several of these brigades are designated "rapid reaction" units. China completed a 500,000-man force reduction in 2000 in an effort to streamline the force further and free up funding for modernization. This reduction was achieved primarily through the deactivation of several group army headquarters; the transfer of personnel to the People's Armed Police; and the downsizing of approximately 30 combat divisions to brigades [drawing down from the approximately 75 army maneuver divisions of the 1990s]. Recent improvements also have focused on increasing the capability of reserve and militia units.

The PLA ground forces consisted of conventionally armed main and regional units and by the late 1980s made up over 70 percent of the PLA. It provided a good conventional defense but had only limited offensive potential and was poorly equipped for nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare.

Regional forces consisted of full-time PLA troops organized as independent divisions for garrison missions. Garrison divisions were static, artillery-heavy units deployed along the coastline and borders in areas of likely attack. Regional forces were armed less heavily than their main-force counterparts, and they were involved in training the militia. They were the PLA units commonly used to restore order during the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese military divides its units into two categories, Category A and Category B. Category A covers "full-training units" with complete armaments and full establishment. They have modern armaments, and undergo full-time, high-intensity military training. Category B units are "non-full-training units" which have out-of-date armaments, are under-manned, have low budgets, receive less training, often participate in productive labor, and have to have their weapons replaced and receive basic training before they can go into battle. China's Category B units are similar to the US National Guard.

As of the late 1980s the strength of the Category A units of the Chinese ground force was about 700,000, grouped into seven rapid response group armies (the 1st Army, 13th Army, 21st Army, 27th Army, 38th Army, 39th Army, and the 54th Army). Category B (Category 1 reserve) units of the Chinese ground force were in 19 group armies, 60 motorized infantry divisions, and some independent artillery divisions (or brigades).

As of the late 1980s main forces included about 35 group armies, comprising 118 infantry divisions, 13 armored divisions, 17 artillery divisions, 16 antiaircraft artillery divisions, plus 71 independent regiments and 21 independent battalions of mostly support troops (artillery, antiaircraft artillery, signal, antichemical warfare, reconnaissance, and engineer). Regional forces consisted of 73 divisions of border defense and garrison troops plus 140 independent regiments.

As a result of the troop reductions announced in the July 1998 White Paper on National Defense, a number of PLA Divisions have been transfered to the PAP. By the late 1990s the Army had been reduced to 24-25 Group Armies incorporating a total of 90 divisions. Of these Armies, 17 are deployed in the north and northeast, positioned to repel Russia from the north, and Japan and Western powers from the east and over the Korean Peninsula.

People's Armed Police (PAP) was created in 1983 when the PLA transferred most of its internal police and border responsibilities to the new force. The PAP is still primarily composed of demobilized PLA personnel. As a result of the 1,000,000-man reduction in the PLA in the 1980s, the People's Armed Police grew by about 500,000 troops, to a total of roughly 800,000.

Division Strength
1987 1998 2000
TOTAL 164 90 75
Infantry 118 16
Tank 13 11
Artillery 17 6
Anti-Aircraft 16 2
Un-Identified 47
Un-Counted [?] 8
1998 Division Deployment
TOTAL 24 90 ??
Identifiable 24 82 41
Beijing 6 17 8
Chengdu 2 5 3
Guangzhou 2 8 5
Jinan 4 13 4
Lanzhou 2 8 5
Nanjing 3 13 7
Shenyang 5 18 9

Detailed information concerning the PLA order of battle is not readily available in the unclassified literature. The single most authoritative source, indeed the only source, of such information is the Directory of PRC Military Personalities, produced for many years under the sponsoship of the US Military Liasion Office at the US Consulate in Hong Kong. This estimable work lists thousands of PLA military officers and their associated posts and units. From this unique reference work, it is possible to piece together a reasonably illuminating depiction of the PLA order of battle at the division level as of the late 1990s.

The data contained in the Directory of PRC Military Personalities is evidently, and not surprisingingly, incomplete. Of the 90 Divisions that were reportedly part of the PLA active force structure around 1998, the Directory provides convincing documentation for at least 82 Divisions. At least a four of these Divisions were very poorly attested [as indicated by ?? in the far right column], and another handful of Divisions are too poorly attested to warrant inclusion in this order of battle, though the fact of their existence is at least suggested by fragmentary entries in the Directory. At least a few of the Divisions that are identifiable in the Directory have almost certainly been inactivated or transitioned to Reserve status subsequent to the June 1998 data cutoff, consequent to the subsequent reduction in force structure to about 75 Divisions.

In addition to the familiar unit designation nomenclature, such as "112th Mechanized Infantry Division," PLA units have five-digit numerical designations -- the 112th Division is also designated "Unit 51033." This numerical designation system, evidently similar to the American system of Unit Identification Codes [UIC], is rather more extensively documented than the more conventional alpha-numerical designations. Although faint patterns may be discerned in the PLA numerical designators, these patterns are not so robust as to suggest a systematic basis for their assignment, and certainly not so robust as to suggest a method for interpolating missing unit numerical designations.

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