Opinion Piece: Leaner And Meaner Peoples Liberation Army (PLA)? By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd)


To a question by Mr MK Raghavan, Member of Parliament, Dr Subhash Bhamre, the Minister of State for Defence, said on 19 December 2016 in a written reply to Lok Sabha, “The Government is aware of military re-organisation undertaken by China. Government keeps a constant watch on all developments in our neighbourhood having bearing on national security and takes all necessary measures to safeguard it.”

This reply has two connotations. First one is the military reforms being undertaken by China. Second one pertains to the issues having a bearing on national security in India’s neighbourhood.

Military Reforms in China

The work report of Hu Jintao to the 18th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2012 set the agenda for the latest round of Military Reforms in China. A leading small group was established under the leadership of Xi Jinping himself to plan and execute these reforms.

Opinions of 900 former officers and experts were taken, 2000 questionnaires were sent to various field formations and replies were received, 860 seminars at various levels were held and thereafter in September 2015, Xi announced that 300000 personnel will be reduced from the armed forces. This announcement was just a precursor of what was to come later. In November 2015, several important reforms were announced.

Changes in the higher defence organisation of the PLA, establishment of the Ground Forces Headquarters, changes to the military regions system, upgradation of the Second Artillery Corps to PLA Rocket Force and creation of a Strategic Support Force were announced. This is a major reforms effort and will change the shape of the PLA in future. Ever since these reforms were announced, they have been the subject of discussion all over the world.

Prior to the reforms the Central Military Commission of China was exercising the command and control over the armed forces through four General Departments known as General Staff Department, General Political Department, General Armament Department and General Logistics Department.

These departments were very powerful and the military regions under them became largely independent in their functioning. The old organisation was more ground forces oriented and required an additional level of command to be placed from the Central Military Commission when operations involving more than one military region were to be undertaken. This arrangement was considered detrimental to the joint operations that is the need of the hour for any armed force.

Therefore, in the higher defence organisation, the functions of the four general departments were reorganised into six departments (Joint Staff Department, Political works Department, Logistics Support Department, Equipment Development Department, Training and Administration Department and National Mobilisation Department) , three commissions ( Discipline and Inspection Commission, Politics and Law Commission and Science and Technology Commission) and six offices (General Office, Office for Strategic Planning, Office for Reform and Organisational Structure, Office for International Cooperation, Audit Office, and Agency for Offices Administration).

A headquarters for the ground forces that has not been existing before has been created.

Seven Military Regions into which the PLA was organised have been converted into five theatre commands. (See Map).


Map: Geographical area of Military Regions and Theatre Commands

Many analysts have compared this change to theatre commands to the Goldwater Nichols Act of the USA. Goldwater Nichols Act created theatre commands that reported direct to the President and it devolved more powers to the Theatre Commanders.

The Second Artillery Corps that holds both conventional and nuclear missiles of the PLA has been upgraded to a full-fledged service like the army, navy and the air force.

A Strategic Support Force has been created newly. This force will be responsible for all space operations and Information warfare. Incidentally, prior to the reforms the space operations were under the General armament department. The implication of this is that the space programme has a military content, even though the stated policy of China is non militarisation of space. The second aspect that this force is entrusted with is the Information Warfare. Information warfare comprises of three parts. They are Psychological Operations, Cyber Network Operations and Electronic Warfare. There has been very less input about whether psychological operations will form part of this force. However, it will be prudent to assume that this force will also deal with psychological operations.

Source: Joint Force Quarterly 82 | July 01, 2016



Source: Joint Force Quarterly 82 | July 01, 2016


The reduction of 300000 personnel is to be effected by the end of 2017. Mostly, the personnel getting retrenched are the ones holding obsolete equipment and the redundant personnel like the entertainment troupes. This is likely to improve the teeth to tail ratio which most of the modern armies try to achieve. Amongst the personnel being retrenched, majority of them are likely to be officers. PLA has been an officer heavy army. The provincial governments have been asked to provide job opportunities for the PLA personnel getting retrenched.

India needs to understand the implications of the reforms that the PLA is undergoing. Firstly, as this author had mentioned in an earlier article, the Strategic Support Force will be the game changer in future wars and India needs to be prepared for a protracted non-contact Warfare phase of War. The present reforms will make the PLA a more potent force and increase the joint warfare capability of the PLA.

Western theatre Command has a very vast geographical area and has both the restive regions of China namely Xinjiang and Tibet under it. Its Commander, General Zhao Zongqi, has already visited Pakistan, India and Myanmar in that order. Hope his visit will augur well for the bilateral relations. Reduction of 300000 troops will reduce the teeth to tail ratio of the PLA and make it a more efficient organisation in addition to releasing more funds for its modernisation.

Upgradation of PLA Rocket Force will increase the strategic deterrence capability of China. This has already been stated by Mr Xi Jinping himself. Central Military Commission, the top military body of China, will get involved in the day to day functioning of the armed forces thereby reducing its capability to think strategically that she was able to do by staying away from hands on management of China’s armed forces.

Security Issues in India’s Neighbourhood
The second part of the Minister’s reply corresponds to the issues having a bearing on national security in India’s neighbourhood. First and foremost, The China Pakistan Economic Corridor needs to be monitored well. India has not responded favourably to this project as this corridor passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and will perpetuate Pakistan’s claim to this area. China is making inroads into Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan in addition to her “Higher than the Mountains and Deeper than the Sea Relationship” with Pakistan. This also needs to be monitored.

Suggested Approach
India needs to keep the strategic communication with China going. Similarly, China needs to put in efforts to understand India’s sensitivities and work towards addressing them. This will increase the mutual trust and bring in more confidence into this relationship. Another aspect that needs to be looked into is that India needs to deal with China confidently. It is a well-known fact that China respects strength and abhors weakness. India’s confidence should emanate from the fact that India has emerged on the International economic and political scene as a force to reckon with. India should also not see a ghost in every shadow, meaning thereby that one should not suspect every action of China as something inimical to India.

Most of the countries in the region look up to India to share her success story and want to benefit from it. India needs to have a more benevolent attitude towards her smaller neighbours.

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One commentOn Opinion Piece: Leaner And Meaner Peoples Liberation Army (PLA)? By Lt Gen S L Narasimhan (Retd)

  • An excellent article by Gen NARASIMHAN, giving all the details required in the reorganization of PLA.

    The minister needs to brief the CCS on the actions taken by our ministry to offset the advantage that accrues to our China in view of the reorganization.

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