Assessing PLA Capability Development Western Theatre Command
Overview of the Pentagon 2018 Report on military developments in China indicates PLA Army capability to dominate the LAC/IB sectors on Sino Indian borders
The United States Department of Defence Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2018 has been released. The Report [hereinafter called the Pentagon 2018 Report] outlines a number of vectors of capability development of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) based on reorganisation and modernisation noticed in 2017.
China’s Defence Ministry has rejected the Pentagon 2018 Report calling it as misrepresenting and exaggerating the, “so-called China military threat.” Nevertheless when compared with developments tracked concomitantly during the year, a capability profile of the PLA Western Theatre Command can be visualised.
Specific to the PLA Army the reorganisation and modernisation undertaken provides the forces rapid reaction capability on the Tibetan Plateau with possible decentralisation of command and control to the Western Theatre Command.
Some previous reports indicate that Tibet District Command continues to be directly under the Joint Staff Department under the Central Military Commission which controls all operations.
Significantly General Li Zuocheng head of the JSD has been a commander of the Chengdu based Western Theatre Command.
The Pentagon 2018 Report believes that the operations in Doklam in June-August 2017 could have been possibly controlled by the Western Theatre Command.
Establishment of Joint Operations Command Center (JOCC) at the Theatre Commands provides the PLA substantial capabilities to muster resources of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and coordination of the employment of Rocket Forces.
PLAA reorganisation of the 18 group armies into 13 renamed group armies followed by, “brigadisation,” of these formations that is conversion of the divisions which were seen to be difficult to manoeuvre into brigades is particularly relevant in the context of operations on the Tibetan Plateau and the Sino Indian as well as the Bhutan border facilitating speedy deployment and subsequent movement thereby enhancing response and reaction capabilities.
The Western Theatre Command has two group armies – the 13 and 47 Group Armies. 13 Group Army is on Tibetan Plateau while 47 is in Xinjiang. 21 Group Army which was in the Chengdu Military Region earlier has been redeployed, thus reducing the overall number of Group Armies.
As per Military Balance 2017, the order of battle of 13 Group Army comprises of one Special Forces Brigade, one Armoured Brigade, one Motorised Division and one High Altitude Motorised Division (RRU).
In addition the Xinzang (Tibet) Military District has two Mountain Brigades, one High Altitude Mechanised Brigade and one Special Forces Group.
Evidently the forces deployed in Tibet continue to be a mix of brigades and divisions given that the operational effectiveness of brigade sized units in the harsh mountainous and high altitude terrain on the India China border is limited.
The PLA is possibly hoping to use a number of mechanised and motorised formations with the 13 Group Army under Western Theatre Command to build up forces at the point of decision.
Combined arms brigades in a Group army will be supported by the combat support units of the artillery, air defence, special operations, aviation and the engineers.
Significantly on 17 August China Military Online reported that the PLAA tested a digital combat system on the Tibet Qinghai Plateau. This included the use of PLL-09, 122 millimeter self-propelled howitzer as well as, “drones, early warning radar, howitzers and air defense missiles.”
Brigadisation with allocation of modern military equipment is assessed to provide the PLAA capability for conduct of independent brigade or battalion sized operations.
47 Group Army will be able to deploy one armoured brigade, one heavy mechanised brigade and two high altitude mountain brigades to support the 13 Group Army if necssary.
The overall force levels as compared to the deployment of the Indian Army on the Sino Indian border may appear to be lower in numbers, however extensive road and rail communication network on the Tibetan Plateau will facilitate the PLA to move reinforcements rapidly from other sectors.
Importantly when employed with what the Pentagon 2018 Report has outlined as Coercive Approach or, “use tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China’s strategic objectives through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of provoking,” opposing forces, PLA will be able to maintain a high level of dominance of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) as well as the disputed pockets on the McMohan Line.
In tandem with the PLAA brigadisation, PLAAF is also converting the fighter and ground attack divisions into brigades based on air bases. While PLAAF capability to operate off Tibet may continue to be limited despite enhancements made in modernising the five air bases at present, development of long range bombers is a trend that will have to be analysed in further detail separately.
Placing of the People’s Armed Police (PAP) under the CMC will also entail considerable accretions to rear area security and logistics support for the front line units by mustering local labour and civilian infrastructure in a streamlined manner.