Thursday, December 19, 2013

Chinese military may not be ready for war

My column Chinese military may not be ready for war appeared in today's Edit Page of The Pioneer.

Here is the link...

News reports in the local media have criticised the People’s Liberation Army for its low level of defence preparedness and revealed Beijing’s ongoing efforts to restructure the forces

China has once again provoked India by arresting three local porters in the Chumar sector of South Ladakh. But despite these constant acts of bravado, is China prepared for a conflict? The answer is that the Middle Kingdom is far from being ready.
“China’s People’s Liberation Army is striving to maintain its glorious wartime reputation by advancing military reform and putting paid to the ethos of decadence”, said an editorial of The PLA Daily, the day after the Third Plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee ended. Beijing was rather frank: “The people have noticed that certain Army cadres have only a vague understanding of their mission after a long break from combat, and have become lazy in their primary tasks,” asserted The PLA Daily in its editorial.
The Army publication criticises officers who lack the ‘awareness of always being ready to fight’; it even admits that some soldiers “have not been trained hard enough and the quality of military training is not good enough. They are just not up for the fight.” The newspaper reminds its readers that “the primary task and ultimate duty of military leaders should be to lead soldiers in battles.”  The fact that this needs to be said probably means that something is rotting in the Middle Kingdom.
As analysts started talking about reforms, The Global Times published a short communique: “The Ministry of National Defence denies rumors of military restructuring.” The Global Times, however, details these famous ‘rumours’; one is “a ground force headquarters will be added to the current Air Force, Navy and the second artillery force (missile force).” A separate ground forces (Army) headquarters makes sense. Traditionally, the other three services come under the PLA.
General Xu Qiliang, one of the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission had earlier told The People’s Daily: “The Chinese military will strengthen and enhance the Navy, Air Force and the second artillery force in accordance with the challenges and threats the country is facing.” It clearly means that the prominent role of the ground forces needs to be rebalanced with the other three services. Mr Yang Yujun, the MND spokesman had also spoken of “blazing a trail in reform on joint operation command system …with Chinese characteristics.” He had given some examples to enhance the PLA’s ability of winning battles: “The ratio of officers to soldiers and that of troop units to organs are not reasonable in the PLA; …the scale and structure of the Chinese military should be further optimised and the proportion of combat forces should be raised.”
The fact that Beijing now calls ‘rumours’, some proposed changes is strange; it probably means that President Xi Jinping’s reforms are not unanimously appreciated in the PLA.
Another rumour quoted is more interesting for India: “The military areas in Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibet Autonomous Region will be merged into one force.” In case of a conflict with India, it seems logical for the PLA to have a single Military Area Command facing India, instead of having to coordinate the Western Front (Lanzhou MAC) with the Eastern Front (Chengdu MAC), with all the complications and coordination issues implied.
Another rumour is that the PLA’s garrison in Hong Kong would be withdrawn, and naval and air forces would be administered by other military bases. It would be a step further towards the integration of the former British colony in the mainland. This is also denied.
One often criticises New Delhi for the Indian defence forces’ lack of preparedness, but the Chinese too have their own problems. The PLA Daily published a report highlighting the urgent need for standardisation in the Chinese armed forces. It admitted that the lack of coordinated standardisation among the Army, Navy, and Air Forces could become the Achilles heel of China’s defence system.
The report gives concrete examples: “A brigade in the Second Artillery responded to an emergency with more than 300 vehicles and equipment, but there were as many as 90 different brands and models. The communications battalion alone had 12 different models of generators. The brigade commander complained that if there were a war, they would need to have several truckloads of spare parts.”
The newly-found Chinese  transparency is interesting, though the ‘reforms’ announced after the Third Plenum of the Central Committee may take more time to come.
A week ago, Huanqiu, the Chinese edition of The Global Times, wrote about the internal and external security threats facing China. Of course for Beijing, the ‘external security threats’ are mainly due to what China calls the United States ‘return’ to Asia. The article quotes the unrest in the Arab countries as an example of what could happen in the Middle Kingdom. It ended with a warning to “outside hostile forces” that China has the world’s most powerful conventional ballistic missile, the top killer weapon, “to attack the most stubborn provocateur”. It probably refers to the newly inducted Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles which could be used, when fully functional, against US aircraft-carriers. The problem is that the “stubborn provocateur” is usually China, whether in Depsang Plain, in Chumar or in the East China Sea!
Even ‘unprepared’ China is still far in advance on India as far defence preparedness is concerned, but some good news recently came in (though it remains to be confirmed). While everyone thought that the Ministry of Defence had gone into hibernation before the 2014 general election, it may not be true. Press Trust of India affirms that: “France’s Dassault Aviation and Reliance Industries are planning to set up a facility to produce wings of Rafale combat aircraft selected by IAF for meeting its requirement of 126 fighter planes Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. The two firms are planning to set up a Rs 1,000-crore facility for producing the wings of the Rafale combat aircraft and it is most likely to come up in Bangalore.” If this is confirmed, it will be great news for India.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited would, however, remain the lead integrator for the MMRCAs: “The differences over the issue have been resolved and Dassault and HAL have started readying their teams for implementing the project after it is signed,” a source told PTI.
It may not be the ‘top killer weapon’, but in case China is tempted by another 1962-like adventure (from a single MAC or two), it can be a serious deterrent. And thankfully, the ‘flying coffins’ (MIG 21) have been towed to the IAF’s garages.

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