China's People's Liberation Army has long known it needs to adapt if it hopes to compete with the world's most advanced militaries. Over the past several decades, China has risen to become a prominent player on the world stage with global operations and interests far from its shores. As the People's Liberation Army reorients itself toward China's evolving priorities, weapons acquisitions have garnered the most international attention. But Beijing knows that its success will depend on seemingly banal organizational reforms. Originally, China's military was organized at a time when Beijing's interests were mostly limited to internal security, meaning that the navy and air force were sidelined. Today, growing maritime competition in the Pacific with both the United States and its ally Japan means that it is urgent for China to increase its military's ability to conduct seamless joint operations.
Technological networking is at the forefront of modern warfare and is the trend driving innovation. Networking has enabled almost instantaneous command and control, enhanced situational awareness and precision kinetic effects. To be competitive in this networked environment, however, countries must design military structures that can coordinate combined arms on the battlefield. Militaries must also accept broad cooperation between their branches for the purpose of training, supporting and equipping combat elements. Inability to effectively meet these requirements promises tremendous inefficiency at best and military disaster at worst.
The latest round of China's military reforms were launched at the start of 2016 and are intended to prevent such a disaster. Although Stratfor has covered the more granular aspects of the reforms at the general staff and service headquarter levels, we would like to take this opportunity to step back and look at the larger implications: the transformation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into an organization structured to conduct modern operations and to protect Chinese interests in distant parts of the globe. Notably, in early January, the Central Military Commission, China's highest command authority, released a new military reform guideline. This prescribed a new command structure in which the Central Military Commission handles overall administration of the military, while battle zone commands focus on combat operations, and the services focus on force development.
The changes bear a striking resemblance to those made by the U.S. military after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. Goldwater-Nichols was one of the most sweeping reorganizations of the U.S. military ever undertaken, and it greatly improved the United States' ability to conduct joint operations. Although it is important to recognize the differences between the modern day PLA and the pre-1986 U.S. military, a review of the landmark piece of U.S. legislation sheds light on China's coming challenges.
Goldwater-Nichols: The Breakdown
As early as World War II, the United States found it extremely difficult to coordinate between the Army and Navy when planning, conducting operations or acquiring materiel. The challenge was that each branch of the military answered to different Cabinet-level secretaries. Despite combining the Army, Navy and newly created Air Force under a single secretary of defense in 1947, vicious interservice rivalries continued to disrupt coordination well into the Cold War. Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, the most famous commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, explained the problem: "The Soviets are our adversary. Our enemy is the Navy."
Worse, the powerful service branches usurped much of the legal operational authority of the commanders-in-chief of the unified combatant commands. It was common for commanders-in-chief to find forces moved into or out of their areas of responsibility at the behest of the service headquarters in Washington, sometimes even without the knowledge of the region's commander-in-chief. The Vietnam War in particular was made significantly more complex because of unclear lines of command and lack of unity. These issues also contributed to the catastrophic failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran.
Motivated by the magnitude of the problem, Congress began again in 1982 to craft legislation to reorganize the military. This effort would eventually result in the Goldwater-Nichols Act. The new legislation completely overhauled the military's operational chain of command and reduced the powers of the services. Naturally, the services bitterly resisted throughout the nearly five-year process. The act, however, succeeded in strengthening the power of the secretary of defense over every branch of the military. It also clarified that operational chain of command from the secretary of defense to the combatant commands did not run through the service headquarters. The joint chiefs of staff, for their part, lost their direct operational roles. Instead they were given the role of advising the president, as well as facilitating planning and coordination among the services. The service branches themselves were relegated to support roles tasked with organizing, training and equipping the forces needed to carry out the plans of the combatant commands.
The bitter struggle to reform the U.S. military has produced clear rewards, evident as early as the Gulf War, during which Central Command commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf attributed much of the effectiveness of his forces to the clear lines of authority established by Goldwater-Nichols. The 2002 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq further cemented the United States' reputation as the world's leader in joint warfare.
China Takes Notice
China, like the rest of the world, took notice of the increased effectiveness of the U.S. military. The Gulf War and the 1995-1996 Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, in which the U.S. sailed two carriers into the vicinity of Taiwan, demonstrated critical deficiencies in the PLA's capabilities. At the same time, China's growing wealth spread its interests across the globe. These factors drove more than 20 years of rapid military modernization. The PLA upgraded its hardware and devoted an increasing share of resources to the navy, air force and second artillery, since renamed the Rocket Force.
However, as in the United States, sweeping organizational reform has lagged behind the modernization of equipment. These reforms are crucial if the PLA hopes to become a truly effective modern military — a fact that the Chinese fully recognize. Modernized equipment without modern structure, training and experience does not make a modern military. China has learned this from bitter experience, particularly when the Japanese navy sunk an Imperial Chinese fleet that far outgunned it on paper during the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).
Through 2015, the Chinese military faced an increasingly complex mission set and threat environment with an archaic organizational structure. The Central Military Commission left implementation of policy to what were known as the Four General Departments — four separate headquarters that collectively functioned as a joint staff over the entire PLA but also as the de facto ground force headquarters. A central focus on the army also pervaded the lower levels of command. During times of peace, military region commanders, who were exclusively from ground force backgrounds, were in charge of ground forces; during war or heightened states of alert such as the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, military commanders assumed command over the navy, air force and second artillery troops in their area. This structure was inefficient and ill-suited to carrying out the joint operations demanded by the rigors of modern warfare.
The PLA Plays Catch-Up
The current wave of reform, pushed through by Chinese President Xi Jinping, much like the Goldwater-Nichols Act delineates a very clear division of labor. The Central Military Commission will be in charge of setting and executing the overall policies of the military, the commanders of unified battle zones will be charged with combat, and the service headquarters will step back from any operational role to focus on force development. This could significantly improve the PLA's ability to function as a joint force and eliminate much of the confusion caused by the convoluted command chain.
Despite the potential benefits of reform, the U.S. experience with Goldwater-Nichols also shows that such reforms will not go unchallenged. Reform efforts in China have often been foiled by the central government's unwillingness to see them through to implementation or by opposition from vested interests. Xi and the PLA will have to delegate significant authority to the commanders of the reformed battle zones if they are to be effective, but this runs counter to the Communist Party's tendency to concentrate power at the top, a trend on the rise under Xi.
Resistance to the reforms is certain to be strong. It took the United States decades of difficulty in conducting joint operations to make Goldwater-Nichols politically feasible; then it took another five tense years for the United States to pass the reforms. For a country like China, in which the size of the bureaucracy imbues the system with a strong conservative bias, the challenge will be even more pronounced. Even as Xi pushes through this first round of reforms, the measures are undoubtedly encountering tremendous resistance behind the scenes. There have been indications that, despite a massive anti-corruption campaign to eliminate and intimidate the opposition, Xi has cut deals in order to move forward on his planned reforms. This of course is a risky move: It may be the easiest way to pass reforms, but it also could significantly reduce their efficacy. While more officers from other branches may assume senior level positions at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, it appears that the ground forces have been able to protect some of their interests and partially subvert the spirit of the reforms.
If successful, improvements would allow the PLA to become a force truly capable of meeting the challenges of modern warfare. Still, organizational reform alone will not be sufficient to fully meet the PLA's goals. The last time the PLA conducted joint combat operations, by its own admission, was in a 1955 campaign against Nationalist-held islands off the mainland coast. Although the PLA has carried out increasingly large joint training exercises over the course of the past decade, there is no substitute for real experience.