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China PLA: China’s PLA undergoes major restructure as it emphasises information capabilities for war

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Chairman Xi Jinping initiated a far-reaching and massive restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2015-16. He slashed 300,000 troops, created joint theater commands, revamped various umbrella departments and elevated the PLA Rocket Force. Another important change was creation of the Strategic Support Force on 31
December 2015, but Xi has now terminated that organization and replaced it with another.

On 19 April, Xi was present at a high-level PLA ceremony in Beijing to inaugurate the Information Support Force as a replacement for the Strategic Support Force (SSF). The latter existed for just over eight years, and it remained a somewhat shadowy force. However, its functions were explained by the names of key constituent units such as the Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department.

Deletion of the SSF and creation of the brand new Information Support Force represents the most serious overhaul for the PLA since that upheaval of 2015-16. Using gobbledygook typical of government announcements, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesperson, explained: “Establishing the Information Support Force through restructuring is a major decision made by the Central Committee and the Central Military Commission for the cause of building a strong military, and a strategic step to establish a new system of services and arms and improve the modern military force structure with Chinese characteristics.”

In fact, the PLA now sports a more streamlined “4+4” force structure as a result. This formula refers to four services – the preexistent PLA Army, Navy, Air Force and Rocket Force – as well as four arms. The new Information Systems Department, joined by the newly elevated Aerospace Force and Cyberspace Force and the incumbent Joint Logistics Support Force, comprise these four arms of the PLA.

Another important change brought about by the new “4+4” structure is that these four arms are now directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission. The CMC, headed by Xi, is the top party organ in charge of all of China’s military and paramilitary forces.The first commander of the Information Support Force is Lieutenant General Bi Yi, previously the SSF’s deputy commander. General Li Wei was named the force’s political commissar, previously having been political commissar of the SSF. The commander of the former SSF was General Ju Qiansheng, but his current status is unknown. He disappeared last year before reappearing briefly in February, and it is unclear if he has been implicated in the type of corruption scandal that totally rocked the PLA Rocket Force last year and decimated its top leadership ranks.So, what does the Information Support Force do? Its roles are somewhat murky, even after Senior Colonel Wu explained that it underpins “coordinated development and application of network information systems”. Nonetheless, his description suggests it is responsible for handling network information systems, communications support and probably network defense. It likely subsumes tasks previously performed by the Information Communications Base.

At the investiture ceremony in Beijing, Xi cryptically said the new force “is necessary to effectively support operations, adhere to information-led and joint victory, smooth information links, integrate information resources, strengthen information protection, deeply integrate into the military’s joint operations system, accurately and efficiently implement information support, and serve to support military struggles in all directions and fields”.

Why did Xi implement this change at this point? Dr. Brendan Mulvaney, Director of the US Department of Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), told ANI: “Corruption could be a part, but they seem perfectly happy to remove senior leaders and let the organization continue, so it is more than that. Should be there was too much bureaucracy, but again that doesn’t seem to be the whole story, especially when you now add the Information Support Force. Perhaps the CMC (aka Xi Jinping)

wanted more direct control of the information domain forces and felt like the SSF wasn’t getting the job done.”

He added too that perhaps the SSF’s Network Systems Department and cyber force were spread too thin and so the PLA therefore wanted to split some of their tasks and responsibilities.

Certainly, it appears that improving military operational efficiency and strengthening political oversight were prominent reasons, and that Xi was not satisfied with the current performance of the SSF. The latter likely turned out to be an extraneous management layer that obscured Xi’s visibility of what the PLA was doing in the cyber, information and space realms. Indeed, according to a suggestion to from one source, the SSF’s demise may too indirectly relate to China’s infamous high-altitude spy balloon program, which resulted in the USA shooting a balloon down over its territory in February 2023.

That covert SSF program may have caught Xi off- guard and caused him to demand greater visibility over disparate programs. Now, after the reorganization, Xi and his CMC cohorts can deal directly with the four individual support forces without having to always deal with an intermediary SSF headquarters. This will also benefit the four arms themselves, since they are not inhibited by an unnecessary management layer above them.

Furthermore, the four arms are now one grade lower than both the PLA’s five theater commands and each of the four services. Each force/arm is led by someone at the deputy theater command leader grade. Previously, the SSF was at the same level as these five commands. In militaries, where the chain of command is paramount, this means that commanders in the five regional theater commands should be able to more easily request and receive support from the four forces without having to resort to a higher headquarters.

The PLA has historically tended to be a very stove-piped organization, so this move should improve functionality for joint operations. Regarding the surprise move by Xi, Dr Mulvaney pointed out: “There were no outside indications, at least not publicly available ones, that the SSF was going away. We had heard rumors of corruption at the top, but the PLARF had similar issues and they just removed the political commissar and the commander. Obviously, it takes quite a bit of planning and groundwork to create a new force, much less disband another, but it appears the PLA kept these plans pretty well hidden from public view.”

At the inauguration ceremony on 19 April, Xi commanded the Information Support Force to “resolutely obey the party’s command and make sure it stays absolutely loyal, pure and reliable”. As outlined in the 2019 “China’s National Defense in the New Era ” white paper, it was stated the PLA would evolve from “informationized” to “intelligentized” warfare through such technologies as artificial intelligence, quantum information, big data, cloud computing and the Internet of Things. As this occurs, centralized control becomes even more important for the Chinese Communist Party, and this may be another reason why Xi put the Information Support Force directly under the CMC’s ambit.

“Informatization”, alongside “mechanization” and “intelligentization”, are key watchwords of the PLA’s modernization program. Indeed, the PLA considers the information domain as important as the four traditional domains of air, land, sea and space. Xi makes much of the 2027 deadline – the Chinese military’s centenary – for the PLA to achieve its interim modernization goals. Xi said the Information Support Force plays “a crucial role in advancing the Chinese military’s high-quality development and competitiveness in modern warfare”.

Will the reorganization be disruptive to PLA operations? Dr. Mulvaney said it would not be massive. The CASI representative added, “Anytime there is a reorganization, it causes disruption, but it will certainly be manageable. I believe the Aerospace Force

will likely just continue on as normal with minimal change. The Cyberspace Force will probably cleave off part of its organization to the Information Support Force, but the rest will still function as before. And even the parts that move likely won’t suffer too much.”

Dr. Mulvaney further noted: “The new headquarters will take time to get up and running, stake out positions and roles and establish command and control, as well as organizational relationships with the other services, forces and theater commands. But it won’t be as big of a shift as the 2015-16 reforms, and really only affects a pretty small portion of the PLA as a whole.”

Returning to the other two units elevated to force status on 19 April, the MND’s spokesman described the Cyberspace Force’s role as “reinforcing national cyber border defense, promptly detecting and countering network intrusions and maintaining national cyber sovereignty and information security”. Absent from his description were offensive cyber activities, which actually play an important part in PLA and Chinese doctrine. Indeed, several Five Eyes countries publicly accused China last month of illegal cyber activity. The Cyberspace Force essentially takes over the responsibilities of the SSF’s former Network Systems Department.

Without a trace of irony, Senior Colonel Wu said, “We actively advocate building a cyberspace featuring peace, security, openness and cooperation, and are committed to working with the international community to jointly build a community with a shared future in cyberspace.” Of course, China has one of the most highly controlled internets in the world and is guilty of massive and repeated breaches of private and government networks around the world.

As for the Aerospace Force, it supplants the SSF’s Space Systems Department. That means it will supervise space operations and space launches. As Senior Colonel Wu noted, “Building the Aerospace Force is of great significance to strengthening the capacity to safely enter, exit and openly use space, enhancing crisis management and the efficacy of comprehensive governance in space and promoting peaceful utilization of space. China’s space policy is clear. We are committed to peaceful utilization of space…”

Although China likes to emphasize its peaceful use of space, the PLA has an extremely aggressive military space program that includes satellites and counter-space weapons. It is interesting that, of the four forces, the MND mentioned the Aerospace Force first. Since the PLA follows strict protocols in formal announcements, this may indicate that the Aerospace Force will be the most senior force of the quartet, followed by the Cyberspace Force and Information Support Force respectively.

Dr. Mulvaney confirmed: “The Aerospace Force and Cyberspace Force are really just the former SSF departments of the same name (with ‘force’ now replacing ‘department’), so they weren’t really created here but rather just had the overarching SSF structure removed. The transformation should be relatively straightforward for the Aerospace and Cyberspace Forces, since they will presumably continue as normal from existing locations.”

Referring to all these changes instituted on 19 April, Senior Colonel Wu said, “This is of profound and far-reaching significance to the modernization of national defense and the armed forces, and effective fulfillment of the missions and tasks of the people’s military in the new era.” The work of reshaping the PLA and readying it for war is not complete either. China’s MND said that, “as circumstances and tasks evolve, we will continue to refine the modern military force structure”.

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