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China Declares Combined Arms Battalions Fit for Service

Primary Deployable Units of the Combined Arms Brigades

The Chinese MoD’s website announced on 20 March that the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces’ (PLAGF) combined arms battalions are now the primary ‘deployable’ units within its combined arms brigades, bringing to a close a 12-year experiment designed to modernise the force. The announcement states “the combined arms battalion has become a brand-new basic deployable combat unit in manoeuvre operations and joined the battle order.”

According to a PLAGF training officer cited in the release, the battalions feature a “modular, multi-functional force structure can be rearranged quickly and flexibly according to the battlefield situation, and the ‘plug-and-play’ configuration can produce a variety of combat modes, bringing all integrated combat elements into full play.” The release adds that the PLAGF is forming multiple types of combined arms battalions, including “heavy-duty, light-duty, air-assault, mountain [and] amphibious” formations. It claims the battalions are designed to expand the PLAGF’s operational space into multiple dimensions and promote rapid manoeuvre and three-dimensional offensive and defensive capabilities.

The formations are understood to include all arms of a force, including artillery, armoured vehicles with the ability to tow or carry their own supplies into battle, tactical UAS, air defence assets and engineering systems.

According to John Chen’s 2019 article Choosing the ‘Least Bad Option:’ Organizational Interests and Change in the PLA Ground Forces, the changes that have occurred in the PLAGF have many roots, including alterations in perception of the nature of warfare, as well as a redefinition of the PLAGF’s role, which followed the conclusion that the maritime domain is of greater importance to China. Furthermore, political reforms have led to changes in the PLAGF so that it is better able to keep the Communist Party in power.

All of these, he states, do not lead to a complete understanding of the drive for change in the PLAGF. However, his analysis is reflected in the formation of the combined arms battalions, which are multifunctional and mobile, as well as modular – three characteristics that are considered essential if the PLAGF is to protect China and deter external aggression while protecting the Communist Party.

While this announcement does indicate progress in the reform of the PLA, it still has a long way to go before achieving all of its goals, which include complete mechanisation of the one-million man army before 2030.

Miles Quartermain in London for MON

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