How Useful Will China’s Weapons Be in a Real War?

When Hou Minjun, commander of an armored unit in the Chinese military’s 27th Army, was ordered to drive his troops on a nine-day trip during a training exercise in Inner Mongolia, he lost over half his force in the event.

In the first 48 hours of the 2013 North Sword 1405 exercise, Hou looked on as all 40 tanks in his battalion broke down one after another.

Only 15 could be repaired and continue the 145-mile march, as reported by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) news service.

Despite simulating a noncombat situation, the battalion lost virtually all of its equipment in an experience that Hou, who has served for 32 years, described as “painful.”

The North Sword 1405 debacle is indicative of the challenges facing China’s officers. Despite the Chinese regime’s recent efforts to carry out broad changes and upgrades, many cracks in the PLA persist in the quality of its personnel training and equipment, according to experts and reports.

Obsolete and Mismatched Tanks   

Hou’s experience in the North Sword exercise is not surprising. Of thousands of tanks currently in service with the PLA, the overwhelming majority are variants of the T-55, a Soviet design first produced shortly after World War ll. Upgrades and retrofits have extended the lifespan of this successful weapon, but after over 60 years of service, the design simply does not fit in a modern arsenal.

Chinese People’s Liberation Army cadets wash a tank at the PLA’s Armored Forces Engineering Academy in Beijing on July 22, 2014. The vast majority of Chinese tanks are obsolete.
(GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

Particularly following the 1991 Gulf War, in which American aircraft and armor laid waste to thousands of Soviet and Chinese-built vehicles, the PLA has been making new procurements and designing updated tanks, such as the ZTZ-99, which incorporates Western as well as Soviet design philosophies, to keep pace.

It might not be enough, however. According to a February report by War on the Rocks, a military analysis blog, what modernizations the PLA’s armored forces have carried out may well be a hindrance, as they are far from comprehensive. Because new equipment is trickled into service gradually, PLA armored units generally work with “multiple generations under one roof,” to paraphrase from a Chinese proverb. The slow, uncertain pace of upgrades force officers to frequently readjust their battle plans—a reality that, combined with the overall quality of PLA training, does not bode well for the force’s prospects in a modern conflict.

Engine Trouble

Air power is one field in which the Chinese regime has placed much attention, with mixed results. While of the PLA’s aircraft, like its tanks, are old models such as the locally produced J-7 and J-8, China has added hundreds of fourth-generation—that is, designs from the late Cold War era—jets to its arsenal.

One example is the J-11 interceptor, a Chinese copy of the Soviet Su-27SK air superiority fighter. The PLA’s air force ordered this plane in 1992, and afterward began producing the J-11 locally with Russian-provided components, namely engines.

An armed Chinese J-11 fighter jet flies near an American patrol aircraft over the South China Sea in international airspace on Aug. 19, 2014. (U.S. Navy Photo/Released)

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Chinese regime has been eager to purchase advanced weapons from the Russian government. This partnership has only partially borne fruit. The Kremlin, wary of the Chinese propensity to steal and reverse-engineer foreign technology, has tended to guard its secrets carefully, leading to various abortive deals at the PLA’s expense.

Hoping to wean themselves off the Russian-supplied engines that are essential for the PLA’s modern air fleet, the Chinese have tried to produce their own engines for decades, fitting them into the J-11 and the locally designed J-10, which was also optimized to use a Russian engine.

The Chinese WS-10 jet engine, long in development as a local alternative to the PLA’s J-11s, has consistently performed dubiously. According to a report published on, the Chinese military was unsatisfied with the engine in 2007, and in 2009 a Chinese official said there were still problems with the design.

Chinese fighter jets are reliant on Russian imports for their engines. 

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that according to Russian and Chinese experts, the WS-10A engine needed servicing following just 30 hours of operation, as opposed to 400 hours for the Russian-produced engines, and far below international standards.

In 2013, the PLA’s naval forces began deploying small numbers of the J-15, a carrier-based aircraft that, like the J-11, also comes from the Su-27 family. Early models of this jet were fitted with Russian engines, but in 2010 it was announced that a Chinese-built engine, the WS-10H, would be used instead. As of 2012, however, they were still a weak point for the aircraft.

Whether or not this newest development of a home-grown Chinese engine has met expectations is unclear. Regardless, an acceptable engine for the 4th generation Su-27 family does not translate into an engine suitable for the J-20, China’s supposed 5th generation jet that is meant to match the American F-22 Raptor.

According to an article published on the “War is Boring” blog titled “The Chinese Military is a Paper Dragon,” the J-20 won’t be in service until 2021 at the earliest.

The Herculean Task of Training China’s Recruits

Even as China outfits its military with new weapons, its soldiers may not have sufficient know-how to use them properly. It takes time and effort to train personnel, and competence is needed to develop effective tactics and strategies. A recent report titled “China’s Incomplete Military Transformation,” published by the RAND Corporation, analyzed personnel deficiencies in many sectors of the PLA, including the 2nd Artillery Corps, which controls China’s nuclear weapons.

According to a report by the Project 2049 Institute think tank, in the summer of 2012, 2nd Artillery personnel conducting a 15-day military exercise in an underground bunker complex could not hold out to the end. About halfway through the drill the personnel were so distraught that female troops from a PLA “cultural performance troupe” had to be brought in to cheer them up. Theorizing that young men were not suited for long subterranean shifts, the 2nd Artillery tried a shortened, three-day-long version of the exercise—this time with women. The results were even more disappointing. A sizable portion of the personnel had to receive psychological counselling by the second day, and some even refused to eat.

Halfway through the drill the personnel were so distraught that female troops had to be brought in to cheer them up.

China maintains a large fleet of submarines, including nuclear-powered subs carrying ballistic missiles, but among the five nations on the United Nation Security Council, only the Chinese have yet to send their nuclear missile subs on an operational patrol. In a high-profile case from 2003, a Chinese diesel-powered submarine sank with all hands, revealing the poor state of training and maintenance in the PLA’s naval forces.

Raised under the restrictive one-child policy, 80 percent of the PLA’s combat troops are only children who grew up receiving the exclusive attention of their parents and grandparents, a Chinese general told The New York Times. Molding them into soldiers capable of following orders and cooperating in a highly collectivist military environment may be a challenge. Scott W. Harold, one of the authors of the RAND report told the New York Times that “kids come into the army who are used to being coddled and the apple of their parents’ eyes.”

Chinese People’s Liberation Army cadets conduct bayonet drills at the PLA’s Armored Forces Engineering Academy in Beijing on July 22, 2014. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

The quality and utility of PLA training exercises is a subject of frequent criticism from and directed at Chinese officers. Exercises are often rigged by commanders attempting to impress their superiors, and military publications point at excessive “formalism” in training. Overall, the PLA has often found itself hard-pressed to simulate the realistic environments that would reveal weaknesses in its military doctrine and provide planners opportunities to improve.

In addition to requiring more funds for fuel, ammunition, and other supplies needed for improved training, the PLA faces a systemic roadblock that lies in its founding nature, that is, its role as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.

Under the Party’s Leadership

To keep the “gun” under the control of the CCP, the PLA had to be subordinated to the Party and kept away from Chinese civil oversight. Communist ideology pervades all levels of the PLA. According to a report by the Sinodefense news website, officers spend over a third of their time engaging in “political work,” a term for ideological meetings, study sessions, and indoctrination. All Chinese career officers are Communist Party members, and all units larger than a platoon are supervised by a political officer to ensure that Party discipline is maintained. At the top levels of the PLA, key decisions are made by political committees.

The heavily politicized nature of the PLA, as well as the fact that the Communist Party keeps it in relative seclusion from civil agencies, contributes to severe corruption in its organization. Like the Party, the PLA operates largely above the law—embezzlement and illicit business are common among Chinese officers. Recent anti-corruption efforts by current Chinese regime leaders have disciplined thousands of military personnel for their vices. The most prominent senior officer to fall under investigation is Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and director of the General Political Department.

Despite his prominent rank, which he held since the early 2000s, Xu never commanded a specific military unit and spent his entire career in the General Political Department. Among the charges levied against him was the acceptance of bribes in exchange for promotions. During the investigation, the general was found to have been in possession of vast hoards of hard cash and precious gems.


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