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Chinese Logistics Modernization

China’s military recognizes the importance of logistics on the battlefield, and it is taking steps to maximize its logistics capabilities.

China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is undergoing a complete logistics transformation. The PLA has been slowly improving its logistics concepts since the mid-1990s, but it was not until 2002, when Hu Jintao—then vice president of the People’s Republic of China—issued an order to transform PLA logistics, that rapid renovation really began. Now that Hu Jintao is China’s President and also the chairman of the Central Military Commission, PLA logistics is a top priority.

Hu’s order to transform PLA logistics was inspired by several military events. The first was the PLA’s lack of success during the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. During this conflict, the PLA never established dominance over the ill-equipped and smaller Vietnamese military. Hu blamed the PLA’s Korean War-era logistics support plan for the failure of this operation. In the 1990s, Hu and other top officials cited the U.S. Army’s Operation Desert Storm as a logistics model to emulate. They were impressed by how the United States defeated the Iraqi military in a matter of days with higher levels of technology and weaponry.

Transforming PLA Logistics

PLA logistics doctrine in the year 2000 still depended heavily on the “people’s war” concept and not on military assets. A portion of this doctrine stipulated that an individual must carry his own support and sustainment packages while fighting the enemy on the front lines. Since the 1930s, the PLA philosophy had been that company-sized units had to grow their own subsistence on small farms throughout the Chinese provinces.

Thanks to efforts by the General Logistics Department (GLD), the PLA gradually began to shift from supporting itself to purchasing subsistence from civilian markets. The GLD began implementing privatization measures to reduce the size of the standing army. Functions like managing barracks and building maintenance shifted from PLA units to civilian companies. The GLD and PLA are linking civilian and military logistics to provide what the former chairman of the Central Military Commission, Jiang Zemin, called “precision logistics.” This term is still recited today in an effort to encourage PLA leaders to continue the transformation of Chinese logistics.

Transportation is a PLA specialty that leaders have improved in order to keep pace with the U.S. military. According to the Department of Defense, the PLA is purchasing heavy lift assets from Russia to move their heavy brigade combat teams (HBCTs) to outlying provinces, including Fuzhou. In turn, the Chinese defense industry complex is building cargo planes and ships that will replace foreign-purchased ships and aircraft by 2012. The Fuzhou Province is important because it is the gateway to Taiwan, and if Taiwan decides to declare independence from the People’s Republic of China, the PLA will use Fuzhou as a platform to invade Taiwan.

The drawback to the PLA’s operational planning is that their current lift capabilities (both air and sea) are limited to moving one division at a time. The modest lift capability also limits the quantity and size of service and support packages that can be sent to maneuver units stationed in China’s outlying provinces. However, once the PLA develops its own lift capability, the plan will allow the movement of three corps of equipment, personnel, and supplies. The PLA should have this lift capability around 2012.

Catalyst for Change

The catalyst for change in Chinese logistics was the need to keep pace with U.S. military transformation. Historically, the PLA relied heavily on small loads that were transported by 2½-ton and 5-ton vehicles. This logistics philosophy coincided with the PLA’s light infantry tactics and doctrine. It also gave the PLA an advantage in terms of mobility, as was evident during the Chinese Revolution and the Korean War.

Few logistics improvements were implemented by the PLA from the end of World War II to the Sino-Vietnamese War. Transportation assets captured from Japan and purchases from the Soviet Union were the only new logistics assets that the PLA acquired. Field feeding advances were never implemented because the PLA did not place importance on subsistence upgrades. This deficiency was cited by PLA leaders in the Sino-Vietnamese War.

To make up for the lack of progress, Hu Jintao and Jian Zemin both focused on information technology improvements. They made it clear to the PLA and its subordinate units that the Chinese military needed to focus on achieving parity with the U.S. military. Hu and Jian knew that if this transformation were implemented correctly, it would permit a precise logistics flow to PLA units.

Recent Progress

PLA logistics has suffered from the axiom “do more with less” since the 1930s. Since transforming from the Soviet-era doctrine of heavy units with little mobility to the HBCT format, the interest in matching the capabilities of logistics units to those of the maneuver elements has increased. The GLD took charge of this ongoing modernization process. After the creation of the GLD, the PLA received new combat uniforms and protective equipment and maneuver units were given field feeding assets. However, PLA units still lack high-mobility transportation assets, modular equipment, and automated tracking systems, and the PLA still has not developed logistics packages that can support the HBCT concept.

During the Sino-Vietnamese War, PLA soldiers could not forage for food, so they started to receive moderate rations of eggs and rice near the end of the conflict. Insufficient field feeding capability still exists in the PLA, but the GLD is attempting to solve the problems by mandating that company-sized elements receive two to three garrison meals per week. Contracted civilian companies have been employed to provide better meals, and the PLA will soon receive new mobile containerized kitchens that can feed 4 hot meals per day to up to 300 soldiers.

Improvements to the PLA’s procurement process have also been successful. During the summer of 2004, the PLA and civilians in northeast China held a successful training event that focused on implementing the transformation of field feeding and the procurement of supplies through civilian sources. The overall success of that event has led to the employment of a supply chain management system and an increased reliance on civilian support.

Privatizing Like the U.S. Military

The privatization of several components of PLA logistics is similar to how the U.S. military shifted many of its own logistics responsibilities to private sector vendors. During the 1970s, the U.S. military transferred portions of its contracting, purchasing, and delivery responsibilities to civilian companies. Likewise, the PLA and GLD are making progress toward privatizing procurement, transportation, and building construction and maintenance. To fix the shortfall for the time being, the PLA bought enough lift assets from Russia to move a division’s worth of personnel and supplies to any province in mainland China and to remote parts of the world. The long-term solution lies with the civilian sector defense industry, which will produce enough lift capability to move three corps by 2012.

Military and Civilian Cooperation

The PLA’s shift to a more modern logistics system will be gradual. This can be partially attributed to China’s political and economic structures. Distrust between the PLA and China’s civilian populace is deeply rooted because of the last 100 years of political turbulence. In 1907, the Chinese were still living in the last days of the Qing Dynasty, which lasted until China transformed into a republic in 1911. The republic lasted until 1949, when the Communist Revolution, led by Mao Zedong, pushed Chiang Kai-shek’s republican forces to the island of Taiwan. Political instability led to other mistakes and to the people’s distrust of Chinese military forces and political leaders.

Now, as China expands its regional presence, both civilian and military leaders can see the larger picture and are putting aside their distrust. The civilian leaders see the opportunity to grow the Chinese economy, and the PLA sees the opportunity to increase its military strength. These similar goals have now brought these two parts of the People’s Republic of China together, which facilitates transformation and modernization.

The PLA’s current modernization campaign will enable China to support future offensive operations outside of its mainland. PLA precision logistics is modernizing rapidly. U.S. military logisticians should take note of China’s current and future capabilities so that they may assist with future U.S. operations planning. As an ancient Chinese maxim states, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will win a hundred times in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you win one and lose the next. If you do not know yourself or your enemy, you will always lose.”

Captain David A. Payne is the commander of the Warrior Training Unit at Fort Lee, Virginia. He has a bachelor’s degree in social science from the University of Tampa and a master’s degree in history from the University of Memphis. He is a graduate of the Chemical Officer Basic Course and the Combined Logistics Captains Career Course.