|Logistics in the PLA
|by Dr. Martin Andrew
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) emphasis on xinxihua zhan (informationalized warfare) has now been superceded by the concepts of Pei Shu and Zhi chi.
Pei Shu translates to “attaching troops to a subordinate unit,” meaning creating independent battle groups within the division or augmenting a division seamlessly with heavier forces. Zhi chi means “to support,” which describes the creation of a battlefield logistics organization able to supply and support forces deep inside an enemy’s rear area. This support is envisioned to be based at the corps level and include brigades, which are further split into combined arms battle groups that are generally based around a battalion headquarters (and normally a maneuver element).
Logistics, being the “poor cousin” of combat arms, suffered from inadequate funding from the birth of the PLA until very recently. The reorganization of units into mechanized brigades and the emphasis on out-of-area operations meant that logistics had to be updated. In 2005, the General Logistics Department (GLD) embarked on the modernization of its combat logistics capability to enable sustained operations on China’s periphery and beyond its borders. This article looks at how, in 4 short years, the PLA has created a modern logistics organization capable of supporting extended large-scale operations outside its main operating areas.
Peace Mission 2007
The Peace Mission 2007 exercise between Russia and China in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast was held in July 2007, and besides being the first major test of the Pei shu concept, it was used to show that the PLA could now create and deploy a composite zhandui (battle group) of light armor and helicopters. This battle group was created from existing forces and was able to conduct light infantry operations, including counterterrorism, reconnaissance, and screening operations across a wide area.
For this exercise, the PLA deployed—
- A wheeled mechanized infantry battalion comprising 40 type 92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles and 15 type 92A wheeled armored personnel carriers.
- Two companies of 18 PL02 100-millimeter assault guns, each mounting an enclosed turret with a 100-millimeter cannon and a coaxial 7.62-millimeter machinegun.
- One battalion of 16 Z–9W attack helicopters.
- One battalion of 16 Mi–17 Hip multimission helicopters.
- A company of 12 ZBD–03 airborne combat vehicles, each with a mounted 30 by 165-
millimeter automatic cannon and a coaxial 5.8-millimeter machinegun.
The 55 wheeled vehicles and 18 PL02 assault guns use the WZ551 six-wheeled armored chassis.
The type 92s can transport a mechanized infantry battalion of three companies with the support provided by two companies’ worth of the assault guns, which is an unusually large amount of huoli (firepower) for a mechanized infantry battalion. The type 92As provided transportation for the battalion headquarters and company support weapons.
Deployed infantry support weapons included the QBZ87 35-millimeter automatic grenade launcher, PF98 120-millimeter antitank rocket launcher, and type 74 backpack flamethrowers. The Mi–17s could lift two infantry companies with their support elements, providing the brigade commander with six company-level maneuver elements. The Z–9W attack helicopters provided aerial reconnaissance, fire support, and liaison.
The brigade provided its organic resupply and medical evacuation capability through the type 92A armored personnel carriers and Mi–17 helicopters and used its own logistics support for ammunition and spare parts.
Current Battlefield Logistics
On 11 August 2009, the PLA launched an exercise called Stride-2009. One of the exercise’s major objectives was to improve the PLA’s ability to project long-range power. Stride-2009 was China’s largest-ever peacetime tactical military exercise and its largest deployment of armor since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. The exercise involved over 50,000 personnel. The general staff headquarters planned and wrote the manifests over a 3-month period to prepare the rail network and arrange for China’s civilian airlines and military transport fleets to provide passenger and specialist cargo flights.
A mechanized division from Shenyang Military Command (northeast) was transported to Lanzhou Military Command (northwest), and troops from Jinan Military Command (east) and Guangzhou Military Command (south) were exchanged. The move was important because it enabled the PLA to identify and then rectify difficulties of moving their two elite combined arms mechanized corps between Xinjiang and Shenyang. The purpose was to identify problems and enable rapid reinforcement in the event of a crisis.
Each deployment lasted 2 months. Upon arrival, they were put through a series of live-fire exercises. The forces in Jinan were required to support an invasion of Taiwan and the forces in Guangzhou in the event of an armed intervention into North Korea. The personnel were moved, whenever possible, by air, and the heavy equipment was moved by rail. However, the lightly armored troops deployed to Jinan Military Command went by China Railway’s high-speed trains, which travel up to 350 kilometers per hour.
In the new combined arms mechanized corps, the logistics brigade is held at the corps level and logistics support is supplied directly to the brigades and battle groups using a “pull system.” Besides military operations, the new logistics brigade tasks involve providing logistics support for military operations other than war, which include flood control and resulting rescues, earthquake and disaster relief, nuclear and chemical terrorism, and counterinsurgency operations.
For the exercise, the logistics brigade issued 34 kinds of equipment and 4 categories of special instruments to dedicated companies, platoons, squads, and individuals. It evaluated command and control issues as well as the amount of equipment required in the event of a particular mission.
Before the exercise, the logistics brigade stressed the need to outsource equipment and facilities for military operations other than war, sign support agreements with civilian equipment and facility supply and maintenance providers, and build (according to the brigade) “a reliable outsourcing support network for equipment and facilities.” The logistics brigade for the Xinjiang combined arms mechanized corps initiated a similar system that included the provision of logistics support on over 1,900 miles of road network and at elevations of 14,000 feet and higher.
Most of the vehicles used for resupply are Dong Feng 4 x 2 and 4 x 4 medium trucks, which are based on various models of Mercedes-Benz trucks. Resupply near the forward edge of the battlefield has been made easier with the recent introduction of the type 06 tracked armored supply vehicle. The vehicle is larger but similar in appearance to the type 85 armored command vehicle. It has a modified hull from the type 83 152-millimeter self-propelled gun-howitzer, six armored hatches on the roof, and a crane mounted on the left side behind the commander’s cupola. The vehicle’s main role is to supply ammunition for the division’s self-propelled guns.
Weighing in at 19 tons fully loaded, the type 06 has a maximum road speed of 65 kilometers per hour and maximum road range of 500 kilometers. It can climb a 32-degree slope and can be on a 25-degree slope without rolling over sideways. The vehicle uses 3 crewmembers, and the vehicle commander has a 12.7 by 108-millimeter machinegun attached to his cupola on a circular frame. Four twin 76-millimeter smoke dischargers complete the vehicle’s armament.
Forward-area logistics will be improved further with the acquisition of the 4 x 4 Hummer license and production facilities by Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company, Ltd., from General Motors. The PLA had been sorely lacking in the area of logistics vehicles. The use of personnel as porters to move munitions and supplies forward is now a thing of the past.
Until recently, providing personnel with food during military operations had been largely the responsibility of the provincial militia. This was a huge problem for units operating on China’s periphery, and the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War exposed all the problems that occur when relying on the militia for logistics support. The logistics chain broke down and struggled to supply even modest amounts of food to the front line. And the PLA logistics chain had not been improved since the Korean War.
Until 2005, units in mountainous and remote areas suffered from a lack of fresh food and, throughout the PLA, there was a general lack of suitable and standardized meals and menus. In November 2005, to improve nutrition, the GLD directed that “a cup of soymilk and an egg be provided for each serviceman at breakfast.” Companies were also directed to “prepare fruit for servicemen two to three times a week if conditions permit.”
The standard and quantity of food for Chinese soldiers had decreased markedly since the Korean War and were long overdue for improvement. In established messes, catering for more than 500 personnel, electronic ovens, freezers, and machines to make noodles and bean curd were introduced. Rear-echelon units received the equipment first, and the arms messes, staffed by the units at the company level, benefited from these improvements as funding permitted.
In July 2009, the rations were further improved. The PLA’s basic daily ration for enlisted personnel and commissioned officers started to include more fresh fruit and an increased proportion of animal protein in the form of dairy, poultry, and seafood. Some pork and beef meals were replaced by poultry and low-fat, high-protein seafood.
The entire ground force was moved by train, and the helicopters were flown
In the field, new mobile kitchen vehicles have been introduced. One vehicle enables 4 cooks to prepare 4 different hot meals and a soup for 300 people in less than an hour. The long-held tradition of squads eating from the same rice bowl was only discontinued in 2003 because of the fear of spreading diseases like severe acute respiratory syndrome (a fact that raises questions about the PLA’s prior commitment to controlling disease and contamination). In PLA infantry units, which operated in groups of four or five, eating from the same rice bowl was seen as a way of emphasizing group cohesion.
More importantly, new field water purification and environmental heath equipment has been introduced. The PLA’s Red Army Division, which was used in opposing-force training, was the first unit to use new field water purifying equipment, field showers that use solar energy for heating, and other equipment to improve field environmental health. These systems enable sustained operations without having to depend on the local population for rations or water.
A GLD-run deployment sustainability exercise and the joint Sino-Russian Peace Mission exercise in August 2005 revealed the improvements required for the PLA to perform logistics missions on extended operations away from established infrastructures. Areas highlighted included the need for improved combat uniforms and personal protective equipment, high-mobility transportation, modular equipment, and better systemization of the logistics supply chain. Supplying personnel with adequate food supplies in the field also received special mention; it had been a constant issue in the PLA since its inception.
To enable sustained operations in the field without the need for resupply, the PLA introduced in 2005 the 05 series of prepackaged field rations, which were in short supply for the exercise. The rations use ring-pull cans containing such delicacies as seafood, bird, fruit, green vegetables, and meat with rice. Soup bases to accompany the main courses are available in individual soft foil pouches. MCF–240 military compressed food (“iron ration”) blocks are also available in a halal version. These are heated in a flameless heater pouch similar to meals ready-to-eat. The pouch can heat meals to 60 degrees Celsius. For the squad, there are 10-man boxed rations as well as the individual rations mentioned earlier.
PLA forces on extended operations can now eat well without having to forage off the population. Specific cold-weather ration packs are now available and come in self-heating, tinned, soft packaging. A battery-operated thermostat similar in size to a portable calculator can be plugged in to special heating pouches, enabling food, such as rice, to be heated up to 60 degrees Celsius. Motorized and mechanized units previously had eaten cold rations or used heat from their running engines to cook their meals. Soldiers involved in cold-weather operations require meals with more carbohydrates, fats, and protein to increase red blood cell formation.
The PLA has an array of vehicles to enable and enhance battlefield mobility. For gap and river crossings, the PLA employs two types of pontoon bridges: the type 84 bridge-laying tank and the truck-mounted scissors-type folding bridge that incorporates built-in pylons. For initial crossings, the PLA has motorized small rigid inflatable boats and an amphibious four-wheel drive vehicle that is almost identical to the U.S. Army’s World War II amphibious jeep. Replacing the type 62 light tank with the type 03P amphibious tank will enable reconnaissance units to cross river barriers and paddy fields more easily but at the expense of armored protection (although explosive reactive armor kits are reportedly available).
The GJT211A armored bulldozer is used for rapidly breaching minefields and battlefield engineering tasks. Equivalent to the M9 armored combat earthmover, it is equipped with a large bulldozer blade in the front and a tray over the rear of the hull that houses the type 84A rocket-launched mine-clearing explosive hose system.
To ensure adequate all-weather, high-altitude support, the PLA regularly operates in late autumn in Xinjiang in extreme weather conditions. In October 2005, an engineer regiment of the Xinjiang Military Area Command conducted a high-altitude, cold-weather exercise at 4,000 meters in the Kunlun Mountains. The exercise comprised over 1,000 men with over 100 pieces of engineering equipment. The engineers developed new methods for providing support, including a rolling device that almost halves the time it takes to build a bridge, new types of camouflage suited to the terrain, and a new front-end loader.
To repair vehicles in the field, the PLA has developed two vehicles to provide repair facilities for armored vehicles in the forward battle area. The ZJX93 armored rapid battlefield repair vehicle is based on the ZSD89 armored command vehicle hull and is designed to provide rapid repair of armored vehicles and quickly bring a stricken vehicle back into operation without an armored recovery vehicle. The vehicle’s crew of five has a comprehensive array of tools. It contains an automatic oil filtration system, a battery charger, test sets for the target, radio and stabilization systems, and tools to enable rapid entry into the disabled vehicle.
Fully amphibious and weighing in at just over 15 tons fully loaded, the ZJX93 has a maximum road speed of 55 kilometers per hour and can travel 6 kilometers per hour in water. The vehicle includes a turret-mounted type 59 12.7-millimeter heavy machinegun in a semi-enclosed turret, eight 76-millimeter smoke grenade dischargers, and three type 77/85 submachineguns for close-in protection. It is a very busy vehicle with a smaller profile than the WZ8581 armored maintenance vehicle.
The WZ8581 is based on the extended ZSD89 hull of the WZ252 tracked ambulance and has six road wheels instead of five. The vehicle is basically a garage on tracks; the crew can access a comprehensive array of tools, including an arc welder, an air compressor, and a rapid battery charger.
Designed to enable field maintenance of armored vehicles during operations in the field, the WZ8581 visually differs from the WZ252 ambulance by having a 1-ton capacity hydraulic crane on the left side of the vehicle and a turret-mounted QJC88 12.7 by 108-millimeter heavy machinegun. The WZ8581 is also equipped with four twin 76-millimeter smoke grenade dischargers. The vehicle is amphibious, weighs 17.5 tons fully loaded, and has a maximum road speed of 60 kilometers per hour and a maximum speed of 5 kilometers per hour in water.
Battlefield Medical Services
PLA battlefield medical services have also been modernized. Currently, there are three stages of medical service before an injured person is evacuated to a major army medical facility. The medics collect the patients and provide immediate first aid, and then they transport the patients to the battalion aid post where they are stabilized. The patients are then moved to the field or divisional hospital for early treatment of their wounds.
With the reorganization of the PLA into a brigade and corps structure, the corps will now own the early stage treatment facility. The PLA is investing in its battlefield health services with the addition of armored tracked ambulances that use both the type 85 and 89 chassis. The ambulance with the type 85 chassis is armed with a 12.7-millimeter machinegun, and the type 89, which is fully amphibious, is used to transport wounded personnel to and from landing craft or over water crossings.
The extent of the PLA’s need for modernization
was demonstrated in August and September 2005, when soldiers deployed to the frontier border areas
of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region were given individual medical kits procured by the Party Committee of the Wenshan Military Sub-Command Political Department. Quality medical kits should have been standardized and available long before 2005, but the kits that the PLA had been procuring were no improvement over similar kits supplied to PLA soldiers in the 1960s.
To cut costs while improving the provisioning of supplies in the field and in base areas, the PLA now uses computerized outsourcing and procurement to buy equipment, including tools, stationery, and engineering equipment, directly from the civilian sector. A division stationed in the eastern part of Liaoning Province in August 2005 tested the initial system with a mock emergency procurement drill (staged by the GLD) with local suppliers in northeast China. The success of the exercise demonstrated that the system was viable and pointed the way for future “integrated army-civilian emergency procurement systems.” The system has since undergone expansion and improvement and is now in service throughout the PLA.
The need to protect intellectual property when outsourcing equipment production has become an issue in the PLA, as it has in other militaries. The new camouflage uniform is solely for the military, but the uniform can be found for purchase through Chinese defense magazines or in markets. Chinese defense clothing suppliers will provide any style of military camouflage a buyer seeks.
The PLA, like the former Soviet army, keeps the majority of its most modern equipment in storage for use in a potential war; earlier versions and only small amounts of the more recent equipment are used in training. Although this ensures that new equipment is available during times of mobilization, it also leads to problems. Personnel are unfamiliar with the modernized equipment, and breakdowns occur from poor maintenance. Furthermore, the mass mobilization of modernized military equipment alerts an opponent to the army’s intentions.
The PLA was aware of these problems, and in the last 3 months of 2005, the State National Defense Mobilization Committee issued a series of proposals to improve rapid manpower mobilization systems. Although the PLA has deployed its two major armored corps forward and practiced rapid deployment with the Stride-2009 exercise, the units only deployed sufficient equipment to practice the live-fire portion of the exercise. Various photographs of recent exercises show the old type 59 tank (rebuilt copies of the Russian T–54A) acting as a maneuver element for the red forces (the “good guys”).
By 2007, the major modernization plan announced by the GLD in 2005 had started to bring logistics in the PLA up to the expected level of a modern military force. By the end of 2009, the PLA was able to conduct sustained independent operations outside China’s borders—an activity it had never been able to undertake before. The PLA has finally acknowledged that logistics, Zhi chi, is the key force multiplier and should never again be the “poor cousin.”
©Martin Andrew 2009. Reproduction for personal and educational purposes is authorized.
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