News analysis

Revamp will arm PLA for modern-day battles: Experts

China's military restructuring could make the People's Liberation Army (PLA) more efficient and versatile in tackling modern-day battlefield scenarios such as space and cyber warfare, said experts.

A separate command unit for the army - one of three new military units set up on Thursday - will help the PLA to be a more balanced military and also pave the way for a joint operational command structure that would prove crucial in battles, they added.

Beijing-based military expert Wang Xiangsui told The Sunday Times that the PLA had comprised almost entirely of land-based troops, due to its past as the revolutionary Red Army and the anti-Japanese Eighth Route Army.

Even after the navy and air force were set up shortly after the Communist Party won the civil war in 1949, the army has remained as the military's cornerstone till today, he added. Until now, the army did not have its own command unit, unlike the navy and the air force, and was managed indirectly by the military's nerve centre, the General Staff Department (GSD).

"The change means the army, navy and air force will be equally represented... The army was like a father to the navy and air force. Now all three are like brothers," Mr Wang said. "It reflects a move from an army-centric PLA to a more balanced, modern military."

Hong Kong-based military commentator Liang Guoliang said the revamp was necessary as the army may not always play a dominant role in modern-day battles. "In some battles, the army may have to play a supporting role to the navy or the air force. Setting up a separate army command will allow it to train and devise strategies for scenarios in which it plays a dominant role or a supporting role," he said.

PLA expert Arthur Ding of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies said a new army command is also pivotal to President Xi Jinping's effort to transform the GSD into a unified command of all military services, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States armed forces.

"Developing a newly unified command of joint operation type for GSD is a daunting job, and setting up the army command can help GSD to accomplish this goal. In brief, removing the function of developing a ground force will allow GSD to concentrate on the goal."

Under the revamp, China will also set up a new structure that gives the Central Military Commission (CMC) command over the PLA and the People's Armed Police, the paramilitary police force .

Mr Liang also said the new Strategic Support Force, which is set to focus on kinetic, electronic and cyber warfare, could prove a valuable tool in neutralising enemy threats such as satellite and electronic networks - without the need to fire a single shot.

The third new unit - the "Rocket Force" - will likely take charge of space warfare on top of controlling the country's nuclear missile arsenal. Observers say the new unit could see the PLA deploying more aircraft-launched anti-satellite weapons, laser-armed low earth orbit combat platforms, low earth orbit bombers and dual-use civilian military space shuttles.

The nationalistic Global Times wrote in an op-ed yesterday that China needed a stronger army so that it could undertake greater global responsibility. A strong military can help China in its competition with the US for influence and support among other countries, it added.

"If China has a big gap with the US in terms of military prowess, this will affect its international position and other countries' attitude towards China," it wrote. "With a strong army, China can be more politically appealing, influential and persuasive, and it will make it easier to network. As we gain more trust from other countries, many of them will no longer be dependent on the US for security and on China for economic benefits."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Revamp will arm PLA for modern-day battles: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe