Can the Chinese Military Become More Joint? - by CWP Alumni Joel Wuthnow
Is China's military ready to fight Asia's next major war? Over the past decade, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has made tremendous progress in modernizing its weapons and platforms, with notable advances ranging from precision-guided missiles to surface ships to cyber and space capabilities. However, progress has eluded the PLA in another area: becoming a modern joint force. The unique capabilities resident in its four services (the army, navy, air force, and rocket force, in addition to the new Strategic Support Force) still cannot be effectively combined to carry out complex military operations, such as island landings, blockades, and joint missile strikes. Yet those are exactly the types of missions that the PLA might need to carry out in future conflicts against highly-capable opponents. PLA organizational reforms implemented in 2016 reduced some roadblocks to greater jointness, but problems remain including ground force dominance and an officer corps with limited joint expertise. A key task for PLA reform is trying to reduce these obstacles. Are they up to the challenge?
Historically, the PLA has been a “green” military — organized, trained, and manned to conduct ground combat missions, such as repelling a land invasion and ensuring domestic stability. Two key changes have created the need for the PLA to become more “purple” (a term used in the U.S. military to denote jointness). First is the changing character of war. Most advanced militaries have become more joint over the last few decades, resulting in operational successes such as the 1991 Gulf War — in which U.S. forces used land, sea, and airpower together with stunning lethality. This success required the ability to share intelligence and information freely across the services. Watching from China, the PLA knew it had to adapt or be left behind. Second is the expanded missions the PLA faces in response to changing security threats. Challenges posed by the Taiwan independence movement in particular drove the PLA to pay more attention to joint operations like amphibious assaults and blockades. The PLA also needed to find ways to counter potential U.S. involvement in and beyond Taiwan.