Special Operations: China And The Virtue Of Being Special

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May 17, 2018: In April 2018 the Chinese Air Force 15th Airborne Corps completed a yearlong reorganization effort that involved disbanding the three airborne divisions (the 43rd, 44th and 45th) and reassigning divisional headquarters and support troops as well as the units of the airborne regiments to six independent airborne infantry brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th) which now report directly to the headquarters of the 15th Airborne Corps. While the new airborne brigades have some support troops they now also receive logistics, maintenance, engineer and signal support from the 15th Corps Strategic Support Brigade, as well as the Aviation Brigade (over a hundred helicopters and large UAVs) and Special Operations Brigade (airborne commandos and recon troops).

After the reorganization, the Chinese airborne force still has about 35,000 personnel who still serve in the Air Force 15th Airborne Corps. The airborne units no longer operate as three airborne divisions and an aviation brigade. The airborne divisions no longer exist as the brigades can operate independently and report directly to corps headquarters. This brigade organization makes it easier to rapidly deploy airborne forces and copies a practice that many other nations have adopted over the last few decades.

The Chinese have had some airborne units since the 1950s and these belonged to the air force from the beginning. The 15th Airborne Corps was created in the 1960s and was always considered a strategic reserve unit. By the late 1980s, China had enough air transports to move an entire division (about 10,000 troops) anywhere in China. At the time such a movement took weeks to organize and monopolized most of the air transport aircraft the military had.

Moving a division anywhere by air on short notice was first done in 2008 when one division was sent to Sichuan province to assist in earthquake relief. The early large scale movements by air movements were experimental. A lot of mistakes were made but they were fixed and by 2010 battalions and brigades could be moved reliably by air on a regular basis. Since 2006 as the air force acquired more, and larger, transports so that more troops, as well as vehicles (some armored) could quickly be delivered by air.

Since 2009 the 15th Airborne Corps has been receiving more helicopters and practicing tactical movements via helicopter for units as large as brigades. These exercises are becoming more frequent, as more of the 15th Airborne Corps paratroops battalions were trained to undertake these helicopter movements and assaults. These operations would be a major feature of an attempt to take Taiwan by force or quickly reinforcing remote Tibet in case there was a local rebellion. Another threat is the newly created Indian Mountain Corps that is based on the border and could cross the border unexpectedly in the 2020s when this new Indian unit reaches full strength of 80,000 troops. And then there are the new islands in the South China Sea that might be in need of rapid reinforcement.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991 most nations have converted all or part of their ground forces to a "brigade-centric" organization. This approach makes the brigades, not the divisions, the primary combat unit. The new brigades have more support units permanently attached, and can be more easily sent off to fight by themselves. In the past, doing this involved quickly adding a lot of support units to the brigade. But the new organization makes small support units part of the brigade, and, more importantly, the brigade train using these support units and learns to work well with them. In some nations, the divisions still exist but operate as a headquarters unit that can quickly take control of several separate brigades and coordinate their activities. This makes division headquarters more like the corps headquarters which have, since the early 18th century; been coordinating the actions of a few divisions and only having a few support units under its command. With a brigade centric force, the slightly larger brigades are treated like the original 18th-century divisions. This makes sense because modern brigades have access to a lot more firepower than divisions of a few decades ago.

As far back as World War II, it was noted that technology was making it practical to form brigades that were capable of independent operations. Adoption of the new approach speeded up greatly in the 1990s as most armed forces reduced the number of personnel they had at the same time a lot of new technology became available that aided independent operations of smaller units. The U.S. Army began this reorganization in 2005, despite the fact that most of its ground forces were committed to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Marine Corps had already been successfully using a brigade-centric organization for decades. After the U.S. Army adopted brigades, Russia followed as did most Western armies and now China is doing the same, starting with its best trained and equipped infantry units.

Currently, the 15th Airborne Corps is a major component in the new rapid reaction forces. China now has enough air transports (Il-76s, Yu-8s, Yu-7s) to move three or four airborne brigades to anywhere in China within 24 hours. Since 2009 the 15th Airborne Corps has also been training a growing percentage (currently about two-thirds) of its paratroopers to carry out one or more specialized operations. This involves things like operating from helicopters as airmobile troops or learning how to jump in the thin air of Tibet and quickly get used to strenuous activity at high altitudes. Operating in Tibet is a particular challenge because most of Tibet is a unique high altitude (4,000 meters/14,000 feet) plateau. That means parachutists have to jump from a higher altitude on account of the thinner air and the longer time it takes for the parachute to open. The reduced air pressure also causes altitude sickness for many troops, especially after something as strenuous as a parachute jump, and the frantic activity following the landing.

The Chinese Army wanted to find out how well prepared it was to deal with these high-altitude operations problems and the Air Force paratroopers provided a lot of useful information. Since the late 1990s, the Chinese Army has adapted. This process accelerated after 2008. Back then there was an uprising in Tibet and many of the troops sent in soon fell ill from altitude sickness. Since then acclimatization training detects those troops who would get ill quickly, and the worst of these are kept closer to sea level. Rapid reaction troops were given priority if going through the high altitude acclimatization process. Rapid reaction forces like the 15th Airborne Corps are undergoing training for a lot of new situations. This is essential because the new Chinese military is being equipped for a wider variety of situations than ever before. As part of this new Chinese military there are much higher recruiting standards and while corruption in the military is still a problem there are serious efforts to suppress the debilitating impact of that corruption. This is particularly evident in the special operations units.

 


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