Forces: The Chinese Army Grows Selectively Mighty

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January5, 2007: China cannot afford to modernize its entire army (fifty divisions and about twenty independent brigades). Indeed, most of these divisions are equipped with 1960s era gear, and depend on trucks, not armored vehicles, for transportation. What China is trying to do is equip about twenty percent of its divisions with more modern equipment (1980s and 90s class), along with more complete sets of gear. Emphasis is on equipping everyone with modern anti-aircraft weapons and communications equipment. In too many divisions, broken radios mean that many commanders are relying on messengers (on foot or in a vehicle) or telephone (landline, or cell phone if available).

The army is also trying to integrate air support in their training. This was not done much in the past, because of the expense of putting warplanes in the air. But combat pilots are being given more flight time these days, and now some of that is devoted to, not just bombing practice, but doing it in coordination with actual army units. This has proved scary, because the troops and pilots lacked much practical experience. But it also revealed that, with some practice, the airplanes and ground troops could work well together.

Practicing with armored vehicles is also expensive, because of the fuel cost, and the need for extra maintenance, and spare parts, for the vehicles. Again, inspired by the American experience, the Chinese are finding out that the units that can train a lot, become a lot more confident, and impressive when they are called out to perform in field exercises.

China is also trying to muster the money and equipment to equip each "Group Army" (roughly equivalent to a Western corps, a unit with two or three divisions and some support units) with an aviation regiment. This unit would have twenty or so helicopters, plus UAVs and a few fixed wing aircraft. For several decades, every American divisions has had an aviation brigade, and the success of this arrangement has not gone unnoticed. But because of the expense, and need to train so many additional pilots and ground crews, it will be another decade before every Group Army gets its aviation regiment.

 


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