On paper the Chinese army looks pretty impressive, with 78 combat brigades and nearly as many specialized brigades. Over the last decade the Chinese army has been converting its divisions to brigades, many of them independent brigades like the American Brigade combat teams. That conversion is still underway, although by now nearly all the regiments that formerly comprised the major subunits of divisions have been converted to brigades.
The task of turning all those new brigades into well-equipped and trained ones is still underway. There are three types of combat brigades. The most potent is the heavy brigade, each with about a hundred tanks and dozens of tracked IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles) plus detachments of engineers and other specialists. The problem with these heavy brigades is that not all of them have the latest tanks. China has not built enough of its most modern tank to replace all the older models. As more of the latest tank enter service heavy brigades receive them and have to go through months of training to learn how to get the most out of them.
Then there are the medium brigades that are mainly infantry in wheeled IFVs. These are similar to American Stryker brigades but China only has a few of those so far, so most still older IFVs rather than the latest “Stryker class” wheeled IFVs. The heavy and medium brigades often have up to 5,000 troops, including all the smaller specialist detachments that make these brigades the equivalent of a small division.
Finally, there are dozens of light infantry brigades. Many of these are simply infantry who are transported by truck but the light brigades include some mountain brigades and several air assault (via helicopter) brigades. The Chinese Air force has seven airborne infantry brigades (4,000 troops each and the navy has three marine brigades (6,000 troops each).
There are also about 12,000 special operations (commando) troops, most of them in the army. Each of the 13 Group Armies has a special forces “brigade” and these brigades have fewer than a thousand troops. The paramilitary police have about a thousand of these commandos while the air force has a smaller number.
The major problem with the army is that all the elite units (special operations and airborne) as well as key units stationed in the capital and a few other places have few conscripts. Nearly all the conscripts are assigned to the combat brigades and the support brigades assigned to each of the 13 Group Armies. Units with conscripts spend about half the year training the new ones and if there is a war these units would, half the time, have a large portion of their troops poorly trained and not fully integrated into the unit. This is a major problem for combat units that depend on well-trained troops who have been with their units long enough for commanders to know what they can get out of them.
The Chinese army currently has about 900,000 troops and nearly half of them are conscripts. This is a problem because the conscripts only serve for two years and then most leave. The army encourages conscript soldiers who performed well during their two years to become career soldiers. If accepted the soldier accepts a multi-year service contract and is soon promoted to corporal and some are offered a chance to be an officer and attend officer candidate school. Soldiers who perform well are allowed to keep reenlisting until there are 55, at which point they retire on a pension and get preferential consideration for government jobs. The percentage who are accepted as career professionals and offered officer candidate school varies from year-to-year depending on need and the quality of the conscripts finishing their service.
There are seven NCO ranks, from corporal to Master Sergeant 1st class or, the Chinese equivalent of Sergeant Major. Many of these career soldiers don’t stay in long enough to retire and some are not allowed to reenlist. NCOs are relatively new for China because until the 1980s China followed the Russian practice of having officers handle many jobs NCOs take care of in Western forces. China has greatly increased pay and responsibilities of NCOs in the past two decades. Now some more experienced or highly trained NCOs do technical and staff jobs that were previously performed by officers. To become an NCO you must have a high school education, which not all Chinese teenagers are able to obtain.
While China wants an army that can perform as well as Western forces, they won’t get it until they convert to an all-volunteer force and upgrade initial combat training to Western standards. China is switching to Western training methods but is not yet willing to spend what it takes to pay all the troops what they are worth. Currently the two-year conscripts are paid are paid $30-40 a month. The lowest ranking NCO makes more than twice that and the top NCOs (Sergeant Major) makes ten times what a conscript makes. For an all-volunteer force pay for everyone would have to go up to maintain differences between rank. That would begin at the very bottom, where new recruits would make two or three times what they get now. Living conditions (housing and food) have been improving rapidly during the last decade but career troops need to make enough to support a family.