PLA shows off slimmer, hi-tech fighting force

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 October, 2009, 12:00am

Beijing unveiled a slimmer but, it says, more capable fighting force yesterday - an indication of the future direction of the world's largest army.

More than 8,000 soldiers marched on foot and rode in armed vehicles on Changan Avenue in front of current and former state leaders and foreign dignitaries, while 12 air echelons flew overhead. The number of soldiers was 2,000 fewer than took part in the parade in 1999, but the number of mechanised phalanxes and air echelons was noticeably higher.

Observers of the army say the new display is in line with the development strategy of the People's Liberation Army as it seeks to become a sleek, modern and diversified force capable of rapid deployment and long-distance projection.

'Today's parade showed us that the PLA has turned into an efficient modern army after nearly two decades,' said Professor Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, from the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. 'It was a very comprehensive parade as it covered every aspect, from the smartly cut new military uniforms to the weapons systems they presented. Even the armed police and logistics units are completely re-equipped.'

In the past two decades, the PLA has abandoned the Maoist war approach that relied on sheer troop numbers and turned to mobility, technology and training.

Another PLA watcher pointed out that while yesterday's military parade was impressive, it could not be used to gauge the military's real strength. The mainland had held back some of its most advanced weapons, such as the JuLang 2 submarine-launched ballistic missile and the Zhi-10 armed helicopters.

'We can make no conclusions about the tactical abilities of the troops or the capabilities of the equipment,' Dennis Blasko, a former US military attach?to China, said. 'The fact that nothing broke down en route and all marchers completed the parade is admirable, but does not speak of tactical capabilities.'

The variety of weapons platforms featured in the parade did show that the PLA is now more capable of conducting a co-ordinated operation.

New weapons such as the KJ-2000 early warning aircraft, long-distance cruise missiles, unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and the new generation of jet fighters mean the PLA now has greater power projection than 10 years ago. Most of these weapons systems are domestic designs.

'We also saw modern logistical and engineering equipment in the parade. It means the PLA's mobility has improved a lot,' Huang said.

Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Defence Review, said it was impossible for outsiders to know whether the PLA had shown its full capabilities. 'But the 52 types of weapons systems [showcased in the parade] prove its military strength is superior to those of the surrounding countries. It tells us that as a global power, Beijing is more capable of safeguarding its 'interest frontier' around the world.

Professor Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based PLA specialist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, agreed that the PLA had not revealed its full arsenal.

'The PLA would keep its most powerful weapons in the dark,' Ni said.

He said one of the objectives of the parade was to deter the 'three forces' of separatism, terrorism and extremism at home and abroad.

'I think the challenge of the three forces in Xinjiang and Tibet is the biggest headache for Beijing,' Ni said. 'Territorial disputes come only second.'