Explainer | China’s military structure: what are the theatre commands and service branches?
- The People’s Liberation Army has been reshaped since major reforms began in 2015 to modernise the world’s largest military
- With growing tensions over Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the border with India, the PLA has become globally significant
Highest decision-making body: the CMC
The CMC is in charge of overall administration of the military.
Technically the CMC has parallel functions as both a state institution and a Communist Party organ, but the party holds ultimate power over it, as its chairman is usually also the leader of the party.
In 2016, the CMC’s four general departments – staff, politics, logistics and armaments – were reorganised into 15 agencies, including the general office, joint staff, political work, logistical support, equipment development, training and administration, plus national defence mobilisation.
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While the new entities are more specific in their functions than their predecessors, they have no final decision-making authority. That power lies with the seven-member group which leads the CMC: President Xi Jinping, two vice-chairmen and four other members. PLA Air Force General Xu Qiliang and General Zhang Youxia – both Xi loyalists – are the commission’s vice-chairmen.
The new system integrated command of various forces including the ground, naval and air forces.
Unlike the previous military regions, the theatre commands no longer directly administer the troops in each region, but focus instead on joint command of the forces and are in charge of all non-nuclear operations within their geographical areas.
Under the direction of the CMC, the theatre commands are broadly organised based on the perception of threats at the borders.
The exception is the Central Theatre Command, headquartered in Beijing, which protects the capital and supports the other theatre commands.
China is not the only country with a theatre command system. The US has had unified commands since World War II, but these cover the globe while the PLA’s are within mainland China’s boundaries. India is also planning to reorganise its military into theatre commands, according to local reports.
What are the military service branches?
The PLA has five main service branches: the ground force, the navy, the air force, the rocket force, and the strategic support force.
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The overhaul marked a shift of the PLA’s priorities from ground defence to achieving superiority in air, space and cyberspace – allowing Beijing to flex its muscles beyond its national borders and protect its interests overseas.
The PLA Army is China’s main ground fighting force. In 2017, it streamlined the number of group armies from 18 to 13. These group armies – numbered from 71 to 83 – are split between the five theatre commands.
The group armies are made up of 78 combined-arms brigades, each with up to 5,000 troops, according to the US Department of Defence’s 2020 report.
Most of the brigades fall into three types based on the types of vehicles they use: heavy (tracked armoured vehicles), medium (wheeled armoured vehicles), and light (high-mobility, mountain, air assault and motorised).
Each group army also includes six brigades responsible for operational functions: an artillery brigade, an air defence brigade, an army aviation (or air assault) brigade, a special operations forces (SOF) brigade, an engineering and chemical defence brigade, and a sustainment brigade.
The PLA Navy organises, trains, and equips naval and naval aviation forces, as well as the PLA Marine Corps. Like the ground and air services, the navy has conducted operations under the direction of the theatre commands since 2015.
The PLA Navy consists of three fleets with subordinate submarine flotillas, surface ship flotillas, aviation brigades, and naval bases. Its North Sea Fleet is subordinate to the Northern Theatre Command, the East Sea Fleet to the Eastern Theatre Command, and the South Sea Fleet comes under the Southern Theatre Command.
The PLA Air Force and Naval Aviation branches together make up the largest air force in the region and the third largest in the world. The air force is comprised of aviation, airborne, air defence, radar, electronic countermeasure, and communications forces.
In the PLA’s reorganisation, the air force restructured into five theatre command air forces, established at least six new airbases, and restructured previously subordinate regiments into brigades under the new bases by disbanding its fighter and fighter-bomber divisions.
Previously known as the Second Artillery Force, the PLA Rocket Force was elevated to the status of a full service in 2016. It is responsible for China’s strategic land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces.
While the ground force, navy and air force have headquarters at every theatre command, the rocket force has its own headquarters in Beijing, as well as missile bases around the country.
According to a 2020 report by the Jamestown Foundation, these bases exert operational control over conventional missiles on behalf of the theatre commands and can leverage joint forces during a conventional missile strike campaign.
Strategic support force
The PLA Strategic Support Force (SSF), headquartered in Beijing, is a theatre command-level organisation which centralises the PLA’s strategic space, cyber, electronic, and psychological warfare missions.
When it was established in 2016, party mouthpiece People’s Daily said the support force’s core job would be to coordinate joint operations by the PLA’s various branches and to integrate military and civilian projects.
Through its Space Systems Department and Network Systems Department, the SSF provides information support derived from space-based and cyber-based means to all PLA services as well as the five theatre commands.
Unlike the other service branches, the SSF reports directly to the CMC instead of the theatre commands.