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Chinese President Xi Jinping on an inspection tour of People’s Liberation Army officers in Xinjiang on Friday. Xi has introduced military reforms meant to enhance the PLA’s combat readiness. Photo: Xinhua

‘Surprising shortfalls’ in China military logistics suggest lack of conflict readiness: US analysts

  • Centralised PLA logistics system ‘something of a soft underbelly’ that could hamper battlefield effectiveness, say Pentagon experts
  • Dynamic decision-making needed to resupply field troops in changing conditions or else challenges will resemble Russia’s in Ukraine

Senior American military analysts have identified “surprising shortfalls” in the Chinese military’s logistics despite recent reforms, suggesting a lack of preparedness if it engages in a conflict in the near term.

US Department of Defence senior analyst Joshua Arostegui and other military experts said logistical gaps meant serious weaknesses in the People’s Liberation Army’s readiness to fight, notwithstanding its high enlistment numbers.

“There seem to be some surprising shortfalls in logistics support for PLA Army combat at times,” Arostegui said at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday. “Without modern logistics methods, how long can the PLA really expect to operate at a tactical level where the fighting really takes place?”

His conclusions are based on a recent Pentagon analysis of Chinese journal articles and official footage from state broadcaster CCTV focusing on the PLA’s lack of logistical infrastructure, from navy replenishment ships to aircraft apron space for maintenance.

Seeking to overhaul logistics in China’s military, President Xi Jinping in 2016 established the Joint Logistics Support Force, consolidating and integrating joint operations into a single national entity.

While the model creates greater potential efficiencies, analysts said it sacrifices direct authority for commanders in a specific theatre and invites bureaucratic delays.

Beijing continues to debate the pros and cons of various models, indicating the PLA maintains different operating models for peace and wartime and has yet to settle on how wartime operations for the joint logistics force would be carried out.

The coronavirus pandemic presented the PLA with its first serious peacetime test when it was tasked with distributing medical services and supplies, building hospitals and carrying out other services. The PLA performed “with a fairly high level of success”, Arostegui said.

Yet the differences between engaging a public health emergency and a sophisticated military are stark, Arostegui and fellow Pentagon analyst JR Sessions said, and doubts persist as to the PLA’s readiness to transition from civilian to military responsibilities.

“For other countries who are thinking about deterring China … the logistics system is something of a soft underbelly to the PLA that could pose problems” for China, Arostegui added.

Noting Beijing’s aim to incorporate untested domestic logistics firms like and SF Express into wartime transport, Sessions explained that shortfalls in the PLA’s newly centralised logistics, particularly its capacity for dynamic decision-making to resupply field troops in changing conditions, called to mind problems Russia faces fighting in Ukraine.

“Movement requests sometimes require five or six layers of approval, drawing criticism from PLA logistics planners,” Sessions said of the current set-up.

Lonnie Henley, a retired China specialist at the Defence Intelligence Agency who now lectures at George Washington University, said he had “particular questions” about the PLA’s capacity to sustain air and naval combat on a large scale.

In his view, transport units and equipment were “not sufficient for the kinds of long-distance manoeuvre actions these brigades are expected to execute”.

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“I personally suspect that the PLA Air Force can only sustain combat operations for about two weeks. They have never had to conduct an air operation longer than a couple of days in some of their larger air force exercises,” Henley said. “I just don’t think until you do that you don’t understand how hard it really is.”

Arostegui noted that while the PLA has sustainment challenges, Taiwan faces a bigger uphill battle in a possible conflict.

“If we ask all the same questions to the Taiwan defence forces as well, I’d like to think that if Taiwan is determined to resist a PLA military operation, it would take, today, more than the PLA has to defeat Taiwan’s will,” Arostegui said.

“But that’s very much a question of what’s up in the head as much as it is what’s on the ground.”