Gi Zhou Examines the New PLA Corps

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It appears that the structure of the PLA's New Heavy Corps will be similar to the British 1 Corps in Northern Germany during the Cold War. The PLA Corps will be structured around brigades and I believe the Corps itself will contain a heavy artillery group, a ground manoeuvre group, an aviation group and a battlefield support group which would include bridging, electronic warfare and logistics.

An early version of the corps envisioned a total of 500 Model 96 or Model 99 main battle tanks in two armoured and two mechanised brigades; 586 ZDB-97 tracked infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), 126 155mm PLZ-45 self-propelled guns; 96 120mm turreted self-propelled mortars; 36 Type 89 30 tube 122mm and 27 300mm 12 tube A-100 multiple rocket launchers; 12 DF-15D tactical missiles and 48 attack, 18 multipurpose and 60 transport helicopters and around 2,000 other types of vehicles.

This was clearly outside what the PLA is currently able to afford with armored brigades now have three armoured battalions for a total of 99 main battle tanks, one mechanised infantry battalion, one artillery battalion with 18 self-propelled guns and one air defence battalion of 18 AAA guns. Each armoured battalion will have three armoured companies, each of three platoons with each company having 11 main battle tanks; three in each platoon and two headquarters vehicles. There are no tanks at the battalion or brigade headquarters. This is a total of 33 main battle tanks.

The new mechanized infantry brigade is to have four mechanised infantry battalions, one armoured battalion, one fire support battalion, one engineer battalion and one communication battalion. Each mechanized infantry battalion has three mechanized infantry companies, each of three platoons with each company having 13 infantry fighting vehicles; four in each platoon and one headquarters vehicle. A complete brigade contains approximately 4,000 soldiers.

By comparison the British Army's armored regiment (battalion) had tank squadrons (companies), each with four platoons of three Challenger 1 main battle tanks for a total of 58 tanks including headquarters vehicles. The mechanised infantry battalion had four companies of FV432 armoured personnel carriers, each of four platoons with four vehicles per platoon and one or two and the company and battalion headquarters. These vehicles were the direct equivalent of the PLA's current ZSD89 APC and its family of vehicles, and the recent Type 96 and Type 99 main battle tanks. Similarly the battalion battle groups envisaged by the PLA are similar to the British Army battle groups of 1981. Each British army battle group was built around a battalion headquarters, a close reconnaissance troop (platoon) with eight Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles, an anti-tank troop with four to six armoured long range anti-tank guided missile vehicles, six self-propelled guns and one or two armoured vehicles with man portable surface to air missile systems.

This comparison quickly shows two glaring deficiencies in the PLA's current structure and move towards modular combined arms battle groups. The first is the lack of a dedicated scout/close reconnaissance vehicle and the second, which in many ways is far more important, is the shortage of in-house infantry in the armored brigade and the mechanized infantry battalion.

The mechanised infantry lacks a fourth company in the infantry battalion meaning the armored brigades cannot create balanced battalion battle groups. Besides being unsuited to operations on complex terrain (urban and high altitude), armored forces that have neglected proper infantry support and have suffered large casualties include the Russian Army's 131st Maykop Brigade on New Year's Day 1995 in Grozny, and the Israeli tank forces during their initial counterattacks along the Bar Lev in the first morning of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Reconnaissance in the New Corps

Unlike the German and British Armies, the PLA like the United States Army does not have a dedicated mechanised brigade reconnaissance element. Under the new corps/brigade structure there will be a reconnaissance element as part of the corps. In the tracked units, the medium reconnaissance vehicle will be the Model 03 amphibious reconnaissance vehicle, which is replacing the Model 62 light tank and the Model 63 amphibious tank in PLA service. It will operate ahead of the main forces; and provide a flanking screen up to four km on the flanks. It is too bulky and large for scouting and close-in reconnaissance which could be performed by the ZBD05 airborne vehicle which besides having a 30mm automatic gun can carry a scout section. This role may have been trialled with aviation and other armoured vehicles by the composite reconnaissance/cavalry brigade in the Peace Mission 2007 joint exercise. The Model 02 100mm assault gun would have provided medium reconnaissance and explain the large amount of assault guns compared to the number of armoured personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles.

-- Martin Andrew

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