Soon after coming to power in 2012 after the usual behind-the-scenes, hidden power struggle general secretary Xi Jinping announced that China would initiate restructuring of the military. The reform process started in right earnest in 2015. The grand target was to make the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a world-class (and world-conquering?) military by 2025. Intermediate goals were to make it fully mechanised by 2020 and to develop it into a wholly informatized entity by 2035.
These reforms included reforming the Central Military Commission’s organizational configuration, the creation of force-multiplying strategic entities like the Strategic Support Force (SSF) and the Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) and the creation of theatre commands for refining jointness. A key feature was that new effective weapons systems were to be developed. Modernisation and the resultant improvements in firepower and combat readiness coupled with the increased accent on training have made the PLA a more buoyant, aggressive force. This has been reflected in its renewed eagerness to enter into a face-off with India after the Doklam stand-off in 2017.
The old Chengdu and Lanzhou Military Regions were merged into a new all-encompassing Western Theatre Command stretching across Xinjiang, Tibet and fully covering the borders of significant neighbours India and Afghanistan. Its jurisdiction includes Sichuan, Tibet, Aksai Chin, Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Chonqqing. It is of grave importance that the Western Theatre Command (WTC) covers the entire boundary with India from the northern tip of the Siachen Glacier to the trijunction of Indian, China and Myanmar at Diphu Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. The implications of this should not be lost on us. It signals a new command structure being put into place to confront and pressurize India and embark upon another era of expansionism.
Under the new dispensation an exception was made to the new rule governing formations under command of theatre headquarters. The Tibet Military District, commanding the eastern (Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh) and central sectors (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal) on the India-China border, was upgraded a level higher to other military districts. An obvious move to advance its operational potential and battle readiness. The other operational Military District forming part of the theatre is Xinjiang. Its area of responsibility is the western part of the border between the two countries. Ladakh and possibly Himachal Pradesh are what this formation faces. In addition, both Military Districts are placed directly under the command of the PLA Ground Forces unlike other military districts whose commanders report to the Central Military Commission’s National Defence Mobilisation Department. These military districts have responsibility for reserves, militia and conscription unlike Xinjiang and Tibet which are regional headquarters controlling combat forces. They also administer logistics in their area of responsibility and have special charge of internal security, including suppression of civil dissent.
The new Strategic Logistics Support Force has subordinate Joint Logistics Support Centres in each theatre, with one in Xining for the WTC. China’s massive investment in road and rail infrastructure will allow it to deploy some 30 divisions forward from deep within the country to the frontier in a span of around 40 days.
The PLA Ground Forces exercise more command and control over Tibet and Xinjiang military districts because of their special status, compared to others placed under the authority of the CMC. This could lead to undue initiatives by commanders below Group Armies without seeking the requisite political approval. Possibly this situation led to the attack on Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley on 15th June. Chinese forces in Tibet have a relatively limited artillery capability – currently a single forward-deployed artillery regiment backed by an artillery brigade is deployed 200 km from the front line near Lhasa. They lack a significant fire support advantage in the early days of a conflict.
The Western Theatre Command (WTC) has benefited enormously from China’s military modernisation. Newly inducted weapon systems are reportedly deployed first in the Tibetan and Xinjiang MDs for testing and induction protocols. These include logically the third-generation Type-15 light tanks, specially designed for mountainous terrain, extreme conditions and harsh terrain. Also, the PCL-181 laser-guided vehicle-mounted howitzers, Z-20 medium utility rotary-wing aircraft and GJ-2 attack UAVs.
KJ-500 Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft are now deployed permanently in the Tibet MD. This could be a fallout of the 2017 Doklam stand-off. Though the PLAAF’s latest J-20 stealth aircraft has not been noticed in the skies above Tibet or Xinjiang, the latest J-10s, J-11s and J-16s (the last being an indigenous variant of the Russian Su-27) are now deployed in the theatre.
Similarly, Indian and US intelligence have not noticed the presence of the Y-20 strategic lift transport or Su-35 air superiority fighter. The Chengdu J-20 air-superiority fighters have been noticed though on training missions on the Tibetan Plateau.
Changes made after Doklam include upgrading of Tibet’s four airbases and the commissioning of seven new helipads in frontier areas.
Training, manoeuvres and drills involving all combat arms as well as joint services exercises have been accorded high priority in the WTC. High-altitude exercises including those at night have taken place with unfailing regularity. These includes reinforcing the region with troops from other theatres and GHQ reserves. The excellent communications infrastructure including railways have been used to the hilt.
Theatre missions include supporting the People’s Armed Police in maintaining internal stability in the restive Tibet and Xinjiang regions. Disaster relief requiring liaison with civilian organizations is also an important theatre mission as with other theatres. External responsibilities include responding to possible unrest in Central Asia under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO sponsored series of Peace Mission exercises since 2005 have trained SCO forces for combined operations responding to large-scale unrest. However, the WTC’s primary strategic direction is India and the disputed border regions. It is this primary role that the WTC is most focused upon and for which it trains and plans the hardest. It is high time that we took it more seriously.
As an example of the ETC’s primary focus and application thereof let us take the case of the combined arms tactical training bases (CATTB) located at Xichang and Qingtongxia. These CATTBs are highly developed training facilities for both combined arms and joint training with the PLAAF. Qingtongxia CATTB, established around 2000, includes an urban warfare training village, electromagnetic environment simulation, monitoring and control systems, as well as a 1:500 scale (900 meters x 700 meters) mock-up of the contested Aksai Chin border region. Nothing could give a better feel for the battlefield and its topography to commanders at all levels.
WTC primarily trains at the tactical level for mounting joint border counterattack campaigns to defend against an attack (assuming that India would take the lead in launching an offensive) and regain lost territory; mountain offensive campaigns; and joint fire strike campaigns against an exercise enemy loosely identified as India. A joint fire strike campaign is a long-range precision strike by missile and air-power forces with the mission to destroy important enemy targets, paralyze the enemy’s operational systems, weaken the will to resist through terror attacks and destroy war potential in the form of resources.
At the end of the day the WTC is there, it’s heavily armed and dangerous. We could start by countering it with a single theatre command of our own.
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