As part of its ongoing military restructuring programme, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reorganising its 18 corps-sized group armies within its Ground Force into 13 new group armies numbered 71 to 83. In addition, it is also introducing significant changes to the airborne corps, currently under the control of the PLA Air Force.
New Group Armies
On 27 April, a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of National Defence (MND) announced the creation of 13 new group armies (GAs), organised from the forces of its existing 18 GAs.
Most operational units of the PLA Ground Force have been grouped into GAs, which are corps-sized combined arms units headed by a Major General. They typically consist of several infantry divisions or brigades, augmented by combat and logistic support elements including armour, artillery, air defence, aviation, special operations force (SOF), engineer, signal, chemical defence, etc.
The old Group Army system was the direct lineal descendant of the numbered army corps of the PLA created in the final years of the Chinese Civil War. By 1948, there were as many as 70 infantry corps in the PLA, and this number was reduced to 35 by the late 1980s. As part of the one-million-man force reduction in 1985—87, the 35 infantry corps were reduced to 24 and reorganised into GAs. Under the 500,000-man reduction in 1996—2000, the number of GAs was cut down to 21. The 200,000-man reduction in 2003 saw a further reduction in the number of GAs to 21, followed by a further reduction in 2009, with the number of GAs reduced to 18.
The latest round of force reduction and restructuring programme, which is believed to have started earlier this year, has reduced the number of GAs from 18 to 13. However, unlike previous restructuring programmes where existing GA designations were retained in order to preserve their historical lineages, the old GA designations have been completely scraped and the remaining 13 GAs have been allocated with new designations numbered from 71 to 83.
According to the Chinese social media, the 13 GAs have been formed largely on the basis of existing GAs, under the command of the five Ground Force Theatre Commands: Eastern Theatre (71st, 72nd and 73rd GA), Southern Theatre (74th and 75th GA), Western Theatre 76th and 77th GA), Northern Theatre (78th, 79th and 80th GA), and Central Theatre (81st, 82nd and 83rd GA).
At the same time, the existing 14th, 20th, 27th, 40th and 47th GA have been disbanded.
Overall, the recent military reorganisation programme has formed 84 corps-sized units across all five services (ground, air, navy, rocket, and strategic support) of the PLA. In addition to the 13 GAs, other corps-sized units will comprise garrisons, provincial military areas, military academies and universities, research institutes, as well as corps-sized units within the Air Force, Navy, Rocket Force, and Strategic Support Force.
Reorganisation of Airborne Corps
Another major development occurred in late March and early April, when the PLA initiated the restructuring of its airborne force.
Prior to the restructuring, the airborne force, under the control of the PLA Air Force, consisted of a single corps-sized unit the 15th Airborne Corps. The corps consisted of three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, and 45th), each consisting of two airborne regiments, as well as a Special Operations Force (SOF) group, an airlift regiment, and a helicopter group.
Following the restructuring, the 15th Airborne Corps was scraped and reorganised into the PLA Airborne Corps. The three three airborne divisions were also scraped, and their six subordinated airborne regiments have been expanded into six airborne brigades (127th, 128th, 130th, 131st, 133rd, and 134th Airborne Brigade). The SOF Group has been expanded into the Special Operations Brigade. The airlift regiment and the helicopter group have been merged to form the Aviation Brigade. The signal regiment, engineering detachment, and chemical-defence detachment have been merged to form the Support Brigade.
The ending of the old corps-division-regiment structure and the forming of the new nine-brigade-strong Airborne Corps (six airborne brigades, a special ops brigade, an aviation brigade, and a support brigade) signals a major expansion of the airborne force, which have been traditionally serving as a strategically mobile unit, capable of being deployed anywhere in the country in a very short time frame. Since the early 2000s, the historically lightly-armed airborne force has been allocated with airdrop-capable armour and artillery equipment.