PLA Ground Force

The People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) is the land operations branch of the PLA and the largest and oldest service in the Chinese armed forces. Over the past three decades, the PLAGF has transformed from an infantry-oriented force towards a smaller, more rapidly deployable, modern combined arms force.

The PLAGF has its roots in the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army created by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1927. During the Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945, the Red Army was absorbed by the National Revolution Army led by the Republic of China (ROC) government. After the war, the Communist forces broke away from the ROC government and were reorganised into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to fight the Chinese Civil War that followed. In 1949, the PLA became the national army of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Shortly after the founding of the PRC, the PLA sent one million troops to Korea under the name of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army to fight the U.S.-led United Nations forces between October 1950 and July 1953. Elsewhere, the PLA supressed anti-Communist resistances in various parts of China. In the second half of the 1950s, the PLA went through modernisation under Soviet assistance. In 1962, the PLA engaged in a short conflict with the Indian Army on the Tibetan border. In 1969, the PLA engaged in a series of clashes with the Soviet Army on China’s northeast and northwest borders. In 1979, the PLA launched an offensive against Vietnam. Subsequent border skirmishes between the two countries lasted until 1990.

General Structure

Traditionally, the PLA ground forces have been organised into a three-tiered structure:

  • Main force units, though stationed in specific locales, may be deployed anywhere across the country as required;
  • Local or regional forces, which are primarily light infantry troops responsible for defence of the areas where they are stationed. Over the past two decades, as part of the downsizing restructuring of the PLA, most of local forces units have been disbanded, transferred to the People’s Armed Police (PAP), or became reserve forces. However, local forces with substantial strength and equipment still exist in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Beijing today.
  • Reserve forces and militia units would provide combat and logistics support to main and local force units in local defence, and also provide a manpower pool for the main force units.

There are also land-based combat and support units which are controlled by other service branches, or directly by the Central Military Commission (CMC). They include the Airborne Corps under the PLA Air Force, Marine Corps under the PLA Navy, and the Joint Logistics Support Force under the direct subordination of the CMC.

Command and Control

At the time of its creation, the PLA was largely an infantry force with no air or naval support. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, the PLA created its Navy and Air Force service branches, effectively transforming from an ‘Army’ into ‘Armed Forces’. However, the ground forces remained the predominant element of the PLA. As a result, the PLA did not establish a separate service branch for the ground forces and their command and control was exercised by the PLA General Staff Department (GSD) through a series of regional headquarters with naval and air force elements attached.

This Army-centric command and control structure remained the principal arrangement for the PLA until very recently. As part of the 2016 military reform, the PLA Ground Force Headquarters (中国人民解放军陆军领导机关) was created on 31 December 2015 as the leading organ for the ground forces of the PLA, effectively placing the ground forces on the same level as the Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force in the military hierarchy. Under this new arrangement, all PLAGF units are grouped into five regional Theatre Ground Forces (战区陆军): Eastern, Western, Southern, Northern, and Central, replacing the original seven peacetime-oriented Military Regions (MRs).

The command and control of regional and local forces below the old MR level are retained for the time being. These include Provincial Military Districts (省军区), which are regional Army headquarters set up at the province or autonomous region level; Military Sub-districts (军分区) set up at the prefecture or city level; and the People’s Armed Forces Departments (人民武装部) found at county, county-level city, district, and sometime work unit level, such as large factory. These regional headquarters are responsible for managing the local ground force units, reserve forces, and militia units stationed within their administrative boundaries. In some large- and medium-sized cities, there are also Garrison Districts (卫戍区) responsible for guarding military and government installations and assisting in maintaining law and order in the local area.

Operational Structure

Group Army (集团军)

Most operational units of the ground forces are grouped into Group Armies, which are corps-sized combined arms units headed by a Major General. They typically consist of several infantry and armoured divisions or brigades, supported by artillery, air defence, engineer, signal, chemical defence, and other support elements. Army Aviation and Special Operations Forces (SOF) units, which were previously controlled at the Military Region level, have also been assigned to Group Armies in recent years.

The Group Army system is 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 former 35 infantry corps were reduced to 24 and reorganised into Group Armies, which are corps-sized combined arms units. Under the 500,000-man reduction in 1996—2000, the number of Group Armies was cut down to 21. The 200,000-man reduction in 2003 saw the number of Group Armies further reduced to 21. The third reduction came in 2009, when the number of Group Armies was reduced to 18.

Group Armies is currently the largest formation in the PLA Ground Force. Depending on their location, mission, and readiness level, the gross manpower totals for a Group Army ranges from 45,000 to 60,000 personnel. A typical Group Army comprises:

  • 2—4 infantry (motorised or mechanised) divisions or brigades
  • An armour division or brigade
  • An artillery brigade
  • An air defence brigade
  • An engineer regiment
  • A signal regiment
  • A chemical defence regiment
  • Other support elements

Some Group Armies have also been assigned with an Army Aviation brigade and/or a special operations brigade.

Division

For several decades the principal combat units of the PLA have been infantry, tank, artillery, and AAA divisions, with infantry divisions composing the bulk of the ground forces. Since the late 1990s, many infantry divisions and virtually all tank, artillery, and AAA divisions have been downsized to brigades, while many of the remaining were converted into mechanised infantry divisions with greater mobility and firepower.

An infantry division has about 12,000 to 13,000 personnel, while an armour division has 10,000 personnel. A division is commanded by a Senior Colonels and typically comprises:

  • 2—3 infantry regiments
  • An armour regiment (in some divisions)
  • An artillery regiment
  • An AAA regiment or battalion
  • An engineer battalion or company
  • A signal battalion or company
  • A chemical defence company
  • Other support elements

Currently there is only one Armour Division existing within the PLA, which is the 6th Armour Division of the 38th Group Army. The division comprises three combined armour regiments, an artillery regiment, an air-defence regiment, and support elements.

Brigade

One of the most significant transformations in the organisational structure of the PLA ground forces over the past two decades is the reorganisation of divisions into brigades. Brigades are essentially miniaturised divisions, commanded by a Senior Colonel or Colonel, but have its regiment level removed so that they are composed of several battalions plus combat support elements. Brigades have about one-third or half the personnel strength of divisions of the same arm, but with higher proportions of combat support and logistics elements.

When the division-to-brigade restructuring in infantry units first began, many observers believed that the intension was to create smaller, more flexible and deployable elite units with better equipment and training. However, it turned out that the exercise was more of a means for force reduction. Only those divisions with lower readiness level and old equipment were converted into brigades, while elite units including the mechanised infantry units have retained their division formation.

For tank, artillery, and AAA units, the division-to-brigade restructuring has been more common. All tank divisions bar one have been converted into brigades, and these tank units were also renamed “armoured” to reflect their more combined arms nature. All artillery divisions have been converted into artillery brigades. All AAA divisions have been converted into air defence brigades equipped with both AAA guns and short-range surface-to-air missile systems.

Another noticeable change in recent years is the introduction of Army Aviation brigades and special operations brigades. Previously Army Aviation and SOF units were organised into regiments and directly controlled by the Military Region headquarters. Since the early 2010s, these units have been expanded into brigades and are now under the subordination of Group Armies.

PLAGF Strength

Ground Force Formation 2016 level
Personnel 1.25 million
Ground Armies 18
Motorised Infantry Divisions 9
Mechanised Infantry Divisions 10
Armoured Divisions 1
Motorised Infantry Brigades 19
Mechanised Infantry Brigades 26
Armoured Brigades 15
Army Aviation Brigades / Regiment 11
Special Operations Brigade 11
Artillery Brigades 22
Air Defence Brigades 20

PLAGF Order of Battle

PLA Ground Force Eastern Theatre

  • 1st Group Army (73011 Unit) (Huzhou, Zhejiang)
    • 1st (Amphibious) Mechanised Infantry Division (73021 Unit) (Hangzhou, Zhejiang)
      • 1st Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • 2nd Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • Amphibious Armoured Regiment
    • 3rd (Air Assault) Infantry Brigade (73051 Unit) (Jinhua, Zhejiang)
    • 178th Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 10th Armoured Bridge (73041 Unit) (Suzhou, Jiangsu)
    • 201st Long-Range Rocket Artillery Brigade
    • 9th Artillery Brigade (73031 Unit)
    • Air Defence Brigade (73056 Unit)
    • 5th Army Aviation Brigade
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
  • 12th Group Army (73061 Unit) (Xuzhou, Jiangsu)
    • 2nd Armoured Brigade (Xuzhou, Jiangsu)
    • 34th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (73091 Unit) (Chuzhou, Jiangsu)
    • 35th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Xuzhou, Jiangsu)
    • 36th Special Operations Brigade (73071 Unit) (Xinyi, Jiangsu)
    • 179th (Amphibious) Mechanised Infantry Brigade (73096 Unit) (Nanjing, Jiangsu)
    • Artillery Brigade (73101 Unit) (Suqian, Jiangsu)
    • Air Defence Brigade (73106 Unit) (Huaian, Jiangsu)
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 83rd Pontoon Bridge Regiment
  • 31st Group Army (73111 Unit) (Xiamen, Fujian)
    • 86th (Amphibious) Mechanised Infantry Division (Lianjiang, Fujian)
      • Armoured Regiment
      • Amphibious Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • Amphibious Mechanised Infantry Regiment
    • 91st Motorised Infantry Division (Zhangzhou, Fujian)
    • 92nd Motorised Infantry Brigade (Quanzhou, Fujian)
    • 14th (Amphibious) Armoured Brigade (Zhangzhou, Fujian)
    • Special Operations Brigade (Quanzhou, Fujian)
    • 3rd Artillery Brigade (Nan’an, Fujian)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Xiamen, Fujian)
    • 10th Army Aviation Regiment
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 89th Pontoon Bridge Regiment

PLA Ground Force Western Theatre

  • 13th Group Army (77100 Unit) (Chongqing)
    • 37th Motorised Infantry Division
    • 149th Motorised Infantry Division
    • 17th Armoured Brigade
    • Special Operations Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade
    • 2nd Army Aviation Brigade
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
  • 21st Group Army (68210 Unit) (Baoji, Shaanxi)
    • 61st Motorised Infantry Division (Tianshui, Gansu)
    • 62nd Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Jiayuguan, Gansu)
    • 12th Armoured Brigade (Zhangye, Gansu)
    • Special Operations Brigade
    • 13th Army Aviation Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade (Linxia, Gansu)
    • Signal Regiment
    • 14th Engineer Regiment
    • 11th Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 90th Pontoon Bridge Regiment
  • 47th Group Army (68310 Unit) (Lintong, Shaanxi)
    • 139th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Weinan, Shaanxi)
    • 55th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Zhangye, Gansu)
    • 56th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Wuwei, Gansu)
    • 9th Armoured Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade
    • Signal Regiment
    • Engineer Regiment
  • Xinjiang Military District (Urumqi, Xinjiang)
    • 4th Motorised Infantry Division (Aksu, Xinjiang)
    • 6th Mechanised Infantry Division (Hetian, Xinjiang)
    • 8th Motorised Infantry Division (Tacheng, Xinjiang)
    • 11th Motorised Infantry Division (Urumqi, Xinjiang)
    • Special Operations Brigade (Kashgar, Xinjiang)
    • 3rd Army Aviation Brigade
    • 2nd Artillery Brigade (Urumqi, Xinjiang)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Urumqi, Xinjiang)
    • 1st Independent Infantry Regiment
    • 9th Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
    • 31st Chemical Defence Regiment
  • Tibet Military District (Lhasa, Tibet)
    • 52nd (Mountain) Motorised Infantry Brigade (Linzhi, Tibet)
    • 53rd (Mountain) Motorised Infantry Brigade (Linzhi, Tibet)
    • 54th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Lhasa, Tibet)
    • Special Operations Brigade (Lhasa, Tibet)
    • 308th Artillery Brigade (Lhasa, Tibet)
    • 651st Air Defence Brigade (Lhasa, Tibet)
    • 15th Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment

PLA Ground Force Southern Theatre

  • 14th Group Army (77200 Unit) (Kunming, Yunnan)
    • 31st Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 32nd (Jungle) Motorised Infantry Brigade
    • 40th (Mountain) Motorised Infantry Brigade
    • 42nd Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 18th Armoured Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 86th Pontoon Bridge Regiment
  • 41st Group Army (75100 Unit) (Liuzhou, Guangxi)
    • 123rd Mechanised Infantry Division (Guilin, Guangxi)
    • 121st (Jungle) Motorised Infantry Brigade (Guiyang, Guangxi)
    • 122nd Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Liuzhou, Guangxi)
    • 15th Armoured Brigade (Guilin, Guangxi)
    • Artillery Brigade (Hengyang, Guangxi)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Linxia, Gansu)
    • 12th Army Aviation Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • 13th Engineer Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 84th Pontoon Bridge Regiment
  • 42nd Group Army (75200 Unit) (Huiyang, Guangdong)
    • 124th (Amphibious) Mechanised Infantry Division (Luofu, Guangdong)
    • 163rd Motorised Infantry Division (Chaozhou, Guangdong)
    • 12th Armoured Brigade
    • Special Operations Brigade (Guangzhou, Guangdong)
    • 209th Long-Range Rocket Artillery Brigade (Dongguan, Guangdong)
    • Artillery Brigade (Shaoguan, Guangdong)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Chaozhou, Guangdong)
    • 6th Army Aviation Brigade (Foshan, Guangdong)
    • Signal Regiment (Huiyang, Guangdong)
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment (Shenzhen, Guangdong)

PLA Ground Force Northern Theatre

  • 16th Group Army (65301 Unit) (Changchun, Jilin)
    • 46th Motorised Infantry Division (Changchun, Jilin)
      • 136th Motorised Infantry Regiment
      • 139th Motorised Infantry Regiment
      • Armoured Regiment
    • 48th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Tonghua, Jilin)
    • 68th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Qiqihar, Heilongjiang)
    • 69th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Harbin, Heilongjiang)
    • 204th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Jiaohe, Jilin)
    • 67th Special Operations Brigade (Mudanjiang, Jilin)
    • 4th Armoured Bridge
    • Artillery Brigade (Yanji, Jilin)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Dunhua, Jilin)
    • Engineer Regiment
    • 81st Pontoon Bridge Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
  • 26th Group Army (71146 Unit) (Weifang, Shandong)
    • 8th Armoured Brigade (Weifang, Shandong)
    • 77th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Haiyang, Shandong)
    • 138th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Laiyang, Shandong)
    • 199th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Zibo, Shandong)
    • 200th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Qingdao, Shandong)
    • Special Operations Brigade (Tai’an, Shandong)
    • Artillery Brigade (Weifang, Shandong)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Jinan, Shandong)
    • 7th Army Aviation Brigade (Liaocheng, Shandong)
    • 9th Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • 13th Chemical Defence Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
  • 39th Group Army (65521 Unit) (Liaoyang, Liaoning)
    • 116th Mechanised Infantry Division (Anshan, Liaoning)
    • 115th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Yingkou, Liaoning)
    • 190th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Benxi, Liaoning)
    • 202nd Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Siping, Liaoning)
    • 203rd Motorised Infantry Brigade (Yingkou, Liaoning)
    • 3rd Armoured Brigade (Siping, Liaoning)
    • Special Operations Brigade (Huludao, Liaoning)
    • Artillery Brigade (Liaoyang, Liaoning)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Fushun, Liaoning)
    • Army Aviation Brigade (Huludao, Liaoning)
    • 6th Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment (Shenyang, Liaoning)
  • 40th Group Army (65631 Unit) (Jinzhou, Liaoning)
    • 118th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Jinzhou, Liaoning)
    • 119th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Chifeng, Inner Mongolia)
    • 191st Motorised Infantry Brigade (Dandong, Liaoning)
    • 5th Armoured Brigade (Fuxin, Liaoning)
    • Artillery Brigade (Jinzhou, Liaoning)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Jinzhou, Fujian)
    • 10th Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • Pontoon Bridge Regiment

PLA Ground Force Central Theatre

  • 20th Group Army (71320 Unit) (Kaifeng, Henan)
    • 58th Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 60th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Xinyang, Henan)
    • 13th Armoured Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade (Xinyang, Henan)
    • Signal Regiment
    • 16th Engineer Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
    • 91st Pontoon Bridge Regiment
  • 27th Group Army (66267 Unit) (Taiyuan, Shanxi)
    • 80th Motorised Infantry Brigade
    • 82nd Motorised Infantry Brigade
    • 188th Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 235th Mechanised Infantry Brigade
    • 7th Armoured Brigade
    • Artillery Brigade
    • Air Defence Brigade
    • Signal Regiment
    • 5th Engineer Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
  • 38th Group Army (66393 Unit) (Baoding, Hebei)
    • 112th Mechanised Infantry Division (Gaobeidian, Hebei)
      • 334th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • 335th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • 336th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • Armoured Regiment
    • 113th Mechanised Infantry Division (Baoding, Hebei)
      • 337th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • 338th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • 339th Mechanised Infantry Regiment
      • Armoured Regiment
    • 6th Armoured Division (Changping, Beijing)
      • 21st Armoured Regiment
      • 22nd Armoured Regiment
      • 24th Armoured Regiment
    • Special Operations Brigade (Daxing, Beijing)
    • 8th Army Aviation Brigade (Baoding, Hebei)
    • Artillery Brigade (Pinggu, Hebei)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Laishui, Hebei)
    • 4th Engineer Regiment (Fangshan, Beijing)
    • Electronic Warfare Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment
  • 54th Group Army (71521 Unit) (Xinxiang, Henan)
    • 127th Mechanised Infantry Division (Xinyang, Henan)
    • 162nd Mechanised Infantry Division (Anyang, Henan)
    • 160th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Nanyang, Henan)
    • 11th Armoured Brigade (Xinyang, Henan)
    • Artillery Brigade (Jiaozuo, Henan)
    • Air Defence Brigade
    • 1st Army Aviation Brigade (Xinyang, Henan)
    • Engineer Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
  • 65th Group Army (66455 Unit) (Zhangjiakou, Hebei)
    • 70th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Tangshan, Hebei)
    • 193rd Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Xuanhua, Hebei)
    • 194th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Shijiazhuang, Hebei)
    • 195th Mechanised Infantry Brigade (Yutian, Hebei)
    • 196th Motorised Infantry Brigade (Yangchun, Tianjin)
    • 1st Armoured Brigade (Jixian, Hebei)
    • Artillery Brigade (Zhangjiakou, Hebei)
    • Air Defence Brigade (Zhangjiakou, Hebei)
    • 16th Engineer Regiment
    • 85th Pontoon Brigade Regiment
    • Signal Regiment
    • Chemical Defence Regiment

Last updated: 1 January 2017

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