The role of Xinjiang and Tibet as both suppliers and conduits of resources necessary for China’s continued economic growth has resulted in a reevaluation of both regions’ importance. Xinjiang, with its domestic oil fields in the Tarin Basin and its role as a hub for oil and gas pipelines arriving from Central Asia, has become China’s main source of non-seaborne petroleum (China Daily, February 26, 2004). Tibet, on the other hand, possesses large amounts of zircon, chromium, rutile, magnesium and titanium that are needed by China’s heavy industries. Large amounts of cobalt and copper also lie astride the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The strategic value of these regions and their resources has resulted in the increased deployment of China's offensive mechanized forces to these regions in order to prepare for any contingencies that might threaten its interests.
Coinciding with these deployments has been an evolution in the content of the doctrinal discussions among People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists. The 1980s focus on "informationized warfare" has since shifted toward the concepts of "peishu" and "zhichi." Peishu, translated as "attaching troops to a subordinate unit," is the concept of creating independent battle groups within a division or seamlessly augmenting a division with heavier forces. Zhichi or "to support" is the idea that a battlefield logistics unit should be capable of supplying and supporting forces deep inside enemy territory. Such operational doctrine in the PLA is firmly designed for broad sweeping operations as envisaged by the Soviet operational art theorists who had taught the original PLA generals in the 1920s and 30s.
Adopting a New Structure for the Modern Battlefield
The PLA has moved toward the creation of an armor-heavy corps akin to the Soviet Operational Maneuver Groups of the 1980s. The cost of such formations are enormous, however, and the PLA has started on a smaller-scale with a lighter force for deployment in Xinjiang and Shenyang that can be augmented with more powerful forces using the building block approach. This permits units within and from outside of the division to be seamlessly added to augment the division’s firepower or logistics capabilities. In recent years, mechanized infantry divisions under the Beijing and Shenyang Military Region (MR) Commands have conducted exercises, developing the use of units as "building blocks" to create battle groups with greatly improved operational logistics. Furthermore, along with units in Xinjiang, these forces were used to develop the PLA’s new high altitude and urban warfare doctrines.
China’s new mechanized infantry division, developed from these trials, was recently unveiled and has been described as being two generations ahead of current mechanized infantry divisions. Organized and equipped to fight as independent battle groups specifically on mountainous and urban terrain, its equipment is lighter in weight and firepower than the PLA's armored and tank divisions tasked to defend the nation. Its theaters of operation include Xinjiang and Tibet where the division’s lighter vehicles and support weapons can operate in areas where the communications infrastructure is described as underdeveloped at best.
The structure of the armored and infantry divisions follow the standard PLA triangular organization, consisting of three infantry or armored platoons to a company, three companies to a battalion, three battalions to a brigade and three brigades to a division. The division is comprised of three mechanized infantry brigades, one tank brigade, one artillery brigade, one air defense brigade, one helicopter wing and a logistics unit directly subordinate to the corps. The division headquarters is composed of an engineer battalion, an electronic warfare battalion, a chemical defense battalion, the division headquarters itself (which is company sized), air defense units and a guard company for headquarters protection. The division’s artillery, intelligence and aviation structure are taken from the U.S. Army’s experimental Division 86 .
The major difference in the new structure as opposed to previous configurations is that there are now four Type 86 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in each platoon instead of three. This provides the platoon command with its own vehicle, allowing, for the first time, elements such as a forward observer or engineering teams to be attached to the platoon. This enables the platoon to be the lowest tactical unit whereas before, this was at the company level. There are a total of 351 Type 86 IFVs in each division that are supported by an artillery brigade of 72 122mm self-propelled guns and a tank battalion of 99 main battle tanks. Type 89 armored command vehicles are liberally provided throughout the division down to the company level to provide command and control capabilities.
The Type 86 IFV, a copy of the Russian BMP-1, has been modified so that the existing 73mm low velocity gun turret is now replaced with the new Chinese one-man "universal turret" containing a 30mm chain gun. The 30mm turret increases the vehicle’s anti-armor capability by 2.5 times and significantly increases its survivability, with the removal of over 35kg of easily ignitable high explosives. A standard BMP-1, when penetrated by a shaped charge, invariably blew apart at the weld seams. The new 30mm turret also has greater depression and elevation to enable individual windows and mountainsides to be engaged. No new armor has been added, however, meaning that the Type 86 is still vulnerable to high-powered 7.62mm rounds on its sides as well as anti-armor rockets .
The other combat tracked vehicles in the division, other than the tanks, are based on the indigenous Type 85/89 armored fighting vehicles. The support company of the battalion consists of one 100mm mortar company with 10 vehicles, with one mortar per vehicle and a single fire control vehicle; an automatic grenade launcher (AGL) platoon with two vehicles, each equipped with two AGLs; one anti-tank platoon of two vehicles sharing three anti-tank guided missile systems. There are 18 Model 85 series armored vehicles in each brigade providing 54 anti-tank guided missile systems in the division. There is an air defense platoon of three vehicles with four missiles per vehicle for a total of twelve. A division has 27 air defense vehicles and has 108 man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) available for air defense at any time. They come under the operational control of the air defense brigade.
In line with the lighter vehicles, the divisional air defense brigade is composed of one battalion of 24 towed 57mm anti-aircraft guns and one battalion of 18 towed twin 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An air defense platoon of six Model 95 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and one light surface-to-air missile launcher are attached to the artillery brigade. A new addition to the division is a helicopter wing with one squadron of six Z-9G attack helicopters and one transport squadron of six Mi-17 helicopters. These are lighter units that are likely to be augmented for operations. Logistics are provided by corps assets that are attached to the battle groups as required.
The vehicles and weapons in the new mechanized division are lighter than those in other PLA mechanized units, reducing their logistical footprint and providing tactical mobility, allowing for more roads and bridges to be used during operations. Lighter units are also more easily refueled and resupplied. On the few good roads in the rural regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, the ability to operate for extended periods is an invaluable advantage. Presently, only wheeled armored fighting vehicles operate in Tibet; tracked IFVs armed with 30mm automatic cannons and heavier support weapons would greatly assist these forces in the event of a widespread insurgency or an attack by Indian forces.
Heavier forces that might be utilized to augment the new division have also been developed. Support units drawn from the Beijing MR Command, including the Sixth Armored Division, have a structure similar to that of the mechanized infantry division. Its company structure is the same as the tank brigade in the new mechanized infantry division. There are two tanks at the battalion headquarters whereas in the mechanized infantry battalion tank brigade there are none. There are therefore 35 Type 88B or Type 99 main battle tanks per battalion and 105 main battle tanks per brigade.
Supporting artillery brigades are equipped with 72 152mm Model 83 self-propelled guns and the new PLZ45 155mm self -propelled gun that is being introduced into PLA service. The latter is capable of firing the Chinese built version of the Russian KBP laser guided round. The air defense brigade has a battalion of 24 57mm towed anti-aircraft guns and one mobile surface-to-air missile launcher. Anti-armor capability can be augmented by an anti-tank regiment, which is more of a small battalion in size, and contains six PTZ89 120mm self-propelled guns and 18 Red Arrow 8 anti-tank guided missile launchers. These are light enough to supplement the mechanized division in isolated areas.
The PLA’s new mechanized infantry division is undoubtedly well suited for operations in Xinjiang and Tibet, given the lighter footprint of the vehicles as well as the simpler logistics requirements as opposed to those of heavier armored units. Moreover, given its building block capabilities, the PLA would be able to tailor such a force based upon the needs of the operations. In contingencies that require heavier forces, such as a coup in Astana that threatens to disrupt energy supplies or the ascendancy of a regional government friendly to the Uyghurs, China would be able to quickly enter into the respective region and secure its critical strategic interests.