China Table of Contents
The PLA ground forces consisted of conventionally armed main and regional units and in 1987 made up over 70 percent of the PLA. It provided a good conventional defense but had only limited offensive potential and was poorly equipped for nuclear, biological, or chemical warfare. Main forces included about 35 group armies, comprising 118 infantry divisions, 13 armored divisions, and 33 artillery and antiaircraft artillery divisions, plus 71 independent regiments and 21 independent battalions of mostly support troops. Regional forces consisted of 73 divisions of border defense and garrison troops plus 140 independent regiments.
Under the old system, a field army consisted of three partially motorized infantry divisions and two regiments of artillery and antiaircraft artillery. Each field army division had over 12,000 personnel in three infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, one armored regiment, and one antiaircraft artillery battalion. Organization was flexible, the higher echelons being free to tailor forces for combat around any number of infantry divisions. At least theoretically, each division had its own armor and artillery--actual equipment levels were not revealed and probably varied--and the assets at army level and within the independent units could be apportioned as needed.
The new, main-force group armies typically included 46,300 troops in up to four divisions, believed to include infantry, armor, artillery, air defense, airborne, and air support elements. Although the new group armies were supposed to reflect a move to combined-arms operations, because of a lack of mechanization they continued to consist of infantry supported by armor, artillery, and other units. The 13 armored divisions each had 3 regiments and 240 main battle tanks but lacked adequate mechanized infantry support. There was little evidence of the use of armored personnel carriers during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict in 1979, and tanks were used as mobile artillery and as support for dismounted infantry. Artillery forces emphasized towed guns, howitzers, and truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers. In the 1980s some self-propelled artillery entered service, but the PLA also produced rocket launchers as a cheaper but not totally effective alternative to self-propelled guns. There was a variety of construction equipment, mobile bridging, trucks, and prime movers. A new multiple rocket launcher for scattering antitank mines appeared in 1979, but mine-laying and mine-clearing equipment remained scarce.
Regional forces consisted of full-time PLA troops organized as independent divisions for garrison missions. Garrison divisions were static, artillery-heavy units deployed along the coastline and borders in areas of likely attack. Regional forces were armed less heavily than their main-force counterparts, and they were involved in training the militia. They were the PLA units commonly used to restore order during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1987 the PLA ground forces, which relied upon obsolescent but serviceable equipment, were most anxious to improve defenses against armored vehicles and aircraft. Most equipment was produced from Soviet designs of the 1950s, but weapons were being incrementally upgraded, some with Western technology. One example of upgraded, Soviet-design equipment was the Type 69 main battle tank, an improved version of the Type 59 main battle tank, itself based on the Soviet T-54. The Type 69 main battle tank had improved armor, a gun stabilizer, a fire control system including a laser range finder, infrared searchlights, and a 105mm smooth-bore gun. In 1987 the existence of a new, Type 80 main battle tank was revealed in the Western press. The tank had a new chassis, a 105mm gun, and a fire control system. Production of the Type 80 tank had not yet begun. The PLA was believed to have atomic demolition munitions, and there were unconfirmed reports that it also had tactical nuclear weapons. In any case, nuclear bombs and missiles in the Chinese inventory could be used in a theater role. The PLA had a scarcity of antitank guided missiles, tactical surface-to-air missiles, and electronics to improve communications, fire control, and sensors. China began production of the Soviet Sagger antitank missile in 1979 but lacked a more powerful, longer range, semiautomatic antitank guided missile. The PLA required a mobile surface-to-air missile and an infantry shoulder-fired missile for use against helicopters and certain other aircraft (see Appendix C).
Data as of July 1987
China Table of Contents