PLA ‘modernization building’ and RMA-based reform in 2003/2004

Preparations for the new stage of PLA reform
In 1997 China began the process of promoting the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and in 1998-2000 it intensively promoted the concept. As a result, at the beginning of 2003, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) achieved a serious level of modernization. The introduction of Russian weapons and the wide utilization of information technology (IT) played a decisive role in this process. This modernization provided the PLA with the opportunity to reduce manpower by 500,000 servicemen.

However, the 2003 Iraq War once again demonstrated to Beijing’s political leadership and the leaders of the PLA, the absolute superiority of American Forces. Indeed, Saddam’s regime was smashed in several weeks, and the entire operation was completed with few losses of Coalition troops.

Immediately after the Iraq War, China’s President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao stated at a CCP Politburo meeting the necessity of ‘active support of national defense and army’s modernization building’. He emphasized the need of further IT introduction into PLA and the mobilization of China’s entire Science and Technology potential for the purpose of PLA upgrading.1

The reaction of PLA strategists on the Iraq War could be perfectly observed in dozens of articles in leading Chinese military journals, that described in detail the execution of the Iraq War, as well as the new weapons and operational modes that were used by American Forces. Much of the focus in those articles was placed on the upgraded joint operational capability of the US and the use of advanced psychological warfare.

These articles, published mostly in April-August 2003, also clarified, in the direct or indirect form, the RMA-related tasks of PLA at the new stage of its ‘modernization building’.2 Similar articles have been published in Beijing civilian media. Perhaps surprisingly, the authoritative Liaowang weekly published, in June-July 2003, a series surveys of the state of RMA in armies around the world. The meaning of those articles could be expressed in the following: ‘Western armies and, primarily, U.S. forces are accomplishing a new stage of RMA. They have used a new generation of warfare and new operational modes. The PLA should follow the challenge and undergo similar reform and finally transform itself into smaller and smarter army. The ultimate goal is minimizing the gap between PLA and U.S. Forces’.3

On 1 September 2003 Jiang Zemin officially announced the new stage of RMA-based military reform. Its major tasks were: cutting down of PLA ranks, primarily the Ground Force by 200,000; beginning the broad introduction into the PLA of IT and other advanced technologies (including nanotechnologies, space technologies, electromagnetic weapons); educational and qualitative upgrading of PLA servicemen; and eventually, the transformation of the PLA into an army of a comparatively small size and very high quality, similar to armies of developed countries (i.e., American Forces).

PLA reform in 2003 through the eyes of Taiwanese experts
In 2003, especially in the second half of the year, PLA has been engaged, primarily, in RMA-based reform. This included: 

  • Cutting down the servicemen number. It is supposed that PLA total ranks would decrease by 200,000, i.e., from about 2.25 million in mid-2003 to 2.05 million by the end of 2004. Specifically, this means the reduction of Ground Forces and commanding structures in all kinds of forces and the elimination of some military colleges and subsidiary structures. In the image of the ‘keji qiang jun’ (S&T strengthens the Army) formula, emphasis is placed mostly on the introduction of advanced weapons and the upgrading of command level. 
  • Changing the structure of military financing. In 2003, the official military budget reached 185 billion yuan, 9.6 per cent more than in 2002. This was the slowest nominal growth in 14 years. In accordance to the budget proposal, personnel related expenses, primarily of Ground Forces, were significantly decreased. Simultaneously, a great increase of financing took place in regards to the procurement of advanced weapons as well as extra money for military R&D, and the upgrading of Air Force, Navy and the Second Artillery (Missile Corps).   Additional financing has been provided for personnel education, high-level manoeuvres as well as anti-terrorist training.

More concretely, the structure of official military expenses changed in 2003-2004 in the following way:


  • the proportion of weapon purchases, in official military expenses increased from 32.3 per cent in 2000 to 33.8 per cent in 2002 and should in 2003/4 substantially surpass 35 per cent.

  • share of expenses for Air Force, Navy and 2nd Artillery would increase; while share of Ground Force would decrease. Significant money is assigned for establishing ‘space troops’ as a new kind of PLA forces. The manned spacecraft project received particularly high priority.

  • share of expenses for education and training would also rise. Special attention would be given to joint operations training. The role of joint manoeuvres with foreign armies – especially with Shanghai Treaty armies – becomes particularly important. Anti-terrorist training and manoeuvres get especial priority. In parallel, training and manoeuvres related to ‘joint operations for Taiwanese liberation’ became more sophisticated.

Jiang Zemin, in his speech on 1 September, 2003 emphasized that the 200,000 reduction in PLA servicemen would take place in accordance to the world RMA trends. He also emphasized that army building shifts from ‘mechanization’ to ‘informatization’, and information warfare (IW) would play the decisive role. Thus, PLA should actively introduce IT and try to transform into ‘a smaller and much smarter, S&T based army’. In Jiang’s speech, ‘qualitative army building’ is underlined. This should be achieved through broad downsizing and readjustment of command structures. Establishing a properly controlled and commanded ‘network of weapon platforms’, embracing the entire PLA, is considered the most important goal. 

According to the article ‘Mastering new RMA trends’, published in Jiefangjun Bao (official paper of PLA) on 28 October 2003, the major directions of the current RMA in the PLA are as follows:

  • Ground Forces should introduce IT, IW, missiles, and master special operations.

  • Strategic Missile Corps should decrease the preparatory time necessary for strikes and improve capabilities for mobile strikes and real-time strikes.

  • Air Force should develop capabilities related to space troops, satellite striking systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

  • Navy should concentrate efforts in the areas of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, submerged intelligent torpedoes and naval sensors.


All kinds of troops should do their best in IW, psychological warfare, disguise and cheating capabilities. They should also upgrade manoeuvre operation and rapid reaction capabilities.

Remarkably, from April 2003, the PLA General Staff, jointly with China Defense University and China Defense Academy, concentrated efforts on research of American operations in Iraq. This resulted in some new aspects of PLA modernization:


  • Strengthening the air defence system of large cities.
  • Strengthening PLA joint operational capabilities and S&T qualities, particularly for logistics improvement.

  • Strengthening PLA capabilities in information warfare, psychological warfare, opposing enemy’s special operations etc.5


Russian weapon technology as a major factor of PLA modernization

In 2003, Russia (jointly with Belarus and Ukraine) was a major source of advanced weaponry for the PLA. At the same time, the PLA tried to increase the share of weapons to be delivered from Israel, France, Germany, and to organize its own independent R&D.

In 2003-2004, PLA continued its ‘3-way policy of advanced weapon acquisition’, which includes ‘weapon and technology import’, ‘joint Chinese-foreign R&D’ and ‘independent R&D’. Imports and joint R&D still played a major role. However, the role of ‘independent R&D’ was gradually increased. New Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan was personally in charge of this work. He tried to decrease somewhat dependence from Russia and increase share of France and Israel in advanced weapon import.

The PLA tried to expand the sphere of joint Chinese-Russian weapon high-tech R&D, particularly, in 5th generation fighter R&D. Among joint R&D with EU countries, R&D of mid-range air-to-air missile, highly precise satellite positioning (Galileo project) and submarine technology were the most serious ones. 

Among joint Chinese-Russian projects the following were the most important:


  • Purchase of two Sovremenny destroyers, equipped with improved ship-to-ship cruise missiles 3M80MBE with a 240 km range.

  • Purchase of eight Kilo submarines, equipped with ‘super-advanced’ 3M54E (CLUB-S) submarine-launched anti-ship missiles. In 2003, China already possessed 50 missiles of this kind, which would greatly improve the strike capability of the PLA navy. China intended to organize domestic production of these missiles.

  • China continued producing SU-27 SK (J-11) (Shenyang Aircraft Corp. under Chinese First Aviation Industry Corp. or AVIC-1) fighters, and purchased SU-30 MKK (J-11A) fighters. By the end of 2003, China purchased 76 units of the SU-30 MKK in two separate purchases. In 2002, China ordered its third batch of the SU-30 MKK2 (special variety for PLA Navy), consisting of between 28 and 40 units; with the first 24 units arriving in China by February 2004.

  • Chinese Second Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC-2) was preparing to participate, jointly with Ukraine, in the development of the A-70 large military transport aircraft.


In the frame of ‘independent researches’, in 2003, AVIC-1 accomplished the following:


  • Mastered serial production of J-10 fighter (Chengdu Aircraft Corp. of AVIC-1) matching best varieties of American F-16 fighter.


  • Finished development of FC-1 light fighter (Chengdu Aircraft Corp.) mirroring the  F-16 A and F-16 B.


  • Finished development of Shanying (Guizhou Aircraft Corp. of AVIC-1) fighter-trainer.


  • Mostly finished development of JH-7A fighter-bomber (Xian Aircraft Corp. of AVIC-1).


  • Finished development and mastered production of KAB-500 guided bombs and several kinds of air-to-air and air-to ground missiles.6


Let’s consider one of the listed projects in detail. The JH-7A fighter-bomber has been developed as ‘a perfect tool for precision mid-range and long-range strikes in high-tech environment conflict, for surgical air strikes on ground based targets and for attaining air domination’, as well as achieving ‘Beyond-the-vision range strikes of targets with minimal error’, the latter of which is considered as the most important feature of the new aircraft.7

JH-7A fighter-bomber could be effective in attacking large surface naval vessels: it has more than 10 hard points, i.e. is able to carry more than 10 bombs and missiles, and is equipped with powerful engines. Moreover, it is capable of in-air refueling, thus its combat radius is increased greatly. This fighter is characterized by improved wing geometry, an increased number of hard points and other significant improvements.   

 JH-7A uses Russian produced AL-31SM engines, which are produced at Salyut plant in Moscow. This increased flight stability and combat power of the aircraft allows an increase in the total weight of carried bombs and missiles by several times, up to 10 tons or more.

Sophisticated alloys in the JH-7A coating, combining with ‘stealthy coating paint’, improved the aircraft anti-radar (i.e., stealthy) capability. As a result, the JH-7A can become a powerful tool for attack of ground-based and naval targets, particularly, large vessels. It is carrying Chinese-made AM39, C601 and C801 anti-ship missiles as well as subsonic KH-65E missile, which is reverse engineered from a Russian missile, with a  600 km range, as well as the KH-31 supersonic anti-ship missile and KH-31P supersonic anti-radar missile.8 

Generally, in 2003-2004, China started manufacturing – or is going to manufacture in the near future – many kinds of weaponry or essential weapon blocks, jointly developed by China and Russia or developed in Russia by Chinese order. This includes SU-27 SK fighters, SU-30 MKK fighters, J-10 fighters (with Russian engines, avionics and missiles), FC-1 fighters (Russian engines, avionics and missiles), Shanying fighter-trainer (with Russian engines and avionics), fighter missiles and guided bombs of all kind , ‘super-advanced’ ship-to-ship missiles, CLUB-S submarine launched anti-ship missiles and a lot of other kinds of weapon and dual-used products.

 Evidently, a Chinese ‘independent weapon R&D system’ doesn’t exist yet. It is more correct to speak about ‘Chinese-Russian weapon R&D and production system’, including Chinese and Russian weapon R&D facilities and Chinese manufacturing enterprises. This system successfully develops and produces advanced weapons, belonging to the world level of at least the 1990s and perfectly matching the ‘smaller and smarter PLA capable of winning a conflict in high-tech environment’.

Remarkably, at the end of April 2004, China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, while meeting Russian Defense Minister Ivanov stated: the ‘Epoch of Chinese import of finished weapon from Russia is over. New methods (i.e. joint weapon R&D for production in China) should prevail’.9


Alexandr Nemets

The author is a Contractor, Foreign Systems Research Center,

Scientific Applications International Corp (SAIC)



1. Jingji ribao (Economic daily), Beijing, May 23 2004

2. ‘Zhongguo junshi kexue’ (China Military Science; this monthly is published by Chinese Defense University and Chinese Military Academy), #4 -#8, 2004;  Xiandai junshi (Modern military monthly), #4-#8, 2004.

3. Liaowang (Observer), Beijing, ‘The challenge of new military reform’, #23, June 9 2003, pp.52-56; ‘Forthcoming new military reform’, #28, July 14 2004, pp.10-22.

4. China daily, Beijing, September 2 2004, p.1

5. Wu Ruanlin, ‘China’s military affairs in 2003’, Zhonggong yanjiu (China Communism Research monthly), Taibei, 2004, #1, pp.99-113; Qiang Yincheng, ‘PLA searches the tactics for blockading and attacking Taiwan’, Zhonggong yanjiu, Taibei, 2003, #7, pp.69-79.

6. Wu Ruanlin, ‘China’s military affairs in 2003’, Zhonggong yanjiu, 2004, #1, pp.100-104.

7. Shijie ribao (World Journal), NY, December 17 2003, p.C1.

8. Taiwanese Central News Agency, June 06 2004; Sovetskaya Rossiya paper, Moscow, May 20 2004, p.3.

9. Shijie ribao, June.06 2004, p.4; Ekspert magazine, Moscow, May 2004.  

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