|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
During the recent 15-day competition of the International Army Games 2017 held in China during July-August this year, Chinese airborne troops won first place in 11 of the 12 events, winning the overall championship in the platoon level airborne competition. Other teams participating in the competition were Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Morocco, South Africa and Venezuela. Russia and Kazakhstan were 2nd and 3rd respectively in the overall championship. During the very first International Army Games which took place in Russia during 2015, Chinese airborne troops excelled in the 5 km accelerated march, overcoming obstacles and shooting with small arms, parachuting, taking the first place in the latter ahead of the Russian team. During the second International Army Games, also held in Russia during 2016, the Chinese paratroopers came in third place in the overall championship. From their raising 67 years ago in 1950, the Chinese airborne forces have come long way to when President Xi Jinping inspected China’s Airborne Corps on July 30, 2017 and was given a demonstration of airborne operations at the Zhurihe training base. Since the reorganization of the PLA was ordered in January 2016, there was not much news about China’s Airborne Corps albeit it was appreciated China will continue to maintain its airborne capability in its quest of China-centric Asia and aspirations of becoming a global power, even surpassing the US.
The 43rd, 44th and 45th Divisions of China’s 15th Airborne Corps were equated with America’s 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions. Each division was known to have around 10,000 men, with seven classifications: pathfinders; reconnaissance; infantry; artillery; signals; engineers, and; chemical warfare. Information about China’s 16th Airborne Corps was never made available by China. It has now emerged that in May 2017, China’s 15th Airborne Corps has been reorganized; re-designated as the ‘Corps of PLA Airborne Troops’ with uniits of the former Divisions split into Brigades. Two regiment-level units are integrated with the Academy of Airborne Troops to form a new unit. The erstwhile four-tier command system of 15 Corps (corps-division-regiment-battalion) has been flattened to three tiers (corps-brigade-battalion). The reorganization is aimed at improving faster response capability as per Zhao Jinjun, Deputy Chief of Staff of Airborne Troops. In another move, the former special operations regiment directly under HQ 15th Airborne Corps has been expanded into a special operations brigade. In addition, a combat support brigade has been formed by regrouping the former communication regiment, engineering detachment and chemical defense detachment of the former 15th airborne corps. Also, an air transport brigade has been formed consisting of the former air transport regiment and airports under 15th Airborne Corps.
China inducted the indigenous Y-20 large transport aircraft last year and its airborne troops are moving towards higher level of integration with heavy equipment, stronger maneuvering capability and faster response. Chinese airborne troops are on the way to heavy mechanization. Speedy deployment of US 82 and 101 Airborne Divisions during the Gulf Wars in 1990s, Afghanistan and Iraq, were keenly watched by the Chinese for drawing suitable lessons. They also witnessed armies of developed countries adopt a new generation of heavy-duty equipment, which could be airdropped for supporting airborne operations, including ammunition supply. All this led to China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) recognizing airborne troops (termed the ‘flying infantry’) and putting into the transformation mode on fast track. The new strategic positioning of Chinese airborne troops is that they are a strategic service in the national armed force system, a force of emergency maneuvering responsible for all-domain combat, and a strategic fist directly controlled by the highest command.
According to Zhao Jinjun, such a positioning depends on the unique and irreplaceable features of airborne troops. They boast the highest maneuvering speed among all arms and services and can reach places that other armed forces cannot reach or cannot reach timely, so they are irreplaceable. In terms of the scale and equipment of airborne troops, US, Russia and China rank the top three in the world albeit Chinese lack actual combat experience. Since the 18th CPC Congress in 2012, Chinese airborne troops have moved faster in strategic transformation and achieved the breakthrough from light infantry to multi-unit integration, from ‘focused on rear combat’ to ‘all-domain maneuvering’, from traditional parachuting to integrated assault, and from motorized and semi-mechanized operation to mechanization and extensive IT application. Considering the continued strategic importance of airborne forces, four countries (US, China, France and Russia) maintain Division-sized or bigger airborne forces. In addition, another 48 countries across the world maintain Brigade-sized or smaller airborne forces; Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Finland, Gabon, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, Netherlands, Poland, Philippines, Portugal, Rhodesia, Serbia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, UK, Venezuela and Vietnam. India has one parachute brigade compared to China’s recently reconstituted nine airborne brigades.