Growing Big – Know About Chinese Airborne Forces

anil chopra, airpower asia, airborne forces

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently carried out a large-scale exercise involving thousands of paratroopers to check its preparedness in transporting soldiers and armoured vehicles from a central Chinese province to border areas near India in China’s northwest. They deployed latest weapons including the Type 15 light battle tank and the new 155-MM vehicle-mounted howitzer. The PLA also deployed helicopters, armoured vehicles, heavy artillery and anti-aircraft missiles across the region from Lhasa, capital of Tibet, to the border defence front lines with elevations of more than 4,000 meters. There was increasing use of airborne early-warning and control aircraft and Airborne forces were also exercised. The drill was aimed at signaling deterrence. Such deployments had not been common during previous exercises.

Chinese Paratroopers. Picture Credit: Global Times

Galwan Showdown

          Chinese used the background of that exercise, for show of force and intrusions in the Galwan valley region of Ladakh. Using civilian airlines, logistical transportation channels and railways, several thousand paratroopers under a People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) airborne brigade had recently maneuvered from Hubei, in central China, to an undisclosed location not far from India’s Ladakh. “Several hundred pieces of military equipment including armoured vehicles and huge batches of supplies were moved in the operation, which was completed in just a few hours,” Chinese media reports said.  “The mission saw significant breakthroughs not only in the scale of mobilized troops but also means of transportation with civil aircraft substantially expanding means,” Major Colonel Mao Lei, head of the training department at the airborne brigade, reportedly told China’s CCTV. “Groups of tanks and armored vehicles attached to the 76th Group Army under the PLA Western Theater Command also conducted a long-distance maneuver on May 14,”  according to Chinese military media outlet China Military, quoted by Global Times. India and China are continuing military and diplomatic engagements to resolve the more than a week-old standoff along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). A round of talks has already been held between Indian delegation led by Lieutenant General Harinder Singh, commander of Leh-based 14 Corps and the Chinese delegation led by Major General Liu Lin, commander of the South Xinjiang military region, at Moldo on the Chinese side of the LAC on 06 June.

India-China Border meeting point. Picture Credit: indiablooms.com

What are Airborne Forces

          Airborne forces are military units moved by fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and “dropped” into battle, typically by parachute, almost anywhere in short time. Formations are limited only by the number and size of their aircraft; a huge force can appear “out of nowhere” behind enemy lines in minutes, an action known as vertical envelopment. On the other hand, airborne forces typically lack supplies for prolonged combat; they are much better equipped for an airhead than for long-term occupation. Airborne operations are particularly sensitive to weather. Advances in helicopter technology have brought increased flexibility, and air assaults have largely replaced parachutists. The airborne troops are the elite of any country’s military. They comprise paratroopers who parachute from fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, placing emphasis on high mobility. Going behind enemy lines using the tactics mentioned above, airborne troops can conduct a converging attack with friendly ground forces.

Vertical Envelopment. Picture Credit: Pinterest

Some Major Airborne Forces Operations

          A large number of airborne operations took place during WW II. During the invasions of Norway and Denmark in Operation Weserubung, the Luftwaffe dropped paratroopers on several locations. On May 25, 1944, paratroopers were dropped as part of a failed attempt to capture Josip Broz Tito, the head of the Yugoslav Partisans and later postwar leader of Yugoslavia. On 6 December 1944, a 750-strong detachment from Japanese special forces unit, attacked U.S. airbases in the Philippines. The force destroyed some planes and inflicted casualties, but was eventually wiped out. The first U.S. airborne operation was in November 1942, as part of Operation Torch in North Africa. The Soviets mounted only one large-scale airborne operation in World War II, despite their early leadership in the field since the 1930s. Operation Mercury: Crete was the last large-scale airborne assault by Hitler and the Germans. The German paratroopers had such a high casualty rate that Hitler forbade any further large-scale airborne attacks. As part of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of the island of Sicily, four airborne operations (two British and two American) were carried out, landing during the nights of 9-10 July 1943. One of the most famous of airborne operations was Operation Neptune, the assault of Normandy, part of Operation Overlord on June 6, 1944. The task of the airborne forces was to secure the flanks and approaches of the landing beaches in Normandy. Operation Market Garden of September 1944, involved 35,000 airborne troops dropped up to 100 miles (160 km) behind German lines in an attempt to capture a series of bridges over the rivers, in an attempt to outflank German fortifications and penetrate into Germany. A large British force, known as the Chindits, operated behind Japanese lines during 1944. In Operation Thursday, most of the units were flown into landing grounds which had been seized by glider infantry transported by the American First Air Commando Group. For Operation Dracula, an adhoc parachute battalion group made up of personnel from the 153 and 154 (Gurkha) Parachute Battalions of the Indian Army secured Japanese coastal defences, which enabled the seaborne assault by the 26th Indian Infantry Division.

Operation Market Garden. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

During the 1956 Suez crisis, Operations Machbesh & Musketeer was launched by Israeli paratroopers led by Ariel Sharon dropped onto the important Mitla Pass to cut off and engage Egyptian forces. Paratroopers were first used in combat in South Asia during the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 when a covert operation was launched by the Pakistani Army with the intention of infiltrating Indian airbases and sabotaging them. The Pakistani SSG (Special Service Group) commandos, were reportedly parachuted into Indian territory, but the operation failed as the few paratroopers dropped were caught. During the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, the Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army carried out many operations. On 11 December, India airdropped the 2nd battalion (2 Para) in what is now famous as the Tangail airdrop. The paratroop unit was instrumental in denying the retreat and regrouping of the Pakistan Army. In January 2013, 250 French paratroopers from the  jumped into northern Mali to support an offensive to capture the city of Timbuktu.

Tangail airdrop. Picture Credit: The Tribune

          During the Maldives attempted coup, India intervened with “Operation Cactus” launched on the night of 3 November 1988, when Indian Air Force’s IL 76 aircraft airlifted the elements of an Independent Parachute Brigade from Agra and flew them non-stop over 2,000 kilometers to Male International airport. The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield, crossed over to Male using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. 

Indian Paratroopers. Picture Credit: financialexpress.com

Chinese PLAAF Airborne Corps – Evolutionary Background

          The PLAAF Airborne Corps traces its lineage to infantry Fourth Field army, later called the 15th Army. The unit was involved the Chinese Civil War and carried out anti-bandit operations in southern Sichuan before being deployed in Korea in February 1951. Due to the stellar performance of the 15th Army during the Battle of Triangle Hill in November 1952, the unit started being called an elite army unit. On July 26, 1950, the PLAAF’s airborne troops began when the 1st Airborne Brigade was raised. On 01 August, the brigade’s Headquarters moved to Kaifeng in Henan Province, which was designated as the division’s training base. The PLAAF 1st Airborne Brigade recruited six thousand battle hardened soldiers across the PLA. Training of the Brigade immediately begun and after merely eleven days of intensive training, on 29 September, 1950, its soldiers made their first jump.

Henan Province. Picture Credit: chinafolio.com

          In May 1961, the Chinese Military Commission (CMC) changed the Ground Forces 15th Army, which had fought during the Korean War, into the PLAAF 15th Airborne Army, and subordinated the PLAAF’s original airborne division to it. During the restructuring of the PLA in 1985, the 15th Army was reduced to three brigades. In the 1990s, the PLA’s concept of “People’s War” was replaced by the Limited High-Intensity War concept. This in turn resulted in a return to a divisional structure with an all-over increase of 25% in the 15th Army’s strength. It later more appropriately started being referred to as the 15th Airborne Corps.

          In 1985, most of the soldiers in the 15th Army were ordinary paratroopers trained for general supporting duties in a combined army campaign. Only 17 percent of them were specialized paratroopers. However, this percentage has now risen to 43 percent and ordinary paratroopers have dropped from 53 percent to 23 percent. The purpose of this increase in the percentage of specialized paratroopers was to make the 15th Airborne Corps into a combined arms force rather than just a mobile infantry force. Thus making it more capable of conducting independent operations in a limited but highly technological focused conflict. In May 1989, the 15th Airborne Corps’ 43rd and 44th Paratrooper Brigades were deployed to Beijing to enforce martial law and suppress the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Tiananmen Square Massacre. Picture Credit: theglobeandmail.com

Chinese PLAAF Airborne Corps – Current Status

        Only one of the PLAAF Airborne Corps’ former three divisions (or just 2 to 3 of the current 7 brigades) could deploy to any part of China within 48 hours due to limited airlift capabilities. In the late 1990s the airlift capability of the PLAAF consisted of 10 IL-76 heavy lift, Yu-8, and Yu-7 transports, as well as Mi-17, Mi-8, Z-8, and Z-9 helicopters. As such, the PLAAF could only lift one division of 11,000 men complemented with light tanks and self-propelled artillery. In 1988, there were reports claiming that a 10,000 man airborne division was transported to Tibet in less than 48 hours. The 15th Airborne Corps was renamed the People’s Liberation Army Air Force Airborne Corps in April 2017, with 9 brigades, and all the divisions were disbanded altogether. In early May 2017, the 15th airborne corps was reorganized into the “corps of PLA airborne troops”, and the former division units affiliated to it were split into several brigades. The Airborne Corps, now consists of six airborne brigades, a special operations brigade, an aviation brigade, and a support brigade. The former special operations regiment was expanded into the special operations brigade, while the new combat support brigade and air transport brigade were formed. While increasing the special forces in the airborne troops, this also indicated one of the future directions of the airborne troops – special operations. This brigade mainly carries out special penetration operations, including killing key figures of the enemy and destroying the enemy’s command, control, reconnaissance and communication facilities. The Thor Commando under this brigade is the “best of the best”. Formed in September 2011, this special operations force, “the most special of the special forces”, should be able to “give the enemy a deadly blow at key junctures and critical moments”, said Fan Xiaojun, the then political commissar of the airborne troops.

        The PLAAF Airborne Corps is a corps   directly under the PLAAF headquarters. After the reform, the airborne troops cancelled the designation of “15th corps” that carries a strong imprint of the Army to further reinforce the concept of an independent arm of service within the Air Force.

PLAAF restructures its Airborne Corps. Picture Credit: shephardmedia.com

        The establishment and command of the new airborne troops also have been adjusted accordingly. Public information shows that before the reform, the 15th airborne corps adopted the four-tier commanding system, including corps, division, regiment and battalion. After the reform, the command system is flattened to three tiers, including corps, brigade and battalion, which complies with the “division to brigade” trend in PLA’s overall reform. Military experts held that the “corps – brigade – battalion” system is more efficient than before and the “special brigades” can enhance combined combat capability. Moreover, two regiment-level units were integrated with the Academy of Airborne Troops to form a new troop unit.

          The PLAAF Airborne Corps is China’s primary strategic airborne unit and part of the newly formed rapid reaction units (RRUs) of the Chinese military which is primarily designated for airborne and special operation missions. Its role is similar to that of the US Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps/82 Airborne Division.

Special Brigades. Picture Credit: mizzima.com

PLAAF Airborne Corps – Strategic Status

          According to You Ji’s “The Armed forces of China”, the PLAAF Airborne Corps has been elevated to the status of a strategic force. It is a departure from the PLA traditional airborne force concept. Doctrinal modernization change allows the PLAAF Airborne Corps to act as a principal force employed for independent campaign missions in future wars. It is now accepted that the airborne troops should be used for pre-emptive attack on the enemy’s key military targets in the rear area in order to paralyze or disrupt its preparation for an offensive. This kind of large-scale mission cannot be conducted without having a total control in the air.

          The PLA Airborne Corps’ main purpose is to carry out both airborne and air-assault operations. These operations are designed to support main-force operational efforts, seize and hold key targets and areas in the enemy’s depth such as airfields and bridges, block an enemy’s retreat, block reinforcement by enemy reserve forces, and conduct raids on key targets in the enemy’s depth. Also, a single-lift capability of 50,000 men is required for this type of missions. Currently, the PLAAF can only lift one division of 11,000 men with light tanks and self-propelled artillery. Numbers will go up to more than 30,000 as more Y-20 induct.

PLAAF’s Y 20 aircraft. Picture Credit: You Tube

Airborne Brigades

          The Airborne Divisions had various special units, including weapons controllers, reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, communications, engineering, chemical defense, and transportation soldiers. Now there are the Airborne Brigades which are further divided into battalions and companies or batteries. The airborne troops also formed a combat support brigade, which consists of the former communication regiment, engineering detachment and chemical defense detachment of the former 15th airborne corps. In the age of IT-based warfare, supportive capabilities such as electronic reconnaissance, interference, communication, battlefield setup and opening, and various defense tasks take a very important position in battles. Therefore, forming a unified support brigade is necessary for combined combat. China has plans for developing more air assault brigades. Presently there are only two. The 121st brigade in the Southern Theater Command and the other 161st brigade of the Central Theater Command.

Assault Brigade Briefing. Picture Credit: cimsec.org

Airborne Corps Location

          The airborne troops are headquartered in the Central Theater Command, where their function as a mobile support reserve force can be fully exploited. PLAAF Airborne Corps headquarters are at Xiaogan, north of Wuhan in Hubei. The earlier airborne divisions were located at Kaifeng, Henan, and the other two also in the Wuhan area at Guangshui and Huangpi. The new Brigade location are not known.

Picture Credit: news.wjct.org

Selection of Airborne Corps Commander

          The Airborne Corps’ new commander, Major General Sun Xiangdong, is from Hubei province. Sun spent most of his military career in airborne troops. He had been chief of staff first of the 15th Airborne Corps and later of the Airborne Corps. In 2018, Sun was appointed as commander of the Airborne Corps. Promoted to the rank of major general in 2016, Sun had participated in the Chinese military parade in Beijing in 2009 and the military parade at Zhurihe Training Base in 2016. He also had an outstanding performance in the search and rescue efforts in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008. This track record shows that Sun is well-qualified for the commander position. What’s worthy of note is that former Airborne Corps commander Major General Liu Faqing, of the PLAAF, had also been chief of staff of the 15th Airborne Corps before he became commander of the Airborne Corps. Liu’s predecessor Li Fengbiao followed the same pattern, serving as chief of staff first before becoming commander of the 15th Airborne Corps later. This shows that in the highly specialized airborne branch, promotions are given only to members of the branch. One can see how promotions are determined in the Airborne Corps. Because of the importance of the Airborne Corps, the PLAAF normally has a lieutenant general who has commanded the airborne branch before as one of its deputy commanders. This indicates that whoever takes such a position is tapped for further development in the military.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Central Theater Commander

          Yi Xiaoguang, commander of the Central Theater Command, is also of the air force. Earlier there was a belief that the Central Theater Command should be commanded by an army general because it is not only responsible for the defence of the capital city Beijing but also serves as the general reserve force that provides support when necessary. But in August 2017, Yi, of the air force, became commander of the Central Theater Command. Putting Yi in command of the Central Theater Command represents a way of thinking that corresponds to the PLA’s guiding principle, “Theater commands are responsible for operations.” With an air force general as commander of the Central Theater Command, the air force can play a bigger role in providing mobile support. Furthermore, the air arm of the Central Theater Command includes the Airborne Corps. Although some of its subordinate units have been moved to the Northern Theater Command, the Airborne Corps is still based in Hubei province and the major provider of mobile support from the air. Considering the missions that the Airborne Corps is assigned, the Central Theater Command is the right place for it.

Airborne Corps’ Air Support

          More and more focus will be placed on helicopter assaults as opposed to traditional parachute drops. In times of war, the PLAAF Airborne Corps can also utilize strategic airlifters and transport aircraft such as the new Xian Y-20, Shaanxi Y-9 & Y-8, and Xian Y-7, and very large numbers of Y-5 utility transports. There are a few Il-76 also. During a number of exercises, the PLAAF Airborne Corps has demonstrated it can move a regiment plus of paratroopers with light armored vehicles to anywhere within China in less than 24 hours.

          An air transport brigade was also formed, which consists of the former air transport regiment. There are reports that PLA airborne troops were equipped with the Y-12 light transport plane in November 2016, which meant Y-12 will replace the Y-5C airborne training plane comprehensively to undertake tasks such as basic parachuting and daily parachute training. There is a fleet of Helicopters.

Chinese PLAAF WZ-10 attack helicopters Picture Credit: Asian Defence News Blogspot

Corps Arms & Equipment

          The PLAAF Airborne Corps’ weapons inventory includes 50-100 ZBD-03 derivatives and 2S9 self-propelled mortars, large numbers of BJ212 jeeps with 105mm recoilless rifles or HJ-11 ATGM, and Type 89 120 mm SP anti-tank guns. The last two weapon platforms are air transportable. Additional weapons include Type 84 82mm mortars, Type 85 60mm light mortars, Type 85 107 mm MRL, and more. In 1997, a new lightweight high-mobility vehicle entered service. Reportedly, up to ten of these vehicles can be carried by a Y-7H military transport. Paratroopers are outfitted with portable GPS systems, night-vision goggles, radios and other high-tech equipment. More mainstream as well as specialized equipment designed with air-dropped deployment in mind has been seen. The troops have greater mobility, versatility and protection so that they may quickly adapt to the battlefield environment with new tactics, multidimensional engagement capability while increasing their situation awareness. Previously, airborne troopers all carry more or less the same standard issued service battle gear during deployment. After the recent restructuring, they are now trained to carry a vast number of varying weapons and field equipment during deployment. They may now customize their load specific to their responsibility to meet all sorts of battlefield requirements to gain a tactical advantage. There will also be more heavier armored units making use of recently inducted Type-15 light tanks, PCL-181 wheeled vehicle-mounted 155mm howitzers, and new generation airborne armored vehicles to increase the mechanization and informatization of future era operations.

PCL-181 vehicle-mounted howitzers. Picture Credit: globaltimes.cn

Combined Tactics Training Base

          A new airport at the Zhurihe Training Base in China’s inner Mongolia, under the Beijing Military Area was completed in summer of 2012. Zhurihe covers 1,066 square kilometers, and has its own military township with hospital. It has hosted multiple mock training areas for conducting urban war games. The base features a variety of mock facilities including highways, an airstrip, a town center with buildings—one of which closely resembles the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan. And there is a near-replica of the Eiffel tower. Many of these structures were built between 2013 and 2015. Paratroopers can be airdropped to the vast grassland for drill and then return by transport aircraft. In the past, due to the absence of airports in some unfamiliar training fields, the airborne troops had to travel long way to return to their home bases by trains or buses after fulfilling long-distance airdropping drills, which greatly reduced the efficiency of their all-area combat training. Also the planes of air force aviation troop units, naval aviation troop units and army aviation troop units can land at the airport of the training base to conduct joint drills with armored troop units of the PLA ground force.

Zhurihe Training Base in China’s inner Mongolia. Picture Credit: scmp.com

To Summarize

          China’s Airborne Corps has nearly 30,000 troops operating under the aegis of the air force. Though the real control of this strategically important force is with Central Military Commission (CMC). They are some of the best trained troops with the Chinese military. They are trained for a wide range of activities, including parachute jumps and air assault. In addition, in order to enhance its capabilities, they receive the most advanced weapons available to the Chinese military, including modern combat armored vehicles. The transformation is highly significant. In the past, the PLA’s airborne troops were always hindered by the light equipment standard of “one person one rifle”. Except for the capability of parachuting, the paratroopers were skilled exactly like traditional infantry soldiers. The PLA airborne force regularly practice consecutively airdropping platform loaded heavy equipment from domestically-made transport aircraft. China’s vast territory provides varied terrain for airborne forces to practice military drills, from the northeast China’s cold snowy areas, to the islands in the South China Sea, and the highest mountains and forests of  Tibet.

        As more China-made Y-20 large transport planes are commissioned and stablise their combat capability, the Chinese airborne troops will have higher level of integration to move heavy equipment to farther distances, and faster response.

        Li Fengbiao, the former Chief of Staff of PLA Air Force Airborne Troops, had said, “We have improved the combat effectiveness of our troops step-by-step. We can perform all-around and rapid mobile operations under many difficult conditions.” China’s airborne corps is one of the sharpest weapons in the country’s armory, essential to safeguarding its national security and strategic interests. In peacetime, China’s airborne troops are given the country’s most honorable title – protectors of the people.

Picture Credit: militaryleak.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

10 thoughts on “Growing Big – Know About Chinese Airborne Forces

  1. Sir I would really like to have an aviator’s assessment of the sort of load that can be landed in 3500-4000 plus meter high runways in Tibet in transport aircraft. Tibet does not produce its own food and is barely self sufficient. Food and fuel also have to be shipped in,

    In high altitude Indian airports most flights take off and land in the mornings I think. Would this be true for the Chinese air logistics as well?

    shiv@bennedose

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, there are issues of Take-off weight at those altitudes which decreases sharply as temperatures go up. Any operations in the Himalayan heights have issues. Chinese have a fairly good ground infrastructure, which is essentially also required for peace time civilain requirements. They are now adding significant air lift capability. I am sure India’s military planners are factoring all this.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks. Yes they will need acclimatisation. That will be required by all participants. Certain number of troops are available insitu. The first step is capability building. Second step is to train regularly. Numbers do matter. SWOt is required, and surely being done by those in action.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did an open-source study of Chinese infrastructure all across the border from India. Once Chinese troops reach the actual border or LAC there is no nearby place for emergency evacuation for high altitude sickness. They may have to be evacuated 100s of km before getting to a low altitude region . The closest to LAC which can be called “low altitude” is Xinjiang – several hundred km away. In the East there is no nearby region. I really wonder where the Chinese collect their troops for acclimatization. That said the Chinese are known to have oxygen enriched barracks for troops. I am sure that keeps them comfortable but that only delays acclimatization. The Xining-Lhasa train is also oxygen enriched.

      Like

      1. “Write an article on the Chinese limitations on Tibet.”
        I will certainly work on one. Thank you

        Like

  3. Sir,

    An insightful analysis to know how the air lift capability is being upgraded progressively by China.

    This element should be incorporated in our discussions and plans in a worst case scenario mode rather than downplaying it and assume it that we have it all.

    Thanks for this piece.

    Best Regards

    Liked by 1 person

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