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How Useful Will China’s Weapons Be in a Real War?


When Hou Minjun, commander of an armored unit in the Chinese military’s 27th Army, was ordered to drive his troops on a nine-day trip during a training exercise in Inner Mongolia, he lost over half his force in the event.

In the first 48 hours of the 2013 North Sword 1405 exercise, Hou looked on as all 40 tanks in his battalion broke down one after another.

Only 15 could be repaired and continue the 145-mile march, as reported by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) news service.

Despite simulating a noncombat situation, the battalion lost virtually all of its equipment in an experience that Hou, who has served for 32 years, described as “painful.”

The North Sword 1405 debacle is indicative of the challenges facing China’s officers. Despite the Chinese regime’s recent efforts to carry out broad changes and upgrades, many cracks in the PLA persist in the quality of its personnel training and equipment, according to experts and reports.

Obsolete and Mismatched Tanks

Hou’s experience in the North Sword exercise is not surprising. Of thousands of tanks currently in service with the PLA, the overwhelming majority are variants of the T-55, a Soviet design first produced shortly after World War ll. Upgrades and retrofits have extended the lifespan of this successful weapon, but after over 60 years of service, the design simply does not fit in a modern arsenal.

Particularly following the 1991 Gulf War, in which American aircraft and armor laid waste to thousands of Soviet and Chinese-built vehicles, the PLA has been making new procurements and designing updated tanks, such as the ZTZ-99, which incorporates Western as well as Soviet design philosophies, to keep pace.

It might not be enough, however. According to a February report by War on the Rocks, a military analysis blog, what modernizations the PLA’s armored forces have carried out may well be a hindrance, as they are far from comprehensive. Because new equipment is trickled into service gradually, PLA armored units generally work with “multiple generations under one roof,” to paraphrase from a Chinese proverb. The slow, uncertain pace of upgrades force officers to frequently readjust their battle plans—a reality that, combined with the overall quality of PLA training, does not bode well for the force’s prospects in a modern conflict.

Engine Trouble

Air power is one field in which the Chinese regime has placed much attention, with mixed results. While of the PLA’s aircraft, like its tanks, are old models such as the locally produced J-7 and J-8, China has added hundreds of fourth-generation—that is, designs from the late Cold War era—jets to its arsenal.

One example is the J-11 interceptor, a Chinese copy of the Soviet Su-27SK air superiority fighter. The PLA’s air force ordered this plane in 1992, and afterward began producing the J-11 locally with Russian-provided components, namely


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