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The Resurgence of PLA Light Infantry
Martin Andrew, The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief
Light infantry units in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have been resurging as the PLA transforms itself into an organization that is capable of operating beyond its borders. These units were first permanently created during the reorganization of the PLA in 1954 . Designed to operate in jungles and mountainous regions, the forces were equipped with limited quantities of heavy equipment, having a greater number of medium mortars, recoilless rifles and heavy machine guns in the battalion in order to compensate for the lack of supporting artillery . The squad was reduced in size from twelve to nine men, which diminished the combat strength of the unit. Yet, light infantry units were compatible with the PLA’s doctrinal emphasis of manpower over machinery and its emphasis on maneuverability. In addition, this allowed for the PLA’s limited quantities of heavy equipment to be issued to forces facing Taiwan and later the Soviet Union. The contemporary light infantry battalion has changed little in organization over the years and its smaller size and lack of heavy supporting weapons meant few organizational changes when the light infantry became mechanized (with the addition of wheeled armored fighting vehicles) or became airmobile (with helicopters).
High-Altitude and Mountain Warfare
For high-altitude operations, the PLA, along with the militaries of the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), have been moving toward the Russian concept of Reconnaissance Combat Operations (RBD). Based on tactics developed during the Soviet era, the concept was refined through combat with Chechen insurgents based in mountainous regions . RBD involves the extensive use of signals intelligence, helicopters and reconnaissance teams to provide intelligence for light infantry. The light infantry is then able to serve as blocking forces to ambush and halt retreating insurgents as well as provide fire coordination for long-range artillery and air support. These tactics, which coincide with the PLA’s emphasis on informatization and highly mobile units, have been especially embraced by the light infantry units operating on China’s western periphery composed of Tibet and Xinjiang.
The operational environment in these regions—consisting of the world’s largest mountain ranges and high desert plateaus—has required that lighter forces be deployed; the terrain and the long borders are generally unsuited for large contingents of heavy armor to patrol. The PLA has equipped its mountain brigades in Tibet and the 6th Independent Division in Xinjiang—the first mechanized infantry division to be deployed at this height—with wheeled armored fighting vehicles .
In Tibet and Xinjiang, the PLA has fielded the indigenously produced WZ 550 four-wheeled, WZ 551 six-wheeled and WZ 525 eight-wheeled family of armored fighting vehicles. Similar in concept to the U.S. Army’s Stryker light armored vehicle, various versions are available, ranging from the basic version of an armored personnel carrier with a small open turret mounted with a 12.7mm machine gun to a mortar, anti-armor and armored recovery versions . In Xinjiang and Tibet, these vehicles are organized along the lines of a cavalry battalion, similar to the U.S. Army’s Stryker combat brigades. In both regions, the PLA infantry operates the WZ 551A (Type 92) infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) with its one-man high elevation turret that is mounted with a 25mm automatic cannon. This turret allows WZ 551A to engage targets located high in the mountains. In addition, the ability of the 25mm cannon to penetrate light armor gives it a measure of security if it were to face light tanks.
PLA army aviation units have Z-9G helicopters equipped with imaging infrared (IIR) sensors and artillery units use data links to provide near-real time fire support. This follows the Russian experience in Chechnya where Russian forces have used attack and other helicopters equipped with IIR seekers and real time data links to identify Chechen insurgent positions. Furthermore, the PLA has used their first airmobile regiment with its Z-9G helicopters in Xinjiang to develop high altitude tactics and operating procedures. These can be mounted with cannon pods and air-to-air and anti-tank guided missiles . For the movement of airmobile units, PLAAF Mi-17 transport helicopters are available. These are equipped with a navigation radar and uprated engines that contain an auxiliary power unit ensuring reliable performance at altitudes of up to 4,000 meters .
Like the Russians in Chechnya, the PLA has found that at high altitudes, their older Type 59, 69 and 85 series main battle tanks (MBTs) with their manual transmissions and lower stressed engines are superior to the Type 96 and ZTZ-99 MBTs with their turbocharged diesel engines . Earlier model tanks also carry a larger quantity and variety of ammunition, which are two important considerations in counter-insurgency operations where the tanks are used for infantry support.
Jungle and River Network Operations
Light infantry are also used to operate in the jungle and the paddy fields of Guangzhou and Yunnan where the terrain restricts the use of armor. When operating in networked paddy fields, the PLA plans for armor to move at the very optimistic speed of 6-10 km/hr and infantry and towed artillery at 2.5-3 km/hr . The PLA has not left the light infantry bereft of armor, supplying them regiments equipped with the Type 62 light tank equipped with an 85mm gun. Introduced in the early 1960s, these regiments spearheaded China’s offensive into Vietnam during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War where the major problems of light infantry, a lack of sustainability and survivability became apparent. The Type 62 was particularly vulnerable to rocket propelled grenades and fire from anti-aircraft artillery. The Type 62 is currently being replaced in the PLA by the ZTZ-63A amphibious tank and WZ551 six-wheeled light armored fighting vehicle with a 105mm gun. These vehicles have improved firepower, speed and mobility, though at the expense of armor; both vehicles are easily penetrated by frontal heavy machine gun fire.
To enable sustained operations in the field without the need for re-supply, the PLA has introduced the 05 series of pre-packaged field rations . Ring pull cans are available containing such delicacies as seafood, birds, fruit, green vegetables and meat with rice and soup bases available in individual soft foil pouches. These are heated in a flameless heater pouch similar to the one in the U.S. military’s MREs and can heat meals up to 600C. The QL 550, a lightly armored 4x4 vehicle, has been developed to provide a platform capable of performing operational command and control and logistic roles .
PLA light infantry units are now being trained and equipped to operate in their traditional roles of screening, flank protection and jungle and high-altitude operations over larger areas than before, with elite units now becoming the PLA’s choice for conversion into airmobile units. New rations enable the PLA to conduct extended operations without having to rely on the civilian population for rationing and light infantry are now able to conduct covert operations without compromising themselves by needing to replenish rations. Their lack of supporting weapons, when outside their helicopters and light armored vehicles, means that their need for access to supporting forces is still necessary as they can quickly become overwhelmed by conventional forces.
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