The People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Logistics Support Force
The Central Military Commission (CMC) of the People’s Republic of China is the highest national defense organization in China. The CMC is chaired by Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and has control over 6.8 million personnel. The CMC is the armed wing of the Communist Party to supervise the political and military activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including issuing directives on senior appointments, troop deployments, and arms spending.
Logistics has historically been a main PLA weakness. With modernization reforms in 2016 by Xi, the CMC established Logistics Support department (后勤保障部) and a new branch known as Joint Logistic Support Force (联勤保障部队), responsible for integrating C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) system, providing the foundation for a joint logistics support network. This support network provides unified command and control, and analysis and forecasting of logistics requirements for timely and accurate distribution of resources. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) considers joint logistics an important foundation for its emerging integrated joint operations capability for its five new joint theatre commands.
PLA modernization identified the need to develop and strengthen large logistics support centers embedded with information technologies to improve efficiency and timeliness. The Wuhan Joint Logistic Support Base provides centralized strategic logistics support, while the five theater logistics centers provide campaign logistics support to the theater commands.
The five joint logistic support centers are staffed by personnel from the services (Army, Navy, Air Force and Rocket Force), and provide joint logistics support within their respective theaters and to forces transiting their region during multi-regional exercises or operations. Wartime logistics mobilization includes manpower, financial, material, facility and equipment mobilization.
The five theatre centers consist of the following units, facilities and functions: contingency logistics support brigades (后勤应急保障 旅), medical support including hospitals and mobile medical units, motor transport and heavy equipment transport units, petroleum, oil and lubricant (POL) depots, oil pipeline groups(输油管 线大队), and field fuel station detachments(野战加油站分队). The centers also consist of ammunition depots, quartermaster depots, maintenance and repair, finance, and construction of military facilities.
Contingency logistics support brigades are modular adhoc units to provide rapid comprehensive logistics support in a main operational direction. Subunits include motor transport, medical, POL, materiel, and repair. The brigades have specialized equipment such as palletized supply vehicles and can monitor unit consumption through information systems to anticipate requirements and provide precision logistics support.
Modernization of Joint Logistics in Action
The PLA has extensively studied U.S. logistics support to global operations, providing impetus to its logistics modernization. The joint logistics for informationized warfare requires the following: First, Integration of information technologies into logistics equipment to support precision logistics and mobilization. Second, Acceleration of innovation and systems of systems integration for strategic, campaign and tactical support forces. Third, eliminating traditional problems of compartmentation and multi-level bureaucracy.
The PLA has shifted its focus to establish small, light, mobile, modular tactical logistics groups. It has also set to establish groupings of flexible, mobile strategic logistics contingency support forces, mobile maritime support forces including large supply ships, and PLA Air Force’s emergency mobile support groups and air refueling forces.
The PLA will accomplish the modernization of joint logistics by incorporating Precision Logistics Support, with an integrated and automated command platforms providing networking, a common operating picture, databases and monitoring systems to forecast and track consumption rates and stocks of supply requirements. Beidou’s satellite navigation positioning system and a rapid messaging system will provide accurate locations on battlefield situation maps, and identify medical needs and damage reports for units dispersed on the battlefield.
The logistics base and centers have battlefield situation maps reportedly updated in real time displaying planning support decisions, geographic, meteorological, hydrographic environments, ground, air and maritime friendly and enemy situation, satellite transits, electronic spectrum data and other information to support command and coordination.
Military-Civil Fusion Strategy (军民融合)
The PLA considers the strategic delivery capability as a strategic deterrent. One distinguishing factor of CMC is the utilization of civil logistics for military purposes, also known as Military-Civil Fusion (MCF). Whereas America’s Civil military integration is “cooperation between government and commercial facilities in research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and/or maintenance operations,” China’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy is a state-led, state-directed program and plan to leverage all levers of state and commercial power to strengthen and support the CMC.
The JLSF is responsible for civil-military logistics integration, which is a key component of logistics support leveraging the civilian economy and industry. This includes outsourcing of logistics and promoting research and development of dual-use technologies. The concept of “supporting the front” (支前) has local governments and the population supporting military forces with manpower, material and financial resources, medical, transportation, maintenance, and engineering support, as well as intelligence. The PLA is displaying interest in quantum computing and communications, as well as artificial intelligence for military-civil fusion.
The joint logistics force has identified civilian ships built to military specification for mobilization during exercises or wartime, known as the strategic delivery support fleet (战略投送支援船队). This force includes the capability to configure offshore platforms to provide maritime mobile ports for offloading materiel in cross-sea operations. The concern for widespread use of civilian infrastructure, resources, and transportation by the PLA during a conflict could make identification of military forces and targeting during a conflict difficult for an opponent.
China’s Wartime Mobilization and Strategic Reserves
Logistics war preparation provides timely support in the event of war or emergency disaster relief. Wartime logistics mobilization includes the following: Manpower Mobilization, which can call up of reserves to active duty and recruitment of civilians for active or reserve service, including the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP). Financial Mobilization for the financial sector to support wartime requirements, including financial institutions support to pay for the conflict, use of loans, use and control of bank deposits, foreign exchange control, and limiting securities trading.
Materials Mobilization for requisitioning, emergency production, management and distribution activities for any commodity, including military supplies for the troops such as food and clothing, fuel, medicine and medical equipment, construction materials, and logistics equipment. Equipment and Facility Mobilization for requisitioning of any facility required by the military, including factories, schools, hotels, public housing, hospitals and civilian houses and transportation facilities required for the movement of troops and materiel, including infrastructure, pipelines, and ferries.
The PLA is fielding and developing larger transport aircraft and large amphibious warfare and comprehensive supply ships to support strategic delivery of forces. The Army Aviation force is expanding as new transport helicopters are being fielded, with a heavy lift helicopter planned. The Navy has several comprehensive supply ships and large amphibious warfare ships to support strategic delivery. As of 2021, China’s third aircraft carrier is under construction, according to Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China’s Vision for the Future
President Xi has set the goals to complete military modernization by 2035, from 2049, to become a “world-class” military. China’s military leaders want to achieve mechanization and make “major progress” toward informatization. The concept of “informatization” is roughly analogous to the U.S. military’s concept of “net-centric” capability: a force’s ability to use advanced information technology and communications systems to gain operational advantage over an adversary.
The JLSF established a Joint Support Big Data Center (联保大数据中心) to support information integration and sharing to support rapid decision making and response. It also established Theater joint Precision Logistics Support Research, logistics support networks (战区联勤保障网), and military traffic information networks (军事交 通信息网) to support efficient dispatch of logistics units. A joint logistics support resource distribution map (联勤保障资源分布图) displayed on an integrated joint logistics support platform (一体化联勤保障平台) provides a common logistics operating picture.
A more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure would allow China to project and sustain military power at greater distances. China’s leaders may assess that a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLA logistics facilities, probably collocated with commercial ports, most closely aligns with China’s overseas military logistics needs. In August 2017, China officially opened a military base in Djibouti, its first overseas military base. Since then, China has been seeking to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and other nations in Africa.
China’s maritime expansion is evident in the concept of the island chain. The island chain is a geographical security concept used to illustrate a defensive or offensive perimeter by linking islands and other larger land masses together. Chinese naval planners hope to deny adversaries the ability to operate within the first island chain during a conflict, contest control of the second island chain, and operate as a blue water navy within the third island chain.
A new fourth island chain through the middle of the Indian Ocean would reflect China’s ability to challenge its geostrategic neighbor India with dual-use facilities in Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. A fifth island Chain, originating from China’s base at Djibouti, would reflect Beijing’s ability to pursue its developing commitments afar, such as harnessing economic resources, conducting anti-piracy operations, and protecting Chinese living abroad.
By 2035, the date by which Chinese leaders have required the PLA to “basically complete” its modernization, there could be several scenarios where the PLA could be tasked to execute overseas joint operations. According to National Defense University, the PLA of 2035 would probably be unable to conduct a major war beyond the first island chain, but Beijing would have the capabilities to conduct limited joint combat operations against other countries.
China will continue to defend overseas economic interests, particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including infrastructure and overseas Chinese nationals. This will lead to an extension in theater command responsibilities, allowing the theaters to gradually extend their joint command and control and communications capabilities farther from China’s borders.
Summary and Recommendations
The PLA’s improvements in the joint logistics system, civil-military integration, and the wartime mobilization system will increase the PLA’s capability to sustain combat. Expanding air and sea transport and sustainment capabilities, combined with the establishment of overseas bases will support overseas strategic delivery and sustainment of larger forces in the future.
China has employed deceptive practices in the past in attempts to buy US companies and steal American intellectual property. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) should strongly examine logistics dual-use technologies, such as Robotics and automation for production, warehousing and transportation, POL/oil pipelines technologies, rapid prototyping/additive and subtractive automated manufacturing, and Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) control system architecture.
This article is from Kevin McCauley for testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission report. This article has also referenced China Aerospace Studies Institute. The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the U.S., the PRC, or any other organization.