In-depth: A close look at Chinese airborne troops

China Military Online
Zhang Tao

By Xi Zhigang and Jiang Long

After over 60 years of development, the Chinese airborne troops have evolved from "one parachute and one gun per soldier" when it was first established into an " combined air force corps" featuring multiple services, full-time all-domain operation, and the capability of massive airdrop of heavy-duty equipment.

BEIJING, Aug. 29 (ChinaMil) -- The "Airborne Platoon" competition of the International Army Games 2017 held by the airborne troops of the PLA Air Force concluded on August 10, 2017.

During the 15-day competition, Chinese airborne troops competed with teams from Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Morocco, South Africa and Venezuela, and were the final champion by winning first place in 11 out of 12 events, followed by the teams from Russia and Kazakhstan in the 2nd and 3rd place.

This was the second time that the Chinese airborne troops demonstrated their strength after receiving the inspection by President Xi Jinping at the Zhurihe comprehensive training base on July 30, 2017 as an elite force in the joint operations system of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Brigade-based reform

In early May this year, 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. Meanwhile, the former special operations regiment was expanded into the special operations brigade, while the new combat support brigade and air transport brigade were also formed.

Moreover, two regiment-level units will be integrated with the Academy of Airborne Troops to form a new troop unit.

The establishment and commanding system 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 commanding 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.

According to Zhao Jinjun, deputy chief of staff of the airborne troops, the fewer levels of command, the shorter time of response, and the faster delivery of troops. The reform of the establishment and commanding system is fundamentally aimed to improve the fast response capability of the airborne troops.


It's worth noting that 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.

Military analysts believe that in addition to the reduction of commanding levels and change of designation, another highlight of the airborne troops reform is the expansion and elevation of several "special brigades".

First of all, the special operations regiment that was directly affiliated to the corps were expanded into a special operations brigade. 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 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.

An air transport brigade was also formed, which consists of the former air transport regiment and airports. Public information shows that the 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.

Generally speaking, when airborne troops conducted large-scale exercises and combats, the air transport plane unit would perform the transporting task.

At present, more China-made Y-20 large transport planes are commissioned and have formed stable combat capability, and the Chinese airborne troops that once didn't have enough large transport planes are moving in the direction of higher level of integration and heavy equipment and stronger capability of maneuvering and fast response.

Military analysts said that as the new airborne troops are reorganized into brigades, the brigades will be more professional and modular in the future, and each, assisted by the support unit, will be an independent unit that is able to undertake a battle-size airborne combat.

"In this way, the airborne troops will have better maneuvering capability and can reach the destination in every theater."According to Zhao Jinjun, deputy chief of staff of the airborne troops, this makes the input of troops more flexible and mobile either for independent combat or the combined combat of several theaters.

At the moment, the new system and establishment of the PLA airborne troops are already in place. Under this framework, airborne vehicles, light large-caliber howitzers and assault vehicles will be provided for the troops step by step. As more large and medium transport planes such as Y-20, Y-9 and IL-76 are put into service, the airborne troops' combat capability will be enhanced significantly.

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