by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
China’s most attention-grabbing military machines are in the air and at sea, but the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is undergoing reforms aimed at making it more maneuverable and capable of fighting potential wars along the border with India.
The solution is decidedly old-fashioned: lots of guns!
In October, India’s outgoing prime minister and China’s premier signed a Border Defense Cooperation Agreement. This established a communications system between border military commanders and cuts Chinese and Indian army patrols from shadowing each other, both steps to reduce confrontations and to prevent an escalating firefight. But the agreement did not resolve underlying disputes over who owns several vast stretches of disputed, mountainous territory.
At the same time, both China and India are continuing to expand roads and railways heading towards disputes, necessary for rapid mobilization, as well as boosting troop deployments. In India’s case, it has extended to the recent creation of the country’s first dedicated offensive corps for mountain warfare.
Mountains are not ideal for artillery. The ground is uneven, making it difficult to find suitable spots for large, heavy guns. Wind speeds and low air pressure can throw off accuracy. But mountains are even less ideal for everything else. Vehicles have limited room to maneuver. Freezing temperatures weakens soldiers and limits the time they can deploy to the battlefield before they must be replaced. Fixed-wing aircraft have to deal with high winds and poor visibility. Soldiers also find easy concealment and cover along the cragged rocks, allowing them to ambush and pin down a larger enemy force.
Artillery, despite lower accuracy in mountainous terrain, serves to compensate. In 2012, China’s field artillery strength amounted to 6,176 towed guns, according to reports from the military think tanks “International Institute for Strategic Studies” (IISS) and “Center for Strategic and International Studies” (CSIS). That was roughly 70 fewer guns than two years before. It was not a significant drop. During the same time period, the Chinese army added more than 700 self-propelled guns for a total of 1,785. The bulk of the Chinese army’s towed and self-propelled guns are of the 122-millimeter caliber and based on Soviet designs. All combined, Beijing has the third largest artillery force in the world.
This number of mobile guns is likely to increase through the rest of the decade. Defence IQ, an arms industry research firm, expects China to amount to the second largest artillery market through 2022, second to India. The United States is also likely to continue serving as a major market for artillery systems. Europe and Latin America are weak markets, in comparison.
Details for Chinese developments can be hard to come by, and foreign defense contractors have a hard time competing against Chinese firms to supply Chinese troops. But it’s expected Beijing will focus heavily on improving artillery range, accuracy and mobility.
In 2013, China revealed the BDS-guided (Chinese GPS) WS-35 155-millimeter shell designed for the PLZ-05, a modern, self-propelled gun which entered service in 2008. It reportedly has a longer range (100 kilometers) than the U.S. M982 Excalibur shell, which ranges 40 kilometers, but that’s impossible to confirm.
China has also reformed how its artillery forces are structured, to a degree. The PLA has reduced the number of separate artillery divisions (adopted from the Soviet model) to two divisions. In their place are smaller and fast-moving modular battalions designed to force armor, mechanized infantry and artillery to cooperate.
“Digitization” and “informatization” also serve as key PLA doctrinal concepts, but it’s difficult to determine how quickly the PLA is adopting advanced communications technologies and electronic fire control systems. It’ll need it for mountain warfare.