Considerations for replacing Military Area Commands with Theater Commands

Source: China Military OnlineEditor: Zhang Tao
2016-02-03 18:27

President Xi Jinping(L F), also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of China's Central Military Commission (CMC), confers military flag to Liu Yuejun (C F) and Zheng Weiping (R F), commander and political commissar of the Eastern Theater Command respectively, at an inauguration ceremony in Beijing on Feb. 1, 2016. The ceremony was held to mark the founding of the five theater commands of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Editor's Note: The PLA's seven Military Area Commands (MACs) are recently replaced by five new Theater Commands(TCs), namely the Eastern Theater Command, Southern Theater Command, Western Theater Command, Northern Theater Command and Central Theater Command, ending the MAC system that has been lasted for many years. What are the considerations for setting up the five Theater Commands? Will the new TC system better meet the requirements of future warfare than the old MAC system?

BEIJING, Feb. 3 (ChinaMil) -- China's military reform released another piece of important news recently. In addition to ending the system of the four general headquarters/departments (General Staff Headquarters, General Political Department, General Logistics Department and General Armaments Department), the long-standing MAC system of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has also come to an end.

It is known to all that the PLA used to have seven MACs (Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenyang, Nanjing, Lanzhou and Jinan), but they are re-divided during this round of reform into five Theater Commands (Eastern, Western, Southern, Northern and Central).

If previous steps such as the establishment of the Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force, and the reform of the "four general headquarters/departments" system were meant to reorganize the PLA's top-level architecture, the replacement of the MAC system with the Theater Command system is an institutional adjustment in preparation for possible wars in the future.

The five Theater Commands have their own strategic directions and defense tasks, and are the core institutions to carry out operational command and battlefield control in wartime. Therefore, their establishment will have enormous impacts on the PLA's future military strategy and guideline.

So, what are the considerations for setting up the five TCs? How can the new organizational structure better meet the requirements of future warfare than the old MAC system?

Historically speaking, the MAC system is a military area management system that has been implemented since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and this system was well-reasoned given the historical conditions then.

In addition to the seven recently canceled MACs, there were also three other MACs, namely Kunming, Fujian and Wuhan, which have been successively canceled in several rounds of disarmament after the "Cultural Revolution".

The mention of this part of history is to explain that the previous MAC system was intended to set up a step-wise national defense system. For instance, the Fujian MAC in the past was the frontline toward Taiwan, so all its combat readiness was focused on defense against Taiwan.

After the Korean War broke out, the U.S. military entered the Taiwan Strait to help with its defense, so it was unlikely for the PLA to cross the strait and liberate Taiwan any more. Under the historical conditions then, the Fujian MAC was actually a defense zone against Taiwan, aiming to cope with disturbances from Chiang Kai-shek's troops on the Fujian coast.

The Nanjing MAC, on the other hand, was a reserved combat-ready force behind the Fujian MAC, while the Wuhan MAC was the general reserved combat-ready force behind the Nanjing and Fujian MACs in the eastern direction.

Considering later threats from the Soviet Union, the Wuhan MAC was even regarded as a staging area in wartime for central military organs so that the central commanding institution could continue to operate even if the Soviet Union broke through the north China defense line.

A multi-layer defense system was also established in northern China. While the Shenyang and Beijing MACs were regarded as frontline forces directly facing the Soviet Union, the Jinan MAC was regarded as a reserved combat-ready force for them, in addition to undertaking anti-landing operations in Bohai Sea area.

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, threats from the north of China no longer existed, and the Jinan MAC was therefore deemed as the general reserved combat-ready force for other MACs as it had no direct enemy.

The MACs setup in the southwest and northwest China were also based on such a concept featuring step-wise defense system.

Step-wise defense was a choice made according to the technical conditions at that time because the troops were weak in cross-MAC maneuver and rally. Once they encountered a strong enemy with mechanized advantages, frontline troops had no choice but defense position to the last in order to slow down the enemy attack while mobilizing tier-2 troops for counterattack or launching the people's war.

The military reform launched in the beginning of China's reform and opening up resulted in a national defense system that was still focused on strategic defense. It simplified the previous step-wise defense areas since the country wasn't in face with a high war pressure.

But the reform didn't substantially change the old defense system. Meanwhile, the MAC system could no longer catch up with the times as it still preserved many organizational structures left from history.

The establishment of the Theater Command system is able to resolve many leftover problems all at once. In terms of strategic planning, the five Theater Commands is no longer positioned for regional defense, but head-on and proactive defense.

The deployment and command system of the five Theater Commands is designed to target head-on strategic threats. The new Theater Commands will attack proactively once a war broke out instead of passively waiting for defending the enemy at home.

After the new military services system is established, the reshuffled Theater Commands system can shake off the former "big army" style and build the joint operational commanding institutions that are more suitable for modern warfare.

Moreover, the seven MACs used to have overlapped response directions. For instance, both Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs face India and Pakistan. If a war broke out in that direction, the two MACs would have to implement wartime organizational adjustment.

In the new system, the Central Theater Command is the general reserved combat-ready force that supports the other four Theater Commands in dealing with surrounding threats and challenges. Thus, the new Theater Commands system thoroughly clarified the conflicts in strategic planning and unclear rights and liabilities.

Therefore, the establishment of the five Theater Commands is the most noteworthy part of China's military reform and will affect the PLA's development direction for at least 30 years to come.

By Zhu Jiangming from the Southern People weekly, the opinions expressed here are those of the writer and don't represent views of the China Military Online website.

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