Infantry: Chinese Airborne Evolves

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May 26, 2017: In early 2017 the Chinese airborne force, the 35,000 personnel of the 15th Airborne Corps, underwent a major reorganization in which the three airborne divisions and an aviation brigade became a force of nine separate brigades (six airborne, one special operations, one support and one aviation brigade). The airborne divisions no longer existed as the brigades report directly to corps headquarters. The headquarters and support units of the three divisions have been reorganized and assigned to the brigades or Corps headquarters. This makes it easier to rapidly deploy airborne forces and copies a practice that many other nations have adopted over the last few decades.

The Chinese have had some airborne units since the 1950s and these belonged to the air force. The 15th Airborne Corps was created in the 1960s and was always considered a strategic reserve unit. By the late 1980s China had enough air transports to move an entire division (about 10,000 troops) anywhere in China. At the time such a movement took weeks to organize and monopolized most of the air transport aircraft the military had.

Moving a division anywhere by air on short notice was first done in 2008 when one division was sent to Sichuan province to assist in earthquake relief. The early large scale movements by air movements were experimental. A lot of mistakes were made but they were fixed and by 2010 battalions and brigades could be moved reliably by air on a regular basis. Since 2006 as the air force acquired more, and larger, transports so that more troops, as well as vehicles (some armored) could quickly be delivered by air.

Since 2009 the 15th Airborne Corps has been receiving more helicopters and practicing tactical movements via helicopter for units as large as brigades. These exercises are becoming more frequent, as more of the 15th Airborne Corps paratroops battalions were trained to undertake these helicopter movements and assaults. These operations would be a major feature of an attempt to take Taiwan by force or quickly reinforcing remote Tibet in case there were a local rebellion. Another threat is the newly created Indian Mountain Corps that is based on the border and could cross the border unexpectedly in the 2020s, when this new Indian units reaches full strength of 80,000 troops.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991 most nations have converted all or part of their ground forces to a "brigade-centric" organization. This approach makes the brigades, not the divisions, the primary combat unit. The new brigades have more support units permanently attached, and can be more easily sent off to fight by themselves. In the past, doing this involved quickly adding a lot of support units to the brigade. But the new organization makes small support units part of the brigades, and, more importantly, the brigades train using these support units and learns to work well with them. The divisions still exist, but operate more like the corps has since the early 18th century; coordinating the actions of a few divisions and only having a few support units under its command. With a brigade centric force the slightly larger brigades are treated like the original 18th century divisions. As far back as World War II it was noted that technology was making it practical to form brigades that were capable of independent operations. Adoption of the new approach speeded up greatly in the 1990s as most armed forces reduced the number of personnel they had at the same time a lot of new technology became available that aided independent operations of smaller units. The U.S. Army began this reorganization in 2005, despite the fact that most of its ground forces were committed to combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. Marine Corps had already been successfully using a brigade-centric organization for decades. After the U.S. Army adopted brigades Russia followed as did most Western armies and now China is doing the same, starting with its best trained and equipped infantry units.

Currently the 15th Airborne Corps is a major component in the new rapid reaction forces. China now has enough air transports (Il-76s, Yu-8s, Yu-7s) to move one of the 11,000 man airborne divisions to anywhere in China within 24 hours. Since 2009 the 15th Airborne Corps has also been training a growing percentage (currently about half) of its paratroopers to carry out one or more specialized operations. This involves things like operating from helicopters as airmobile troops or learning how to jump in the thin air of Tibet and quickly get used to strenuous activity at high altitudes. Operating in Tibet is a particular challenge because most of Tibet is a unique high altitude (4,000 meters/14,000 feet) plateau. That means parachutists have to jump from a higher altitude on account of the thinner air and the longer time it takes for the parachute to open. The reduced air pressure also causes altitude sickness for many troops, especially after something as strenuous as a parachute jump, and the frantic activity following the landing. The Chinese Army wanted to find out how well prepared it is to deal with these problems. Since the late 1990s the Chinese Army has adapted. This process accelerated after 2008. Back then there was an uprising in Tibet and many of the troops sent in soon fell ill from altitude sickness. Since then acclimatization training detects those troops who would get ill quickly, and the worst of these are kept closer to sea level. Rapid reaction troops were given priority if going through the high altitude acclimatization process.

 


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