The Chinese Army is the largest in the world, with 1.6 million troops, but it is shrinking, as China pursues a policy of creating a smaller, modernized and largely volunteer force. Conscription is not really used, there being sufficient volunteers. But new recruits are treated as probationary for their first two years (the term of conscription) to determine if they are good enough to become professional soldiers. In the next few years, the army will shrink to about 1.1 million troops, plus another 800,000 in an organized reserve force.
The army consists of seven military regions, 18 group armies, 37 divisions and 67 independent regiments and brigades. The military regions are administrative, each controlling 2-3 group armies in a specific part of the country. The group armies consist of a variable assortment of divisions and brigades (30,000-60,000 troops), plus support troops. The reserve troops are controlled by the provincial governments, and are used for assisting in border security and are on call when there are natural disasters, or civil disturbances. In wartime, the reserves can be organized into 30 infantry divisions and about as many independent brigades.
The main combat forces consist of nine armored divisions, 25 infantry divisions (two trained for amphibious operations), and three artillery divisions. There are 33 infantry brigades, nine armored brigades 15 artillery brigades and ten helicopter regiments. All the infantry are motorized, and nearly half are mechanized (equipped with armored personnel carriers and some tanks). All infantry units are gradually being converted to mechanized units. The air force also has three airborne divisions and the navy has the equivalent of a marine division.
The army is armed with about 7,000 tanks, 7,500 armored personnel carriers (about a third of these are more modern Infantry Fighting Vehicles similar to the U.S. M-2 Bradley). There are about 20,000 artillery and 400 helicopters.
The entire Chinese armed forces are shrinking from their current size of 2.2 million to 1.6 million troops in the next two years. The Chinese armed forces has already shrunk by nearly two million troops in the last twenty years. China also has 660,000 personnel in the national police.
There are other changes in the works. The ratio of officers to troops has been changing, with a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs. About a third of the Chinese military personnel are officers. This high proportion of officers was adopted from the Russians, who did not want to develop a professional NCO (sergeants) corps. But the Chinese are developing professional NCOs as well, and another third of the force are NCOs, or long term enlisted troops working towards becoming NCOs. To attract high quality conscripts, who will stay in the service to become NCOs, the military offers bonuses and help with college tuition. It will even take college graduates and promote them, right after basic training, to an NCO rank.
As the military has shrunk over the last decade, most of those laid off have been officers. Most of the shrinkage itself came from simply not enlisting a lot of new recruits. Meanwhile, older, and less educated officers are being retired, and new, better educated ones, sought among the ranks of recent college graduates. The military used to rely a lot on enlisted troops becoming officers, via selection and a few months training. No more. With 20 percent of Chinese 18 year olds going to college, there is an opportunity to quickly upgrade the officer corps (at least in terms of formal education.) The military tries to get the most physically, psychologically and educationally fit people for the armed forces. To that end, the military has been administering tests to recruits for about a decade now. If you're not literate (over 90 percent of Chinese are), they don't want you.
A lot of young men who don't have much education, do want to get into the military. For one thing, it's a job, and there are opportunities for education and advancement. The military tried to identify the more capable among these poor, uneducated young men, so they can be taken into service. That's because too many of the best young men aren't willing, or don't have to, serve. Drug addicts, the physically or mentally infirm and anyone who just doesn't seem right to the examiners, are not accepted.
Currently, the navy has 290,000 personnel, and the air force 400,000. The navy may add some people (as they add ships), while the air force may lose a few (because of retirements among the large number of obsolete aircraft still in service). The army will lose a lot of infantry, and unneeded headquarters. And everyone in the military will have to be smarter, more educated and better at their jobs, if they want to stay in uniform.