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PLA’s Achilles heel: flaws that weaken China’s combat capabilities

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PLA's Achilles heel: flaws that weaken China's combat capabilities

The last decade has witnessed China’s development as an assertive global actor, as well as a modernized People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises the PLA Navy [PLAN] and the PLA Air Force [PLAAF]. The rapid induction rate of the PLA’s navy and air force platforms is a revelation since it has been unsurpassed even during the conflict by modern armed forces throughout the world.

China’s political leadership’s goals of fielding a worldwide military force by 2035, as well as People’s Liberation Army (PLA) modernization and expansion, have raised several worries among enemies.

President Xi Jinping has openly indicated that China desires a “modern military” by 2027 at the regional level, which is only around three years away. The PLA may probably meet this goal in terms of the quantity of platforms deployed, albeit the technology will remain doubtful.

What is even more uncertain is the quality of the PLA leadership in light of recent exposés and the “unknown knowns,” as it were.

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Nonetheless, China’s confrontational posture and the PLA’s perceived increasing infallibility have sparked significant controversy and discussion, notably inside the Indian military.

In at least three recent forums, India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Anil Chauhan, has emphasized China’s assertiveness: the Air Chief Marshal L M Katre Memorial Lecture, the Defence Conclave, and the General K V Krishna Rao Memorial Lecture. While this statement may be intended to emphasize the need for modernization of the Indian Armed Forces, which appear to be progressing at the customary elephantine speed of “evolution,” which appears to be an accepted standard for Indian military leadership.

What is omitted from the discussion are the key flaws in the PLA, including corruption at the highest levels, politicization, and opacity, as well as a lack of proper incentives.

While it is not desirable to underestimate a foe, identifying and exploiting its flaws is an art that must be acquired in the digital age.

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Corruption at the highest levels of the PLA

First, let’s talk about corruption. Permeation at the highest levels should be viewed as gravely undermining the PLA’s strategic and operational capabilities. The recent expulsion of key generals in the PLA and Defence Minister Li Shangfu has revealed how the upper echelons have been influenced by corruption for monetary advantages, perhaps involving the leakage of some of the Rocket Force’s greatest secrets to the US.

Following the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection detained roughly 40 officials in a fresh anticorruption drive, including members of the military forces. On July 31, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that two generals from other branches of China’s military would take over the two top leadership positions in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), implying that the PLARF’s former commander and deputy commander are under investigation for corruption, according to the South China Morning Post.

According to an August podcast edition of the German Marshall Fund, Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao, his deputy Liu Guangbin, and a previous deputy Zhang Zhenzhong were all ousted and investigated by the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption section.

Xi nominated Wang Houbin, a former navy deputy commander, as the new leader of the PLA Rocket Force, succeeding Li Yuchao, who had served as commander since January of last year.

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Xu Xisheng of China’s air force was appointed political commissar, a post of similar importance in charge of executing party commands.

Li’s son is studying in the United States, prompting fears about the CCP’s military intelligence being betrayed.

Wu Guoua, the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, purportedly committed himself on June 6, 2023, while Xi was inspecting the Eastern Theatre Command.

According to the PLA, Wu died as a result of a brain haemorrhage. On June 28, Xi Jinping handed the ‘certificates of order’ for the promotion of two military commanders to the rank of general, obviously hinting that the void had to be filled.

Another startling probe has been launched against former defence minister Wei Fenghe, during whose term the Galwan incident on the Line of Actual Control with India occurred.

There is a connection between Defence Minister Li Shangfu and Wei since Wei was essential in bringing Li into the services. According to Reuters, General Li Shangfu, a veteran of China’s military modernization effort, was being investigated in a comprehensive examination of military equipment purchases. Li, an aerospace engineer, was the first deputy of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force, entrusted with boosting China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities development. He was named Director of the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department.

The US sanctioned Li for purchasing ten Russian Su-35 combat aircraft and components connected to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system in 2017. Meanwhile, the Department published a notice in July this year saying it was attempting to “clean up” its bidding process and urged the public to identify abnormalities dating back to October 2017, when Li was in charge. According to Reuters, he oversaw the section until October 2022.

Corruption in equipment acquisition that reaches the highest levels suggests that the capabilities of Chinese military platforms must be thoroughly reviewed, especially following their fast inductions. The PLA often brings military personnel from foreign nations to visit ships and air sites that have been prepared for visits. Visitors are certainly amazed by what they observe when they return from these travels. However, a critical analysis of the PLA’s current situation and a realistic examination of the capabilities.

More importantly, corruption in the Rocket Force is significantly worse, revealing probable gaps in China’s strategic capabilities.

Promotional Corruption

A related concern in corruption is the pervasiveness of it in promotions. Roderick Lee, head of research at Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), stated in an interview with Vox that corruption happens in two areas: contract procurements and promotions. [Vox Disclaimer: Although Lee is a US Department of Defense employee, he shared his ideas and observations with Vox and does not speak on behalf of the DOD.]

“Essentially the only way you could rise through the ranks in the PLA is you’d have to pay into the system,” Lee said in an interview with Vox.

Senior officers, such as Li, are claimed to have had to contribute to the promotion pipeline early in their careers. “None of them are clean — in fact, I’d argue that probably no one who’s a general or a flag officer in the PLA is clean, even today,” Lee told Vox.

Corruption in the PLA is a long-standing issue, and this is the third cleanup drive since Xi entered office. “Many of these officers were involved in procuring weapons systems for the rocket force, they worked in the bureaucracy, they may have tried to influence bidding or taken bribes,” the Washington Post quoted Li Nan, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.

According to an article in the Print, corruption has remained or grown under Xi, with the ‘buying and selling of office’ maiguan maiguan. The Print Report highlighted four types of corrupt activities: petty theft, big theft, speed money, and access money. In reality, the PLA Daily has recognized the consequences of military corruption. “There can be no corruption within the party, especially in our army.” “When the army is corrupt, the army has no fighting capacity,” according to a PLA Daily article. In October 2022, the PLA Daily released a story claiming that the army had “risen from the ashes” after ten years of anti-corruption campaigns.

However, July events demonstrate that there is still a long way to go.


The most critical concerns that have led to questions about the PLA’s combat effectiveness have been highlighted below. For a “Pay to Play” military and one whose procurement managers at the highest levels are based on unethical activities, combat effectiveness may be compromised.

Thus, while China’s and the PLA’s strategic growth is generally recognized, there are numerous chinks in the armour that cannot be quantified but have a significant impact on the efficacy and efficiency of China’s combat forces.

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Vipul Tamhane
Vipul Tamhane
Vipul Tamhane is an Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Terrorist Financing (AML/CFT) specialist with expertise in international business, and Commercial Law. He is a visiting faculty at Pune University's Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, where he teaches Counter Terrorism to Masters and Postgraduate Diploma students. He is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Diplomacy Direct, an upcoming national-interest think tank dealing with counter-terrorism, national security, geopolitics, and international diplomacy.


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