Hong Kong, May 2 (ANI): In 2017-18, China renamed and reorganized the airborne unit of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Such troops, along with China’s marine corps, would be in the vanguard of any rapid expeditionary operation by China around the world, as well as any potential invasion of Taiwan.
However, the abject failure of Russian airborne units involved in February’s invasion of Ukraine raises questions as to the utility of such troops in a contested invasion of somewhere like Taiwan. The 2006 Science of Campaigns, a core document for Chinese military officer education, summarizes the role of the Airborne Corps like this: “Through air mobility, the airborne force carries out operational activities in the enemy’s depth in order to achieve specific strategic and campaign goals.”
Airborne troops, inserted by parachute, aircraft and helicopter, would form an important part of a joint cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, adding a complicating vertical element for defenders. In such a campaign, this Chinese doctrinal document lists three main phases: preliminary operations; assembly, embarkation and transit; and assault landing and establishment of a beachhead.
According to Chinese doctrine, then, airborne units would first be inserted to conduct sabotage raids behind enemy lines to help the PLA seize command of the air. Key objectives would be enemy airfields, radars, command-and-control nodes and munitions storage facilities.
Furthermore, according to Science of Campaigns, airborne landings can then combine with “a frontal assault onto land…to assist and complement landing force operations with active actions”. In theory, at least, air-inserted units could attack predetermined targets, causing mayhem while an enemy tries to organize resistance and to counter airborne bridgeheads.
They would also disrupt enemy counterattacks against a PLA amphibious lodgment. While the PLA ground force and the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) have received wide discussion in regards to their utility for Taiwan invasion scenarios, the PLAAF Airborne Corps has not received as much attention. Nonetheless, Author Cristina L. Garafola, in a report for the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, listed four steps or phases that the PLAAF Airborne Corps would be involved in in such an invasion scenario.
She noted that, firstly, the PLA would need to seize information superiority and command of the air as preconditions for use of paratroopers. Secondly, the PLA would conduct preparatory fires. Thirdly, the airborne troops would be transported across the Taiwan Strait and conduct paradrops or landings in selected locations.
After landing, the troops would begin the campaign’s fourth phase of ground operations, where they would capture landing sites, set up PLA operations for follow-on landings, carry out ground offensives and transition to defensive operations if need be. Yet, such ambitious employment of airborne units throws up some important lessons after watching Russian airborne troops, known by their acronym VDV, during the invasion of Ukraine.
The VDV, considered an elite unit of the Russian military, was at the vanguard of the ground advance early on in the campaign. Furthermore, many troops conducted an airborne assault at Hostomel Airport near Kyiv, using approximately 30 helicopters. Their aim was to seize the airport so follow-on forces could roll in and achieve a surprise thrust that that would decapitate the Ukrainian political leadership.
However, through to tactical errors and stubborn resistance by Ukraine, these troops failed to expand their airport perimeter and keep Ukrainian assault forces at bay, and no follow on forces were fed in. Essentially, the Russian leadership left the VDV to its fate, and the operation turned into a failure. Such airborne units are supposed to be able to conduct rapid, unexpected and deep-penetration strikes, so they were a first choice for Russian war planners. However, their strengths turned into serious disadvantages as they were contained behind enemy lines and then rolled up by defenders.
Involved in the invasion of Ukraine was the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment for example, an elite unit that had served in the Balkans, Chechnya and the 2014 intervention in Donbas.
In the latter conflict, the unit stands accused of killing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers at Ilovaisk, breaching a ceasefire agreement. However, this time the regiment was decimated by stout Ukrainian defense, including reservists and territorial defense units. Its BMD infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) proved no match for Ukrainian defenders armed with antitank guided missiles (ATGM) and other weapons. It can be seen that armored vehicles light enough to be transported by aircraft truly have insufficient protection.
Now, the combat reputation of the VDV, which serves as a strategic reserve for Russia, has been severely dented by the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, the PLAAF’s Airborne Corps is very similar to the VDV of Russia. It is equipped with an estimated 180 ZBD-03 IFVs that can be dropped by parachute or landed by transport aircraft. In fact, the 8-tonne ZBD-03 is a copy of the Russian BMD. The corps also possesses CS/VN3 4×4 tactical vehicles, but the Chinese airborne’s weaponry is not even as heavy as that of the VDV.
It also owns more than 160 artillery pieces, including 54 PL-96 122mm towed howitzers, 54 PH-63 107mm multiple rocket launchers and 54 100mm mortars. Some HJ-9 ATGMs are mounted on vehicles, while air defense is provided by QW-1 man-portable missiles and 54 PG-87 25mm towed guns.
After restructuring over the past five years, the Airborne Corps now contains six combined-arms brigades (encompassing three light motorized brigades, two mechanized brigades and an air assault brigade); one transport aviation brigade (which may include a former helicopter regiment); a special operations brigade; a combat support brigade; a training base; and a training brigade.
Indeed, the corps’ major restructuring has better suited it to anti-Taiwan operations, particularly the creation of the aforementioned combined-arms brigades. The Airborne Corps’ integral aircraft fleet includes six Y-8s, 20 Y-5s, two Y-7s and twelve Y-12Ds, as well as eight Z-10K attack helicopters, eight Z-8KA combat search and rescue helicopters and 12 Z-9WZ multirole helicopters. These help support missions such as transport and parachute training, but they are wholly insufficient for an airborne invasion.
Therefore, the corps would reply on numerous aircraft from the wider PLAAF in order to conduct airborne landings. The PLAAF owns Y-20 (of which about 40 examples are already in service) and Il-76MD (about 20) heavy transport aircraft, plus about 30 Y-8C and 25 Y-9 medium transports.
Interestingly, Chinese paratroopers made their first parachute jump from the Y-20 in 2018. In the past five years, the number of PLAAF heavy transport aircraft has more than doubled, thus starting to eliminate one of the greatest weaknesses of the Airborne Corps, its lack of airlift.
Garafola, in her China Maritime Studies Institute study, summarized the growing capability of the Airborne Corps. “In recent years, the corps has reorganized to improve its capability for mechanized maneuver and assault, leveraging the PLAAF’s larger inventories of transport aircraft, particularly the Y-20; improved the sophistication of its training at home; and gleaned insights from abroad via training with foreign militaries.
Garafola also mentioned increasingly realistic training, something in common to the PLA in general: “The corps also appears to be increasing its training on complex topics, including in combined arms and joint contexts. However, like the PLA writ large and the PLAAF in particular, the Airborne Corps suffers from a lack of combat experience. It has not conducted combat operations abroad, but rather has been tasked to support the regime during periods of domestic turmoil or for domestic humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.”
She continued: “The corps has incorporated more complex topics into its training regimen, including training for night-time operations; with greater numbers of aircraft, troops and equipment; in complex geographic and weather conditions; and with other PLA and PLAAF forces.”
They have been engaging more in international exercises too, particularly with
Russia. For example, last year airborne troops joined the Zapad exercise in Russia.
In her assessment of the potential effectiveness of the Airborne Corps, Garafola raised four key questions.
The first is unity of effort and how China will integrate operations by similar units such as the PLANMC and heliborne ground forces. These various types of units, while enhancing the PLA’s three-dimensionality, need to be able to work together without overlapping. She assessed: “…The extent to which airborne forces and sister units in other services are able to coordinate directly or via higher headquarters in the event of a contingency is not clear.”
The second question is how well Chinese airborne units can operate in complex or degraded conditions. This includes training and operating in poor weather, harsh climates, at night, against stiff opposition and in degraded electromagnetic environments. Can Chinese airborne units adapt to difficult circumstances, and act effectively when lacking up-to-date information, to avoid mission failure? This is largely unknown, especially as it connects with the third question below raised by Garafola.
Indeed, the third unknown is the Airborne Corps’ lack of relevant experience. The PLA as a whole has not engaged in combat since 1979, when it invaded Vietnam, so the warfighting efficiency of China’s military, let alone the Airborne Corps, is an unknown quantity. Apart from the odd small-scale exercise, the corps only ever deploys domestically. Being untested in combat must have a bearing on the PLA’s combat capabilities.
One other incidental consideration is that the Airborne Corps may also have a role in
protecting the Chinese Communist Party regime. That means it is unlikely the whole corps would ever be deployed simultaneously, as some units would remain in reserve.
The fourth and final factor is the corps’ reliance on aviation forces. The PLAAF would have to suppress enemy air defenses before transport aircraft can begin ferrying in troops and equipment to Taiwan. And once on the ground, they still need continued air support for resupply, reinforcements and medical evacuation. But can the PLAAF defend airborne packages in contested environments, and can it maintain high operational tempos over a sustained period of time?
Large-scale airborne operations during World War II – such as Germany’s taking of Crete, or by the British in Arnhem – show that historically these are inherently risky undertakings. Those risks have only grown as new weapons such as surface-to-air missiles came on the scene.
Indeed, Russia’s contemporary experience in Ukraine shows that these extreme risks have not dissipated in any way. Remember, too, that once Chinese airborne troops are on the ground on the island of Taiwan, there would be no easy way to retreat if amphibious lodgments do not succeed.
Interestingly, a 2020 commentary by a PLAAF Command Academy researcher took a
relatively expansive view of the Airborne Corps future role, describing them as “strategic fists” that can not only support major conflicts central to a country’s national security, but also to “defend national interests and expand national security space on a global scale.”
Given Russian mistakes in Ukraine, China may well be reassessing its application of airborne troops against Taiwan. It is therefore possible that the PLA will indeed use airborne forces, not primarily against Taiwan, but for a broader array of operations farther afield and in less-contested environments. (ANI)