PLAA Tactical-Level Organizations

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 2: People’s Liberation Army Force Structure > PLAA Tactical-Level Organizations

2-19. The PLAA has completed a substantial period of reorganization with regard to its tactical unit structure. Traditionally, the PLAA was built around the division. Divisions were designed around the Soviet model. They were somewhat smaller and more homogenous than their U.S. counterparts, without the same combined arms and sustainment capabilities. In a transition similar to that undertaken by the U.S. Army, Ground Forces of the Russian Federation, and numerous other armies, the PLAA is in the process of “brigade-ization”—moving capabilities that used to reside at the division echelon to the brigade, with the goal of creating a more flexible force with a streamlined command structure, from group to army to brigade to battalion. This reorganization corresponds with the substantial drawdown in manpower ongoing throughout the PLA. PLAA divisions are now largely an administrative echelon—only six divisions remain operational, with none residing in group armies. Otherwise, frontline PLA units have moved entirely to a brigade-oriented structure. 

Note. Unit descriptions in this section are notional, as described by the PLAA and supported by further intelligence analysis. Real-world units may vary widely in composition, organization, and equipment, though the PLAA is moving in the direction of force-wide standardization. It is important to note that PLAA units at battalion and below are designed to fight as structured, without the need for significant task organization.

At a Glance


    • Light CA-BDE
    • Medium CA-BDE
    • Heavy CA-BDE


    • Light infantry CA-BN
    • Medium CA-BN
    • Heavy CA-BN


2-20. The CA-BDE is the PLAA’s basic operational unit. It is similar in size, capability, and organization to the U.S. Army’s brigade combat team (BCT); it is entirely possible that the PLAA was influenced by BCT organization when designing the CA-BDE. The CA-BDE mixes different capabilities under a single headquarters: maneuver, fires, logistics, communications, engineer, and EW subordinate units are organically assigned to CA-BDE headquarters. CA-BDEs do not appear to have any organic joint capability, but they are developing joint capabilities to be able to control units from other services during training and operations. (See table 2-1 for a comparison of a PLAA CA-BDE to a U.S. BCT.)

Table 2-1. Comparison of PLAA combined arms brigade to U.S. brigade combat team

PLAA Combined Arms Brigade U.S. Brigade Combat Team (BCT)
Maneuver 4–6 battalions 3 battalions
Artillery 1 howitzer battalion
1 rocket battalion
1 howitzer battalion
Air defense 3 batteries, including:
  • Self-propelled guns.
  • Man-portable air defense systems.
  • Short-range missile systems.
Reconnaissance Comparable to U.S. BCT
Engineer and protection Comparable to U.S. BCT
Logistics and sustainment Newly established
Likely less capable than U.S. BCT

2-21. There are three distinct types of CA-BDEs: light (motorized), medium (mechanized), and heavy (armored). The PLAA describes the differences between motorized and mechanized infantry in how supporting vehicles are employed: motorized units are only transported by their assigned vehicles, while mechanized forces employ their vehicles as combat platforms that support the infantry. The PLAA employs a variety of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) that feature a broad range of firepower and protection; some are tracked, some are wheeled, and there is considerable overlap. As such, one must look at how the unit intends to fight, rather than its composition and equipment, when assessing a unit as motorized versus mechanized. Airborne, mountain, and amphibious CA-BDEs are described as light. The CA-BDE organizations are described in paragraphs 2-22 through 2-24.

2-22. The light CA-BDE contains these units— 

  • Four motorized combined arms battalions (CA-BNs).
  • One reconnaissance battalion. z One artillery battalion.
  • One air defense battalion. z One headquarters unit.
  • One operational support battalion. z One service support battalion.

(See figure 2-4 for a graphic depiction of the light CA-BDE.).

Figure 2-4. Light combined arms brigade (doctrinal)


2-23. The medium CA-BDE contains these units— 

  • Four mechanized CA-BNs.
  • One reconnaissance battalion.
  • One artillery battalion.
  • One air defense battalion.
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One operational support battalion.
  • One service support battalion.

(See figure 2-5 for a graphic depiction of the medium CA-BDE.)

Figure 2-5. Medium combined arms brigade (doctrinal)


2-24. The heavy CA-BDE contains these units— 

  • Four armored CA-BNs.
  • One reconnaissance battalion.
  • One artillery battalion.
  • One air defense battalion.
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One operational support battalion.
  • One service support battalion.

(See figure 2-6 for a graphic depiction of the heavy CA-BDE.) 

Figure 2-6. Heavy combined arms brigade (doctrinal)


2-25. The artillery brigade in the group army employs a variety of towed guns, self-propelled guns (SPGs), light (122-mm) and heavy (300-mm) rocket artillery systems, and antitank and assault vehicles. These systems are employed to mass fires on critical targets, reinforce fires at lower echelons (chiefly the CA-BDE), deter or deny enemy actions, and offset enemy advantages in close combat. Artillery brigade assets may be employed in direct or general support of CA-BDEs. Artillery battalions include organic surveillance and target acquisition assets, including UAS, electronic intelligence (ELINT) systems, and traditional long-range visual forward-observation platforms. It is not clear how effectively the PLAA can task-organize fires; it traditionally preferred to centralize fires in order to maximize the effects of mass, but the movement toward smaller tactical formations and modularization requires that lower echelons be capable of employing effective fire support. In addition to its indirect fire capability, each artillery battalion includes an antitank guided missile (ATGM) company, employing light armored vehicles mounted with ATGMs. Artillery brigade composition varies significantly based on operational requirements and system availability. A notional artillery brigade contains—

  • Two self-propelled 122-mm, 152-mm, or 155-mm towed or self-propelled howitzer battalions (three batteries with four to six guns each, from 24 to 36 guns total). 
  • One light (122-mm) rocket battalion (three batteries with nine launchers each, 27 launchers total). ƒ 
  • One heavy (300-mm) rocket battalion (12 launchers total). ƒ 
  • One target acquisition battery. ƒ 
  • One UAS company. ƒ 
  • One command battery. ƒ 
  • One support company.

(See figure 2-7 for a graphic depiction of the artillery brigade.)

Figure 2-7. Artillery brigade (doctrinal)


2-26. The group army’s air defense brigade provides the middle tier in the PLA’s tiered and layered approach to ground-based air defense. The PLAA historically relied heavily on antiaircraft guns, both towed and self-propelled (SPAAGs). These systems are still heavily represented in both the air defense brigade and in the air defense battalions of the CA-BDEs. The air defense brigade also employs a mixture of medium-range radar missile systems, short-range missile systems, and sensors designed to support engagement of aerial targets. It is not known to what extent these tactical air defense systems integrate with the much-larger theater-wide air defense networks employed by TCs, but it is likely that at least the medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) battalion has some sort of digital integration with a higher air defense echelon. As with artillery systems, air defense units may be employed in mass to defend critical assets from air attack, or they may be detached in direct or general support to subordinate CA-BDEs. Each brigade may also include an electronic air defense battalion, integrating EW assets with gun systems. As with artillery systems, air defense brigade composition varies significantly based on operational requirements and system availability. A notional air defense brigade contains—

  • One medium-range SAM battalion (three batteries consisting of one radar section and three launcher sections per battery).
  • Two short-range air defense (SHORAD) battalions (three batteries consisting of six to eight SPAAGs and four to six short-range SAM launchers per battery).
  • One electronic air defense battalion (three batteries consisting of varied EW capabilities).
  • One command battery.
  • One support company.

(See figure 2-8 on page 2-12 for a graphic depiction of the air defense brigade.)

Figure 2-8. Air defense brigade (doctrinal)


2-27. The group army’s engineer and chemical defense brigade is responsible for protection, mobility, countermobility, and chemical defense and obscuration functions within the group army’s combat area. Historically, the PLA invested heavily in its engineer units due not only to its emphasis on mobility and countermobility, but also for contingency missions in support of disaster relief or other civil emergencies. This employment strategy is likely to continue. PLAA engineer brigades include mining, countermining, obstacle, bridging, smoke, chemical defense, and heavy maintenance units. These units provide much of the PLA’s support to international peacekeeping and development missions.


2-28. The service support brigade includes logistics, transportation, medical, repair, ammunition, command and communication, UAS, and EW units. In addition to traditional combat support roles, the brigade is postured to perform signal support and EW missions. The service support brigade’s signal element employs both traditional and network communications throughout the group army’s combat area. Previously, communications were handled largely at the division, with minimal communications architecture being employed at lower echelons. With the PLAA’s emphasis on information operations, signal capabilities were significantly enhanced at tactical echelons. The signal element has responsibility for providing network connectivity to PLAA units and protecting these communications networks from jamming, electromagnetic attack, and cyber intrusion. The EW regiment represents a serious investment in EW and cyber capability to be employed at the operational and tactical levels. It includes a jamming and electromagnetic attack section, a long-range electronic surveillance section, an electromagnetic protection section, a network operations section, and a communications operations section. It is unclear how the PLA will allocate permissions and responsibilities to the EW regiment, though it can be safely assumed that rules of engagement will be more permissive than they are in Western militaries. It can also be assumed that the EW regiment will work closely with the artillery and air defense brigades in order to target long-range artillery fires in a construct similar to the Russian reconnaissance-fire system.

Note. The PLAA describes signal and communications capabilities under the umbrella of command and communication.


2-29. The army aviation brigade (AAB) provides the group army’s rotary-wing aviation capability. The AAB’s development is likely influenced by the U.S. Army’s combat aviation brigade, though the AAB has far fewer airframes than does its U.S. counterpart. The AAB is built around medium-lift transport helicopters and scout and attack helicopters. The PLAA uses a number of different helicopter types: foreign systems from Russia, the former Soviet Union, and Europe, and indigenous designs are all present in significant numbers. The density of helicopters in the PLAA is relatively low as compared to the size of the rest of the force; the U.S. Army’s ratio of helicopters to troops is over ten times that of the PLAA. Rotary-wing capability is a significant area of investment in the PLA’s modernization strategy; it is likely that the AABs will be greatly expanded in the relatively near future, using mainly indigenous or license-produced airframes. The AAB is organized into eight battalions, mixing general-utility lift helicopters, attack helicopters, and light attack and reconnaissance helicopters. In addition to the AABs, the PLAA has also formed two air assault brigades, which include either two or three infantry battalions and up to six medium-lift helicopter battalions. AABs train frequently with both light CA-BDEs and SOF. A notional AAB organization contains—

  • Four general-utility battalions (eight to 12 medium-lift or general-utility helicopters per battalion).
  • Two attack battalions (eight attack helicopters per battalion).
  • One reconnaissance battalion (eight reconnaissance or light attack helicopters).
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One aviation support battalion.

(See figure 2-9 for a graphic depiction of the army aviation brigade.) 

Figure 2-9. Army aviation brigade (doctrinal)


2-30. The SOF brigade provides the group army with an organic SOF capability. Group-army SOF brigade operations generally do not focus on training or interacting with foreign militaries; they instead focus on direct action—deep reconnaissance and commando operations in support of group army operations. Group army SOF brigades are highly specialized to operate in their specific theater. Mountainous theaters focus on alpine training, coastal theaters focus on amphibious operations, and urban theaters focus on urban operations. SOF brigades are equipped with organic surveillance UASs, likely to aid target acquisition in support of heavy artillery and rocket fires. Group army SOF brigades are more similar to U.S. Army Ranger light infantry and long-range reconnaissance units than traditional SOF; their primary mission is to support the group army’s combined arms maneuver operations. SOF brigades habitually train with PLAA aviation units, but they do not enjoy the wide variety of fixed- and rotary-wing capabilities available to U.S. SOF units.


2-31. The CA-BN is a very new development in the PLAA organization. The CA-BN takes the basic combined arms approach used to build the CA-BDE and applies it to the battalion echelon. CA-BNs appear to only combine different maneuver elements along with organic short-range fires elements (assault guns and mortars), with the provision that CA-BDE headquarters can attach elements from other brigade organizations as required. The CA-BN is very similar to the U.S. battalion task force concept employed by mechanized and armored units since the World War II era, mixing company-level infantry and armor units to create a single combined arms command. Each CA-BN also houses an organic SHORAD capability in the form of manportable air defense systems (MANPADS). The PLAA breaks CA-BNs into three primary categories: light, medium, and heavy. Of note, the CA-BN appears to have only limited staff, which may affect its ability to function as the PLAA intends—as an independent unit. Combined arms battalion organizations are described in paragraphs 2-32 through 2-34.

2-32. A light infantry CA-BN contains— 

  • Three motorized infantry companies (10 light wheeled vehicles or APCs per company).
  • One firepower company (six to nine rapid-fire 81-mm mortars, the form of man-portable air defense, and crew-served weapons).
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One service support company.

(See figure 2-10 for a graphic depiction of a light combined arms battalion.) 

Figure 2-10. Light combined arms battalion (doctrinal)

2-33. A medium CA-BN contains— 

  • Three mechanized infantry companies (10 wheeled or tracked IFVs per company).
  • One assault gun company (14 wheeled 105-mm assault guns).
  • One firepower company (six to nine rapid-fire 120-mm self-propelled mortars, MANPADS, and crew-served weapons).
  • One headquarters unit.
  • One service support company.

(See figure 2-11 for a graphic depiction of a medium combined arms battalion.)

Figure 2-11. Medium combined arms battalion (doctrinal)

2-34. A heavy CA-BN contains— 

  • Two tank companies (10-14 tanks per company). 
  • Two mechanized infantry company (10 IFVs per company). 
  • One firepower company (six to nine rapid-fire 120-mm self-propelled mortars, MANPADS, and crew-served weapons). 
  • One headquarters unit. 
  • One service support company.

(See figure 2-12 for a graphic depiction of a heavy combined arms battalion.) 

Figure 2-12. Heavy combined arms battalion (doctrinal)


2-35. The CA-BDE’s artillery battalion is a major focus of PLAA investment. Recognizing that PLAA forces may be outmatched in close combat with other industrialized nations’ maneuver forces, the PLAA developed doctrine designed to defeat, suppress, or neutralize enemy maneuver units before close contact occurs. In practice, this necessitated the fielding of new SPGs in both the 122-mm and 155-mm class, along with a series of older 152-mm towed guns and heavy, highly capable rocket artillery platforms. Unlike the U.S. Army, CA-BDEs employ a composite of rocket and tube artillery at the brigade level. CA-BDEs can be reinforced with guns and rocket artillery from their respective TC’s artillery brigade. Of note, the artillery battalion contains a robust antitank capability, consisting of light armored ATGM vehicles and several towed antitank guns. An artillery battalion contains—

  • Two to three 122-mm or 155-mm SPG batteries (three platoons with three guns each, 18-27 guns total).
  • One light (122-mm) rocket battery (three platoons with three launchers each, nine launchers total).
  • One ATGM company (nine vehicle launchers or antitank guns).
  • One command battery.
  • One support company.

(See figure 2-13 for a graphic depiction of an artillery battalion.) 

Figure 2-13. Artillery battalion (doctrinal)


2-36. The CA-BDE’s air defense battalion provides low-altitude air defense in the CA-BDE’s airspace. PLAA tactical air defense systems are generally mobile, lightweight, and within visual range. They consist of a mixture of guns and short-range missiles, including both vehicle mounted and MANPADS systems. The air defense battalion does not appear to have a robust long-range detection or early warning capability; integration with higher-level air defense units or PLAAF units is limited. Thus, the air defense battalion can only provide point, within-visual-range air defense against low-flying targets. The air defense battalion’s primary target set is helicopters, unmanned aircraft, and low-flying aircraft. Fires are likely controlled locally through visual aircraft identification and weapons control statuses. Radar detection is limited to short-range organic radars mounted on weapons systems. The air defense battalion’s systems are mobile, and they move closely with CA-BDE units while maneuvering. Gun systems are dual purpose and can engage surface targets if necessary. An air defense battalion contains—

  • Three SPAAG batteries (six guns per battery, 18 guns total).
  • One SHORAD battery (eight systems per battery and possibly one to two radar systems).
  • One command battery.
  • One support company.

(See figure 2-14 for a graphic depiction of an air defense battalion.)

Figure 2-14. Air defense battalion (doctrinal)


2-37. The CA-BDE’s reconnaissance battalion provides multi-domain reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities. The reconnaissance battalion uses a mixture of mounted, dismounted, UAS, human intelligence (HUMINT), ELINT, and cyber collection capabilities to support CA-BDE intelligence and targeting requirements. The reconnaissance battalion’s structure is very similar to that of the U.S. Army reconnaissance squadron, consisting of three troops employing a mixture of collection capabilities. In addition to traditional scouts, the reconnaissance battalion may include an element of SOF-like troops, capable of conducting independent direct action in deep areas. The reconnaissance battalion is a critical component of the CA-BDE’s reconnaissance-strike capability, providing much of the deep intelligence needed to support targeting for both the CA-BDE’s organic surface-to-surface fires and any supporting or reinforcing fires from the artillery brigade. The PLAA places a very high priority on reconnaissance in general. In order to shape the mindset of one’s opponents, one must know as much as possible about their disposition and intentions. It should also be noted that group armies do not have a dedicated ground reconnaissance unit as do U.S. corps; the group army’s SOF brigade provides much of the ground intelligence in support of group army operations. A reconnaissance battalion contains—

  • Two reconnaissance troops (mounted; six to 10 light armored vehicles per troop).
  • One battlefield surveillance company (all-source intelligence organization).
  • One UAS company (likely containing two to three aircraft).
  • One headquarters unit.

(See figure 2-15 on page 2-18 for a graphic depiction of a reconnaissance battalion.)

Figure 2-15. Reconnaissance battalion (doctrinal)


2-38. The CA-BDE’s operational support battalion provides mobility, countermobility, and protection capabilities, along with an EW company, a command and communication company, a chemical defense company, and a security (military police) company. It is similar—though not identical—to the U.S. Army’s special troops battalion. The operational support battalion likely operates in a highly decentralized manner, task-organizing support elements to other battalions within the CA-BDE. Operational support battalions are tailored to the needs of their parent unit; heavier CA-BDEs require heavier engineer support. One of the most important missions of the operational support battalion is supporting deception operations. The PLAA puts a very high priority on camouflage and concealment, and much of this responsibility falls to the engineering element of the operational support battalion. The operational support battalion also employs a relatively high density of vehicles, representing a significant portion of the CA-BDE’s wheeled-vehicle inventory.

2-39. The CA-BDE’s service support battalion provides sustainment support for the CA-BDE, including supply, medical, and maintenance support. It is likely structured similarly to the US Army’s brigade support battalion. It is unclear if the service support battalion operates in a more traditional and centralized manner, or if it habitually task-organizes itself to support individual CA-BNs. It can be assumed that, in order to support the CA-BN concept, greater logistics decentralization must occur, but PLAA logistics infrastructure may not support this approach without significant augmentation.


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