The PLA ground forces consisted of conventionally armed main
and regional units and in 1987 made up over 70 percent of the PLA.
It provided a good conventional defense but had only limited
offensive potential and was poorly equipped for nuclear,
biological, or chemical warfare. Main forces included about 35
group armies, comprising 118 infantry divisions, 13 armored
divisions, and 33 artillery and antiaircraft artillery divisions,
plus 71 independent regiments and 21 independent battalions of
mostly support troops. Regional forces consisted of 73 divisions of
border defense and garrison troops plus 140 independent regiments.
Under the old system, a field army consisted of three partially
motorized infantry divisions and two regiments of artillery and
antiaircraft artillery. Each field army division had over 12,000
personnel in three infantry regiments, one artillery regiment, one
armored regiment, and one antiaircraft artillery battalion.
Organization was flexible, the higher echelons being free to tailor
forces for combat around any number of infantry divisions. At least
theoretically, each division had its own armor and
artillery--actual equipment levels were not revealed and probably
varied--and the assets at army level and within the independent
units could be apportioned as needed.
The new, main-force group armies typically included 46,300
troops in up to four divisions, believed to include infantry,
armor, artillery, air defense, airborne, and air support elements.
Although the new group armies were supposed to reflect a move to
combined-arms operations, because of a lack of mechanization they
continued to consist of infantry supported by armor, artillery, and
other units. The 13 armored divisions each had 3 regiments and 240
main battle tanks but lacked adequate mechanized infantry support.
There was little evidence of the use of armored personnel carriers
during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict in 1979, and tanks were
used as mobile artillery and as support for dismounted infantry.
Artillery forces emphasized towed guns, howitzers, and
truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers. In the 1980s some
self-propelled artillery entered service, but the PLA also produced
rocket launchers as a cheaper but not totally effective alternative
to self-propelled guns. There was a variety of construction
equipment, mobile bridging, trucks, and prime movers. A new
multiple rocket launcher for scattering antitank mines appeared in
1979, but mine-laying and mine-clearing equipment remained scarce.
Regional forces consisted of full-time PLA troops organized as
independent divisions for garrison missions. Garrison divisions
were static, artillery-heavy units deployed along the coastline and
borders in areas of likely attack. Regional forces were armed less
heavily than their main-force counterparts, and they were involved
in training the militia. They were the PLA units commonly used to
restore order during the Cultural Revolution.
In 1987 the PLA ground forces, which relied upon obsolescent
but serviceable equipment, were most anxious to improve defenses
against armored vehicles and aircraft. Most equipment was produced
from Soviet designs of the 1950s, but weapons were being
incrementally upgraded, some with Western technology. One example
of upgraded, Soviet-design equipment was the Type 69 main battle
tank, an improved version of the Type 59 main battle tank, itself
based on the Soviet T-54. The Type 69 main battle tank had improved
armor, a gun stabilizer, a fire control system including a laser
range finder, infrared searchlights, and a 105mm smooth-bore gun.
In 1987 the existence of a new, Type 80 main battle tank was
revealed in the Western press. The tank had a new chassis, a 105mm
gun, and a fire control system. Production of the Type 80 tank had
not yet begun. The PLA was believed to have atomic demolition
munitions, and there were unconfirmed reports that it also had
tactical nuclear weapons. In any case, nuclear bombs and missiles
in the Chinese inventory could be used in a theater role. The PLA
had a scarcity of antitank guided missiles, tactical surface-to-air
missiles, and electronics to improve communications, fire control,
and sensors. China began production of the Soviet Sagger antitank
missile in 1979 but lacked a more powerful, longer range,
semiautomatic antitank guided missile. The PLA required a mobile
surface-to-air missile and an infantry shoulder-fired missile for
use against helicopters and certain other aircraft
(see Appendix C).
Data as of July 1987