Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PLA Helicopter S&R operations.

The PLA's lack of S&R helicopters and the experience to operate them in high tempo operations took the brunt of criticism from the Chinese leadership and the press during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Two years later, their performance in the Sichuan province floor relief operation demonstrated noticeable improvement. Different helicopters and military services were placed under a unified command, communicating with the same radio frequency using SAT-COMM equipped ground-controllers to guide the S&R operations.

Take the evacuation of Dujiangyan city on August 14th where two Mi-171 helicopters from the PLAAF 4th transport division were able to rescue and evacuate 692 flood-stranded civilians and deliver 9.8 tons of relief material in 58 non-stop sorties under a 24-hour period. (here)

The PLA's vertical operations is not world class and there is room for improvement, but the recent Chinese investment in MOOTW has proven not to be just an empty PR slogan.


Mi-171V5 of the PLAAF 4th Transport Division

SAT-COMM equipped ground-controllers, notice his rank is "Soldier First Class", a PLA Corporal




AS532 Puma Helicopters of the PLAAF 34th Transport Division

BlackHawk of the PLA 2nd LH Regiment, Chengdu MR



Here is my assessment on the PLA's response to the May 12th 2008 earthquake

PLA’s Response to the May 12th Earthquake – An assessment

(Special thanks to Michael Little and William Murray)

A major earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richer Scale jolted southwest China's Sichuan Province at 2:28 p.m. on Monday, May 12th, 2008. With more than 70,000 deaths, this earthquake was one of the largest natural disasters to hit China in recent memory. The Chinese government’s reaction to this disaster was swift, with tens of thousands of troops dispatched to the area within a short period of time with reactions from the highest echo of the civilian leadership, most noticeably Prime Minster Wen Jiabao[1]. This was coupled with aggressive media coverage, making it a major departure from China's past tendency to control media access during crises. Because of these two factors, this terrible disaster gives analysts both inside and outside of China a real opportunity to assess the PLA’s operational capabilities. While no one questioned the PLA’s dedication and enthusiasm, some veteran PLA watchers were “underwhelmed” [2] by what they saw. That sentiment is shared by this author as well.

This paper is an attempt to assess and summarize the PLA’s reaction and performance by using the PLA’s own released news and reports to review what lessons can be drawn from the official response to this natural disaster.




The Force Deployment Timeline:

The following timeline of the PLA’s deployments in response to the earthquake is compiled from official sources.

When the earthquake occurred, local PLA units stationed at and near Sichuan started to repair roads and carried out rescue and relief operations. According to the PLA Daily[3] an armored regiment of the Chengdu Military Region (MR) raced to Beichuan County, and an artillery regiment headed straight for Wenchuan County immediately after the quake occurred. The official report states that they were mobilized immediately on orders from General Li Shiming, commander of Chengdu MR, as part of a pre-planned emergency procedure activated after a direct communication from President Hu Jintao. During the first hours after the quake more than 6100 troops from the surrounding regions of Chengdu MR were also ordered to the disaster area. Local commanders of the Lanzhou MR additionally mobilized 5,000 offices and men into rescue relief operations in the southern part of Gansu Province [4] where the earthquake had caused significant damage.


[1] Andrew Jacobs “In China quake, apotheosis of ‘Grandpa Wen’ International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/21/asia/21wen.php (last accessed 8/13/2007)
[2] Jake Hooker, “Unearthed in quake: Flaws in Chinese military capability” International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/07/01/asia/china.php (last accessed June 30th 2008)
[3] Large numbers of troops arrive at quake-hit areas PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/14/content_1246484.htm (last access June 30th 2008)
[4] Ibid



None of the news reports released on the first day (May 12th) mentioned CMC, and this is a good indication that the special law on emergency management that passed last year, which allows regional network of emergency management offices to report directly to the State Council, is having an effect [5]. While CMC’s Leading Group Office (LGO) for Earthquake Rescue and Relief Work was established on the morning of May 13th to coordinate the actions of troops in earthquake rescue and relief operations under the command of Chen Bingdu, members of the CMC and the chief of general staff of the PLA [6] , some high readiness rate units from different regions had already arrived in Chengdu, including 300 troops from the 127th Light Mechanized Infantry Division of the Jinan MR and the first batch of airborne troops. This totaled 6500 troops by 16:00 on May 13th [7].

May13th saw the largest airlift in a single day in PLA history with 11,420 troops flown in by 12 civilian passenger airliners and 22 military transports[8], thus pushing the number of troops arriving in the quake area to almost 20,000. This was in addition to 15,600 of the military reserves and militia, and 5000 People’s Armed Police (PAP), with 30,000 more en route [9] .

By 22:00 May 14th, 81,000 PLA and 14,000 PAP personnel were engaged in the rescue and relief operations [10] . Of those 81,000 PLA troops, there were 4,000 airborne, 2,600 Marine, Naval, and Air Force personnel, and troop units directly affiliated with the CMC’s four general headquarters/departments. The PAP troops were mostly from Sichuan and Chongqing contingents.[11] Some GongAn (Unarmed Police) from outside of Sichuan provided an additional 1,000 personnel, charged with the job of enforcing public security. [12]


[5] Peter Ford “China moves quickly in quake zone’ The Christian Science Monitor http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0513/p01s04-woap.html (last accessed June 20, 2008)
[6] Dong Qiang “PLA leading group for earthquake rescue and relief work set up” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/14/content_1246485.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[7] Large numbers of troops arrive at quake-hit areas.
[8] “Chinese Army's largest airlift to take 11,420 troops to quake-hit province” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/15/content_1248358.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[9] Almost 20,000 soldiers arrive in quake-hit SW China, 30,000 more coming PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/14/content_1245479.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[10] “Facts and figures about disaster relief work by PLA and APF on May 14” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/special-reports/2008-05/15/content_1258875.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)
[11] Fei Boyu “Chinese PLA and APF sends 95,000 troops to quake-hit areas” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/special-reports/2008-05/14/content_1258870.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[12] “6 public security special police officers arrived to carry out duties” The Ministry of Public Security of PRC http://www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n8357/n1176644/n1176685/n1176747/1180539.html (last accessed 7/1/2008)




On 08:00 May 15th, the number of troops engaged in rescue and relief operates reached 130,000. 28,000 troops arrived in 21 trains, along with 157 railcars of rescue machinery and ambulances, seven railcars of oil and 69 railcars of steel and other materials. The number of medical teams reached 72, composed of some 2,160 military doctors and assistants [13]. 6,800 PLA parachutists were in Deyang and Mianzhu cities and Wenchuan County, to help relief work.

By 22:01 May 16th, 61 PLA helicopters had arrived at the quake-hit Sichuan Province with fifteen additional helicopters from civilian agencies. On May 15, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered 90 more helicopters (60 military and 30 civilian) for rescue missions. [14]

As of 17:00 May 17th, more than 148,000 military troops, armed police, militia and reservists were engaged in rescue operations. 10,000 unarmed police from 28 Chinese cities also contributed to the rescue operation [15]

Rapid Reaction:

Judging from official media reports, there are aspects of the PLA’s reaction that seem to confirm a number of theories brought forward by PLA watchers over the years regarding the PLA’s chain-of-command during an emergency. These held that the PLA has a number of Rapid Reaction Units (RRU) stationed throughout China that will be activated and placed directly under a single centralized command created from CMC’s General Staff Department (GSD) in response to an emergency.

The PLA’s initial response seems to confirm those theories in which designated RRUs such as the 15th Airborne Corps, PLA Marines, 149th Mechanized Infantry Division, elements of the 38th and 39th Group Armies (GA), strategic units from Jinan MR such as the 127th Light Mechanized Infantry Division (LMID), and 58th Mechanized Infantry Brigade and 60th Motorized Infantry Brigade of 20th GA, were activated within the first 12 hours. The above list of RRU should come as no surprise to anyone who watches the PLA as many previous reports portray their RRU roles[16] .




[13] “130,000 troops in rescue operations throughout quake area” Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/16/content_1251758.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[14] “Chinese premier orders deployment of 90 more helicopters for quake relief” http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/90785/6410903.html People’s Daily Online Edition (last accessed June 12, 2008)

[15] “GongAn dispatch an additional 5000 more police to the Sichuan disaster zone ” The Ministry of Public Security of PRC http://www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n8357/n1176644/n1176685/n1176710/1244164.html (last accessed 7/1/2008)

[16] Dennis Blasko wrote number of good articles related to PLA’s RRUs including:
"PLA Force Structure: A 20-Year Retrospective," in Seeking Truth from Facts, ed. James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N.D. Yang (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001) and “The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century” Routledge, 2005.



Initially, RRUs were operating from their contingency plans instead of a centralized command and confusion did occur; for example, the 127th LMID were to be transported to Sichuan by rail, but the action plan was changed to airlift from Luoyang Airport after it was realized that railroad lines were out of commission because of the large number of tunnels collapsed from the quake . [17] It took Premier Jiabao less than two hours to board an airplane and head to the quake zone, but the CMC’s LGO, it was not operational until the morning of May 13th to serve as the centralized command for PLA.

But what we really saw:

The lack of heavy airlift transports was a much discussed topic within China and on the PLA Daily’s own online discussion forums, as the PLA relied heavily on civilian airlines for personnel transportation [18] and reserved its 14 Il-76 heavy transports for specialized purposes such as telecommunication devices, ambulances, tents, medical supplies, etc.[19] Two of the Il-76s were dispatched to Beijing to pick up an emergency rescue team with 150 members and 12 search and rescue dogs from an engineering regiment of the 38th Group Army[20] at 22:30 on May 12th. That rescue team is considered China’s best and has taken part in nine earthquake rescue operations including four outside of China (Algeria, Iran, Indonesia and Pakistan). Sadly, it is the only one in China[21] .



[17] Civilian airlines assemble for the arrival of a Mechanized Infantry Division in Luoyang Airport Xinhua News http://big5.xinhuanet.com/gate/big5/news.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/2008-05/13/content_8158637.htm (last accessed July 14th 2008)

[18] Xu Sihai “PLA makes large-scale requisition of civil aircraft for the first time” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/19/content_1259063.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)

[19] Fei Boyu “Three characteristics in disaster relief” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/special-reports/2008-05/18/content_1262643.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)
[20] “Beijing MR Engineering Regiment: 150 personal and 12 search dogs send to quake zone” PLA Daily Online Edition http://www.chinamil.com.cn/site1/2008a/2008-05/27/content_1282152.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)

[21] Ibid






The fourteen Russian-built IL-76 heavy transports were far from sufficient in addressing PLA’s airlift needs, and the PLA Daily’s own discussion forum, surprisingly, became the home of the loudest critics. It will impossible to argue that CMC does not realize this shortage exists, as General Cao Guangchuan personally ordered an additional 38 cargo versions of the IL-76 transport back in 2005, however the deal fell though due to delivery delays and pricing issues[22]. During the three years before the quake, there was no major attempt to beef up the fleet with the cheaper, although somewhat less capable, locally-made Y-8 military cargo plane.

While large numbers of troops arrived to the quake zone very quickly they were not properly equipped, some armed only with spades, and newspaper articles are filled with stories about how troops picked at debris with their hands.


[22] “Russia Scrambles to Save China Plane Contract” Defense News http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?F=2107706 (last accessed September 16th 2006)








Search Party of 127th LMID…………armed only with flashlights.



Not until day three, when heavier equipment finally arrived to the quake zone, did the situation began to change. But, by then, the first 36 so-called golden hours had passed and chances of finding survivors quickly faded. This lack of heavy equipment really handicapped the rescue effort during the first hours of the earthquake. As noted before, an armored regiment of the Chengdu Military Region (MR) was sent to Beichuan. However, they were not able to reach the razed town with their vehicles as all the roads were heavy damaged, hence and had to walk there on foot. The road was not reopened until 18:00 on May 15th when an emergency engineering unit of the Second Artillery arrived, with heavy construction equipment such as large excavators, loaders, mobile power-supply vehicles and portable power-supply stations.[23]

The lack of real-time intelligence gathering capabilities also handicapped the PLA’s search for survivors. Looking at photos released by the both foreign and Chinese media, there was no attempt to take advantage of UAVs currently in service with the PLA to track down survivors trapped in remote mountainous regions. While PLA airborne forces conducted some dangerous airdrops and reconnaissance in very poor weather in their attempt to search remote survivors, without good intelligence their efforts were not as successful as they should have been.


[23] Wang Yongxiao and Xia Hongqing “Quake-damaged road from Mianzhu to Beichuan opens to traffic” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/16/content_1252466.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)






Rescuer calling for more Beidou GPS [24]


There are only two aerial photographic airplanes in service with the Surveying and Mapping Bureau of the PLA General Staff Headquarters [25], which hardly seems enough. China also utilized 15 indigenous satellites to help with the quake relief effort[26] but that a request was made to the US for additional satellite images clearly showed the shortcomings of the Chinese systems. The PLA also faced difficulties in evacuating survivors once they were located, as all the roads were damaged and only the PLA Marines were equipped with speedboats and pontoons that were capable of moving them out along the waterways.


[24] Sichuan Mianzhou: Beidou call “Come to me, it is critical here” People’s Daily Online http://pic.people.com.cn/GB/8229/123030/7253862.html (last accessed July 23, 2008)
[25] Liu Jihong and Ma Dong “Aerial surveying and mapping offers precise geographical information” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/22/content_1268928.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)

[26] “15 Chinese satellites in space help with quake relief efforts” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/22/content_1268942.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)
[27] David Morgan “China seeks US satellite data on quake” Reuters http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N15341365.htm (last accessed June 18, 2008)








The coordination between search parties of the 15th Airborne Corps and the transportable troops of the PLA Marines was not smooth during the first few days, so by May 19th the CMC had sent an additional 170,000 sets of radios to the troops with 62,000 sets arriving on that day[28] . While the coordination between different PLA units experienced difficulty, communications and support between PLA and PAP seemed almost nonexistent in the early stage of the rescue work and the PLA did not seem too interested in sharing some of the supplies. For example, while the PLA’s General Logistic Department dismissed fears of a food supply shortage, boasting that 300,000 daily field rations were airdropped and hot food were available,[29] there were a number of reports that PAP personnel had only cold steamed buns, yams and dry noodles to eat.



[28] Dong Zhaohui “PLA general headquarters/departments send radio sets to relief troops” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/21/content_1264932.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)

[29] “China dismisses worries of food supplies for armed forces in rescue operations” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-05/19/content_1257444.htm (last accessed July 12, 2008)






HongKong’s TVB reported PAP had only steamed buns and yams to eat




Another item relating to shortfalls that drew much criticism within the PLA and the Chinese press during this earthquake was the lack of transport helicopters. At its peak, the PLA mobilized close to 150 helicopters out of a total of 500 available.[30] Even at that, 150 helicopters were not sufficient to handle all the critical work. To most economically employ this small fleet of important assets, the LGO ordered helicopters to be concentrated in the airdrop of drugs, food, drinking water, garments and quilts, and tents to meet the survivors' needs; and in the evacuation of wounded persons.[31] However, they were thus not available for troops transport, communication and other logistic needs.



[30] “Chinese generals discloses the Army Aviation Force to the Foreign Military Officers” Xinhui News http://www.chinanews.com.cn/gn/news/2008/07-04/1302838.shtml (last accessed July 23, 2008)

[31] Fei Boyu “Three characteristics in disaster relief” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/special-reports/2008-05/18/content_1262643.htm (last accessed June 12, 2008)


Lessons learned:

The PLA did the best they could with the limited assets they had, and no one with their right mind would question their dedication and enthusiasm. To continue the tradition of

“seek truth from facts,” this horrible natural disaster provides a long list of items the CMC must improve on. On June 19, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the PLA launched its first drill for long-range air drops in emergency situations with the following stated goal:

“The drill was designed to train and test the ability of the PLA to mobilize military and civilian aircraft to transport and air drop materials and rescue forces in emergency situations……… The Chinese military has upgraded the importance of the PLA's long-range airborne ability after the Sichuan quake when most of the overland rescue forces were stranded by rock and mud slides on the way to epicenter.” [32]

It also hosted a critical care medicine conference to “sum up preliminary experience of medical assistance of the PLA in quake recues and relief operation” [33] Other studies are also being carried out. [34] In late July, the CMC also added training on Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) into their new doctrine, the Outline of Military Training and Evaluation (OMTE)[35].

China also realized that natural disasters might be too large for a single government to handle and on June 13th, China called for an “ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, the Republic of Korea) workshop on disaster relief by armed forces” to help in reaching a basic consensus on disaster relief, to step up cooperation, [36] and develop a plan of Standard Operating Procedures for armed forces in humanitarian operations in coordination with UN humanitarian organizations and other international assistance organizations [37].

If there one thing PLA learned, it is that they no longer have do everything alone and accepting foreign help might not be a sign of weakness, but rather a proof of strength.



[32] “PLA launches first drill for long-range air drops in emergency situations” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.pladaily.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-06/19/content_1322937.htm (last accessed July 20, 2008)
[33] Sun Lihua “PLA second critical care medicine conference held in Changchun” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-07/14/content_1361934.htm (last accessed July 20, 2008)

[34] Guo Jiangshan “Quake-rescue-and-relief subjects study carried out” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-07/23/content_1375957.htm (last accessed July 20, 2008)

[35] Liu Feng'an “New Outline of Military Training and Evaluation promulgated” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-07/25/content_1379311.htm (last accessed July 25, 2008)

[36] “ASEAN+3 workshop on disaster relief urges more co-op” PLA Daily Online Edition
http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-06/13/content_1313890.htm (last accessed July 20, 2008)
[37] “China proposes disaster relief cooperation plan at 10+3 workshop” PLA Daily Online Edition http://english.chinamil.com.cn/site2/news-channels/2008-06/12/content_1313275.htm (last accessed July 20, 2008)

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