Recent Developments in the Chinese Army’s Helicopter Force
Publication: China Brief
By: Dennis J. Blasko
The Jamestown Foundation
In November 2016, Chinese internet sources showed photos of a ceremony in the (former) 13th Group Army of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Army accepting the 1,000th helicopter into the force (NetEase, May 23). This nice round number demonstrates the growth of the Army Aviation Corps over the past decade. Along with Special Operations Forces (SOF), Army Aviation is one of the “new-type combat forces” given priority for development. The increase in the number of Army helicopters accompanies the expansion of the force in the latest round of reforms.  In roughly a month’s time, half of all Army Aviation units have experienced some sort of organizational change. However, even as the numbers of helicopters rise, the size of the Army Aviation force is still small for a ground force that will probably number around a million personnel by 2020.  The recent changes are an attempt to improve and expand a force that underpins a number of important capabilities from tactical mobility and special operations to logistics support.
The PLA’s Army Aviation Corps was established in 1986 by inheriting helicopters from the Air Force (ChinaMil, September 8, 2016). It began with a single regiment and by the middle of the following decade had expanded to seven operational regiments (and a few training units), composed of about 135 helicopters and some Y-5 biplanes.  By early 2017 (prior to changes in the structure of PLA operational units), operational helicopter units had grown to 12 operational units, including five regiments and seven brigades, and a few training units.
The first Army Aviation brigade was formed in the former Lanzhou Military Region in 2009 by expanding an existing regiment (Sina, May 19, 2009). This trend continues into the current round of reform with one exception. Over the past eight years, along with expanding regiments into brigades, a new regiment was formed in the former 41st Group Army in mid-2016 (ChinaMil, July 26, 2016).
According to an unofficial source, an Army Aviation regiment has four to six flight groups (大队), with 12 helicopters in each group; a brigade has six to eight groups (Sina, August 12, 2016). The variation in size among both regiments and brigades allows for the units to expand as new aircraft and pilots become available. Each unit is composed of a variety of helicopters types.
According to The Military Balance 2017, the entire force is composed of nine varieties of light, medium, heavy, and attack helicopters, with some produced in China and others imported from, or jointly developed with, foreign sources. Approximately 300 Russian-produced Mi17-series and Mi-8s comprise the largest proportion of the force, followed by some 255 Chinese-produced Z-9s (armed and transport versions), 85 locally manufactured Z-8s, plus 53 AS350 Ecureuil and 8 SA342L Gazelles from France, 15 Eurocopter H120 Colibri (jointly developed with China), and less than 20 S-70C Blackhawks purchased from the U.S. in the early 1980s. Two types of dedicated attack helicopters are new to the force, with the first WZ-10 being introduced in 2011, followed by the WZ-19; currently, there are approximately 120 of each type.
Prior to current structural changes when the PLA had 18 group armies and 12 Army Aviation units, only nine group armies had an Army Aviation unit assigned. One Army Aviation brigade was subordinate to the former General Staff Department (GSD) and a brigade was assigned to the Xinjiang Military District and a regiment to the Tibet Military District. However, only six group armies and the two Military Districts mentioned had both an Army Aviation unit and a SOF unit.
Army Aviation units support both conventional and SOF units, probably spending more time training with the SOF than with conventional units, with one exception: the 3rd Motorized Infantry Brigade in the former 1st Group Army appears to receive more training with helicopters than other infantry units and eventually may be designated the Army’s first airmobile brigade. It is noteworthy that the 1st Group Army did not have an organic SOF unit, which may explain the 3rd Motorized Infantry Brigade’s experimentation in helicopter operations. An operational airmobile unit, operating from forward bases near the coast, would be extremely useful in any operation against Taiwan (China Brief, March 6, 2015). However, the Army Aviation Corps has only begun experimenting with using forward operating bases for arming and refueling.
Despite the growth in the number and size of units and in the total number of helicopters, the lack sufficient aircraft to perform all the tasks necessary to conduct modern campaigns is a known shortcoming. As a result, continued growth in the Army Aviation Corps is necessary and expected.
In the month since the April 2017 announcement of changes to the PLA’s “84 corps-level units,” Army Aviation units have undergone some of the most visible observed changes. Of the 18 former group armies that were reduced to 13, significantly none of the five disbanded group armies were assigned either an Army Aviation or SOF unit (China Brief, May 11). In the few weeks since the reduction of group armies was announced, multiple changes in Army Aviation units have been publicized.
Prior to April, there were seven Army Aviation brigades and five regiments. In late May, the count of Army Aviation units is 11 brigades and one regiment. The before and after numbers of Army Aviation and SOF units (so far unchanged) is summarized in the table below.
All four of the former Army Aviation regiments in group armies have been reported as expanded to brigades and it appears that the former GSD Army Aviation brigade and the brigade assigned to the Xinjiang Military District have been transferred to group armies.
Specifically, in mid-May 2017, the former regiment in the 26th Group Army has been described as an “army aviation brigade under the PLA 80th Group Army” and a week later the former regiment in the 54th Group Army was described as an “army aviation brigade under the PLA 83rd Group Army” (ChinaMil, May 18; CCTV, May 26).
The former GSD Army Aviation brigade now appears to be “an army aviation brigade of the PLA 81st Group Army in Beijing” (ChinaMil, May 19). At the same time, the Army Aviation regiment in the former 31st Group Army/current 73rd Group Army was reported to be an “army aviation brigade under the PLA Eastern Theater Command” (ChinaMil, May 19).
Additionally, Chinese television reported the former regiment in the old 41st Group Army (the regiment most recently created) is now a brigade in the 74th Group Army (CCTV, May 27). The same news broadcast reported on an Army Aviation brigade of the 76th Group Army in the Western Theater Command. The 76th is the former 21st Group Army, which previously did not have an Army Aviation unit. This change could be the result of either the transfer of the complete Army Aviation brigade in the Xinjiang Military District to 76th Group Army command or elements of that brigade have been transferred to the 76th to become a seed organization eventually to grow into a full brigade.
The Near Future by 2020
It seems likely that the new reforms will seek to assign both an Army Aviation brigade and a SOF brigade to each of the 13 group armies at the very least. With the exception of two group armies, this has already been accomplished by expanding four regiments to brigades and the reassignment of units (such as appears to have occurred with the former GSD Army Aviation brigade and the Xinjiang Military District Army Aviation brigade).
New units will need to be established for the 71st and 78th Group Armies. This process might entail transferring elements from existing units to establish “starter” brigades in the group armies (or other organizations) that currently do not have helicopter assets, unless the civilian defense industries and foreign helicopter purchases can come up with relatively large numbers of airframes to outfit a complete unit at one time.
But developing mature, experienced pilots and crews, especially in complex night and low-level operations, takes longer than building a helicopter. If existing Army Aviation brigades do not have the full complement of the reported eight subordinate groups, it is likely the smaller brigades will add additional aircraft as they (and pilots and aircrew) become available. For SOF units, existing regiments likely will be expanded to brigades and the two group armies without SOF units likely will convert conventional infantry units to SOF brigades (some of which might come from existing infantry units in disbanded group armies). Like helicopter pilots, developing proficient SOF personnel and units also takes years. Both Army Aviation and Special Operations Forces Academies (or Colleges) have been established to meet increasing demands for properly trained and educated officers and NCOs in these specialties.
Thus, in the near future we are likely to see reports of Army Aviation brigades in the 71st and 78th Group Armies. The Army Aviation regiment in Tibet could also be expanded, though geographic conditions make air operations at that altitude more difficult than in lower regions (so it may remain a regiment). If the Army Aviation brigade in Xinjiang has not been transferred in full to the 76th Group Army, it will likely be restored to full strength, or a new unit created, since the size of the Western Theater Command is so large additional helicopter assets would be logical. Likewise, new SOF brigades are likely to be found in the 72nd, 74th, 79th (an expansion from the current regiment), 81st, and 83rd Group Armies and smaller SOF battalions or companies added to divisions and brigades.  These new SOF units are likely to be converted from former infantry units and personnel.
Since Army Aviation assets are increasingly important to modern joint and combined arms operations, the PLA could augment additional organizations with helicopters of all types. For example, the five joint Theater Commands and the five Theater Command Army headquarters each could probably use organic helicopter units, perhaps smaller in size than a full brigade (such as a regiment or group) for a variety of purposes, including command and control, attack, transport, electronic warfare, medical evacuation, logistics, and reconnaissance tasks. The three major garrison cities of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai and other important cities also could probably use smaller helicopter units for similar purposes, as well as during disaster relief missions. Border and coastal defense units would likely find helicopter units very useful in monitoring their border regions as well as for logistics. The newly formed Joint Logistics Support Force would benefit from having helicopters available to directly support the Wuhan Joint Logistics Support Base and five Joint Logistics Support Centers.
Though it has been suggested for years, the current round of reform could also establish one or more airmobile units that integrate infantry and helicopter units, with the necessary support, into one (or more) organic unit, perhaps at the group army or corps-organizational level.
The more the PLA Army trains and operates using helicopter and SOF units, the more it will understand how vital they are to modern operations. They will constantly be reminded of the lesson from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake relief effort of the need for even more helicopters for effective and efficient operations. The Army, however, is constrained by the ability of the civilian Chinese aviation industry to produce enough aircraft and develop new models to rectify shortcomings in medium- and heavy-lift helicopters. The addition of attack helicopters in recent years greatly increases the lethality of the force but also complicates tactics and logistics. The distances and speed at which Army Aviation and SOF units can move adds new capabilities to the PLA.
On the other hand, more and larger Army Aviation and SOF units will be much more expensive to man, organize, equip, and maintain than former infantry units. Realistic training for these units will also demand a larger slice of the defense budget at the same time the other services are training more and further from China’s borders. So as the PLA draws down to 2 million people and its responsibilities extend to distances farther from China, we should not expect to see decreases in future defense budgets.
Properly organized, trained, and equipped Army Aviation and SOF units will be able to contribute to joint maritime or land campaigns beyond China’s borders. While doctrine allows for such operations, additional modifications based on new capabilities and technologies likely will be required. However, exercises over the past few years have determined that many tactical and operational commanders are not yet properly trained and ready to employ the helicopter and SOF assets assigned to them. For example, the PLA media routinely reports that some commanders do not know how to employ “new-type combat forces” or do not dare or are unwilling to do so (81.cn, July 31, 2016). Part of the reason for this problem likely is, that in the past there were so few Army Aviation and SOF units available, commanders up to battalion level, who were trained almost exclusively in their own branch functions, had little opportunity to interact with Army Aviation and SOF personnel or units. As the PLA Army grows smaller, “new-type combat forces” will become a larger percentage of the force and more commonly seen in training. Nonetheless, changing commanders’ mindsets on the integration of Army Aviation and SOF into traditional operations will not magically occur overnight.
It has taken roughly 20 years for the Army Aviation Corps to expand from seven units with 135 mostly transport helicopters to 12 operational units with over 1,000 helicopters of all types including dedicated attack helicopters. It seems likely that the force will grow faster in the coming years than over the first two decades of the Army Aviation Corps’ existence. Because they are among the “new-type combat forces,” Army Aviation and Special Operations Forces units will be in the news frequently as they train and operate together. However, by the time this article is published, there will probably be new developments announced, which will require constant attention by foreign analysts.
Dennis J. Blasko, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired), is a former U.S. army attaché to Beijing and Hong Kong and author of The Chinese Army Today (Routledge, 2006).
- The PLA Navy and Air Force also have helicopter units; The Military Balance 2017, London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, pp. 283–285, estimates the total Navy helicopter force to be about 94, with about 79 in total Air Force. PLA Navy Marine units reportedly will also receive helicopters in the current batch of reforms. An aviation transport brigade has been added to the Air Force’s 15th Airborne Corps, probably increasing the number of helicopters in the force. See “Paratroopers jump out of Y-8 transport aircraft,” http://english.chinamil.com.cn/view/2017-05/25/content_7617895.htm.
- For comparison, the approximately 475,000-strong U.S. Army, according to The Military Balance 2017, p. 48, has approximately 4,000 helicopters.
- The Military Balance 1996/97, p. 179.
- Some infantry and armored divisions and brigades already have small SOF units.
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