The People's Republic of China (PRC) recently announced that it would move ahead with previously released plans to commence the largest military restructuring in its history since the Communist Party drove out Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang (KMT) party in 1949. The details of this plan are indeed major, and it remains to be seen whether this is a wise move on the PRC's part.
The key highlights of this plan are the creation of a true joint, inter-service command and control structure; a reduction in the number of internal military regions from seven (already reduced from eleven in 1985) to as few as four; a streamlining of support/service troops; and a dedicated shift in focus from internal security to external power projection.
In this quest, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) apparently intends to draw heavily on the model used by the United States...and it is in this aspect of the PRC's plan, wherein lays its greatest challenges.
The PRC has been flexing its muscle in the South China Sea, with its seemingly never-ending obsession with the Spratly Islands, while expanding its presence around the Indian Ocean Basin with anchoring agreements with Pakistan with a forty-year lease on a major naval installation one-hundred and eighty nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, and appears soon to join the United States and France with a "support facility" in Djibouti, where it has been operating in concert with international counter-piracy naval squadrons since 2008, escorting convoys through the Gulf of Aden.
Indeed, with the recent launch of the PLA Navy's (PLAN) fourth Type 071 LPD (Landing Platform Dock) amphibious assault ship - launched the same day, from the same yard as its twenty-first Type 054A frigate and a fifth Type 815G intelligence ship - the PRC is certainly ramping up its operational capabilities to extend its military reach very far beyond its traditional frontiers.
In its current program, the PRC is clearly attempted to use the experience United States forces have spent decades developing. The main issue, here, is that the level of jointness and force projection capabilities the PRC is attempting to implement on this vast vast a scale requires decades of teething to work right. It is not as simple as saying "make it so", and have it happen.
Armies, navies and air forces have fundamentally different outlooks on how wars are fought. As a result, integrating them into a single, inter-operating whole is extremely difficult. It is not simply a matter of different "languages", nor of parochialism. United States and United Kingdom forces have worked doggedly for decades to coordinate inter-service operations, and still have difficulty making them work correctly.
The PRC's current program is extremely reminiscent of a "Soviet-style" approach to crash projects, where an attempt is made to consciously copy an entire body of work, in the belief that hardware is sufficient in the short term. This is not surprising, given that the PRC is the last major vestige of doctrinaire Marxism extent in the world community.
This is the reason for the United States Navy's (USN) focus on countering the PRC - the USN knows well that in the modern day, the training and experience cycle can move faster than it has previously, given enough flexibility in the training program of a force.
Indeed, the danger for those states wishing to protect the freedom of the seas - something the PRC is directly threatening with its crash construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea - is that the PRC may be able to make good on its attempted transition to a joint doctrine.
With the on-going aggressive posture taken by Vladimr Putin's Russia, as well as the PRC's recent foreign policy and economic inroads into Latin America and Africa, this marks an effective return to Cold War dynamics.
The challenge for Washington, Paris and London will be to find a leadership team that can respond effectively to a 21st Century Cold War.