Updated: Feb 12
The group army is the People's Liberation Army Ground Force's (PLAGF) principle operational-level unit. Following a major reorganization of the PLAGF in 2017, each group army is now composed of 12 brigades (BDE): six combined-arms brigades (CA-BDEs), one artillery brigade (ARTY-BDE), one air defense brigade (AD-BDE), one aviation brigade (AVN-BDE), one special operation forces brigade (SOF-BDE), one engineer brigade (ENG-BDE), and one combat service support brigade (CSS-BDE). This formation is an attempt by the PLAGF to evolve the capabilities of a traditional corps formation into the modern era, and in doing so, increase the flexibility and versatility of the entire force.
Responsibilities & Command Structure
The 2017 reorganization of the PLAGF nearly eliminated all divisional headquarters, with the exception of several legacy divisions. In their place, group armies have risen, and in turn, increased the combined arms capabilities enjoyed by the entire force.
As the primary operational-level unit, group armies are assigned to Theater Commands (TCs). This organization is primarily focused on military affairs, and avoids political responsibilities. Theater Commands exercise control over group armies through a subordinate headquarters, typically known as Theater Command Ground Force or Theater Command Army.
While identified as the primary operational-level unit, it does not appear to be employed as such. Army Techniques Publications 7-100.3, Chinese Tactics, argues that it acts as, "the force pool from which operational systems are built as part of the wider system-warfare construct." The document goes on to note that, "group army commanders facilitate the assembly of purpose-built operational systems, using their available force structure to create the command, maneuver, and support systems that execute operations in the group army’s combat area. As such, concerns about the group army’s large number of subordinate units—and the ability, or lack thereof, to control them—are not reflective of the PLAA’s [PLAGF's] approach to building forces."
Despite increased effectiveness, group armies struggle in ways similar to other PLAGF formations, namely the difficulty of bureaucracy. Just as with TCs, group armies utilize a dual-command structure that employs a senior military leader and a political commissar, complicating operational and tactical orders with ideological and political concerns.
The standard group army is composed of twelve brigades, including six combined-arms brigades, one artillery brigade, one air defense brigade, one aviation brigade, one special operation forces brigade, one engineer brigade, and one combat service support brigade. This standard composition provides group armies with significant self-contained power projection and support capabilities, including cyber and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, reconnaissance support, and long-range fire support. This toolkit allows group army commanders to support CA-BDEs across multiple warfighting domains. Theater Commands provide and coordinate air and naval support for group armies. Additionally, TCs may allocate additional special operations support to a group army if required, although group armies typically contain an SOF brigade.
Despite the inclusion of a CSS brigade in a group army's composition, this formation is highly dependent on the People's Liberation Army Joint Logistic Support Force (PLAJLSF) and TCs for significant logistics support. This is not solely an issue with group armies, as PLAGF units across the force would struggle to maintain high-intensity operations or combat operations overseas in their current state.