Kicking the Tires?

Research Questions

  1. What is the PLA’s approach to maintenance?
  2. How is it controlled and managed?
  3. How does the PLA’s organizational culture affect maintenance?

The way in which a military organization plans for and conducts logistics can provide critical insights into how capably the military can achieve its operational objectives. Assumptions are often made about the capability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to carry out and sustain high-end operations, but missing from that discussion is an assessment of how capably its logistics systems and processes perform, which affects how well the military might operate in actual conflict.  A review of literature on China‘s evolving military capabilities indicates that little attention has been given to the topic of the PLA’s logistics capabilities, particularly understanding and analyzing the PLA’s approach to some key subfunctions of logistics, such as maintenance.

The People’s Liberation Army’s growing ability to project and sustain power will rely on its logistics capabilities, systems, and processes. The PLA is rapidly modernizing its military systems, which requires sophisticated maintenance management practices to keep pace with and maintain much more complex systems. An assessment of PLA progress in these capabilities requires an understanding of the PLA’s approach to maintenance, which includes an assessment of its maintenance apparatus and how it operates within their system. In this report, the authors look at the PLA’s historical approach to maintenance, identify critical reforms that affect maintenance practices, and highlight key themes related to the PLA’s current maintenance capabilities.

Key Findings

  • The PLA has historically viewed maintenance as separate from its logistics functions, a trend that continues today. Therefore, to date, reforms to the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF) have little applicability to maintenance functions.
  • Primary drivers of logistics reforms include assessments of logistics failures that the PLA experienced in previous conflicts, observations of noticeable technological advances in Western militaries, and concerns related to the PLA’s lack of combat experience.
  • The PLA recognizes the need for a skilled maintainer force to meet the requirements of rapidly modernizing and sophisticated systems.
  • One of the critical weaknesses in the PLA’s maintenance system is the lack of a professionalized maintenance force. The PLA has made some progress by enhancing the skill level of the force through changes to non-commissioned officer (NCO) training and imbuing NCOs with more responsibility. However, it is difficult to overcome the large differentiation in skill level between junior and skilled maintainers, particularly when the organizational culture does not prioritize innovation and knowledge-sharing.
  • The PLA has prioritized improving its self-identified maintenance weaknesses by instituting process reforms and compensating for low skill levels by developing technological solutions. These solutions mitigate some of the gaps in PLA maintenance proficiency; process reforms are the most promising. However, the fast-paced evolution of weapon system technology might outpace some technology-based compensations.
  • An excursion analysis of systems both fielded to the PLA and exported by China identified issues with unmanned aerial vehicle repair parts supply chains that affected system availability.

Recommendations

  • Broaden the scope of the research by assessing maintenance support of large-scale exercises, service-specific exercises, and overseas exercise deployments, among other areas.
  • Investigate other services and forces, such as the PLA Navy, which might have similarities to the PLA Army and PLA Air Force but face specific challenges. Examining other branches or units that have been deemed to be less prestigious than combined arms brigades and combat aviation, such as surface-to-air missile forces, might also offer useful insights.
  • Study maintenance-related agreements for overseas deliveries of new systems, which might help illuminate the maintenance practices and challenges that are relevant for maintenance forces as China continues to grow the volume, value, and sophistication of its weapon exports.
  • Investigate how maintenance interacts with other functions of logistics, such as supply and transportation, that have been affected by the restructuring under the JLSF.
  • Understand how maintenance functions directly affect current PLA operations.
  • Identify and assess the PLA’s likely maintenance requirements and challenges for a Taiwan campaign, building on PLA lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The Evolution of the People’s Liberation Army’s Approach to Logistics and Maintenance

  • Chapter Three

    A Framework for Exploring Maintenance Success Factors

  • Chapter Four

    Assessing the People’s Liberation Army’s Approach to Maintenance Management

  • Chapter Five

    Implications and Recommendations

  • Appendix A

    Other Logistics Success Factors

  • Appendix B

    People’s Liberation Army Logistics and Maintenance Terms of Reference

This research was sponsored by the Office of Net Assessment and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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