At China’s biggest military parade of recent times last Sept. 3, marking the end of World War II, Chinese President and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leader Xi Jinping announced that the PLA will shed 300,000 troops, signaling the start of a long-awaited structural reform of the world’s largest armed force.

While China’s state media reported China would reduce active troop levels to 2 million, other Chinese sources indicate the army could lose more than 300,000 people. China’s air force, navy and strategic rocket forces would expand, and a fifth branch dedicated to space operations could be formed.

Other reported reforms could include a reduction from seven military regions to four theater commands, oriented toward potential areas of operations: Japan-Korea; Taiwan-South China Sea; India, and Russia. Advances in “informatization” would allow for “flatter” theater commands that would then deploy newly reformed, smaller but higher-firepower brigades and better-integrated combined-arms formations. China’s largely ceremonial defense ministry could gain real power, taking over current PLA departments that deal with ideology and weapons development and production. An increasingly mechanized People’s Armed Police may become a new national guard, focused on fighting internal rebellion in Xinjiang and Tibet. 

But the most important effect of such reforms, if implemented, would be to greatly increase the PLA’s ability to project power abroad. China’s May 2015 defense white paper for the first time lists as a major mission the requirement “to participate in regional and international security cooperation and maintain regional and world peace.” On Sept. 28, Xi Jinping announced that China would devote 8,000 troops to future United Nations peacekeeping operations.  

The reforms are seen as more significant than continuing growth in the defense budget, both in absolute terms and as a share of GDP. In 2015, official military spending saw a 10.1% increase to 886.9 billion yuan (US$141.5 billion). While less than the 12.1% growth in 2014, it was still a double-digit increase. For political impact, in 2016 it can be expected that China will increase official military spending another 10% to about 975.59 billion.

PLA reforms will allow more resources to be devoted to new power-projection platforms and new-technology weapons. A second aircraft carrier is reportedly under construction in the port of Dalian, and a third may be taking shape in a Shanghai shipyard. The first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier may be under development, and construction may soon start on the 10,000+ ton Type 055 escort cruiser, China’s largest non-carrier surface combatant. Submarine production is shifting from the Type 093 nuclear attack submarine to the third-generation Type 095. And the navy’s marine corps could be expanded to a third brigade. 

Airborne power projection should be enabled by a wholesale reorganization of China’s aero-engine sector, intended to accelerate progress—which has been slow until now—toward new, large high-bypass-ratio turbofans. This could allow mass production of the Xian Y-20 airlifter and proposed widebody airliner, the C929, that could be developed into a tanker. 

Airborne brigades may soon be receiving a second generation of airborne mechanized fighting vehicles and new mobile/air-droppable artillery. The army will likely increase the number of medium-weight wheeled tanks, self-propelled guns, air defense systems and infantry fighting vehicles that can be easily transported by the Y-20.

The air force continues to progress with the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter, expected to enter service in 2017-18, with four more pre-production aircraft having flown in the past year for a total of eight flight-test assets. Fourth-generation Chengdu J-10B and Shenyang J-11D and J-16 fighters will continue testing toward near-term production. A new strategic bomber, the Xian H-20, will also continue development, and a unique twin-fuselage UAV, the Shenyang Divine Eagle, was seen undergoing tests in May 2015. 

The September military parade also pointed toward China’s continuing effort to build new missile capabilities. For the first time, China displayed its DF-5B silo-launched ballistic missile, designed to carry multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (Mirv). This could soon be joined by the mobile “Mirved” DF-41 intercontinental missile. New theater systems include the 4,000-km-range (2,500-mi.) DF-26, which has a version with an antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) warhead, plus the first display of the 1,500-km-range DF-21D ASBM. 

A new space-operations division will pose organizational challenges for the PLA, but by 2030, the 138-satellite Jilin constellation may provide 10-min. revisit rates. Its antisatellite (ASAT) capabilities will grow with new class of mobile or movable small satellite launchers such as the Kuaizhou, Long March 6 and Long March 11.