- The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century
Basically, there are two kinds of books being written about the Chinese military nowadays: the very useful and the bloody awful. The latter are mostly politically motivated hack jobs that are (thankfully) quickly forgotten and remaindered to the budget racks at Barnes & Noble. The former are (also thankfully) more numerous, and while perhaps none is yet authoritative-due more to the dynamic nature of the evolving People's Liberation Army (PLA) than to the talents and intellect of their authors-they each perform an invaluable service by chipping away at the opacity surrounding China's military and add new kernels of knowledge and understanding to advance this field of study.
Dennis Blasko's The Chinese Army Today is a prime example of the latter type of book on the PLA. Blasko, a former career officer in the U.S. military, was an Army attaché in Beijing in the early 1990s, and part of his motivation in writing this book, he says, is that he wished he had had something like this to read before he went to China. That is certainly who would benefit most from his book: defense attachés, foreign area officers, and political officers of all countries and stripes heading out to China would find this volume an indispensable reference and prep tool for their jobs. It is also a useful introduction for anyone trying to [End Page 363] get a handle on the PLA before he or she starts to mouth off about the "China threat" (from either end of the political spectrum).
Blasko's approach, in this as in his other writings, is straightforward: he uncovers the facts-in this case, he exploits many Chinese-language primary source materials, such as the new PLA officer's training manual, Zhang Xue (On Military Campaigns)-and pretty much lets them speak for themselves. All this makes for a refreshing, no-nonsense read surrounding the modernization of the PLA ground forces over the past 20 years.
What Blasko has done is present an excellent "nuts-and-bolts" picture of the PLA Army today (note, the author only focuses on the Chinese ground forces in this book and not the PLA Air Force or Navy, one of my few criticisms of this book, which I will return to later). This is the Chinese Army by-the-numbers, and he organizes his book logically and linearly, like any good military officer would, with chapter titles like "What is the PLA?", "Who is the PLA?", "Where is the PLA?", and "What equipment does the PLA use?". And what numbers: Blasko lays out the PLA ground forces in excruciating detail, giving us an exhaustive (dare I say, even exhausting at times?) breakdown on the PLA ground forces order of battle, from the national command authority down to the lowest squad. He describes the command structure of the country's seven military regions and details the operational and tactical organization of the PLA ground forces at every level. He discusses the conscript force, the officer cadre, and the PLA's determined (but still sputtering) efforts to build a first-class noncommissioned officer corps. And finally he itemizes nearly every piece of equipment in the PLA Army's inventory, from the latest main battle tank down to what kind of small arms and mortars it uses-even what kind of jeeps it drives.
Just as important, too, Blasko tell us what the PLA is not, in particular noting that the PLA does not own or control the country's defense industries, which remain in civilian hands and which are increasingly being operated on a market-oriented basis.
But where Blasko's book really breaks new ground and really gets interesting is in the two chapters on "How will the PLA fight?" and "How does the PLA train?". For example, in his discussion of the PLA's evolution from Mao's...