As of this writing, China is flexing its military muscles. Thanks to recent events, international media is wary of a Chinese invasion of the small independent nation of Taiwan. China itself is saying unification with what it calls a “renegade province” is long overdue. Meanwhile, the United States military considers the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to be a near-peer threat with technology capable of defeating many American assets in the air, land and sea.

But what does the average American know about the Chinese military? It seems we are divided in our opinions on whether Communist China is a threat to US national security. To the man on the street, the People’s Liberation Army is an enigma, and opinions on them range from a well-disciplined fighting force to a paper tiger only fit for parades and exhibitions.

Equally mysterious is Chinese military doctrine and equipment. Many simply assume that the People’s Liberation Army is simply the Russian Army with a Chinese makeover. When most Americans imagine a PLA soldier, they picture a rigorously disciplined Chinese infantryman in a vaguely army green uniform with an AK or an SKS. The modern Chinese soldier is a little different.

Service Rifles


Except for some ceremonial rifles, the Chinese phased out the SKS-style Type 56 Carbine in the 1980s in favor of the venerable Kalashnikov-style Type-56, which was itself replaced with something uniquely Chinese: the QBZ-95. The QBZ designation stands for “Qing Wuqi Buqiang Zidong,” or “light weapon, rifle, automatic.” The number 95 references its initial year of production – 1995.

Designed by the Chinese state-owned company Norinco, the QBZ-95 is a lightweight bullpup select-fire rifle, designed for ease of use and cost-effective production. The communists are firm believers in quantity over quality, and the QBZ-95 is so cheap to produce that it was the ideal solution for equipping the two and a half million strong PLA.

As far as the weapon’s performance is concerned, it would be unrealistic to expect the QBZ-95 to be accurate at ranges of over 500 yards, placing it firmly in the role of a close quarters rifle. However, it is reported to have very little felt recoil, and is easy to control on full-auto mode. Since Norinco knew it would be handing these weapons to millions of ill-educated conscripts, it designed the weapon to be just as easy to maintain as the AK-47.

Unlike the US or Russian militaries who use different calibers for different purposes, the Chinese use the proprietary 5.8x42mm as a jack-of-all-trade cartridge for most of its small arms weapons including its light machine guns and sniper rifles. Chinese military sources claim that this unique cartridge offers more power and better ballistic performance than a 5.56x45mm round. However, the reality is the cartridge is too heavy for precision shooting. Independent tests have shown it to shoot 3 MOA groups at 100 yards, just below US military standards.

Strangely, the QBZ-95 lacks any sort of rail system. Instead, its optics are attached through a proprietary bolt and locknut system on top of its non-removable carry handle. This means any optic on the rifle is always mounted about six inches higher than the barrel. There are a few more design oddities about this rifle, including the design of the buttstock which prevents proper cheek weld, and the fact that the weapon spits brass in the face of left-handed shooters. China’s solution to this problem was to force all its men to shoot right handed.


Realizing the flaws of this design, the Chinese have been working to replace it with the more conventional QBZ-191. Designed in 2019 and based on the Bushmaster ACR, the rifle has a rail system and a polymer magazine that looks like a blend between Magpul’s PMAG and an AK waffle mag. Aside from its use of the 5.8x42mm round, the QBZ-191 could be mistaken for an M4 or SG556 from a distance. However, the weapon is in limited circulation and normally issued to Chinese special forces, who get priority for new equipment.

Infantry Equipment

Chinese troops with new body armor
Chinese troops with new body armor

The average Chinese infantryman wears far less equipment than an American soldier fresh out of basic training. By the time he gets to his first unit, an American soldier should have been issued a rifle, body armor, a Camelbak hydration system, helmet and eye protection along with a duffel bag full of various other equipment.

For the longest time, Chinese troops merely received little more than uniforms, helmets and chest rigs. Not a thought was given to body armor for the PLA’s millions of soldiers. Only in 2020 did the Chinese government decide to shell out the money for 1.4 million units of body armor, specifically for a future invasion of Taiwan.

According to Chinese military expert and TV commentator Song Zhongping, the decision to acquire the armor had the “lives of Chinese soldiers in mind, as the armor can keep casualties to a minimum.” This PLA armor is equivalent to Western Level III armor, capable of stopping 7.62 rounds. With that said, the Chinese may have overspent on their bulk order. Each regular plate cost just under 7,950 RMB, or $1,179.04. Enhanced armor cost 12,900 RMB or $1,913.15 per unit. Compare these figures to the US Army’s Gen III IOTV, which costs $791 per system, or even the civilian BulletSafe brand, which sells plate carriers already fitted with two Level IV plates for $449.97.

Aside from body armor, the Chinese military’s night vision systems are also some years behind. Chinese helmets almost never have night vision mounts. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Chinese have no night vision at all.

The Chinese military uses the BBG-011A night vision unit, a shameless clone of the second generation Thales LUCIE night vision goggles used by the Germans and the French. These analog night vision goggles are worn on a head clamp under the helmet, rather than mounted on the helmet itself like American AN/PVS-14s are. This makes them clumsy and very uncomfortable. The BBG-011A’s right lens is on the upper right corner of the user’s face, and this offset makes intricate work at close distances – such as tying knots, operating equipment and eating extremely difficult.

Chinese soldier with BBG-011A night vision goggles
Chinese soldier with BBG-011A night vision goggles

Unlike the AN/PVS-14, the BBG-011A has no modularity and must be worn as a helmet-mounted night vision device. Also, unlike the AN/PVS-14, the BBG-011A is a true night vision goggle system and cannot be worn with one eye open, which normally allows transitioning from night vision to daytime without disorienting the user.

Even modern civilian night vision models such as Sightmark’s Wraith 4K Monocular are vastly superior to the latest in Chinese night vision technology for several reasons, such as integrated IR and the fact the Wraith is digital night vision instead of analog like the BBG-011A, eliminating the possibility of damage caused by exposure to sunlight.

The fact the Wraith 4K is a monocular allows it to be worn on either a helmet, head clamp or rifle. It can also be used as a handheld imaging system or, when equipped with a bridge, worn as goggles like the BBG-011A, which itself has a long way to go from the night vision devices of the 21st century.

Doctrine – PLA Marines

PLA Marines and Type 05 amphibious fighting vehicle in bright blue camo.
PLA Marines and Type 05 amphibious fighting vehicle in bright blue camo.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) troops and vehicles are characterized by their shocking blue and white uniforms and paint schemes. Unlike the United States Marines, the PLANMC is not a force that is combines air, land and sea assets to bring a fight from a hostile coastline deep into enemy territory. Chinese doctrine leaves that to the PLA Ground Forces. The Chinese Marine’s mission begins and ends on the coast. The mission of PLANMC troops is to conduct amphibious assaults and secure beach heads for the PLA Navy and Ground Forces.

The United States Marines are some of the most feared warriors in the modern world because of their force capability. Equipped and trained to be a rapid reaction force and capable of fighting in any environment, the USMC is a self-contained branch that may operate without support from the Army, Navy, or Air Force.

The Chinese PLANMC however, must operate with the Navy. Because of the specialized nature of their mission, the force is not regarded as particularly well-rounded. However, they are designed to strike hard and fast. The PLA Marines possess no towed artillery and no fixed wing aircraft. Instead, their self-propelled guns and helicopters are designed to be launched from ships and landing craft and recalled back to sea as soon as their mission is complete.

In the event of a Taiwanese invasion, the first shots fired will be from either the Air Force or the Navy, but the first Chinese boots on Taiwanese soil will belong to the PLA Marines. It will be the Marines who conduct the initial reconnaissance and safeguard PLA Ground Forces against hostile troops

Doctrine – PLA Special Forces

Chinese special forces conduct jungle training
Chinese special forces conduct jungle training

The Chinese Special Forces do not have a storied history compared to the United States Army Rangers or MARSOC. The very idea of a “special operation forces” unit only came to mind in the 1980s, after China’s disastrous war with Vietnam.

Not many Americans know that not long after US withdrawal from Vietnam, China invaded the small Southeast Asian nation to “teach it a lesson” for attacking pro-Chinese Cambodia. The Chinese military suffered the same fate as its American and French predecessors, picked away by irregular guerrillas after advancing only a few miles into Vietnam’s border.

The Chinese army that invaded Vietnam was little more than a mob with uniforms and tanks. The People’s Liberation Army had abolished all military ranks in 1965 and used outdated tactics against a hardened, dug-in enemy. The Chinese quickly figured out human wave tactics don’t work against an enemy who fights with tunnels and punji sticks. PLA forces suffered tremendously against much smaller numbers of Vietnamese sappers, and realized they needed to create special forces units of their own.

Modern Chinese SOF units are geographically specialized and divided into mountain units, coastline units, jungle units and others. In theory, they are supposed to be the elite of China’s military, trained for deep recon operations and unconventional warfare. However, in practice, they have no known combat experience outside of some anti-piracy maritime missions near Somalia and limited fighting in Syria against Uyghur rebels. Unlike US special forces, who are always volunteers with tenure in their service branch, Chinese special forces can be selected straight out of basic training.

All Chinese SOF units are capable of airborne and air assault operations, but generally don’t have access to the same air support enjoyed by American units. However, they still receive the best gear, training, and recruits over other elements of the People’s Liberation Army.

The current mission of Chinese special forces is to assist the regular army and police in “antiterrorism” operations. The Chinese do not define terrorism in the same way that the west does. “Antiterrorism” in Chinese literally translates to “anti-fear” and applies to anything that threatens national unity. This could range from a suicide bombing to a pro-democracy protest. If the Chinese military is skilled in any one thing, it’s repression.

The Chinese Navy

Liaoning Chinese navy carrier
The Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier.

The confusingly named People’s Liberation Army Navy is the third largest navy in the world. However, ever since the Qing Dynasty, the navy has played second fiddle to the army. It does not yet have the capability to rival a true oceangoing force like the US Navy, since it only has two aircraft carriers. One of them was purchased second hand from the Russians, while the other one was a Chinese clone of the first ship. However, it does have the world’s second largest submarine force, although many of these subs are aged, rusting vessels in various states of operability. Most of China’s submarine force is diesel-powered, in contrast to the US Navy, which decommissioned its last diesel sub in 1990.

In a hypothetical invasion of Taiwan, Chinese naval artillery and air strikes would soften Taiwanese coastal defenses before the marines hit the shore to secure it for the army. The strategy is sound, but in practice, the Chinese military does not have enough amphibious landing craft to use its massive numerical advantage. Instead, analysts assume that China might need to press its civilian ferries into action like a reverse Dunkirk. Supporting this theory is the fact recent Chinese coastal assault drills involve marines jumping off civilian transport ships in mock amphibious landings.

However, if China is concerned about losses in an amphibious assault, its navy does have the option to lay siege to Taiwan by sealing its sea trade off from the world. The Chinese navy recently demonstrated that it is large enough to completely encircle Taiwan. Resupplying its ships would not be a problem since China is only 110 miles away from the Taiwanese coast.

The Chinese Air Force

Chengdu J-20
Chengdu J-20

China has one of the world’s largest air forces with a fairly modern inventory. The PLA Air Force has been diligently copying aircraft from the US and the Russians for decades. The J-20 is a stellar example, being a modified copy of the F-22.

Of all the branches in the Chinese military, the air force is perhaps the most active. In 2020-2021 alone, the Chinese sent 950 flights against Taiwan. Most of the time, the Taiwanese ready their defenses and send the PLA a radio warning, and most of the time the Chinese comply. The Chinese do this so often it’s almost like they’re conditioning the Taiwanese to become complacent.

However, flight hours do not equal combat experience. The Chinese air force cannot provide close air support for its forces on the ground due to a lack of training. The Chinese only recently started using precision munitions after decades of relying on dumbfire rockets for close range attacks. PLAAF high command is aware of this and is working to remedy their shortcomings.


The United States considers China’s military to be a near peer force, with “near” being the operative word. The Chinese lack of real world combat experience, equipment and training makes their performance in a real world combat environment dubious at best, and in the event Taiwan is invaded, the Chinese might end up bogged down just like the Russians in Ukraine.

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