"The PLA Is Slow, Conservative, and Backward."
Not anymore. Although it is still no match for the mighty U.S. military, the PLA has come a long way since Mao's ragtag army defeated the Nationalists in 1949. Over the last two decades in particular, China has improved the quality, technical capabilities, and effectiveness of its enlistees and officers, even as it has shrunk the total number of military personnel.
No longer are PLA soldiers rudimentarily equipped with second-rate Soviet technology, such as the outmoded Soviet T-55 tanks from the 1950s and 1960s that they used to have and that Iraqis fielded during the Gulf War. Although not every PLA unit has cutting-edge equipment, Chinese forces are continually integrating new weapons, doctrine, training, and command-and-control systems.
China's military today is, if not a near rival to that of the United States, at least a "fast-learning organization," in the view of many close foreign observers. It is deploying weapons that neutralize key U.S. advantages, such as ballistic missiles and supersonic sea-skimming missiles that can target U.S. aircraft carriers in the region; an enlarged submarine fleet; homegrown satellite reconnaissance and communications capabilities; and recently, the demonstrated capability to eliminate satellites and intercept ballistic missiles.
That said, not all technologies have proven easy to integrate. For instance, when China first bought Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, some were reportedly out of service for extended periods and in 2002 were even shipped back to Russia for repairs. China also reportedly experienced problems servicing imported fighter planes and engines.
Since those initial stumbles, China watchers think the PLA has made significant improvements in mastering the maintenance and operation of these imported platforms. Late in 2008, China dispatched a three-ship task force to the African coast to conduct anti-piracy missions and escort vessels through pirate-infested waters off the coast of Somalia. It was the first time in modern history that Chinese military vessels -- in this case, two destroyers and a supply ship -- had deployed outside local waters, armed and ready for combat. Using helicopters and special operations units, the PLA Navy successfully engaged pirates and escorted hundreds of civilian ships. It has now deployed its fourth task force, demonstrating its ability to maintain a presence for an extended time.