Rescue teams work in Harbin on August 5, 2023, after Typhoon Doksuri brought flooding to China's Heilongjiang Province.

Rescue teams work in Harbin on August 5, 2023, after Typhoon Doksuri brought flooding to China's Heilongjiang Province. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

China’s war planners are leaning harder on its militia

The PLA’s reserve auxiliary force dwarfs the regular military, but is understudied and too often overlooked.

A late-June exercise in Hunan Province saw members of China’s militia taking on growing responsibilities, including piloting drones, driving assault boats, and manning command-and-control vehicles. While the People’s Liberation Army has for years relied on its reserve auxiliary force for supplementary support, the recent exercises point toward a larger direct role—even as some sources allude to potential strains in the system. 

China’s militia system, which includes up to eight million personnel, dwarfs its uniformed service. It makes heavy use of demobilized veterans and civilian organizations, which have signed cooperation agreements with their local PLA base. During times of emergency, these personnel would be deployed to complement the local PLA force, providing crucial wartime support. For example, in early July more than 400 militia members helped PLA personnel respond to devastating floods in Chongqing. The militia engaged in search and rescue cleared roads, while the PLA troops used boats to transport civilians out of danger. 

In 2016, China took a big step to foster militia capabilities and their integration with the PLA: it created the National Defense Mobilization Department or NDMD, which, among other things, inspects various localities, assessing their capabilities and proposing methods for improving military integration during a national crisis. One of its commonly recommended steps to improve PLA access to civilian assets is to use joint-cooperation agreements to more deeply integrate civilian and military personnel. 

A recent report by BluePath Labs for the China Aerospace Studies Institute found two key developments for militia. First, it provides ever more critical support to PLA aviation. And, secondly, China’s senior military leaders have come to believe their civilian assets will be key in a protracted conflict.  

The responsibilities tasked to local militias through joint-cooperation agreements can be extremely diverse, depending on both the base’s needs and what local civilian capabilities are on offer. One base agreement uses local militia to provide medical treatment, repair vehicles, and help defend against chemical attacks, while another uses militia excavators and road rollers to resurface its runways—and train to repair airstrike damage. Another PLA Air Force airfield relies on its local militia for meteorology, surveying, mapping and navigation, and equipment maintenance. 

Civilian businesses will often supply their work equipment to PLA bases; one branch of the China Railway Group drove their equipment to an air base to provide emergency repairs during an exercise. These kinds of civilian organizations can also provide access to transportation facilities, airport terminals, and local fuel supplies that might be needed during PLA operations. 

In addition to the aid they supply, militias also reduce the PLA’s need to maintain in-house support capabilities, which can reduce costs. For example, one PLA Army Aviation regiment signed a cooperation agreement that allowed the regiment to recruit local emergency response vehicle crews, air traffic control personnel, meteorological specialists, and oil and gas workers. This allowed the regiment to halve its own support force and shed more than 200 vehicles. 

Such joint-cooperation agreements are often cemented by training exercises. Militia may be invited to the local PLA base for training by PLA personnel or even joining PLA units in their own exercises. One air base in Xuzhou brought its militia members to train them in various support specialties, while another base held a three-day evaluation focused on coordinating activity between militia members and base personnel. One air base took it a step further and conducted a 15-day support exercise of potential roles in wartime, in which more than 150 militia members performed emergency response activities, provided medical treatment, and repaired a damaged runway.

As the role of militia grows from “pre-combat support”—e.g., preparing supplies and equipment—to include active emergency response, they are taking on increasingly important and complex missions. Some begin to blur the line between support and front-line combat. For example, several airfields have begun tasking their militias with setting up anti-aircraft platforms and building field communication facilities. The recent Hunan militia exercises are a stark example of this trend: during the exercises, personnel not only provided the more traditional forms of support, but also operated command and communications vehicles, drones, and assault boats on behalf of their colleagues in uniform.

Yet the exercises in Hunan also hinted at problems behind the scenes. The head of the local militia department described their resources as “limited” and their personnel numbers as having “shrunk.” It also described the new expectations of the militia members to be having “one specialty, and multiple capabilities.” While this phrase is often used in PLA literature in a positive way—as in, it’s good to have troops who can do more than one job—in this case it appears that cross-training is being used to fill technical gaps that are opening in the PLA and militia’s ranks. 

Militia members have also expressed displeasure with the amount of time their militia training and increased demands takes away from their day jobs. Chinese media have chalked up this latter complaint to “a lack of ideological and political education,” which would need to be rectified through integrating ideology into drills.

Finally, some militia members have expressed doubts about their own usefulness, describing modern warfare as highly technical and questioning their ability to meaningfully contribute. 

Indeed, the utility of the militia in more expansive operations and warfare remains to be seen. It is unclear how effective civilians with only basic training will be in high-stress environments, up to and including coming under enemy fire. Adding in the potential of the militia dwindling in size, skill, and commitment as the exercises in June hint, this type of civilian participation is likely to be less effective than their counterparts in uniform. 

Nevertheless, if individual militia members are questioning their place within China’s military system, CCP leaders certainly aren’t. The militia can supplement the military in ways not always tracked by raw numbers and org charts. As tensions with China rise, the U.S. and its allies ought to pay closer attention to this understudied and often overlooked aspect of the PLA.  

Thomas Corbett is a research analyst with BluePath Labs. His areas of focus include Chinese foreign relations, emerging technology, and Indo-Pacific security studies.