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China's Military Tries to March Out of the Dark Ages--With U.S. Help

November 27, 1986|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

YANGCUN MILITARY AIR BASE, China — A young Chinese soldier stripped off his shirt and, with the quick, pronounced movements of a man trained in Kung Fu, placed himself back down on a bed of nails. A large stone was placed on his stomach and another soldier aimed two quick swings of a sledgehammer at the slab--leaving the small boulder in bits but the soldier apparently none the worse for the experience.

This little performance was staged one day last month to impress U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who spent four days in China discussing the prospects for increased military cooperation between Washington and Peking. Weinberger was also treated to a display of weapons simulators--including miniature tanks--that looked as if they belonged more in a toy store than an army.

The Kung Fu show certainly caught the secretary's attention. But if it demonstrated the prowess of soldiers specially trained in the martial arts, the entire program revealed the massive People's Liberation Army (PLA) to be a fighting force that relies on old, poorly maintained weapons and emphasizes skills that seem almost quaint in the nuclear age.

Military Evolution

Now, through increasing purchases of weapons from abroad, production of its own improved military hardware and an overhaul of its antiquated bureaucratic structure, the PLA is conducting a major campaign to evolve from what was once a Third World guerrilla force into a modern army, air force and navy.

China's progress is of more than passing interest in the United States. June Teufel Dreyer, director of Asian studies at the University of Miami and author of a recent report on the Chinese military, pointed out that the Chinese could be a valuable ally against the Soviet Union. China opposes the Soviet-backed government of Vietnam, the Vietnamese-controlled government in Cambodia and, to an apparently lesser extent, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The PLA is slowly entering the late 20th Century, Dreyer said. But it is not keeping pace with the Soviet military.

"The (American) rationale is to keep that gap from widening still further," she said. "We know there is nothing we can do to make them equal to the Soviet military, but we can make it more expensive (for the Soviet Union) to take on the Chinese army."

Singularly Unimpressed

Although China is seeking to modernize its forces, U.S. military officers say they were singularly unimpressed by the hardware displayed for Weinberger at this military base about 50 miles southeast of Peking.

Simple weapons seemed poorly maintained, and some malfunctioned. In an exhibition of rifle and gunfire, marksmen missed several targets. A miniature battlefield, in which a model tank operated on a track, was attacked by forces using a laser to simulate live weapons--to save ammunition and prevent injury at a nearby village, an officer said.

This is a far cry from what a display of U.S. training might have shown. U.S. forces prepare for war by using spanking-new computer-run simulators that duplicate the thump of cannon fire and the movement of tanks. Soldiers use video screens to practice aiming and firing weapons at troops, trucks and hovering helicopters.

U.S. Nudging China

The United States has been trying for several years to help nudge the Chinese military toward the 1980s. During his first visit to China as defense secretary in 1983, Weinberger initiated a military cooperation program resulting in:

- Improving the Chinese force of F-8 high-altitude fighter-interceptors.

- Letting China use American technology to produce large-caliber artillery shells more cheaply than in the past.

- Making available to the Chinese navy an upgraded Mark 46 torpedo to improve the Chinese anti-submarine capability.

The improvement of the F-8s, through the sale of $550 million worth of electronics and radar systems, is considered particularly important because it will mean that for the first time, Chinese fighters will be capable of flying in all weather, day and night. The systems will not be available until the 1990s, and the United States will continue to control maintenance and retain design and production capability.

Ammunition Purchase OKd

Although the Chinese have not yet given final approval to the F-8 improvement program, they have already signed for the ammunition, which is worth $28 million, and the torpedoes, whose value could reach $100 million.

The torpedoes, an official at the U.S. Embassy in Peking said, "don't threaten our friends and allies. It is a defensive system" for a coastal navy incapable of roaming the oceans, he said.

Beyond modernizing its forces, the official said, the Chinese military is finishing a drive to streamline itself by trimming its rolls from 4.5 million troops to 3.5 million.

This is still considerably more than the 2.1 million men and women in the U.S. armed forces. But in China, the army has been given such tasks as constructing the Peking subway system, building river diversion channels and running the railways.

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