China’s People’s Liberation Army, supersized?

By J Brooks Spector 20 February 2014

News that the Chinese army is facing its biggest crisis ever has been greeted with not a few guffaws and smiles. No, it is not coming from a powerful enemy on one of its long borders with fractious neighbours or from the threat of an invasion by sea from some far off naval power. Instead, it is the new and weighty problem that its soldiers are getting too big to squeeze into the army’s tanks and their arms are now so long they can’t use their rifles properly. J. BROOKS SPECTOR tries to make a meal out of this weighty question.

Anyone who has ever visited an old castle in Europe or Japan will know exactly what we’re talking about. In each of these places, as well as any number of museums hosting exhibits of the art of the armourer almost certainly has also noticed something else rather unusual – besides the amazing engineering and artistry of such armour. All of this armour seems like it was designed and constructed for midgets, or maybe an undernourished teenager, certainly in comparison to the size of the average person nowadays. As a child we probably all thought that those legendary knights in armour (and even the shogun’s samurai, perhaps) were big, boisterous, maybe not-so-lean, but clearly mean fighting machines – sort of like what Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude van Damme or Sylvester Stallone kept trying to portray in their glory days. But no, all those legendary figures were all apparently just a few centimetres taller than Hobbits.

Back then, armourers probably had a whole series of generic bits and sections cut in a few different size ranges – from the really tiny to extra small to pint-sized, except for when they had to outfit that very rare someone like a beefy Falstaff or Henry VIII. Whenever some noble ordered up a new suit of the stuff, the armourers got to work fitting those stock pieces together, engraving all those nifty designs on it, and working in a few bits of gold fretwork and some colourful trim, especially if the man who had ordered it had had an especially good year besieging and sacking other people’s castles and then stealing all the goodies inside. Probably, things were a lot simpler the – one size fits almost all – in the arms business, back when a nice suit of armour and a big, strong horse was the best hi-tech solution, the very last word in modern warfare.

Now, of course, every modern army must be outfitted with all kinds of complicated gear, weaponry and military vehicles, along with all the different uniforms and boots. Much of this stuff has to be precision-designed, taking into account ergonomic principles that allow all this gear to be used as efficiently as possible for the express purpose of removing opposing forces from the field of battle as soon as possible. Uniforms need to be stocked in all the most common sizes – and this is why most armies around the world have height and weight limits. If you are too tall or too short, or too fat, you simply don’t get to play. Moreover, much of this equipment – and especially vehicles – is designed to make maximum use of minimum space – more firepower per cubic centimetre is key here.

But now comes the astonishing news that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is facing an extraordinary quandary – its soldiers are becoming bigger and taller – so much bigger and taller that they are quite literally outgrowing their death-dealing equipment.

A new study carried out by the PLA has reached the starling conclusion that it may well have to rebuild or thoroughly redesign things like their main battle tank – and even their standard issue rifle. According to the study, today’s PLA personnel are having increasing trouble getting in – and then getting back out of – their tanks. Moreover, the rifle stock is now too short to be used effectively because their increasingly large soldiers’ arms are longer than their predecessors’ were.

According to the Washington Post’s report on this hefty conundrum, “The study, published in Chinese in the army’s official newspaper and reported on by the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin, warned that Chinese soldiers have gotten too tall and fat for some of their equipment. Rifle butts are too short for their longer arms and, more comically, soldiers assigned to tank divisions are sometimes too big for the tanks.”

The culprit seems to be better nutrition and a helping of gluttony – especially in the fast food department – than was true for inductees a generation or two ago. According to news reports, the average height of Chinese soldiers are now 2cm taller than it was some twenty years ago and waistlines are some 5cm larger. This is now making slithering quickly through a tank hatch or sliding into the snug cockpit of a fighter jet much harder than it used to be for the PLA’s forces.

Or as Ding Songtao, the director of the survey told the media, “The configuration of armaments and military personnel’s physique should be matched because that is the only way to ensure handy use of the equipment”. Meanwhile experts say that the next round of the country’s main battle tank will have to get bigger, roomier, and with a higher profile than current models (otherwise known as easier to hit) if the crews are going to be able to fit inside and do their jobs.

While much of this body size expansion is due to better nutrition, overall obesity is a growing problem as well. The country’s health ministry noted some seven years ago that Chinese boys aged six and living in urban areas were 2.5 inches taller and 6.6 pounds heavier on average than boys generally were some 30 years ago.

The Post commented only partly tongue in cheek, “This is a problem with which the U.S. military is all too familiar: The Pentagon has been warning for years that rising obesity in the U.S. is reducing the military’s ability to field and deploy appropriately fit service members. But there’s a big difference here: American troops are too big because they’re unhealthily overweight. Chinese troops are too big because nutrition is better, particularly in childhood, and they’re more healthily robust.”

Commenting on this veritable explosion of chubbiness, Wired commented, “The state-controlled China Daily reported Wednesday that China’s National People’s Congress is loosening the standards for overweight recruits in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s wanna-be soldiers can now super-size that order of szechuan beef without fear of discrimination as long they don’t tip the scales further than 25 percent of the normal weight requirements — a 5 percent uptick from last year.” They have also relaxed restrictions on enlistees bearing tattoos on their arms and necks.

Still, some Chinese military analysts have already heaped a generous helping of scorn on this new study. Jiang Lianju, a researcher for the China Academy of Military Sciences, said size was a “very minor consideration” compared with technical specs like armour or overall combat effectiveness. While Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military analyst insisted the tank corps had always picked the right-sized man for the job, likening the task to lining up a championship weightlifting team. “Choosing tank operators is like choosing weightlifters – both require men to be short and quick,” he told journalists. Other analysts added that the answer might lie in making the inner compartments bigger on those tanks, even if their overall profile remains relatively the same as before.

Wired’s take on this diet of bad news is that “The PLA’s greater tolerance for the love-handled likely stems from the necessity of recruiting within an ever wealthier — and chubbier — China. Its rapidly growing economy has birthed a new middle class. But… the country’s appetite has expanded with its wallet. One quarter of China’s population is now either overweight or obese, stuffing their faces with more of previously less-affordable dishes like meat. It’s a particular problem among school kids, the rising generation of potential army recruits. In Shanghai alone, obesity in elementary school children has gone up 25 percent over the past 10 years. McDonald’s franchises in China, it seems, are America’s secret weapon.”

Actually, this supersizing problem is not just limited to China’s military recruiting problems. The Japanese – like other prosperous Asian nations – have been getting taller and heftier for years. So much so, in fact, that entire parts of the nation’s infrastructure have begun to undergo some serious rightsizing – from train and theatre seats to furniture models on sale, especially as more and more Japanese have made the shift to western-style meals as well as snacking on fast food dining.

Thinking further ahead, perhaps this will give American and other military strategists in the region something to chew on as they contemplate the Chinese military challenge in the 21st century. Rather than upping their game in Asia, perhaps the Americans and others can simply wait until the Chinese can’t fit into their fancy new carrier-based fighter jets and their main battle tanks. Maybe America’s real secret weapon will turn out to have been a steady diet of Big Macs and Happy Meals available throughout China. DM

Read more:

  • Chinese soldiers get bigger, requiring new gear to match at China Daily
  • China considers larger tanks as soldiers pile on pounds at the Financial Times
  • Chinese soldiers are getting too big for their tanks at the Washington Post
  • China soldiers ‘too tall, fat’ for tanks at the Japan Times
  • Battle of the Bulge: China’s Military Recruits More Fatties at Wired

Photo: New recruits of China’s People’s Liberation Army sing revolutionary songs as they stand in formation during a training session in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province September 26, 2013. Picture taken September 26, 2013. REUTERS/William Hong


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

United Nations

Ramaphosa urges world leaders to ‘end the wars’ and prove themselves worthy of Mandela

By Peter Fabricius

Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.