A total of 137 students directional trained for the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force participate in a see-off ceremony at Fuyang Institute of Technology and will set off for barracks on December 26, 2021 in Fuyang, Anhui Province of China.

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CNN  — 

For much of 2023, a storm has been quietly engulfing the world’s largest military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China.

Behind the walled government and military compounds of the Chinese capital, powerful generals have disappeared from public view one after another. Some were subsequently removed from their positions without explanation, even for roles as high-profile as the defense minister.

After months of intense public speculation and evasive non-answers from government spokespersons, the clearest sign of a sweeping purge inside China’s military came last Friday, when nine high-ranking PLA officers were ousted from the country’s top legislature.

While the National People’s Congress (NPC) itself is just a rubber-stamp parliament, its members enjoy a degree of immunity from arrest and criminal prosecution granted by the constitution. Previously, such sudden expulsions often served as a prelude to further disciplinary or legal action.

In keeping with the opacity that shrouds Chinese elite politics, no reason was given for the generals’ sudden ouster from the legislature.

But experts who have long studied China’s military point to a corruption purge as the likely cause – possibly over the procurement and development of advanced equipment that has been a key element in leader Xi Jinping’s efforts to “modernize” the PLA and transform it into a “world class” fighting force.

To some, the scale and depth of the latest purges recalls the graft probes in the early years of Xi’s tenure, which led to the downfall of multiple senior generals and their underlings.

Xi has made rooting out corruption and disloyalty a hallmark of his rule since coming to power in 2012, and the latest shake-ups suggest that campaign is far from over within the military.

At the center of the latest purge is the PLA’s Rocket Force, an elite branch Xi has built up to oversee China’s fast-expanding arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles.

The Chinese leader has described the force as a “core of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power, and a cornerstone on which to build national security.”

“Right now, it’s obvious to Xi Jinping and the Chinese high command that the Rocket Force leadership has been compromised,” said James Char, a longtime PLA-watcher and research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“If this were allowed to fester over the longer term it would definitely have repercussions on the PLA’s overall combat capabilities,” Char said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, shakes hands with delegates attending the first People's Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force Party congress during his inspection of the PLA Rocket Force, in Beijing, capital of China, September 26, 2016.

Hotbed for corruption

Among the nine PLA officials expelled from the legislature, five are linked to the Rocket Force.

The most notable was Gen. Li Yuchao, who was abruptly replaced as commander in July along with his political commissar. Li’s predecessor and two former deputy commanders were also on the list, as well as an official in charge of the force’s equipment procurement.

Three more of the ousted were also involved in arms procurement – two hailed from the PLA’s Equipment Development Department, while the other oversaw equipment for the PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet before becoming its commander.

The remaining general dismissed from the legislature was a former commander of the PLA Air Force.

“By the affiliation of these nine personnel … we can more or less presume that corruption is the main cause behind the investigations into their wrongdoing,” Char said.

The ouster of the nine came just two days after three aerospace executives from China’s military-industrial complex were stripped of their roles in the country’s top political advisory body.

The move against the three executives, who hailed from state-owned defense contractors that manufacture arms and missiles, is seen by some analysts as further indication of a corruption probe into military procurement for the Rocket Force – a highly secretive and lucrative field flushed with billions of dollars of funding that makes a fertile ground for graft.

“The PLA Rocket Force has been invested with a lot of expensive equipment since 2016,” Char said, referring to the time of Xi’s wide-ranging reforms of the military.

As part of that ambitious overhaul, the Rocket Force was upgraded into a full armed service from the former Second Artillery Corps. Since then, it has rolled out an unprecedented expansion, adding powerful new intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to its arsenal and boosting the number of missile brigades from 29 to 40.

“Clearly, with this increase in the size of the PLA Rocket Force, the amount of equipment and investment that the PLA has poured into the service is immense,” Char said.

In the past few years, satellite photos have shown the construction of what appears to be hundreds of silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in Chinese deserts, and the US Defense Department predicts China could have some 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035 if it continues to expand the stockpile at its current exponential pace.

In September, CNN also revealed how China, alongside Russia and the United States, have all built new facilities and dug new tunnels at their nuclear test sites in recent years.

“Xi has placed great importance on those developments and that attention may have exposed the level of corruption that generated a clean-up effort that had the added benefit of undermining patronage networks that may infringe on Xi’s plans and power,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.

“Xi wants qualified people whose loyalty and judgement he trusts.”

In this 2019 photo, military vehicles carrying DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing.

Implications on combat

The Rocket Force will play a key role in any conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea – two potential flashpoints between the US and China – by leading the first strikes on enemy forces and deterring US intervention, according to Schuster.

Given the strategic importance of the force, a key question is whether the far-reaching purge would gut its operations or combat readiness.

So far, Xi has left the operational-level commanders and staff untouched, Schuster noted.

“The senior leaders were involved in building the force but, at this point, not likely to have been involved in operations and planning,” he said.

While the wide-scale purge is sure to dent morale in the Rocket Force and bring it under tighter scrutiny, Char said overall “the PLA’s combat capabilities have unlikely been compromised to any substantial extent.”

As part of Xi’s military overhaul, “the Rocket force assets have in fact become more and more integrated into the PLA’s joint theater command system. So, that means the PLA’s ability to conduct missile strikes, as part of a larger joint campaign, will unlikely be compromised,” he added.

Amid flaring geopolitical tensions, experts say in the long run, it’s crucial for Xi to clean up the rot within the PLA, especially around its weapon systems.

If the purges result in a more disciplined, effective and personally loyal fighting force  – it could prove a win for Xi.

The poor performance of Russia’s military in its war with Ukraine – from substandard equipment to expired ration packs and deadly tank weaknesses – has served as a stark lesson for Xi and his top generals about the perils of corruption.

“The cleaning up is important because going forward, he would want to ensure the PLA Rocket Force has functioning lethal equipment that works on a battlefield,” Char said.