China already has the largest army in the world. Now its soldiers are getting bigger too.
A People’s Liberation Army study has concluded that its soldiers are significantly taller and fatter than they were 20 years ago – so much so that they are in danger of outgrowing their equipment.
The study recommended developing larger models of current military hardware because of the changed “parameters” of a generation raised on plentiful and fast food, compared with the austerity generation of the cultural revolution era.
The average height of soldiers, it said, is now 2cm greater than two decades ago, and waistlines are 5cm larger, which makes sliding into tank hatches and fitting into aircraft cockpits especially tricky.
Even the buttstocks of rifles produced for the PLA needed to be lengthened so as not to affect firing accuracy, the study said.
“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,” said Ding Songtao, director of the survey.
Bigger tanks will be the focus of the new generation of roomier equipment. The low silhouettes of China’s main battle tanks – based on the 30-year-old Russian T-series – make them more difficult targets, but their compartments are too cramped for today’s beefier crews.
Owing to better nutrition, China’s younger generation is now much taller than its parents, although obesity is a problem. A study by China’s health ministry in 2007 showed that urban Chinese boys aged six are 6.3cm taller and 3kg heavier on average than boys 30 years ago.
But the conclusion that the PLA’s 2.3m active personnel needed a range of supersized military hardware was met by derision from some analysts.
Jiang Lianju, a researcher with the China Academy of Military Sciences, said the size issue was a “very minor consideration” compared to technical specifications such as armour and combat effectiveness.
Ni Lexiong, a military expert based in Shanghai, said height and weight had always been a consideration in choosing tank crewmen. “Choosing tank operators is like choosing weight-lifters – both require men to be short and quick.”
Rather than building larger tanks, it was more likely that their inside compartments could be enlarged, keeping overall size unchanged, he said.
中国军事科学院(China Academy of Military Sciences)研究员蒋联句（音）表示，与装甲和战斗力等技术规范相比，规格问题是一个“非常次要的考虑因素”。