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China raises tiny reserve army. Really tiny.

The world's attention has recently been focused on the unveiling of China's first stealth fighter, but, China continues to focus on another flyer.  The humble pigeon, which very well maybe China's military secret weapon. NBC's Adrienne Mong reports.

KUNMING, YUNNAN PROVINCE--Although military-to-military relations between China and the U.S. appear to be back on track, they've been frosty for almost two years after a U.S. arms deal with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of China. 

But there is one realm where military cooperation has endured without hiccup for half a century.

"This is a way of preserving a symbol of friendship between our two countries," said Major Li Xin of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Major Li heads a special unit training China's furtive flyers in the Chengdu Military Region.

No, not the J-20.

It's another kind of stealth fighter.

"This is the last military pigeon unit left in all of the People’s Liberation Army,” said Major Li.

Yes, pigeons

The unit is stationed on a PLA base near Kunming, where there were once many more such units, all set up in 1957 as part of a contingency plan in case communications were cut off.

On the base, 600 "jun ge," or military pigeons, are trained to be couriers able to carry messages in case of an emergency or a natural disaster such as a quake knocks out cell phone signals or the Internet.

Adrienne Mong

Pigeon conscripts go through training every day.

Every day, the pigeons are put through their paces.

Well, almost all.

When they were released from the coop for a daily flyover, all but four of the birds took flight immediately.

The four delinquents opted to park themselves on a ledge of the building next door. 

“If those four pigeons are too lazy to train, they might be discharged from the army,” a PLA major deadpanned to the NBC News camera.

The birds can fly up to 60 miles an hour for long sustained periods, and the ones that make it past the initial tests are smart enough to dodge hawks. 

One pigeon, in fact, flew from Shanghai to Kunming—a distance of 1,336 miles—in roughly nine days.  That was back in 1982.  His body has been embalmed and sits in a display case.

Their natural homing instinct makes these birds perfect for their mission.  “The pigeons are prized for their ability to be trained, their pace, and their reliability,” said Major Li.

They’re also valued for their pedigree.

Adrienne Mong

Conscripts of the PLA's Special Military Pigeon Unit prepare for training.

A little help from an old ally

“These are American pigeons,” said Chen Wenguang, who founded the special military pigeon unit.  He remains, even at the spry age of 82, an avid pigeon aficionado who given any opportunity happily launches into a long discourse about the health and abilities of each pigeon breed.

The birds in the PLA unit are descended from a batch brought over from the U.S. by the Flying Tigers, a voluntary group that helped the Chinese fight the Japanese on China’s western front during World War Two.

The group was part of the Chinese Air Force and comprised mostly American pilots and ground crews; it was commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault, also an American.

The Flying Tigers was instrumental in ongoing efforts to defend the Burma Road, a critical supply route, in 1941.  Burma was eventually lost to the Japanese, and the Flying Tigers were disbanded in 1942.

Adrienne Mong

A memorial in Kunming honoring the Flying Tigers of World War Two.

The corps was reactivated within the U.S. 14th Air Force, once again under the command of Gen. Chennault.  From 1942 to 1945, the Flying Tigers flew cargo for the Chinese across the Hump (the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains nestled in the region of India, Burma, and China), which had more or less replaced the Burma Road as a supply route—one that was far more dangerous, especially without reliable charts, weather forecasts, or functioning radio instruments.

But it was a great success, bringing Chinese and American pilots and other military personnel together.

Our PLA hosts were ready to note this old alliance at every opportunity. 

“The real reason we keep these pigeons is they’re part of history,” said Col. Qing Nianlong, the commanding officer of the PLA communications garrison unit of Kunming.  

It’s rare that the PLA engages with foreign institutions, let alone foreign journalists.  But the invitation to visit their pigeon unit suggests there’s a growing awareness within the PLA of the potential upside to being media-friendly.

Now if we could just get up close and personal with that J-20.