2011 PLA Military Training: Toward Greater Interoperability

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 2

The 2011 directive on military training was just released by the General Staff Department (GSD) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on January 14.  The new guidance represents a roadmap for the Chinese military’s training year, and could offer important indicators about PLA military planning priorities and evolving threat perceptions (Xinhua News Agency, January 14). In general, PLA training in the coming year appears poised to continue experimentation and modification of force structures to accomplish the long-term objectives of preparing the Chinese armed forces (PLA, People’s Armed Police, and militia), supported by civilian capabilities, to execute longer-distance joint operations for deterrence, warfighting, and non-traditional security missions under complex electromagnetic conditions.  While the GSD guidance contains no major new points of emphasis or deviations from previous guidance, the work of consolidating and standardizing the training reforms of the previous decade may be a focus of the coming year.

2011 also marks the close of the 11th Five Year Plan and the beginning of the 12th Five Year Plan.  Each Five Year Plan is an opportunity for PRC leadership to rearticulate a set of guiding principles for military training development in the new five-year period.  Furthermore, a new Defense White Paper is anticipated soon, which will be pored over for further clues as to what the future holds for the PLA.

2010 Year-End Summations

At the close of 2010, military press lauded the achievements in both actual training performance and training structure reform.  In many ways, the PLA had a banner year in 2010 in terms of training, and particularly in terms of trans-regional joint training exercises.  2010 also revealed a corresponding emphasis on the construction and refinement of certain training and operational systems, both in terms of technical systems (xitong) and overarching operational architecture (tixi).  Supporting these developments was a sharp rise in emphasis of certain operational concepts, such as "systems confrontation" (tixi duikang), leading some in the PLA to describe "systems confrontation operations" as the leading form of warfare in the modern era, somewhat displacing the previous watchword, "integrated joint operations" as the slogan du jour.  A strong emphasis on electronic warfare persisted throughout the training year, with hints that previous "complex electromagnetic environments" were not as rigorous as previously implied.  

Trans-regional Exercises

From October through early November 2010, a trio of exercises dubbed MISSION ACTION-2010A, B, and C (SHIMING XINGDONG-2010) was held in Shenyang, Lanzhou, and Chengdu Military Regions (MR).  The three exercises demonstrated the forward progress of trans-regional training exercises since the first of these types of exercises was observed in 2006, when a Shenyang MR mechanized infantry brigade traveled to Beijing MR to train at the Zhurihe Combined Arms Tactical Training (CATT) base (hetong zhanshu xunlian jidi) in Inner Mongolia.  

In MISSION ACTION-2010A, a Beijing MR group army traveled to the Taonan CATT base in Shenyang MR to train.  Accompanying the ground forces throughout the exercise was a Beijing MR Air Force air regiment, conducting almost 70 sorties during the exercise (Xinhua News Agency, January 18).  Compared with the 2006 exercise that followed a similar route, but in reverse, it is clear that the scale of training has increased both quantitatively and qualitatively, expanding from a mechanized infantry brigade to select elements of a group army.  Some 30,000 personnel were involved in the three MISSION ACTION exercises, according to official tallies (Xinhua News Agency, October 9, 2010).  MISSION ACTION-2010B and MISSION ACTION-2010C similarly involved ground forces traveling by road, rail, and air to CATT bases located in other MRs.  MISSION ACTION clearly draws from the same operational background as the STRIDE-2009 (KUAYUE-2009) exercise, in which multiple division-sized units from Lanzhou, Jinan, Guangzhou, and Shenyang MRs traveled to CATT bases in other MRs to conduct combined arms examination exercises.  

2010 also saw several international joint exercises, including anti-terror exercise PEACE MISSION-2010 (HEPING SHIMING-2010) held in Kazakhstan, which featured the participation of the J-10 fighter. Other joint anti-terror exercises, FRIENDSHIP-2010 (YOUYI-2010), held in Ningxia with Pakistani forces, and COOPERATION-2010 (HEZUO-2010), with Singaporean forces, also were held in 2010.  Two Sino-Thai joint anti-terror exercises involved marines and special forces units from both militaries.  Beyond Asia, the PLA also engaged with the Romanian military in mountain operations, Peruvian forces in a joint humanitarian rescue operation, PEACE ANGEL-2010 (HEPING TIANSHI-2010), and with Turkish forces in two major exercises, which included the long-distance deployment of SU-27s (See "Sino-Turkish Strategic Partnership: Implications of Anatolian Eagle 2010," China Brief, January 14).  International missions, such as the PLA Navy’s ongoing merchant marine escort mission in the Gulf of Aden and the touring of its new hospital ship in HARMONY MISSION-2010 (HEXIE SHIMING-2010), will likely continue to support China’s expanding use of military assets for soft power initiatives.

Domestically, in 2011 we can expect to see more trans-regional training exercises, and with the trend of increasingly large and complex training scenarios, it would be within reason to anticipate more diversification of participants.  The past two years have seen an emphasis on air-ground coordination.  In 2011, we may see more involvement from the Navy or Naval Aviation forces, People’s Armed Police, militia, or civilian organs.  As the PLA formalizes a new "joint logistics system" that relies partly on civilian sourcing, we can expect to see more local governments involved in supporting exercises.  Guidance for 2011 suggests that the PLA will do more of the same and, "continue organizing trans-MR base training, strengthen organizing command and support, and raise trans-MR base training quality and effectiveness" (Jiefangjun Bao, January 14).  A more ambitious goal would be for two units from different MRs to conduct an exercise in concert against a third blue force, rather than as has been practice so far, having the visiting unit train against a unit of the host MR.  This would constitute a graduation from "trans-regional" exercises to actual, coordinated "inter-regional" exercises and represent a key milestone of achieving unit interoperability within the PLA.

Training Systems

In many ways the precursor 2006 trans-regional exercise involving the Shenyang mechanized infantry brigade was at the time as much a test of the emerging CATT base training infrastructure as it was of the participating units.  While CATT bases had been established in all MRs beginning in the 1980s, in 2006 many new combined arms training systems were being developed and deployed, including battlefield simulation systems, laser simulation systems, exercise regulation and monitoring systems, and two systems that academics helped to develop: the "Unit Exercise Evaluation System" (budui yanxi pinggu xitong) and the "Integrated Data Collection System" (zonghe shuju caiji xitong) (Zhanyou Bao, August 3, 2006). These systems were conceived as necessary components for transforming the exercise evaluation architecture from lax and particularistic evaluation toward systematic and data-driven evaluation.  By hosting evaluation exercises, CATT bases have proven to be important institutional venues for introducing reforms in exercise direction and training evaluation, particularly with the formalization of training institutions, such as exercise directorates and their supporting structures [2].  The drive to develop the necessary tools to train and evaluate effectively has been churning unabated for the past several years.

2010 offered some new systems in the military training toolbox.  The participating units in MISSION ACTION-2010 were aided throughout the various exercises by an "Integrated Command Platform" (yitihua zhihui pingtai), a potential evolution from precursor battlefield management systems (Xinhua News Agency, January 18).  This new and improved command platform was also tied into an evaluation system, dubbed the "Battlefield Real-time Monitoring and Evaluation System" (zhanchang shishi jiance pingu xitong), which allowed the exercise directorate to assess various attack methods of Air Force aviation units (Xinhua News Agency, October 23, 2010).  The director of the Beijing MR Military Training and Service Arms Department, Wang Shun, lauded the construction of a new system at the Zhurihe base, "the first complex electromagnetic environment application system…pushing the base to realize an historic leap from organizing training under everyday conditions to under complex electromagnetic environments" (Zhongguo Xinwen She, December 31, 2010).  While indeed laudatory, the "historic" nature of the installation of such a system leads to questions about how complex previous electromagnetic environments have been at the training base.  Regardless, the PLA is clearly still focused on training under increasingly rigorous electromagnetic conditions, as the phrase continues to be held high in PLA press reporting as a banner of modern warfare.

2011 will most likely bring further evolution in the various training tools and systems the PLA employs in its training exercises.  The electronic warfare upgrade at Zhurihe base, the PLA’s premier CATT base, likely presages similar types of upgrades at other CATT bases across the country.  The director of the GSD Military Training and Service Arms Department indicates as much, saying that in 2011 the PLA will, "begin building large-scale training base systems (tixi), expand large-scale training base capabilities, and construct complex battlefield environments by focusing on complex electromagnetic environments" (Jiefangjun Bao, January 14).  As the PLA enters into a period of consolidating gains in training methods in the last several years, we can anticipate publication of more training regulations and training outlines from the General Staff Department, as well as additional guidance from each of the services and Military Region headquarters.  One such task for improving unit interoperability, central leadership and military academics will seek to reconcile and standardize training base systems across MRs, ensuring consistent, high-quality assessment standards and evaluation capabilities throughout the PLA.

Systems Confrontation

A clear emphasis emerging from 2010 training, and certainly emphasized in ongoing training reforms, is the idea of "systems confrontation" (tixi duikang) as a guiding principle for modern warfare.  In no uncertain terms, this concept will figure prominently in future training.  The director of the Military Training and Service Arms Department estimates that:

The essence of this revolution [in military affairs] is that military training must form the military’s systems operations (tixi zuozhan) capabilities based on information systems, achieving the integration (ronghe) of various operational forces, operational units, and operational elements in accordance with the operational requirements of information dominance (xinxi zhudao), systems confrontation (tixi duikang), and joint victory (lianhe zhisheng) (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2010).

The prominence of "systems confrontation" and "systems operations" in PLA press reporting in the past year or so points to an important evolution in the conceptualization of the PLA’s ongoing training transformation.  Often translated as "system-of-systems", the phrase tixi suggests the systemic architecture of operations, which while may indeed incorporate specific technical "systems" (xitong), like weapons systems and such, also refers to organizational structures, command models, and other less tangible transformations in the past several years.  In 2010, the further development of the overarching training model yielded important results.  Throughout one phase of MISSION ACTION-2010, the "Integrated Command Platform managed the Army-Air Force Joint Campaign Formation (lukong lianhe zhanyi juntuan), signifying that full systems confrontation (tixi duikang) training is becoming the norm of the military’s joint training" (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2010).  The concept of specialized joint echelons, such as the Joint Campaign Formation (lianhe zhanyi juntuan) and Joint Tactical Corps (lianhe zhanshu bingtuan) evolved from several Jinan MR exercises beginning in 2004.  The Joint Campaign Formation encompasses group army- and equivalent campaign-level forces while the Joint Tactical Corps groups together tactical-level forces, such as ground divisions and brigades, air divisions, and naval flotillas.  At the same time, work will continue in improving the operations conducted at the combined arms level, with modular forces in the evolving Integrated Battalion (hecheng ying) structure.  The promulgation and popularization in other MR of such institutional innovations is part of the ongoing transformation of the overarching force structure of the PLA.  As GSD makes efforts to consolidate the reforms of the past several years, 2011 may bring greater clarity in what the PLA "system" will look like when military commentators refer to "systems confrontation."  


In 2011, in addition to continuing its emphasis on training personnel to operate and maintain the new equipment entering the force, the PLA will continue to push the evolution of joint and combined arms training and command models.  Early guidance by the Military Training and Service Arms Department calls for the PLA to continue, "innovating training models under informatized conditions, and building training systems (tixi) under informatized conditions" (Jiefangjun Bao, January 14).  This implies that further developments in the coherent usage of multi-service units in training exercises will occur in 2011.  These reforms may even entail revision and reform of the Outline for Military Training and Evaluation (OMTE), promulgated in 2009.  The GSD is planning on holding a major "All-Army Deepening Military Training Reform Conference" in 2011, suggesting that a two-year period may be normative for the ongoing "cyclic development of the OMTE" (Jiefangjun Bao, January 14).  With a new Five Year Plan, a new Defense White Paper imminent, revisions to the OMTE in the air, and continuing trends of experimentation in many important combat and non-traditional security mission capabilities, 2011 is looking like a promising year for the PLA and the community of interested students who watch it.


* The author’s views are his own.  With thanks to Dennis Blasko for advice and guidance, any errors or omissions are the author’s alone.
2. Li Lin and Zhang Fu, eds., Command Organs Work Guide, (Beijing: National Defense University Press) 2001: 173.