Until recently, Chinese military training was widely dismissed as infrequent, unrealistic and overly scripted. In the 1980s and 1990s, outside observers and internal critics alike raised doubts about the utility of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) exercises, and it was clear that training deficiencies represented one of the most serious challenges. For example, Western analysts noted that PLA Air Force (PLAAF) pilots flew an insufficient number of hours on a yearly basis and that the limited training they received was unrealistic and heavily scripted. Pilots often relied on strict ground-control intercept (GCI) techniques that granted them little to no opportunity to act on their own initiative . In recent years, however, the PLA has implemented a series of training reforms, and many units have been engaging in considerably more frequent, realistic and challenging training. Moreover, as part of its reforms, the PLA has begun to employ more rigorous standards of evaluation to improve quality and effectiveness. Although this increased emphasis on establishing realistic exercises is sometimes overshadowed by the deployment of new military hardware, enhancing the quality of military training is an equally important aspect of the PLA’s overall transformation. Indeed, recent PLA directives further highlight the need to increase the quality of military training as a critical element of the Chinese military’s drive to strengthen its overall operational capabilities.
China’s 2007 Military Training Guidelines
The PLA General Staff Department’s (GSD) 2007 Training Guidelines, which were highlighted in the January 12 issue of Jiefangjun Bao, reflect the growing emphasis on enhancing training to better prepare the PLA for the challenges it would face in a high-intensity, information-centric conflict against a technologically advanced adversary like the United States . Most importantly, the 2007 GSD Training Guidelines designate “promoting the transformation from military training under mechanized conditions to military training under informatized conditions” (tuijin jixiehua tiaojianxia junshi xunlian xiang xinxihua tiaojianxia junshi xunlian zhuanbian) as the main theme (zhuti) governing military training. Although many documents issued over the last few years mention the importance of training under “informatized conditions,” they do not identify it as the main theme that should guide training. The GSD’s 2006 training guidelines, for example, state that the main tasks were using more realistic combat scenarios, standardizing training across the PLA and improving integrated training . The stronger emphasis on implementing “informatized conditions” in the 2007 GSD training guidelines echoes the military training section in China’s 2006 defense white paper, which states that the PLA is taking “vigorous steps to accelerate the transition from military training under conditions of mechanization to military training under conditions of informationization” .
Beyond elevating “training under informatized conditions” to “main theme” status, the latest training guidelines underscore the PLA’s determination to increase the realism of military training, incorporate opposing forces into exercises, conduct more sophisticated joint and integrated training and prepare to operate in a “complex electromagnetic environment” (fuza dianci huanjing). The guidelines also discuss improving the skills of commanders and their staffs through various types of exercises. In addition, the 2007 training guidelines underscore the importance of standardizing examination procedures and making them more stringent.
Increasing the Realism and Complexity of Training
In keeping with a theme that has been given a considerable amount of attention in recent years, the 2007 GSD guidelines indicate that training scenarios must approximate actual combat conditions as much as possible. The PRC’s 2006 defense white paper also emphasizes the importance of training under realistic circumstances, which helps to “temper troops in a near-real war environment.” The Second Artillery reportedly has practiced a variety of techniques to counter enemy ISR, precision strikes and electronic warfare attacks . Since the late 1990s, the Second Artillery has also emphasized inter-theater deployments, which entail considerable operational and logistical challenges. According to one official PLA media report, “Long-distance, inter-theater movement is a test of a unit’s ability to maneuver, as well as a test of its combat capabilities” . The PLAAF in recent years also has devoted a considerable amount of attention to conducting night training, alternate base training and more sophisticated exercises involving multiple types of aircraft.
One important way in which many PLA exercises now attempt to enhance the level of realism is by incorporating opposing forces. For instance, according to a January 2007 Jiefangjun Bao report, the PLAN recently conducted an opposing forces exercise involving some of China’s most modern destroyers . The use of “blue forces” in exercises is a particularly noteworthy development, because it makes training more realistic and challenging, encourages officers to take the initiative in response to changing situations and gives troops exposure to possible adversary tactics. (In the U.S. military, the “red force” represents a potential adversary, whereas in China, the PLA is the “red force” and the opposing force is the “blue force.”) Other reports indicate that training is sometimes designed to force participating units to deviate from their plans. This is done to prepare officers and soldiers to cope with actual combat situations in which they may lose the ability to communicate with higher headquarters or find that the enemy has reacted to their actions in unexpected ways. According to a June 2006 Jiefangjun Bao article, “The objective of this type of training is to break free of the formulaic training exercise patterns of the past…and temper the ability of the commander and his staff to assess the enemy situation, plan independently, and change their plans as needed” .
Increasing the Sophistication of Joint and Integrated Training
The PLA is also conducting more joint service exercises as part of the training reforms. In the 1980s and 1990s, many observers assessed that the PLA’s joint exercises lacked sophistication and had relatively low standards for declaring that an exercise was “joint.” In some cases, such exercises actually involved little more than forces from multiple services training at the same time and in the same general location, but conducting separate exercise scenarios . Similarly, a 1999 U.S. Department of Defense report found that “disparate elements train simultaneously and in proximity, but do not appear to be controlled at the operational level by a joint commander and staff” . According to more recent reports, however, the Chinese military has progressed in this area. Indeed, the PLA has conducted numerous multi-service exercises in recent years, providing considerable opportunities to improve its experience with the conduct of joint operations and joint command and control. For example, in summer 2006, the PLA conducted the North Sword-07 exercise, in which two ground force divisions operated alongside units from the PLAAF, Second Artillery and People’s Armed Police . Although there is probably still room for improvement, the consistently heavy emphasis on joint and integrated training in recent documents, including the 2007 GSD Training Directive, clearly reflects the importance that the senior leadership attaches to enhancing the Chinese military’s ability to conduct joint operations in an information and electronic warfare environment.
Training to Fight in a Complex Electromagnetic Environment
The emphasis on training in a “complex electromagnetic environment” contained in the most recent GSD training guidelines is intended to improve the PLA’s ability to operate in an environment pervaded by surveillance, jamming and electronic attacks, and to allow military units to practice various types of counter-reconnaissance, electronic warfare (EW) and counter-EW techniques. Reports in PLA newspapers often mention that this feature is prevalent throughout the services. For instance, according to a May 2007 Jiefangjun Bao report, an artillery brigade in the Lanzhou Military Region (MR) conducted training that forced officers and troops to confront the challenges of operating in the type of complex electromagnetic environment that they would likely face in a real conflict (Jiefangjun Bao, May 21). Similarly, an October 2006 report highlighted a PLAAF exercise in which pilots had to cope with electronic interference while conducting flight operations at an unidentified training base (Jiefangjun Bao, October 2, 2006). The Second Artillery has also conducted opposing force exercises that stressed electronic warfare training (Jiefangjun Bao, August 26, 2006).
Simulations, War Games, and Command Post Exercises
The latest training guidelines likewise reflect the PLA’s determination to continue making greater use of simulations, computer war games and command post exercises to improve the planning and decision-making skills of commanders and their staffs. These techniques are relatively low-cost and allow officers and soldiers to accumulate valuable experience at lower risk than live-fire exercises.
Implementing Standardizing Examination and Evaluation Procedures
Finally, an overlooked but nevertheless important element of the PLA’s training reform program is that the GSD is emphasizing the development and application of more rigorous criteria for the examination and evaluation of military training. This marks a particularly important change, because a more rigorous evaluation of training allows for the military to identify problems and shortcomings and contribute to the development of an accurate appraisal of combat capabilities and readiness.
Conclusion and Implications
Although the PLA is making strides in its training reforms, it continues to face many problems and challenges. For example, the 2007 GSD training guidelines mention that training quality suffers from problems such as units “going through the motions” (zou guochang) instead of engaging in rigorous training as well as commanders emphasizing form over substance . This implies that some officers are concerned primarily with the appearance of success, even if it means failing to conduct realistic and rigorous training. Similarly, a recent Jiefangjun Bao article lamented that some units did not place a priority on incorporating realistic electronic warfare and jamming conditions into training and exercises, despite its prominence in the most recent annual training directive .
Although the numerous articles that address these and other types of problems suggest that the process of transforming PLA training is far from complete, the Chinese military has undoubtedly made progress, and the implemented reforms are helping to prepare it for the challenges of future wars. The PLA’s acquisition of advanced military hardware—and increasingly the domestic development of new types of military equipment—are frequently mentioned in media headlines, but improvements in training play an equally important role in increasing the PLA’s proficiency in fighting wars under “informatized conditions.” The PLA views the transformation of training as an indispensable part of its overall military modernization program. Chinese military officers recognize that more robust and rigorous training is essential to improving the PLA’s operational capabilities. Although many problems remain to be addressed, this impressive transformation has already placed the PLA in a position that would allow it to pose serious tactical, operational and strategic challenges to Taiwan, the United States, Japan and other potential regional adversaries.
1. Ken Allen, Glenn Krumel, and Jonathan Pollack, China’s Air Force Enters the 21st Century, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1995, pp. 127-134.
2. Liu Chujiang and Liu Xing’an, “Zongcan bushu xin niandu junshi xunlian gongzuo qiangdiao jiji tuijin junshi xunlian xiang xinxihua tiaojianxia zhuanbian” (General Staff Department Issues New Year Military Training Work Guidelines and Emphasizes Promoting the Transformation to Military Training Under Informatized Conditions), Jiefangjun Bao, January 12, 2007.
3. Yang Huicheng and Liu Xingan: “GSH Makes Arrangements for Military Training in 2006,” Liberation Army Daily, January 18, 2006.
4. State Council Information Office, China’s National Defense in 2006, Beijing, China: People’s Republic of China, December 2006, available online at https://english.people.com.cn/whitepaper/defense2006/defense 2006(4).html.
5. Ministry of National Defense, ROC, 2004 National Defense Report, Republic of China, Taipei, Taiwan: Government Information Office, 2005, p. 32.
6. Pan Li and Wang Yongxiao, “Zoujin zhongguo zhanlue daodan budui: laizi dier paobing budui xunlianchang de baogao (Visiting China’s Strategic Missile Force: Report from the Training Ground of the Second Artillery), Jiefangjun Bao, June 28, 2006, p. 3.
7. Li Gencheng and Zhao Wei, “Haijun liangwei xinxing zhuzhan jianting de gaoxueli jianzhang jinri zai nanhai shenchu jinxing de ‘honglan’ duikang yanlian zhong yi jue gao xia boshi shuoshi jianzhang yanyi ‘long hu dou’” (Highly-educated Captains of two of the PLAN’s New-Type Destroyers Conduct ‘Red-Blue’ Confrontational Training in the South China Sea: Ship Captains with a Master’s Degree and a Ph.D. Wage a ‘Battle of Dragon vs. Tiger’”), Jiefangjun Bao, January 29, 2007, p. 3.
8. Pan and Wang, “Zoujin zhongguo zhanlue daodan budui: laizi dier paobing budui xunlianchang de baogao.”
9. Ibid., p. 253.
10. Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait, p. 13.
11. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, May 2007, p. 24. According to the Department of Defense report, the exercise scenario involved long-distance maneuver, intelligence collection, and mobile counter-attack operations.
12. Liu and Liu, “Zongcan bushu xin niandu junshi xunlian gongzuo qiangdiao jiji tuijin junshi xunlian xiang xinxihua tiaojianxia zhuanbian.”
13. Guo Hongwei, “Zhengque renshi fuza dianci huanjingxia de junshi xunlian” (Toward a Correct Understanding of Military Training in Complex Electromagnetic Environments), Jiefangjun bao (Liberation Army Daily), March 29, 2007.