China’s “New” Academy of Military Science: A Revolution in Theoretical Affairs?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 2

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping meets with staff at the Academy of Military Science, May 2018. (China Military Online)


One of the overlooked but consequential features of China’s current period of military reform has been an overhaul of the research and doctrinal development system within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). One key change has been a realignment of research institutes within the Academy of Military Science (AMS), which has emphasized blending AMS’s traditional focus on doctrine writing with new capabilities being developed by the science and technology (S&T) community. Whether or not a new generation of PLA doctrine will be able to leverage advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other high-tech fields will be a key test of the success of the new system.

The overarching operational focus of the current round of reforms has been on improving the PLA’s ability to wage “informationized local war” (信息化局部战争), which is defined by the incorporation of advanced technology into joint operations—such as amphibious landings, blockades, or precision firepower strikes—that would be used in a conflict against Taiwan or another regional adversary. The first round of reforms, carried out in late 2015 and 2016, aided this goal by creating a new joint command structure and establishing the Strategic Support Force and the Joint Logistics Support Force, which will supply critical capabilities to joint commanders [1]. The second round, completed in 2017, pushed this agenda a step further through “below-the-neck” force structure changes, and by revising the professional military education (PME) system to provide more instruction on joint operations— including changes to the National Defense University (NDU) and the National University of Defense Technology (NUDT).

A New Focus on Reform at the Academy of Military Science

An important area of focus in this second phase of the reforms was a reorganization of AMS. Established in 1958, AMS originally focused on developing military “science” based on Marxist theory. More recently, AMS scholars have tried to derive lessons from foreign militaries to aid PLA modernization and development. AMS publishes academic publications such as the Science of Military Strategy (another version of which has also been published by NDU) and the journal China Military Science, as well as drafting China’s defense white papers. AMS also has a graduate student department but is not a PME institution per se, since those students receive degrees elsewhere [2]. Despite these other roles, the organization’s fundamental purpose is writing the internal guidelines for the employment of military forces at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare—known in western jargon as “doctrine.” AMS reports directly to the Central Military Commission (CMC), from which it receives taskings and to which it submits reports.

While AMS underwent a series of organizational transformations over its 60-year history, Xi Jinping and other reformers nevertheless decided that it would need to be updated to better fulfill its mission. To set principles for reforming the “military science research” system, a high-level CMC commission was established sometime in 2017 (Cankao Xiaoxi, July 25 2017). While this commission looked across the entire PLA, the focal point was on AMS as the military’s premier center for research and doctrinal development. During a July 2017 ceremony in which he conferred new flags on the leaders of AMS, NDU, and NUDT, Xi urged AMS to adapt to the “new requirements of military scientific work” and to build a “world-class military scientific research institution” (Xinhua, July 19 2017). The bureaucratic grade of AMS has technically been reduced a level (from Theater Command leader grade to Theater Command deputy leader grade, a change that also affected NDU); however, AMS continues to report to the CMC.

The “New” AMS – A Stronger S&T Focus

Following Xi’s remarks, AMS quickly reconfigured its internal organization. The most significant change was the merging into AMS of six research institutes previously subordinate to the PLA’s former general departments. These six institutes, including the Military Medicine Institute (军事医学研究院), System Engineering Institute (系统工程研究院), and National Defense S&T Innovation Institute (国防科技创新研究院), primarily focused on technical research [3]. Symbolizing this new focus, the CMC appointed Lieutenant General Yang Xuejun (杨学军), an engineering Ph.D. and former president of the NUDT, as AMS president (Caixin, July 20 2017). Existing departments with more of a theoretical focus were retained, but consolidated in new institutes: the War Institute (战争研究院) and the Military Political Work Institute (军队政治工作研究院) (Pengpai, September 9 2017).

These changes were accompanied by other reforms designed to improve AMS’s contributions in the S&T arena. One set of improvements involved new partnerships with civilian universities and research academies, such as a new cooperative research center co-sponsored by the AMS System Engineering Institute and the China Aerospace Academy of Systems Science and Engineering (Pengpai, April 20 2018); and a research collaboration between AMS and Guangzhou University focused on robotics, “intelligent manufacturing,” and other high-tech areas (Sohu, September 2 2018). AMS has also established a hiring program for younger civilian technical experts from S&T degree programs, which resulted in the hire of 120 new researchers in 2017, and a second hiring phase that commenced in mid-2018 (Tencent, April 13 2018).

A theme of these initiatives was supporting what the PLA refers to as “military-civilian fusion” (军民融合), which is sometimes also translated into English as “civil-military integration.” A key obstacle to military modernization long understood but only partially addressed by PLA planners was the bureaucratic stove-piping of the military and civilian sectors. [4] This meant that key advances in the S&T realm often did not translate into the effective production of dual-use technology or military weapons and equipment. New personnel exchanges, funding schemes, and joint research projects organized by AMS are all ways to help reduce this dilemma and accelerate PLA modernization.

Official PRC media has indicated that such mechanisms have been helpful in achieving a raft of quick breakthroughs in the wake of the reforms. PLA Daily claimed that AMS had more than 3,300 “scientific research tasks” underway; that it had recruited 20 “academicians” [院士]; and had submitted “more than 100 high-end research reports” to higher authorities (PLA Daily, May 11 2018).  Another report lauded the innovation by AMS researchers of a “coal-based diesel” fuel source that would improve PLA “ground equipment” while also increasing China’s energy security (Keji Ribao, June 6 2018). Even the more traditional War Institute was praised for creating a new Joint Operations Lab Center (联合作战实验中心) which within a few months had developed new models of simulating joint campaigns in computer-assisted wargames (People’s Daily, January 14 2018).

All of these changes reflected a rebranding of AMS as a powerhouse of technological innovation for the PLA. During his May 2018 inspection tour, Xi lauded AMS’s achievements but encouraged it to deepen its new mission by paying “proper attention to the transformation and applications of the results of S&T innovation, so as to let innovation better serve combat power building” (Xinhua, May 16 2018). As Elsa Kania rightly suggests, given its new responsibilities, AMS could therefore emerge as a key technological “incubator” just as the PLA is “seeking an advantage in future military competition.” [5]

Blending Theory and Technology

The more consequential aspect of the AMS reforms, however, does not lay solely in supporting technological innovation: innovative projects were already being conducted in the predecessor organizations of the new AMS institutes, and these efforts would have continued regardless of the consolidation. Acquiring new civilian expertise will certainly contribute to the success of the PLA’s research enterprise, but employment pathways for these scholars could have (and have been) created for personnel across the PLA, including in the NDU and other institutes.

Instead, the key factor is the closer alignment of S&T progress with doctrinal development. Chinese military analysts have long regarded the incorporation of technological innovations into doctrine as a prerequisite for building a strong military. For instance, in a December 2014 essay, AMS scholar Zhao Xiaozhuo praised 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz for applying Newtonian physics into the military doctrine of the “center of gravity” (China Online, December 5 2014). Zhao also lauded the U.S. military for blending technology into doctrine (a role performed most notably by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command), which has in turn guided successful U.S. combat operations over the past few decades. AMS publications have reflected on the relationship between technology and doctrine, often drawing from foreign wars—a key example being U.S. use of precision-guided munitions in joint campaigns. [6]

It is no surprise, then, that a primary goal of these reforms was to develop stronger coordination between the PLA’s technological and doctrinal communities. In July 2017, Xi Jinping called on AMS to “adhere to the close integration of military theory and military S&T” and to “promote collaborative innovation” (Xinhua, July 19 2017), while in May 2018 he again highlighted the need to “properly carry out the integration of theory and S&T” (Xinhua, May 16 2018). A July 2018 article in the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship theoretical journal Qiushi, written by an AMS scholar, similarly argued that the PLA needed to achieve the “deep integration” of theoretical and technical research, including making better use of quantitative analysis as part of more theoretical expositions (Qiushi, July 31 2018). Another source saw AMS becoming a kind of “R&D aircraft carrier” that would combine the PLA’s expertise in social science, natural science, and engineering (Pengpai, September 9 2017).

This vision revealed an existing weakness for PLA modernization: namely, how to adapt cutting-edge advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and communications, big data analysis, nanotechnology, and robotics into the development of doctrinal regulations and teaching materials. The 2013 Science of Military Strategy had almost nothing to say about the role of any of these technologies in military strategic thinking. [7] Part of the problem was that some of these technologies were new, and their military applications as yet undetermined. However, this also reflected the organizational constraints of the PLA’s doctrinal development system: those responsible for devising the regulations had little if any contact with the PLA’s S&T community, much less civilian experts.

Merging disparate technical research institutes into AMS is only a first step in overcoming this weakness. AMS interlocutors have suggested that scholars continue to work largely in their own communities, in a variety of locations in and outside of Beijing, and have not made much progress to date in adopting a more genuinely “collaborative” organizational culture. Moreover, while PLA media has praised the productivity and innovations of AMS scholars, examples of cooperation between different institutes remain scarce. There are, however, signs that observers can look for—such as geographic consolidation of institutes, praiseworthy examples in the media, and publications co-authored by teams of experts drawn from the different institutes— to assess whether progress is being made. [8]


Whether or not the restructured AMS is successful in its goals will be an important factor in the PLA’s drive to deepen its ability to think through the obstacles and opportunities of waging “informationized local wars.” Doctrine being developed by AMS scholars and taught to future field commanders and staff officers could revolutionize the ways in which the PLA would plan and prosecute a future conflict, taking advantage of technological leaps that in some areas might have surpassed even the U.S. military. This would support ongoing improvements in other areas of the reforms—to include joint command and control, training and evaluation, and joint PME. A failure to achieve more effective collaboration between the PLA’s intellectual communities could mean that business continues as usual, and that technological progress remains confined to ivory towers.

Dr. Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. His research areas include Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese military affairs, U.S.-China relations, and strategic developments in East Asia. The views in this article reflect only his views and not those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


[1] For an overview, see Joel Wuthnow and Phillip C. Saunders, Chinese Military Reform in the Age of Xi Jinping, China Strategic Perspectives 10, NDU Press, 2017.

[2] The author is indebted to Ken Allen for this observation.

[3] The other additions included the Military Legal Systems Institute (军事法制研究院), the Chemical Defense Institute (防化研究院), and National Defense Engineering Institute (国防工程研究院). In addition to the eight institutes, the new AMS structure also included a Graduate Student Department (研究生院) and two research centers: the Evaluation and Demonstration Center (评估论证中心) and the Military Science Information Center (军事科学信息中心).

[4] See the chapters by Tai Ming Cheung and Brian Lafferty in the forthcoming volume Phillip C. Saunders et al. (eds.), Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA: Assessing Chinese Military Reforms (Washington, DC: NDU Press, 2019).

[5] Elsa Kania, “Incubating Innovation? – New Directions for the PLA Academy of Military Science,” Battlefield Singularity, May 29, 2018,

[6] See, e.g., AMS Strategic Research Department (ed.), Science of Military Strategy (Beijing: AMS, 2013), 95-6.

[7] The volume did briefly mention quantum computing as a part of the global revolution in military affairs, but did not consider how it could be used in PLA operations. Ibid, 73.

[8] Evidence could also show up in the PLA’s “6th generation” of doctrinal regulations, though this will most likely be classified. For a discussion, see: Elsa Kania, “When Will the PLA Finally Update Its Doctrine?” The Diplomat, June 6, 2017,