The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has examined U.S. military precision operations (jingque zuozhan) in local wars with limited objectives since the 1990’s, believing that precision operations have become the basic pattern of joint operations and will become a key capability for integrated joint operations. Both remain largely aspirational, but the PLA currently is developing a doctrinal foundation for precision command and operations . The recent “Joint Teaching 2012 Queshan” (Lian Jiao-2012 Queshan) exercise supported the development of qualified joint operations officers with training in a joint command post and linking command colleges and other military educational institutes with exercises, while testing operational concepts such as joint firepower strikes.
Information technology is a focal point and key requirement for both integrated joint operations and precisions operations, and developing a system of systems operational capability (tixi zuozhan nengli) and operational system (zuozhan tixi)—i.e. a robust Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) system—that integrates military forces will form the foundation for both types of operations . The integrated system must exhibit rapid flow and efficient use of information to support precision command and precision operations, representing a revolution in systems and methods (PLA Daily, October 7, 2011) .
According to one of the basic PLA works on the subject, Precision Operations, the benefits of a precision operations capability include the following: reduced combatant and civilian casualties; minimized destructiveness of combat, including collateral damage; improved operational effectiveness and efficient force employment; control of the scale of conflict; and affecting the enemy psychologically.
The PLA is fielding modern communications, reconnaissance, and precision strike equipment and weapons to support the evolving theory; however, significant problems impede operationalization of the doctrine. The goal is to develop fully integrated joint operations with precision operations capabilities, which will provide the PLA greater flexibility to concentrate and release combat power with high efficiency, potentially employing smaller, modular force groupings during contingencies along China’s periphery or to support new missions. These developments also will support and promote the execution of non-contact and non-linear operations. Both of these terms have come into usage by the PLA and other armed forces primarily in response to precision strike capabilities. Non-contact war has been used to describe the NATO Allied Force Operation using precision strikes against the Serbian military without ground force commitment. Non-linear operations, relying on high command and intelligence capabilities, seek to intermingle forces rapidly on the battlefield in part to mitigate the effects of the enemy’s precision strikes. This article will discuss key elements of the PLA’s aspirational precision operations theory: command and communications, intelligence, modular force groupings, precision strikes as well as key impediments.
Command and Communications
A networked command information system integrating joint and combined-arms forces into an organic entity and supporting decision-making in integrated joint operations and precision operations capabilities (PLA Daily, November 18, 2010; “The PLA’s Three-Pronged Approach to Achieve Jointness in Command and Control,” China Brief, March 15) .
The integrated information system represents a transition from the traditional communications architecture—the PLA often describes this as a tree command system—to a mesh or matrix network that is integrated horizontally and vertically linking all command entities, units, personnel and weapons with the following capabilities: a common operating picture, real-time command and control, dynamic mission planning, precision strike, full-dimensional defense and focused logistics support. The system of systems operational capability is intended to support both complex combined arms operations by a single service and joint operations by multiple services and branches .
The command organization also will transition from the traditional centralized configuration to a geographically dispersed deployment based on the integrated information command environment. Command staffs will conduct virtual meetings to develop, adjust, or synchronize operational plans. The dispersion of the command components also will provide greater survivability. The PLA still prefers centralized command and advanced planning with branch and follow-on plans. They do intend to balance this with the ability for subordinate commanders to take the initiative during combat to deviate from operational plans as new situations arise and to take advantage of fleeting opportunities on the battlefield.The overall operational goals and superior commander’s intent, however, must be fully understood and followed. Higher-level headquarters will closely monitor the course of operations and be prepared to skip command echelons to intervene directly if required .
A matrix command system will feature a highly-integrated command organization based on modular functions with centers for command and control, intelligence information, and firepower coordination as well as departments for information systems, political works and logistics and equipment support. A recent press article describes a group army headquarters transitioning to a joint duty room composed mainly of four centers: mapping center, meteorology center, operational data center and information network center (PLA Daily, February 28). These two descriptions of command organization do not necessarily conflict, but also could represent either an evolution or experimentation with command organization.
Intelligence and Reconnaissance
Integrated intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities are required to assess changes rapidly on the dynamic battlefield in a timely and accurate manner. Intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination will be critical to executing precision command and combat missions, providing intelligence support to precision strikes and other operations. The PLA plans to develop a real-time awareness with a common operating picture for operational forces. It is working on the theoretical basis for intelligence procedures in order to provide actionable intelligence to headquarters at various echelons. However, not all units will receive the same information. Higher-level units will have access to all available reporting . Information will be filtered as it passes to lower echelons based on information requirements to successfully complete assigned mission objectives . A primary consideration appears to be the desire not to overburden units with irrelevant information.
Modular Force Groupings
The integrated information system represents a dynamic network linking operational forces and weapons platforms with precision command, which will allow for flexibly organizing and restructuring of modular joint or combined arms task forces based on changing requirements according to the operational phase or battlefield situation. This theoretically will allow the PLA to field the correct force mix with precise capabilities for a given battlefield mission .
The matrix communications architecture capable of lateral information flow between services and branches will support joint task force command and control which has been an area of experimentation in PLA exercises ( “PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part One): Joint Task Force Experimentation, China Brief, May 20, 2011). A joint campaign juntuan/formation is a task force that can comprise service-level units and joint tactical bingtuan/formations that are tactical-level task forces .
The PLA believes precision firepower strikes will be an important aspect of precision operations. Improved command and control supported by the networked information system and rapid collection, fusion, analysis and dissemination of intelligence will facilitate precision strikes on key enemy targets. As such, precision strikes will support non-contact and non-linear operations .
Precision strikes in the context of precision operations with limited objectives are not intended to cause widespread destruction, but to control and paralyze the opponent. The goal of precision strikes is to deliver a direct blow to the enemy’s center of gravity in order to gain a quick victory. In Precision Operations published by the National Defense University, the PLA has identified the following key enemy targets to strike in order to cause paralysis: command network and automation system; main and elite forces vital to the enemy’s operations; firepower system; and logistics bases and supply lines. Battle damage assessments are an important task during precision operations, facilitated by modern reconnaissance architecture to assess the damage effect by firepower strikes on the targets to determine whether pre-planning and operational requirements are achieved and support decision-making to determine future courses of action.
Key impediments to operationalizing PLA theory are fielding a force-wide integrated C4ISR architecture (the operational system plus a system of systems operational capability) and training joint command personnel with the required skills and education . The PLA has been experimenting with joint command, communications and task force organization in exercises, although problems, particularly in C4ISR integration are apparent. The PLA press continues to provide examples of problems integrating the services and branches, particularly their lateral communications (PLA Daily, January 19).
Likewise, commanders and staff officers with information technology and joint operations skill sets are required. The PLA’s focus on developing quality personnel and reforming the military education institutes is directed at providing future joint commanders and staff officers. A recent article on reform of military education stated the quality of personnel still cannot meet the requirements of winning informationized wars (PLA Daily, June 5). The “Joint Teaching 2012 Queshan” (Lian Jiao-2012 Queshan) exercise, held in Jinan Military Region in early June 2012, focused on the issue of developing military talents. Nineteen military academies and colleges participated in the joint exercise, which included the establishment of a joint command post employing a command information system that appeared to test some of the theoretical concepts for integrated joint operations and precision operations (PLA Daily, June 7) .
PLA plans for developing military talent extend to 2020, coinciding with the second phase of its long range modernization plan scheduled for completion in 2020. It is likely that the PLA planning to establish a cadre of qualified personnel and operationalize some form of integrated joint operations and precision operations capability within key units by that time.
The PLA describes itself as in an early stage of informationization, but recognizes this should not deter it from doctrinal development for future operations as it continues to advance modernization and transformation efforts. The PLA clearly is developing a detailed theoretical basis for a precision operations capability.
There is some capability in this area now with the fielding of precision weapons and supporting systems that will help develop a strong precision operations capability and provide greater control of forces and efficiency during operations. This should allow the PLA to strike the enemy’s center of gravity to gain a quick victory with less material consumption, destruction and casualties.
If successful in developing a precision operations capability, the PLA will gain greater flexibility and control to conduct operations with modular force groupings designed to meet specific operational requirements during conflicts along China’s periphery. Once the current hurdles are overcome and these capabilities are achieved fully throughout the force, the promise of quick victory with minimal losses—combined with a belief in the ability to control the scale of a conflict—could make the use of military force in a potential crisis with limited objectives appear manageable with limited risk.
- Precision Operations. Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2011.
- Information system-based system of systems operational capability (jiyu xinxi xitong tixi zuozhan nengli), translated in Military Terms, Academy of Military Sciences. Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011, p. 79, as system warfighting capabilities based on information systems, is described as a link between the command information system, units and operational systems providing real-time situational awareness, efficient command, precision strike, rapid maneuver, full dimensional protection, and comprehensive support integrated into an organic whole and having a multiplier effect on operational capabilities. This integration and enhancement of capabilities will support combined arms or joint operations. Military Terms (2011, p. 63) also contains a definition of operational system (zuozhan tixi) as a network information system that integrates forces into an organic whole. The PLA, in discussing system of systems operational capabilities, includes the requirement for quality personnel to employ the C4ISR system, as well as unit training in order to achieve the optimal capabilities of the integrated C4ISR system. Tixi zuozhan and zuozhan tixi are requirements for integrated joint operations.
- Precision Operations Command, Shijiazhuang Army Command College. Beijing: PLA Publishing House, 2009 pp. 1–17, 25–50.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 1 Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 1–24.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 1 Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 1–24; Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 13–24.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp 41–78.
- Presumably the General Staff Department and possibly theater (Military Region [MR], PLAN, PLAAF, Second Artillery Force) headquarters would receive all available reporting, although it could be argued, for example, that the Nanjing theater might not need information relevant to Chengdu or Lanzhou MRs. As intelligence flows down echelon, according to PLA theory, it will become more restricted and specifically focused on supporting the unit’s assigned mission objectives.
- Precision Operations Command, Shijiazhuang Army Command College. Beijing: PLA Publishing House, 2009, pp.41–115, 124–180.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 1 Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010; Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 15–24.
- Juntuan and bingtuan refer to a range of units at a particular echelon. Juntuan, translated as large formation or formation, refers to campaign level units such as Group Army, Military Region Air Force (MRAF), or fleet, with a joint campaign formation/juntuan representing a PLA version of a task force. Bingtuan, translated as formation, refers to tactical level units such as division or brigade, and can form a joint tactical formation/bingtuan which would represent a PLA tactical level task force. Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 15–24.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 1 Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010 pp. 23-25 and 41–51; Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 52–61.
- Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2 Operational Command, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 1–40.
- These PLA academies and colleges included command colleges (but not National Defense University or Academy of Military Sciences), with the Shijiazhuang Army Command College, which writes on future doctrinal trends, providing the executive director for the training.