The Evolution of the PLA’s Red-Blue Exercises
Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 4
In the summer of 2016, the PLA completed the most recent round of its “Stride” (跨越) exercises, a series of large-scale military training exercises that prominently feature simulated opposing force confrontations. Militaries and other national security actors have for decades utilized “red teams” to improve training and operations. Red teams provide a dynamic adversary and present the blue or “home” team with a more challenging and realistic training exercise. Sometimes red teams may even be tasked with mimicking a specific country or military unit. In the U.S. and other Western countries, the “Red” force typically represents the adversary, but in China, the designations are reversed, with “Red” units representing the PLA and “Blue” units representing the opposing force.
Red-Blue exercises are valuable opportunities to evaluate a military’s capabilities, enhance the difficulty and realism of training exercises, and to prepare for future conflicts against a specific adversary. According to one account, “Using a fierce Blue Force in this manner in exercises, in one aspect imagines the functional requirements of enemy units and in another aspect also confirms that the actual combat level of our army continuously increases year by year. Whether the Blue Force is strong or weak, in one aspect simulates the real situation of potential opponents and in another aspect also establishes the current level of capabilities of the Red Force” (China Youth Daily, July 24, 2015).
Chinese observers of the PLA have long lamented personnel shortcomings in terms of education, “old-style thinking,” and training (China Brief, May 9, 2013). The incorporation of more complex weapons systems and planning for joint operations have only further increased the need for high-quality personnel, but training has reportedly been overly scripted and unrealistic. The focus on Red-Blue exercises is part of a larger push to improve overall force training.
Though the PLA incorporated Red-Blue exercises later than its Western military counterparts, such training is not entirely new to the PLA. The first PLA confrontation exercises reportedly began in 1985.  Despite the potential of Red-Blue exercises, the PLA has failed to fully exploit them. Past exercises were overly scripted and designed more to bolster the reputation of the participating troops rather than improve their operational readiness. In recent years, however, the PLA has attempted to expand, systematize, and professionalize the use of Red-Blue exercises. These exercises provide indicators of the capabilities and threat perceptions of the PLA.
Red-Blue Exercises within the PLA
Two of the more prominent Red-Blue exercises within the PLA are held as part of the annual “Stride” exercises conducted at the Zhurihe (朱日和) military facility in Inner Mongolia and the “Firepower” (火力) exercises conducted at the Qingtongxia (青铜峡) facilities in Ningxia, though smaller service-specific exercises often incorporate Red-Blue elements (China Military Online, July 12, 2016; Xinhua, July 26, 2016). The Zhurihe facility even plays host to a dedicated Blue Force established in 2014 with personnel from the PLA’s 195th Mechanized Infantry Brigade.
It is unclear to what extent the confrontation exercises are intended to prepare forces for actual anticipated conflicts against specific adversaries or are merely meant to enhance the difficulty and realism of the exercises. The Red-Blue exercises are portrayed as a good opportunity to study and learn from the combat tactics of foreign armies (China Military Online, June 5, 2015). Western observers have noted the use of American military doctrine or buildings bearing resemblance to Taiwan government buildings as indications that the PLA was rehearsing for specific conflicts like an invasion of Taiwan (China Brief, February 20, 2015; The Diplomat, August 11, 2015). Reports have indicated that Red Teams are not meant to represent any specific adversary but, rather, are to let PLA troops “confront a ‘standardized’ enemy on a ‘standardized’ battlefield and to test whether or not their preparation methods, tactics, and training methods are effective” (Guancha, July 24, 2016). However, some of the participating troops are described as “the main brigade of the main force preparing for the Taiwanese military” and other reports have highlighted the success of a First Group Army armored brigade—troops which are “responsible for countering Taiwanese independence—which managed to penetrate into the central base of the opposition Blue Forces” (Guancha, July 24, 2016; Sina, July 21, 2016).
The confrontation exercises are a chance to experiment, and this past year’s Stride exercises reportedly saw a number of battlefield innovations. One Red Force unit from the Southern Theater Command struggled with intense electromagnetic interference in an effort to simulate a more realistic battlefield, especially conditions of challenging electronic warfare (Guancha, July 24, 2016). The unit, however, managed to maintain communications by replacing some of the firmware in its communications equipment and installing new software code supposedly written by members of the unit. The unit was the only one able to successfully maintain all communications capabilities throughout the exercises. One unit equipped with outdated equipment was unable to lob smoke bombs toward the Blue Force, which was necessary to provide cover for an impending Red Force assault. Instead, they used traditional fireworks to create a rudimentary smokescreen and successfully cover their advance (Guancha, July 24, 2016).
Expanding and Improving the PLA’s Red-Blue Exercises
In the past, China’s Red-Blue exercises have suffered from numerous shortcomings. Past exercises have been criticized as overly formulaic, with participants and commanders overemphasizing the outcome of the exercise, with little attention paid to lessons learned or ways to improve. Commanders were apparently too focused on the overall outcome of the training (i.e. a “win” or a “loss”) and often failed to incorporate the lessons of the exercise. (PLA Daily, March 13, 2016). In previous years, during the post-exercise review sessions, troops from the defeated Red Force were called “resentful” at the performance of the Blue Force and some commanders were reported as “chagrined and ashamed” at their defeat (China Youth Daily, July 24, 2015). Some reports have explained how, in an attempt to bolster the reputation of the participating units, the Red Force was often given important information about the Blue Force and that scenarios were designed so that the Red Force would always win (Rocket Force News, April 29, 2016). One PLA officer criticized a perceived overemphasis on the pursuit of glory and individual success, saying “This idea is not correct and training will become more and more distant from actual combat” (PLA Daily, March 13, 2016).
In recent years, the PLA has sought to both increase the frequency of Red-Blue exercises and the quality of those exercises. The confrontation exercises have even attracted high-level attention in recent years. China’s 2013 Defense White Paper specifically identified “force-on-force training” as a goal for enhancing troop training and exercises. According to the White Paper, “The various services and arms are intensifying confrontational and verification-oriented exercises and drills. Based on different scenarios, they organize live force-on-force exercises, online confrontational exercises, and computer-simulation confrontational exercises.” 
The 2014 Stride exercises were conducted under a new motto intended to convince participants to focus on lessons learned and not overly emphasize the outcome of the exercises. Units were urged to “Emphasize testing, not comparison; emphasize substantive effect, not form; and emphasize review, not winning or losing” (重检验不重评比、重实效不重形式、重检讨不重输赢) (China Youth Daily, July 25, 2014). One report noted that after three years of effort, there had been recent progress in casting off the “prejudicial thought that ‘Red must always win, Blue must always lose’” (PLA Daily, March 13, 2016).
In addition to the dedicated Blue Force at Zhurihe, both the Theater Commands (and former Military Regions) as well as the individual services have reportedly emphasized the establishment of Blue Forces, the expansion of their numbers, and the improvement of their quality (China Youth Daily, July 24, 2015). Prior to the military reforms, both the Beijing and Nanjing Military Regions had established their own dedicated Blue Forces. The PLA Air Force unveiled its first dedicated Blue Force at 2015’s Firepower exercises held in Shandan, Gansu (China Military Online, September 8, 2015; China Youth Daily, July 24, 2015). The newly formed PLA Rocket Force earlier last year announced the creation of its Blue Army Teaching and Research Section, led by Colonel Diao Guangming (刁光明) (PLA Daily, April 17, 2016). Colonel Diao, who has reportedly participated in more than 20 confrontation exercises, has pushed for more difficult and complex training situations, saying “Those whose peacetime training is overly nice will suffer greatly when they take the battlefield” (PLA Daily, April 17, 2016).
For 2016’s Stride exercise, the PLA Army’s training department issued “Evaluation Standards for Simulated Blue Force Drills” in an effort to further systematize and improve Red-Blue exercises (PLA Daily, August 9). The document is meant to provide guidance to units acting as Blue Force in drills as well as standards to evaluate the performance of those units. The evaluation standards are divided into three sub-categories measuring whether the Blue Force’s performance resembles the adversary, is realistic, and is challenging. Under the guidelines, the Blue Force would be evaluated in categories such as deployment, tactics, command and control, and safety measures.
The 2016 Stride exercises featured a number of other changes to improve the realism of the exercises. While participants in previous Stride exercises were recommended by superior command units, last year’s participants were chosen at random from the Army units of each of the Theater Commands (Xinhua, July 15, 2016). In the past, Red Forces were only assigned offensive roles, but last year were responsible for both offense and defense (Xinhua, July 15, 2016). More of the exercise was conducted at night and there was a deliberate attempt to incorporate the use of “new type” forces such as “special forces, technological reconnaissance, aerospace reconnaissance, and electromagnetic interference (Xinhua, July 15, 2016). In evaluating participant’s performance, the weight assigned to the commander’s performance was increased from 20 percent to 35 percent (Xinhua, July 15, 2016).
The PLA’s home teams have not fared well as the PLA’s Red-Blue exercises have become less scripted and more realistic. Reports about the outcome of the 2014 Stride exercises noted that Red teams suffered six losses compared to only a single win against the opposition Blue Force (China Youth Daily, February 13, 2014). Those losses were incurred by Red Forces composed of forces from six of the seven former Military Regions and the “death rate” of the Red Forces was reported at 70 percent (People’s Daily Online, July 24, 2015). Since the establishment of the dedicated Blue Force at Zhurihe, the unit has participated in all three annual Stride exercises conducted at the Zhurihe facility and has amassed a cumulative record of 31 victories compared to just two losses (Guancha, April 28, 2016).
In a particularly striking example from 2014, Blue Force troops posing as representatives from a local government with sacks of potatoes and cabbage in tow, managed to infiltrate the Red Force camp (Global Times, August 28, 2014). When the Red Force commander came out to greet the false representatives and receive their gifts, an artillery barrage distracted the Red Force guards. In the ensuing chaos, the incognito Blue Force troops managed to capture the Red Force commander.
There have been reports of some limited progress, however. The “big news” of 2016’s Stride exercise was that the Red Team managed to score a simulated “kill” of the Blue Team commander, Senior Colonel Man Guangzhi (满广志) (Guancha, July 24, 2016). In the past, the frustratingly low success of the Red Forces in these confrontation exercises had given rise to a rallying cry of “Capture Man Guanzhi, crush 195,” a reference to both the 195th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, the PLA unit assigned the role of the Blue Force, and Senior Colonel Man . Although the killing of the Blue Force commander was not enough to turn the tide of the exercise in the Red Force’s favor, it was recognized as evidence of progress.
The Red Forces of the newly established PLA Rocket Force appear to have conducted several Red-Blue confrontation exercises independent of the other services. They have been marginally more successful but have still struggled. Since the beginning of the year, the official newspaper of the PLA Rocket Force has run a multi-part series on training improvements made to the PLA Rocket Force and Second Artillery since the 18th Party Congress. One recent article in the series noted that, during a recent string of Red-Blue exercises, the Red force had a record of five defeats and two victories (Rocket Force News, March 22).
The weaknesses of the PLA’s training systems are well documented and have been seen as a drag on the PLA’s operational capabilities (PLA Daily, October 12, 2014).  The recent reforms to the military’s Red-Blue exercises will likely help improve the training and operational capabilities of the PLA, as well as the Chinese military’s own understanding of the tactics of potential foreign adversaries. At the same time, the growth and professionalization of the PLA’s Red-Blue exercises also provide a valuable source of information about the threat perception and future trajectory of the PLA. The equipment, tactics, and objectives of the participating troops will reveal the kinds of scenarios PLA anticipates are most likely in the future. For example, the incorporation of a greater diversity of forces shows a greater turn toward realism in training. The fact that earlier rounds of prominent Red-Blue exercises only assigned friendly Red Forces to an offensive role, along with occasional references to Taiwan suggest that perhaps confrontation exercises are conducted with an eye to a future contingency involving Taiwan. However, the practice of randomly selecting participants may help foster broad-based improvement in confrontation training throughout the PLA, but will complicate efforts of both the PLA to focus confrontation training and for observers to discern threat perceptions based on what units are selected. These exercises will also provide an opportunity to better gauge the actual operational capabilities of the PLA.
Gaps still remain in the realism of these exercises. Despite its recent emphasis on joint operations, it appears that the PLA has been somewhat slower to develop complex multi-service confrontation exercises. Most of the Red-Blue exercises carried out so far appear to have been conducted between units of the same service and recent reports on exercises have emphasized seemingly small indicators of progress. For example, as late as 2015, one report highlighted the fact that a PLA Air Force targeting officer had been embedded with a PLA Army combat group (PLA Daily, June 9, 2015). The lack of multi-service Red-Blue exercises likely imposes a limit on the realism of such exercises as units confront Blue Teams with only a limited range of capabilities. For example, confrontation exercises involving the PLA Rocket Force have used “electronic Blue Teams” confined to a base, presumably only capable of simulating certain kinds of electronic enemy harassment (PLA Daily, April 19, 2016). The lack of dedicated Blue Teams may also hinder the ability to simulate well-coordinated enemy operations. The Rocket Force has been recently described as assembling Blue Teams in a perhaps ad hoc fashion by “drawing from different units technical reconnaissance, electronic warfare, special operations and other elite forces” (PLA Daily, September 8, 2016).
China has even begun to bring its Red-Blue exercises to the international stage. In September of last year, units of both the PLA Navy and the Russian Navy participated in joint exercises in the South China Sea (Xinhua, September 11, 2016). The exercises, which marked the fifth round since the two countries began the exercises in 2012, for the first time included Red-Blue confrontation exercises (PLA Daily, September 14, 2016). This year, the Marine Corps carried out live-fire drills as well as island-seizing operations (Xinhua, September 11, 2016).
David C. Logan is a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. His writing has been published in Foreign Affairs, Joint Force Quarterly, The National Interest, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and The Diplomat. He would like to thank Joel Chen for excellent comments on earlier drafts.
- David Shambaugh, Modernizing China’s Military: Progress, Problems, and Prospects, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), p. 95.
- The text of the 2013 white paper, The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, is available at https://www.china.org.cn/government/whitepaper/node_7181425.htm.
- See, for example, Michael S. Chase, et al., “China’s Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” RAND Corporation, February 2015, especially pp. 43–124.