Incomplete Transformation: PLA Joint Training and Warfighting Capabilities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 5

Western assessments of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) capabilities and ongoing transformation often fail to analyze two critical areas of concern to the PLA: development of new operational methods (operational art and tactics) and required improvements in joint training. While the PLA is transitioning from coordinated to integrated joint operations, it recognizes inadequacies in joint training inhibiting the process that require reforms, including improved joint tactical training, updated joint courses and better instructors at military educational institutes, rigorous training evaluation, integration of operational plan requirements into training, new standardized joint training regulations, among others.

PLA publications highlight the importance of developing new operational methods as the PLA modernizes and implements integrated joint operations. Operational methods are really where the rubber meets the road, where all the elements of the transformation process are translated by the commander’s use of stratagems to defeat the enemy. New operational methods are developed through military science and tested in Battle Labs, wargaming and simulations, as well as experimentation in exercises. Improved joint training is a critical component in generating warfighting capabilities, and supports experimentation, testing and implementation of new joint operational methods, joint command and control procedures, coordination, and formation of joint task force groupings. Realistic joint training, particularly at the tactical level, is a key factor in operationalizing integrated joint operations, which the PLA believes will lead to success in future conflicts. Without new operational methods and improved joint training, the PLA could end up mirroring Qing military reforms where they modernized with new equipment, but did not adopt new operational art and tactics, or install new training methods, which led to defeat. This article examines critical issues in joint training as the PLA moves forward on the long road of transformation and generating warfighting capabilities (see China Brief July 17, 2014).

Joint Training

The PLA’s joint training consists of individual and unit training, and is divided into the following areas: basic, tactical, campaign, strategic and specialized. Individual joint training is conducted primarily in military educational institutes for commanders and staff personnel, but also noncommissioned officers, specialized and technical personnel as well as high level reserve officers. Individual training can also occur at the unit. Unit training focuses on specific joint operations and support tasks, and includes the formation of temporary force groupings. China also conducts multinational joint training primarily focused on problem areas of joint command structure, coordinating and organizing coalition forces. [1]

Basic joint training is mastering basic knowledge and skills by individual officers and basic field training by units. Joint tactical training is carried out to provide tactical commanders and staffs with joint combat principles and methods. [2] An unnamed Military Region (MR), probably Jinan, began conducting research field exercises on the organization of joint tactical formations (bingtuan) in 2002. At the same time, the Nanjing Army Command College began the study of joint tactical formation and unit tactical issues. [3]

Joint campaign training’s primary purpose is to develop commander and staff knowledge of theory, organization and command abilities during joint campaign formation (juntuan) exercises. Strategic training is focused on high-level mastery of warfare principles and methods for strategic commanders and staff, and national security related institutions. Exercises, seminars and lectures focus on strategic planning, national security policy and military strategic decision making problems. Specialized joint training emphasizes basic capabilities including operational elements such as reconnaissance/intelligence, command and control, as well as joint training for search and rescue, security and protection, and information coordination and confrontation. In addition, joint training can involve non-war joint operations, the testing of new weapons and equipment, and experimental exercises testing new concepts. [4]

Joint Tactical Training

Currently, the PLA assesses that most units could not conduct tactical-level joint operations due to technology and capability limitations, with integrated joint communications and professional military education issues reportedly still hindering joint training efforts. [5] While these assessments are likely generally true for the PLA, there are units conducting advanced experimentation in tactical joint operations in several MRs, for example the 38th Group Army in Beijing MR.

In addition to communications and joint tactical literacy, the PLA has identified additional issues inhibiting joint tactical training. These include the partitions that have existed between the services leading to a lack of knowledge of other services procedures, capabilities and tactics; the required high level of specialized branch training within the services, which limits the amount and quality of joint training; and coordination within and between services, which has proved difficult for commanders and staffs at the tactical level. [6]

The PLA is emphasizing joint tactical command training for commanders and staffs using wargaming/simulations and confrontation training. This is intended to overcome deficiencies in joint command and coordination procedures, as well as the transfer and use of command posts in joint tactical formations. [7]

Joint Training Locations

The PLA will continue to rely on and update military training cooperation zones and large training bases. Military training cooperation zones (junshi xunlian xiezuo qu, or MTCZ) have been important joint training locations for more than a decade, with at least one of these large joint training areas in each military region (MR). [8] Jinan MR’s Weifang MTCZ was the location for a number of joint training experiments by the services under the Lianhe exercise series during the first decade of this century (see China Brief, May 20, 2011; China Brief, June 3, 2011).

Combined arms tactical training bases (hetong zhanshu xunlian jidi, or CATTB) are located in each MR. While initially established primarily for ground-force combined-arms training, these training bases are evolving into more sophisticated exercise venues featuring facilities to integrate wargaming and simulation training, monitoring equipment to support unit evaluations, umpires and multiple integrated laser engagement systems (MILES) to provide greater realism, specialized training facilities and increasingly support joint training with the PLAAF. The Zhurihe CATTB in Beijing MR is one of the most publicized, sophisticated and largest of these training bases. It has hosted complex combined arms training for a decade and a half, and increasingly has hosted units from other MRs. While the Chinese press touts a mechanized infantry brigade employed at Zhurihe as the “first professional” opposing force (OPFOR), the 34th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, 12th Group Army, Nanjing MR became an OPFOR in 2008 (the brigade was mechanized in 2011) for confrontation training at Sanjie CATTB. Other OPFORs are employed in the services to increase training realism. [9]

Simulation/Wargaming and Dispersed Training

Joint training includes simulation and wargaming to train joint commanders and staffs, as well as dispersed field training with units at training areas spread over great distances but linked together in a joint exercise scenario by the command information system. The dispersed training supports long-range synchronization of operations by the dispersed staffs and units, which approximate the PLA’s vision of the future battlefield. Simulation and wargaming provide an efficient and cost-effective means for experimentation and testing of new operational concepts. [10] Simulations and dispersed joint training also hides the exercise scenario and full scope of the training, creating difficulties for analysts assessing joint training quality and new developments.

Training Evaluation

The PLA intends to continue improving training assessments and eliminate fraud in falsifying training evaluations. The PLA assesses the quality of training based on various indicators. These include the overall amount of training time for units, confrontation and simulation training, as well as training content. Live fire, confrontation and simulation training quality are given more weight in evaluating training. [11]

Collection and analysis of training data is important for unit evaluations, as well as providing valuable data for research to support future training and doctrinal development. The PLA considers conducting exercises approximating actual combat conditions as vital for supporting research for future training and operational methods, as well as a means to overcome lack of combat experience. Data is collected on the following joint operations areas: unit maneuver efficiency; coordination between units; joint fire strike coordination, including detection and destruction effectiveness; joint operations assault coordination; information attack efficiency; and electromagnetic spectrum management. [12]

The Way Forward

The PLA identifies a number of areas requiring improvement and standardization. Joint education at military educational institutes requires better joint teaching materials and instructors for officer training. The dearth of joint research and course materials, as well as qualified instructors, is viewed as a critical impediment to developing joint personnel and improving joint training. Command organizations, such as the General Staff Department (GSD), joint theater commands and service headquarters, need to develop uniform joint training requirements based on operational missions, publish uniform joint regulations and provide greater high-level direction and coordination in general. Joint training experimentation, evaluation and assessment reforms, increased funding as well as improved joint training areas are required as well. [13]

High-Level Guidance

High-level organizations are beginning to provide greater leadership over the details of joint training. The Central Military Commission (CMC) and GSD are directing strategic-level exercises to ensure standardization and uniformity in the conduct of joint training. Military Regions are organizing campaign exercises at MTCZs and advanced combined arms tactical training bases. The PLA intends the regularization of joint training to develop more effective and sophisticated training methods and management throughout the entire force. [14]

Joint Training Guidance

It appears that the PLA has made some decisions on joint operations issues that have been areas of disagreement between PLA academics. In 2013, the PLA was in the process of updating joint operations basic guidance, to include a new “Joint Campaign Outline,” “Joint Operations Command Outline,” and “Joint Campaign Coordination Outline.” This guidance provides the conceptual foundation needed to reform the training program structure. This includes a “Strategic Training Compendium,” “Joint Campaign Training Compendium,” “Unit Joint Training and Evaluation Outline,” as well as specialized training documents for various operational elements such as reconnaissance/intelligence, command and control, joint fire strikes, and logistics. [15]

Military Educational Institutes

Military universities and colleges up to the intermediate level need to improve the quality of instructors and courses in order to advance joint knowledge and skills according to PLA publications. Advanced military universities and colleges need to provide general officers with specific mission oriented joint education, including competency and analysis on the international strategic situation. [16] Military educational institutes will also contribute to writing joint training scenarios, and are organizing training, participating in exercise assessments and evaluations, and providing a blue force of experts for confrontation exercises. [17] These changes are already bringing PLA academics and operational commanders in close contact, which should improve the quality of both groups.

Joint Training

PLA publications also note the need to remove ground force and land battlefield concepts that have dominated training. The PLA is slowly resolving this issue, but problems remain. It does appear that joint training is being planned and lead by the service that has primary responsibility for the type of operation featured in the exercise. Service and branch integration into joint campaign and tactical formations, and employment of new joint operations concepts are emphasized in PLA publications. [18] MTCZs should feature larger scale joint training including multi-MR training and confrontation exercises under high-level direction. [19]

The PLA plans to move toward smaller task-organized force groupings through improvements in joint tactical training. The PLA also believes that improving combined-arms tactical training and training evaluation within the services and SAF will support the development of joint tactical training. Importantly, the PLA believes that improved and realistic joint training can support modifications and perfection of operational plans. [20]

System of Systems and Integrated Joint Operations Training

Joint training by the services and branches will begin advancing these two concepts through unit and operational element training building up to operational system of systems (an integrated force grouping) integrated joint training based on a flexible, real-time command information system providing situational awareness and combining dispersed units into a fist. [21]

The PLA has proposed a series of training building blocks required to develop an integrated joint operations capability. This includes unit integrated training leading to basic joint operations skills; operational element or specialized (basic warfighting capabilities such as command and control, reconnaissance, and fire support) integrated training leading to subsystem joint capabilities; and operational system of systems (integrated force grouping) training leading to joint forces synchronized actions (see China Brief, October 5, 2012 for system of systems operations definitions). Within the context of these joint training building blocks, the PLA considers the following areas important in developing joint capabilities: integration of weapons platforms and information networks, real-time coordination, the intelligence process, long-range digital communication, and complex combined-arms training. [22]


While Western assessments of PLA transformation efforts often neglect the evolutionary development of new operational methods and joint training, the PLA believes these are areas critical to its modernization efforts planned to mid-century. The PLA believes that enhanced joint training will lead to new operational methods, implementation of integrated joint operations, generation of warfighting capabilities, development of joint command-and-coordination procedures, and establishment of modular joint task-organized force groupings at the campaign and tactical levels. Joint tactical training is particularly important as the PLA pushes joint capabilities down to the tactical level and employs modular joint tactical formations. The PLA has identified problems and is moving to improve joint training and education as part of its reforms, which includes a range of training from individual personnel to national level institutions. Success in these training reform efforts is critical to the overall transformation effort, and will lead to an advanced joint operations capability encompassing greater flexibility, agility and lethality in the command and employment of forces in combat. A fully developed integrated joint operations capability would make the PLA a dangerous opponent in any regional conflict.


  1. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) p. 50–51.
  2. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 49–51.
  3. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) p. 11.
  4. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 50–54 and 167–177.
  5. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp. 113–114.
  6. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 23–26.
  7. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 68–71.
  8. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) p. 1.
  9. Military Terms, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011) p. 319; China Military Online, January 23, 2013;, February 28, 2014, “From Red and Blue Real Confrontation Historical Changes in Experiencing Combat Effectiveness Standards;”, June 25, 2014, “Naval Air Force ‘Wetstone;’” China Military Online, August 19, 2014.
  10. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 66–67.
  11. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 26–28; contact author for additional sources.
  12. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) p. 239; Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 120–121.
  13. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 32–38.
  14. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 93–94.
  15. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) p. 93.
  16. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) p. 49.
  17. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) p. 129;, August 24, 2012.
  18. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) p. 127.
  19. Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 130–131.
  20. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 56 and 96–97; Joint Tactical Training (Beijing: Tide Publishing House: 2008) pp. 50–51.
  21. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) p. 97.
  22. Joint Training Science Course of Study (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013) pp. 29–32 and 35.