“Joint Sword” Exercises Around Taiwan Suggest a Shift in PLA Operational Doctrine

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 8

PLA Navy personnel onboard the frigate Xuzhou of the Eastern Theater Command during the “Joint Sword” exercises on April 9 (source: Huanqiu)


Early assessments of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) April exercises in the waters and airspace around Taiwan have focused on the diplomatic and political ramifications of yet another episode of saber-rattling by Beijing, but the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) own after-action assessments suggest growing self-confidence in their joint capabilities and the validation of a shift in operational doctrine that has been years in the making. Doctrine [1], or guidance on military thought, is currently provided in the “Chinese PLA Joint Operations Outline” (中国人民解放军联合作战纲要), which remains closely held, but doctrinal concepts and methods of operations are freely discussed by PLA academics and commentators, helping to illuminate the underlying precepts (PRC Ministry of National Defense [MND], January 5, 2022). As Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi Jinping has also provided authoritative guidance in the form of “Military Strategic Guidelines” (军事战略方针) that emphasizes three major points: “innovation” (创新性), “agility of integrated offense and defense” (攻防结合的灵活性) and “active seizure of [battlefield] initiative” (争取主动的积极性). [2] Xi has continued to emphasize these themes into his third term under various political slogans, including “completion of army building, the objective of one hundred years of struggle” (实现建军一百年奋斗目标), a reference to the approaching centenary of the Red Army’s founding in 1927 (PLA Daily, November 5, 2022). The April exercises can be seen as one more step on the way to 2027.

The “Joint Sword” (联合利剑) exercise began on April 8 and ended on April 10, along with other separate and continuing operations surrounding Taiwan. Over three short days, Joint Sword effectively demonstrated new doctrinal concepts of speed, agility and dynamic control, which align with both Xi’s overarching guidelines and years of vigorous internal debate within PLA academic circles. Joint Sword was a demonstration exercise for both a worldwide audience and validation to the CMC and Xi that the PLA can perform up to expectations.

Achieving Decision Dominance

The PRC has sought to achieve “leapfrog development” (跨越发展) in military affairs from both a technological and a theoretical perspective. Harnessing civilian and commercial enterprises, China has focused on emerging disruptive technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), directed energy, hypersonic vehicles and quantum-enabled communications, as a means to surpass its potential adversaries (Strategy Bridge, September 6, 2017). The PRC envisions that these technologies will enable the PLA to leapfrog over the “network-centric warfare” model pioneered and perfected by the United States and move toward a next-generation model of warfare. The PLA dubs its general model of modern operations “体系作战” or “system-of-systems operations,” which encompasses PLA institutional reforms in training, equipment and operations. Within that overarching model are key concepts-of-operations that the PLA is increasingly eager to demonstrate in the field.

Joint Sword was an opportunity to do that. In various state media appearances Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo (赵小卓), deputy director of the China-U.S. Defense Relations Research Center of the Academy of Military Science (AMS), provided in-depth commentary on the intentions behind Joint Sword. He described the opening of the exercise on April 8 as having two phases: 1) “rapid deployment of forces,” and 2) “joint seizure of [multi-domain] control (联合夺权),” including air control, sea control, and information control, in order to gain an “extremely advantageous position at the outset” (CCTV Military Report, April 10). In order to prepare for achieving control in the information domain, the exercises also included simulated attacks on Taiwan’s connections to the outside world, with the objective of severing both material and information linkages. Zhao explained that one of the major points of the exercise was not only to cut off Taiwan’s resource imports in order to debilitate its armed forces, but also to break its information links to the international community: “Foreign forces want to send in not only weapons and equipment, but also intelligence and information. This link must also be broken so that they cannot get in.” The support Ukraine has received from NATO countries in battlefield intelligence has underscored the importance of providing similar support for the Republic of China (ROC) armed forces in the case of any invasion scenario. Six weeks prior to Joint Sword, two Chinese maritime vessels severed the undersea fiber optic cables connecting Matsu Island to Taiwan, disrupting civil communications and raising the prospect that China has been operationalizing the concept of an information blockade as a prelude to war (Focus Taiwan, February 16). These concepts-of-operations illustrate that the PLA considers controlling the flow of information a critical “high ground” advantage in modern warfare.

Chinese military experts see the information space as analogous to the air domain of previous decades, namely as an enabling factor for deciding the disposition of the overall battlespace. According to the deputy director of the Scientific and Technological Commission at the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC): “Speed and agility are no longer most important. The key to winning air operations, electromagnetic operations, or cyber operations is ‘information agility,’ the priority and mobility of information” (People’s Daily Online, July 4, 2017). Under this concept, the ability to collect, distribute, and exploit information faster than one’s opponent provides a decisive advantage in operational tempo, allowing one to control battlespace developments. The relationship between information and decision advantage is made explicitly clear within the PRC defense establishment. According to the deputy chief designer at the China Airborne Missile Academy of AVIC, the future of warfare could hinge on the evolution of US Air Force Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) concept, with China’s technological investments leading to an AI-enabled “OODA 3.0”: “China can overtake others, because we are all at the same starting line” (People’s Daily Online, July 4, 2017). Controlling the electromagnetic and information space in Joint Sword was a priority. The emphasis in Joint Sword on information control indicates that the PLA may be working toward the ability to “get inside” adversaries’ OODA loops, in order to effectuate decisions faster than opponents can react.

Screen capture of Sr. Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo explaining elements of Joint Sword (source: CCTV Military Report)

Executing “Lightning Strikes”

Over the past several years, PLA military theorists have increasingly focused on the importance of gaining the advantage in terms of speed and initiative. The influential book, Light Warfare: The New Trend in the Global Revolution in Military Affairs (光战争:世界军事革命新趋势, PLA Press 2015) thoroughly explored this line of thinking and stimulated a flurry of debate within the PLA academic community. The authors explained that “every second counts in warfare, but the fastest modern missiles only travel at 20 to 30 times the speed of sound, yet the speed of light is 30,000 km per second. As photonic weapons emerge, so will a genuine ‘one-second kill’ [capability], bringing about the true meaning of detect-and-destroy” (PLA Daily, November 21, 2015). Light Warfare describes the fusion of intelligence and advanced weapons systems into an integrated whole, capable of autonomous decision-making in order to gain a decisive advantage over a more conventional military. In essence, Light Warfare outlined a path toward a detection-destruction convergence, enabled by information agility and hyper-velocity weapons.

Senior Colonel Zhao characterized the second day of the Joint Sword exercises as a demonstration of “joint lightning strikes, striking precisely against critical targets” (联合闪击,精打击要), explaining that “once you have drawn the sword, you must hone in on targets precisely” (CCTV Military Report, April 10). He described such critical targets as Taiwanese military and political targets (军政目标), certain critical operational nodes of the Taiwanese military’s system-of-systems (作战体系中的一些重要节点) and fast-moving targets (快速移动的目标), such as planes or ships, saying that the PLA would achieve “full-scope tracking” (全程跟踪) in order to execute precision strikes at will. Operationally, this phase as described conforms to the doctrinal concepts in Light Warfare, in which full-scope control of the information space allows for rapid precision strikes against key nodes and platforms in the adversary’s system-of-systems architecture.

Recent media disclosures about PRC supersonic and hypersonic vehicles raise the prospect that the PLA may be operationalizing some of these emerging technology capabilities. According to media analysis of leaked classified documents, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency assessed that a prototype supersonic drone program has at least “two WZ-8 rocket-propelled reconnaissance drones” based at an Eastern Theater Command air base, since at least August 2022 (Straits Times, April 19). Such a reconnaissance capability could be used to fill a critical gap in the PLA’s anti-access and area denial strategy, especially if space-based capabilities were degraded or denied. Reliable and responsive targeting data would be a critical enabler for fully leveraging the PLA’s arsenal of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles. In addition, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall revealed in 2021 that China had developed a hypersonic vehicle that performed an operational flight test reminiscent of the Soviet-era Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), designed to circumvent terrestrial ballistic missile radars (Breaking Defense, September 29, 2021). While outside experts were skeptical about the utility of a FOBS-like system today, further details emerged that the element that most surprised US Government analysts was that a PRC  hypersonic glide vehicle, a maneuverable spacecraft capable of carrying a nuclear warhead was monitored test-firing a separate missile mid-flight while in the atmosphere above the South China Sea. [3] While no further indications that this program has been operationalized have emerged in the public record, the suggested concept-of-operations aligns well with PLA doctrinal discourse. A hypersonic vehicle capable of launching a sub-munition, possibly a kill vehicle, while potentially supplying it with fresh, localized targeting data would fit the prescriptions of Light Warfare. Such a platform could represent a convergence of sensor and weapon, a ‘detect-destroy’ singularity moment for achieving a resilient and independent kill chain.

Joint Sword exercises phases of activity (source: Janes)

Extending Operations into the Pacific

Joint Sword also demonstrated growing confidence in naval aviation operations. The ROC Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported for the first time that J-15 carrier-based fighters had entered the country’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) from the southeast (ROC MND, April 10). Japan’s Ministry of Defense identified these planes as originating from the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) second in-service carrier, the Shandong (Japan Ministry of Defense, April 6). In addition, in late December 2022, the PLAN carrier Liaoning was observed operating east of the First Island Chain and close to Guam (Global Times, December 29, 2022). Therefore, the Shandong’s presence in the southeast quadrant of Taiwan’s ADIZ was not necessarily unprecedented naval activity, but the combination of a PLAN carrier strike group, complete with three surface escorts, a replenishment ship and submarine support operating in proximity to and possibly having “mirrored movements” of the USS Nimitz and its group was noteworthy. [4] PLAN carrier groups operating further out into the Pacific is consistent with the operational concept of “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD), but it also demonstrates an understanding of overcoming “network-centric warfare” by holding key platforms at risk. As described by one PLA think tank researcher, “In a situation where a US air base or aircraft carrier might be attacked, US military air strike platforms must consider using airfields or aircraft carriers farther from the battlefield…so that every link in the kill chain can be ‘strained’, and maybe even ‘broken’” (National Defense Reference, December 27, 2016). In contrast to “network centric warfare”:

Scholars in China have proposed the concept of “energy-centric warfare” (能量中心战), believing that the chain of information and the chain of energy are both essential in an operational system-of-systems. … “Energy-centric warfare” focuses on increasing the speed of the “attack” segment, specific methods include: reducing the time between detection and destruction of targets through development of near-space hypersonic weapons (近空间高超声速武器), electromagnetic orbital cannons (电磁轨道炮), directed energy weapons (定向能武器), and other new concept weapons (National Defense Reference, December 27, 2016).

While PLAN vessels and aircraft have previously operated to the east of Taiwan, the character and tempo of operations during Joint Sword may have been qualitatively different. As Senior Colonel Zhao described the course of the exercise, “after surrounding the island of Taiwan, military forces then proceeded to extend into the Pacific, mainly to prevent foreign forces from intervening. On one hand, [we] blockade the island; on the other [we] prevent foreign forces from intervening, ultimately achieving the [mission] objectives perfectly” (CCTV Military Report, April 10). In the context of PLA doctrinal development, with which Zhao would be familiar as an AMS scholar, he has articulated a theory of victory in a Taiwan campaign that once only existed on paper. The PLA can take advantage of its natural proximity to mainland bastion areas to project power and push out the envelope of space and time. Joint Sword has demonstrated at least part of what those novel concepts would look like in the actual battlespace.

Theory and Practice

The PLA is not yet ready to take Taiwan in an amphibious assault. Joint Sword should be seen as a validation exercise, akin to the annual examination exercises that PLA units must undergo to certify their readiness, but on a larger scale. Following the failure of the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine, CMC leaders must have also had doubts about the PLA’s potential performance and genuine capabilities (China Brief, April 8, 2022). Joint Sword can be seen as an answer to those questions. Still, while the PLA may be increasingly confident in its capabilities, it has not yet tested them in action against a genuine adversary and simply demonstrating new operational theory is not evidence of the ability to execute that theory in a real-world scenario.

Theater-wide considerations may also weigh on Xi Jinping’s ultimate “go-no-go” calculus. A freedom-of-navigation operation conducted by the USS Milius in late-March underscored to the PRC that horizontal escalation in a regional crisis could complicate the PLA’s operational planning (Ministry of Defense, March 24). Joint Sword and the other provocative actions undertaken by the PLA in recent months, should be seen as part of an ongoing evolution toward a more capable force. Defense officials in the Indo-Pacific region must be willing to challenge the status quo of modern military thinking, given that the PLA has embraced new concepts-of-operations tailored to overcoming an information-reliant adversary. Prudent preparations and thorough understanding of the PLA’s evolving military theory will remain key to maintaining peace and stability in and around the Taiwan Strait.

David D. Chen is an independent analyst located in Denver, CO. His areas of focus include PLA doctrine and training, space and cyber warfare, and emerging disruptive technologies. 


[1] “Doctrine”, as a Western military term, does not have a direct corollary in the PLA lexicon, but can be captured by other terms of practice. See David M Finkelstein, “The PLA’s New Joint Doctrine: The Capstone of the New Era Operations Regulations System,” CNA, September 2021.

[2] See China Military Science (中国军事科学), No. 1, 2017

[3] Demetri Sevastopulo, “Chinese hypersonic weapon fired a missile over South China Sea,” Financial Times, November 21, 2021.

[4] See for example, Kathryn Hille, “China’s war games in Taiwan hone military strengths but reveal restraint,Financial Times, April 12, 2023.