Military Operations Other Than War: Antidote to the PLA’s “Peace Disease”?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 4

The amphibious transport dock ship Wuzhizhan in Nuku'alofa Port, Tonga (source: China Military Online)

On January 31, the eve of the Chinese New Year national holiday, two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels departed Guangzhou province to provide Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) to Tonga, which was struck by a massive tsunami earlier in the month (Xinhua Net, January 31). The relief efforts, which involved the Wuzhishan– a Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship and the Chaganhu– a supply ship, provided mobile homes, construction equipment, food and medical supplies to the Pacific Island nation. Days earlier, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) dispatched a Y-20 heavy transport plane to Tonga laden with drinking water, food, tents and other emergency supplies (Global Times, January 31).

Along with Australia and the U.S., China was among the leaders in aiding Tonga, a small island nation home to just over 100,000 people. At a February 11 handover ceremony for the donation of 119 pieces of construction machinery, Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni expressed his gratitude stating: “We are fortunate to have among our good friends countries like China to support us” (FMPRC, February 14). This timely aid to Tonga followed Beijing’s agreement to provide security assistance to the nearby Solomon Islands in the wake of recent unrest (China Brief, February 25).  Taken together, active military diplomacy, security and disaster assistance further bolster China’s position in the Pacific Islands, a region of growing strategic importance, where Beijing is vying for influence with Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., and Taiwan. For the PLA, however, the Tonga mission had another important role, which was the opportunity to test its improving long-range transportation and logistical support capabilities. This is hardly a new development. Ever since President Hu Jintao called on the Chinese military to undertake “new historic missions” in late 2004, the PLA has been developing its ability to project force beyond China’s borders through “non-war” military activities ranging from HADR to counterpiracy to peacekeeping (Sina, March 13, 2005).

MOOTW Points

Providing HADR to Tonga constitutes part of what the PLA classifies as Military Operations Other than War (MOOTW ). Per the PLA’s 2013 Science of Military Strategy (SMS) textbook, in addition to HADR, MOOTW includes activities such as counterterrorism; antipiracy; stability maintenance (e.g., combatting mass unrest or violent crime), protecting rights and interests-including evacuating nationals under threat; security monitoring and border patrols; and international peacekeeping (PLA SMS, CASI Translation, February 8, 2021).

Based on analysis of the SMS, and articles in the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) journal-  China Military Science, which is used as instructional material for the PLA officer corps, analysts identify MOOTW as serving the following strategic purposes for China: [1]

  1. Safeguarding and promoting international peace and stability, which also promotes a more positive image of China abroad
  2. Management/control of security problems that could become more serious over time, and eventually necessitate a larger military response
  3. Opportunity to strengthen operational and warfighting capabilities in an environment resembling actual combat experience. Per Morgan Clemens, the PLA stresses that many “MOOTW tasks are essentially the same as those of war,” and therefore performing such operations “can test the capabilities of troops and equipment, making it possible to find gaps in doctrine, learns lessons and promote combat effectiveness general”.

This article focuses on the third purpose, which is the PLA’s effort to use MOOTW to help compensate for its lack of battlefield experience.

The “Peace Disease”

The PLA has not engaged in major combat operations in over four decades since the 1979 war with Vietnam. The force’s lack of warfighting experience, which is a  major concern among the PLA brass, is often shorthanded as the “peace disease” (和平病, heping bing) and is  perceived to exert  a corrosive impact on China’s overall military preparedness.  For example, a 2019 PLA Daily  editorial observes that the “peace disease” debilitates soldiers in several ways including through: “faint awareness of the enemy, neglected military equipment and know-how, pleasure seeking and pursuit of personal wealth” (81.cn, July 16, 2019) Lack of modern warfighting experience is a major contributor to doubts about the PLA’s ability to achieve President and Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Xi Jinping’s stated goal of developing a strong “military that can fight and win wars” (军队要能打仗 打胜仗,Jundui yao neng dazhang, da shengzhang) (People.cn, January 7). As Dennis Blasko observes, Xi has highlighted these critical shortcomings by resuscitating the Deng period maxim on the need to address the PLA’s “Two Inabilities” (两个能力不够, liang ge nengli bugou), which are insufficient capacity to wage modern war, and officers’ inadequate ability to command in modern warfare conditions (War on the Rocks, February 18, 2019).

A particular challenge for the PLA is recruiting, retaining and training personnel that are capable of using and maintaining the  military’s increasing array of advanced equipment (China Brief, January 14). According to Xi, the PLA has sought to address this issue by “better combining training with combat operations” and “strengthening systematic training and the use of technologies to develop an elite fighting force” (China Brief, February 11). As CMC Chair, Xi also recently issued an order, which stipulates that military equipment testing and assessment must focus on meeting “actual combat requirements” (People’s Daily, February 13).

Mitigating the Operational Experience Deficit

The PLA has sought to strengthen its training processes to create a force that is better prepared for modern military operations, but also grasps the need to take additional measures to compensate for its troops’ lack of warfighting experience. Undertaking MOOTW is no substitute for actual combat experience, but for the PLA, these operations nevertheless provide opportunities to test capabilities and gain experience in a “real world”, joint operational environment. Specialized training and exercises often precede MOOTW, which suggests such opportunities are reserved for key units. For example, many of the PLAN’s newer, more advanced surface combatants from the Eastern or Southern Theater Commands, guided missile destroyers and frigates, have been dispatched to participate in antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden (China Military Online, December 27, 2021).

As the 2013 SMS observes, war activities and MOOTW contribute alike to “building strength”, “spiritual attainment,” “generation of capabilities”,” information support,” and “logistics support.” MOOTW also provide the opportunity to “test the organizational and command capabilities of leadership organs and the military’s command organizations; to examine the forms, levels, and effectiveness of military combat preparations; to test the composite quality of the military; to raise the level of preparations for war; and to enhance the military’s operational capabilities”  (PLA SMS, CASI Translation, February 8, 2021).

Apart from participation in UN Peacekeeping Operations, which expanded to include combat forces in 2012, the PLA’s longest running MOOTW is its counter-piracy task force deployments in the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN has rotated tasks forces through the region since 2008, and in January, the 40th PLAN task force set sail from China. The current task force includes a guided-missile destroyer, frigate, supply ship, and 700 servicemembers including special operation forces (China Military Online, January 16).  Prior to departure, the escort force undertook anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and at-sea replenishment exercises. As the Pentagon’s most recent China Military power report observes, regular far seas anti-piracy deployments have contributed to the PLAN’s “modest but growing” capacity for extended range operations beyond the first island chain. These missions  also supported the PLAN’s advancement as a blue water navy by developing long-distance seaborne replenishment and resupply capabilities (OSD, November 2021).

Another area where MOOTW has helped the PLA fill key operational gaps is the development of strategic sea and airlift capabilities through HADR and  noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs). In 2011, China confronted the challenge of evacuating about 35,000 of its nationals from war-torn Libya. The vast majority of Chinese nationals were evacuated on chartered civilian merchant vessels, aircraft and buses.  The PLAN dispatched a frigate to evacuate some citizens, and four Soviet-made PLAAF Il-76 transport planes carried 1700 nationals to Sudan. Although the NEO was China’s first, the PLA ultimately played a secondary role (compared to other the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state owned enterprises), which highlighted shortcomings in both air and seaborne military transportation logistics (China Brief, March 11, 2011). Four years later, however, the PLAN task force in the Gulf of Aden successfully carried out a NEO to remove 590 Chinese nationals threatened by the escalating conflict in Yemen; the first time the PLA assumed sole responsibility for such an operation (China Brief, April 3, 2015; China Daily, March 20, 2015).

In its recently completed Tonga HADR mission, the PLA demonstrated its improving long-range air and sea transportation capabilities. The first batch of aid was provided by two Y-20 transport planes which have an operational range of over 5,000 miles (more than double the range of the Il-76), which since their entry in to service in 2016, have provided the PLAAF with a greatly enhanced strategic airlift capacity. The mission was notable as the planes traveled over 6,000 miles with lighter loads to increase range, ultimately  providing  33 tons of assistance to Tonga (Global Times, January 28). The PLA also used the Tonga HADR mission to showcase its expanding sealift capabilities with the amphibious transport ship Wuzhishan and supply ship Chaganhu traversing  5,000 nautical miles to provide 1,400 tons of Tsunami relief supplies. The involvement of the Wuzhishan , a large Type 071 amphibious transport dock is notable, as these ships provide much of the expeditionary warfare capability that the PLA  could bring to bear in a Western Pacific contingency (National Defense, June 25, 2021).

Long-distance logistics, resupply, replenishment, sea and air transportation provide examples of area where the PLA has made considerable progress in developing its capabilities through MOOTW. In the coming decade, the PLA is like to continue to leverage MOOTW to mitigate the force’s deficit of operational experience,  and to develop capabilities that are  transferable to  warfighting scenarios.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected]

Notes

[1] See Morgan Clemens, “ PLA Thinking on Military Operations Other Than War,” in China’s Evolving Military Strategy, ed. Joe McReynolds (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation), 2017, https://jamestown.org/product/chinas-evolving-military-strategy-edited-joe-mcreynolds/