On October 9, the Chinese media announced the start of a multi-region, joint air-land exercise called Mission Action 2010 (shiming xingdong 2010). People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ground force units from three of the seven Military Regions (MR) were deployed by road, rail and air across MR boundaries to training areas in distant locations. Air Force units, reserve, militia and civilian forces provided support. In total, about 30,000 personnel were committed to the exercise. The focus of these maneuvers was on the campaign (operational) level of war with group army headquarters responsible for command and control while responding to direction from MR headquarters with oversight by the General Staff Department. The exercise highlighted “informationized operations,” especially in command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
The exercise was divided into three increments:
1) Mission Action 2010A in which the 27th Group Army’s 188th Mechanized Infantry Brigade deployed from the Zhurihe Combined Arms Training Base (CATB) in the Beijing MR to the Taonan CATB in Shenyang MR;
2) Mission Action 2010B where the 47th Group Army’s 139th Mechanized Infantry Brigade deployed from the Qingtongxia CATB in the Lanzhou MR to the Xichang CATB in Chengdu MR; and
3) Mission Action 2010C in which the 13th Group Army’s 149th Division deployed from the Chengdu MR to the Qingtongxia CATB .
Along with the three group army headquarters, elements of Army Aviation units (helicopters), special operations force (SOF) units, communications, engineer, and logistics units supported operations of the main maneuver units. In one case, a conventional Second Artillery missile unit also provided firepower support.
Mission Action 2010A and C both began the load-out and deployment phase around October 12 and took about four days to travel to their assigned destinations. They then conducted live fire and confrontational drills before returning home after the 11-day event. Mission Action 2010B began its deployment phase around October 21 and conducted its live fire exercise about a week later. Each of the exercises’ three increments practiced many of the same tasks, but each also had its own special quality.
Mission Action 2010 was a follow-up to last year’s transregional exercise Stride 2009, which involved four divisions and about 50,000 personnel  (See “PLA Exercises March Toward Trans-Regional Joint Training,” China Brief, November 4, 2009). Although Mission Action 2010 was smaller in scale than Stride 2009, several factors made it more complex and difficult. Unlike Stride 2009 where units deployed 90 percent of organic artillery and other large weapons but only 50 percent of armored vehicles, units in Mission Action 2010 were reported to deploy with all the units’ equipment and ammunition (Xinhua News Agency, October 21). Like Stride 2009, this year’s exercise received a lot of attention in the Chinese media, which provided some useful insights.
Mission Action 2010A
The 188th Mechanized Infantry Brigade is stationed in Shanxi province and the headquarters for the 27th Group Army is in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. Prior to the initiation of Mission Action 2010A, the 188th appears to have moved from its home base to the Zhurihe Combined Arms Training Base in Inner Mongolia. There it marshaled its forces and began a multi-mode deployment to the east. Relatively small units (probably headquarters and reconnaissance or SOF troops), including a few wheeled vehicles, deployed by military and civilian aircraft to Ulan Hot airfield near the western Jilin province border and then on to the Taonan CATB across the MR boundary in Jilin province amidst snow flurries (CCTV-7, October 14, 2010; PLA Daily, October 15).
The brigade’s armored vehicles (including Type 59 tanks and Type 63 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC), both very old models) moved by train. Wheeled vehicles travelled by road to the northeast over four days and nights. They were supported during movement by civilian gasoline facilities and hospitals. En-route units were harassed by a simulated enemy, took action in response to these attacks and attempted to avoid enemy detection through the use of camouflage.
Command and control of the various scattered elements of the brigade as they moved to the training area was a major focus of the exercise. According to Xinhua, integrated command platforms allowed orders to be issued and, if necessary, to skip intermediate headquarters for efficiency. Group army and brigade headquarters shared intelligence on “Blue” (enemy) forces and monitored the disposition of “Red” (friendly) forces. Additionally, both offensive and defensive information operations and electronic countermeasures were employed throughout the exercise by both sides. Reconnaissance means utilized included satellites, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and special reconnaissance devices and remote sensors (Xinhua News Agency, October 21).
The exercise culminated on October 20 with a live fire exercise. According to Major General Qin Weijiang, commander of the 27th Group Army, the brigade commander controlled Air Force aviation, Army Aviation, and ground firepower and assault units in “three-dimensional attack from multiple angles.” In summing up the exercise, Major General Gao Jianguo, deputy chief of staff of the Beijing MR, said this was the first time units led by a group army from the Beijing MR participated in a long-distance, trans-regional maneuver (PLA Daily, October 21).
Mission Action 2010C
At about the same time as Mission Action 2010A was beginning, Chengdu MR units began their deployment on Mission Action 2010C. Among the first units to deploy was a General Communication Station, which probably was dispatched to establish relay links to ensure continuity of communications for the 149th Division’s move from Sichuan to the training area in Ningxia (PLA Daily, October 14). An element of the MR SOF group deployed by air early in the movement schedule  (Xinhua News Agency, October 15).
The highlight of the 149th Division’s movement north was a daylight crossing of the Yellow River on October 19. After the enemy had destroyed an important bridge, a group army engineer regiment constructed a pontoon bridge across the obstacle. The division then took only two hours to cross the bridge under the cover of friendly fighters and helicopters and local air defense forces (PLA Daily, October 21).
On October 21, after air reconnaissance and “ground special reconnaissance” at the Qingtongxia CATB, a Second Artillery missile unit temporarily assigned to the 13th Group Army launched “long-range precision missile strikes on the ‘enemy’ targets in the depth of the rear area.” This was followed by air strikes from Air Force fighters and Army Aviation helicopters. After a “fire strike assessment” (“battle damage assessment” presumably by SOF observers), the “joint fire center” ordered a second round of firepower attacks by armed helicopters and conventional artillery. Targets included Blue force airports, missile positions and communications hubs (PLA Daily, October 22). A Chinese television report about this live fire exercise showed the 149th Division’s Type 96 tanks, PTL02 assault guns, PGZ04 air defense systems, howitzers, and multiple rocket launchers firing on numbered, hillside targets about a kilometer in front of a reviewing stand filled with observers. Among the division artillery was a battalion of newly issued trucked-mounted 122mm howitzers .
No details were provided about where the Second Artillery unit was located when it provided support nor how many or what kind of missiles were fired. Integration of conventional missiles into joint firepower operations has been part of PLA doctrine for over a decade and now is being practiced to some degree during each training season . This phase of the exercise demonstrated artificialities that are part of many training events, such as a short, hour-long bombardment during daylight on targets simulated to be in the enemy’s rear area when in fact they were within view of VIP observers.
Mission Action 2010B
As Mission Action 2010A and C were ending, the 47th Group Army’s 139th Mechanized Infantry Brigade began its movement south from the Lanzhou MR to the Chengdu MR. The most highly publicized action during this phase was an anti-terrorist operation conducted by soldiers from the infantry brigade in conjunction with a local People’s Armed Police unit, militia and public-security forces (CCTV-7, October 24; PLA Daily, October 25). This scenario reflects the PLA’s awareness that its rear areas may be prone to terrorist attack or subversion while its forces are focused on a more conventional opponent. It also demonstrated civil-military cooperation that goes beyond logistics support. Furthermore, the drill underscored the relevance of “non-traditional security” missions even as the PLA prepares for local war scenarios.
On October 28, the exercise concluded with an air-ground firepower assault on the enemy’s “command posts, airports, radar positions, communications hubs and other [rear area] targets” (PLA Daily, October 29). Fan Changmi, political commissar of the 47th Group Army, stated that this was the first time that headquarters had commanded so many operational units and relied on an advanced informed command and control system to quickly and efficiently make battlefield decisions (Xinhua News Agency, October 28).
The last phase of the exercise was conducted in the fog and mud of a hilly training area near Xichang in Sichuan province. While the brigade was seen to be equipped with old Type 59 tanks, newer ZBD04 Infantry Fighting Vehicles were also observed.
The three-part Mission Action 2010 exercise was one of many events underway at the height of the PLA’s training and evaluation season . Mission Action’s focus on the group army/campaign level, however, was of major significance. By putting group army headquarters in charge of tactical operations, Air Force, Second Artillery and other support units could be controlled by the headquarters in the field, not by a higher entity in the rear. In last year’s Stride 2009, with divisions as the operational focus, many joint functions were provided for the units in the field by higher headquarters. This year, with group army headquarters responsible for joint coordination, the units were training at the lowest level of command that would be given campaign or operational responsibilities in war. As a result, all three exercises concentrated on utilizing integrated command platforms in the conduct of C4ISR as well as firepower and assault operations.
This year’s exercise was conducted in about half the time as last year’s cross-region maneuvers. If, as reported, units deployed with all equipment and personnel, then this would have been a more realistic test than last year’s when only half of the units’ heavy armor was involved. The smaller size of the exercise this year (30,000 versus 50,000 personnel) was probably more compatible with air and rail transport capacities in that period of time. Moreover, once the units all arrived at their training areas, if they had all their organic equipment then they would have been able to operate more effectively (and according to their doctrine) than if half their heavy armor had been missing.
It is not known if all three increments of this exercise were integrated into a single, overarching scenario and if, at least on their computer screens, units were operating in conjunction with each other against a mutual threat. Common to each part of the exercise, however, was the assumption that the mainland had come under attack when units deployed from their garrisons. Movement across MR boundaries could represent first echelon forces rushing to blunt a land invasion of China in a remote region or second echelon forces moving to support the operations of forces already committed to battle. The targets struck by the joint firepower attacks were the type of targets usually found in the enemy’s rear area, suggesting that the Mission Action units were conducting exploitation attacks perhaps after other (simulated, notional) elements had broken through the enemy’s front line.
Between the two exercises, Stride 2009 and Mission Action 2010, units from all MRs, except for the Nanjing MR, were involved. In neither exercise did units move toward coastal assembly areas or into the Nanjing MR as might be expected if these exercises were part of preparation for operations against Taiwan. Nor were any naval or amphibious operations included as part of either exercise. As such, it seems likely that these two transregional exercises were directed at an unlikely, but still extant, potential land threat to China’s periphery.
Finally the troop list for both exercises illustrates how the entire PLA is preparing for traditional and non-traditional missions. No longer are only “rapid reaction units” or “fist units” of the 1990s preparing for deployment. Mission Action also demonstrated how most units are still equipped with a mix of older and newer weapons. As the PLA has been reduced in size and its budget increased, all units are modernizing and training for a wide variety of missions that they may be required to perform.
1. Unit identifications were made from the names of unit commanders reported by the Chinese media. Based on reader’s feedback and additional information provided, the first version of this article issued on November 5 has been amended to change the identification of the participating unit in Mission Action 2010C to the 149th Division (from the 37th Division). The mechanized infantry brigades at full strength number perhaps 6,000 personnel each while the infantry division accounts for around 10,000 personnel. Additional personnel from the three group army headquarters, other ground force units, and supporting Air Force, reserve and militia units likely made up the remainder of the 30,000 personnel total. It is likely that Mission Action 2010C was slightly larger in total numbers of participating personnel than Mission Action 2010A and B.
2. In Stride 2009, the following units were identified: 1) the 61st (“Red Army”) Division of 21st Group Army moved from the Lanzhou MR moved to the Shenyang MR Taonan CATB; 2) the 162nd Motorized Infantry Division (“Ferocious Tigers”) of the 54th Group Army from Jinan MR travelled to the Guangzhou MR Luzhai CATB; 3) the 115th Mechanized Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army from the Shenyang MR moved to the Lanzhou MR Qingtongxia CATB; 4) the 121st Motorized Infantry Division of the 41st Group Army moved to the Jinan MR Queshan CATB in Jinan MR.
3. The Sinodefence.com website subordinates the Chengdu MR SOF group to the 13th Group Army. See “Special Operations Forces,” at https://www.sinodefence.com/army/organisation/special-forces.asp.
4. The trucked-mounted 122mm howitzers are sometimes called SP-3 or SH-3 on the internet and are relatively new to the PLA. A battalion of them also deployed to Peace Mission 2010 in September 2010 with the 193rd Motorized Infantry Division of the 65th Group Army. The trucked-mounted 122mm howitzers are so new to the PLA that they were not displayed during the 2009 October 1st parade in Beijing.
5. On November 3, 2010, PLA Daily reported in late October for “the first time” Lanzhou MR organized an exercise consisting of “combined tactical corps formation formed by an infantry division and arm elements of the PLA Air Force, the [Second Artillery Force] and the Army Aviation” which included “multi-dimensional and three-dimensional reconnaissance, joint fire coordination, systematic sabotage, accurate strike and damage effect evaluation in joint fire strike.” These tasks and troop list parallels what went on only a week or so earlier at the same training area, but in this case the exercise was not apparently under the command of a group army headquarters. Based on personalities identified in the Chinese language version of this report on November 2,, the 4th Division stationed in Xinjiang provided the bulk of the troops. Four missiles were launched, all of which hit their targets. In the summer of 2009, Second Artillery missile-PLAAF firepower coordination training was reported.
6. Other significant exercises during that general timeframe included “Blue Strike 2010” Sino-Thai Marine Corps joint training in Thailand, "Strike 2010” combined Sino-Thai anti-terrorist training in Guangzhou MR, and a long-distance division-level deployment within the Jinan MR.