New Developments in the PLA’s Operational Doctrine

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 22

In late 1997, China’s military planners raised, for the first time, the issue of “leapfrogging development” for its military modernization. At the time, the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been largely focused on mechanization—the acquisition of more advanced operational platforms. The concept of joint operations (JO or lianhe zuozhan) was endorsed to make operational sense of these new platforms, or “elite forces and sharp arms.” Such an emphasis, however, widened the technological gap between the PLA, which was still mechanizing, and the more advanced militaries, which by that time, had already completed mechanization and were concentrating on informationization. To narrow the technological gap, a new policy was articulated and adopted by the CMC in late 2002 to guide the PLA’s transformation: “Strive to accomplish the dual-historical task of mechanization and informationization.” The endorsement of a policy of dual-construction connotes that the PLA’s transformation should simultaneously encompass mechanization and informationization. The emphasis, however, would shift from mechanization to informationization, because unlike the industrial age when hardware capabilities determined the outcomes of wars, in the information age, information would be the determinant of future wars. To operationalize the dual-task of mechanization and informationization, PLA strategists have articulated and advanced the new concept of “integrated joint operations” (IJO or yitihua lianhe zuozhan) [1].

Major Differences between JO and IJO

Both JO and IJO involve two or more services, and operations are under a single unified command for the purpose of realizing common objectives. Yet, there are major differences between the two, particularly in terms of primary actors and their structures, service boundaries and identities, coordination, levels/space/timing of operations and operational effects.

The primary actors of JO, for instance, are relatively independent services. Each of these services possesses its own information system that lacks effective lateral linkages and channels for communications and information transmission. As a result, the structure of this system is vertical, narrow and tall, and JO are based on an ad hoc combination of several tall, smokestack-shaped services. The primary actor of IJO, however, is an integrated system comprised of operating units (land, sea, air, space and electronic warfare) and essential operational elements. These elements include 1) ISR (information, surveillance and reconnaissance) that is space, air, sea and land-based and provides battlefield transparency leading to the precision of decisions and operations; 2) C4 (command, control, communications and computer) that connects the highest command and the lowest individual platform, and soldiers and units of both front and rear; 3) K (kill), or digitized and interconnected weapons platforms that constitute a network of superior firepower capable of non-contact, nonlinear and asymmetrical strikes; and 4) integrated logistics. The technical platform that glues operating units and essential elements together is the unified information network that enables both smooth communications and real-time information transmission through data-links. The structure of such a system is flat, broad and short, mainly because it is networked.

In JO, each service is highly specialized in its primary function. As a result, service boundaries are clear, service identities are strong and the relationship among services is defined by equality. “Physical jointness” is also necessary to enable the primary function of each service. In IJO, however, service boundaries and identities may become blurred because 1) a single service, unit or platform may be capable of multiple functions (such as information, mobility, firepower and protection) in different spatial domains, and 2) different services, units or platforms may have similar functions (such as long-range precision munitions launched from land, naval and air platforms and monitored and adjusted by surveillance and command and control). These reduce the need for the physical massing of services-based forces and arms for joint operations. Therefore, modular units capable of multiple functions for operations in different spatial domains for varied tasks are the basic units for IJO. These units are also capable of being plugged into the information network to achieve interconnectedness, intercommunications and interoperability.

Coordination in JO is largely preplanned and based on a services-oriented division of labor. The planning process may involve layered levels and complex procedures. The implementation follows the prescribed order of the plan. Because such a coordination plan is not based on good, real-time information but on the fixated role of different services, it is difficult to change and cannot adapt to rapidly changing environments during execution, thus creating windows of vulnerabilities. Coordination in IJO, however, is random, initiative-based, mutually interactive and continuous. Given that all the units are interconnected by the information network, they are able to share accurate, real-time information. This type of coordination is more flexible and precise and can adjust faster to changing circumstances.

The differences between JO and IJO can also be illustrated in terms of the levels, depth and timing of the operations. In terms of operational levels for JO, due to the lack of precise friend-or-foe identification and precision strikes, a clear line of contact is necessary to differentiate enemy position from one’s own position for air strikes. Once both sides become closely intertwined, the safe distance diminishes and air support becomes difficult for fear of friendly-fire casualties. As a result, air-land operations can only be conducted at campaign and not battle levels. In IJO, however, the issue of enemy identification and precise air strikes has been largely resolved by information technology (IT). As a result, joint operations can be extended to more detailed and narrower domains and be conducted at tactical and battle levels without fear of friendly-fire casualties. This also makes it possible to conduct asymmetrical strikes against the opponent—strikes with technologies that the opponent does not possess and therefore finds difficult to defend against.

Regarding operational depth, the limited range of strikes in JO, stemming partly from poor weapons guidance and target acquisition, makes it difficult to hit deep strategic target. As a result, JO must follow the sequence of tactical space conquest, campaign space conquest and final occupation of the strategic heartland of the opponent. In IJO, however, the wide application of IT has alleviated the problem of long-range weapons guidance and target identification and acquisition. As a result, it is now possible to strike deep enemy targets of strategic importance, or those that sustain the opponent’s war effort. The destruction of these targets makes it more difficult for the opponent to continue fighting and therefore more likely to yield. As a result, the need for total conquest and final occupation of enemy territory declines. This also makes it possible to replace the older operational style of sequential, linear pushes by concentrated forces and arms with parallel and nonlinear deep strikes from multi-dimensional and dispersed platforms. These strikes are also asymmetrical because they are outside the range of enemy fire and therefore denies the enemy the means to fight back.

Lastly, in terms of operational timing, the lack of real-time information capabilities and precision air strikes prevent JO from being launched during times of darkness and when the sides become closely entangled. As a result, two windows of vulnerabilities appear: night combat and close combat. In IJO, IT helps to resolve the problems of real-time information and operational capabilities and close-range precision strikes. As a result, real-time battlefield transparency produced and provided by the information network and accessed by service units and air support enables quick and decisive battles, which also lowers the concern of exposing one’s flanks during a high-speed advance. This means that unit coordination is action-based, flexible and adaptable, but not plan-driven because of the fast changing circumstances. The information network also makes it possible for action-based coordination.

The final difference between JO and IJO concerns operational effects. In JO, because of the lack of IT-based integration, competition largely takes place at the unit level. As a result, operations tend to be more separate, the process slower and dispersed, and the effects more fragmented. Due to the high level of IT-driven integration, however, competition in IJO takes place at the system level. As a result, operations tend to be more focused and purposeful, the pace faster and the effects more systemic and comprehensive. The absence and presence of highly effective, integrative C4KISR is clearly the key variable that accounts for the differences between JO and IJO: serious gaps or windows of vulnerabilities in operational levels, depth and timing due to the lack of integration in the former and seamlessness due to a high level of integration in these three aspects for the latter.

Driving Factors and Implications

Three major factors seem to drive the post-2002 change in the PLA’s operational doctrine and strategies. The first has to do with leadership change and power consolidation. Trained as an electrical engineer and having once served as China’s Minister of Electronics Industry, Jiang Zemin, as the new chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), had clearly been more alert to the impact of the information revolution on military affairs than his predecessor Deng Xiaoping and the old guards of the PLA such as Liu Huaqing and Zhang Zhen. It was not until after Deng’s death and the retirements of Liu and Zhang from the CMC in 1997, however, that Jiang felt that his power was secure enough for him to begin to promote this change in Chinese military affairs. The move was also intended to further consolidate his position as the CMC chair and to demonstrate to the PLA generals that he was just as competent in military affairs, if not more so than his predecessor, despite having never served in the PLA. This would help to enhance his personal image in the PLA and further consolidate his position as the CMC chair. While Jiang had largely won the political loyalty of the generals by increasing defense spending and promoting several of them to higher ranks, Jiang did not want the generals to meddle in party and government affairs, which would complicate his image and position as an effective leader. Therefore, Jiang endorsed two new military policies since 1998, the first of which was to order the PLA to divest its business activities. The second was to promote the concept of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the PLA, as an effective way to focus the attention of the generals on the narrow military-technical issues rather than on the broader area of civilian politics.

The second driving factor relates to the development of China’s military research and learning. Military research and learning in China have largely been institutionalized over time, and institutions such as the Academy of Military Science and National Defense University have become the major reservoirs of translated foreign military literature, particularly those from the United States on the RMA. They also serve as the primary agencies for socializing RMA ideas among China’s military and civilian elite. Socialization of RMA ideas is important primarily because it contributes significantly to a general civil-military consensus, the basis for the endorsement of the 2002 policy change by the central leadership.

The last factor that drives the shift in operational doctrine has to do with promoting the institutional interests of the PLA. PLA planners argue for the change because such a change provides a legitimate reason for the PLA to develop and acquire capital and technology-intensive operational platforms and information grids. The argument justifies the allocation of more money and better technologies to the PLA, clearly serving the financial and technological interests of the PLA. Additionally, years of high economic growth have made it easier to argue for allocating more funding to finance the technological development of the PLA. Finally, the rapid growth of the civilian IT sector in China provides a strong rationale to argue for IT-based development of the PLA by exploiting dual-use technologies, which are largely associated with this sector.

Major Implications

The significance of the change is not that it reflects the current reality of the PLA, but that it provides a conceptual roadmap for the future direction of China’s military modernization. Since the PLA is now conceptualized as an interconnected and organic operational system, it is likely that future attention and resources will be concentrated on PLA subsystems that have been traditionally weak and susceptible to impeding the effective formation and release of the systemic effects. These subsystems include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, a unified information network with common technical standards, powerful and precise munitions, more advanced and digitized operational platforms and key technologies, such as the data-link.

It is important to note, however, that whether the policy of “informationization” can be successfully implemented may depend on whether the PLA continues to enjoy the generous financial support from the central civilian authorities. Moreover, whether the PLA may obtain access to and integrate the more advanced IT also affects the outcome of the policy. Equally important as to whether the new policy will succeed may depend upon the PLA overcoming its highly bureaucratic and secretive, information-averse culture.


1. The following analysis is based upon information from professional Chinese military literature that the analyst is unable to publicly identify.