PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part One): Joint Task Force Experimentation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 9

The White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2010, released by the Chinese government, discussed the foundation for an integrated joint operations (IJO) capability as part of its long-term, three stage military modernization effort. The PLA is researching the theoretical basis of this new joint operations doctrine and increasing experimentations in field exercises (PLA Daily, November 3, 2010). The implications of this shift toward integrated joint operations are manifold. When fully operationalized and integrated with new weapon systems and technologies, these efforts could significantly enhance the PLA’s joint operations capability for contingency operations in potential conflicts along its continental and maritime periphery. The new joint operations doctrine will bolster joint operations capability to the operational and tactical levels, providing strategic depth as well as greater agility and flexibility for military operations.

Two important factors in developing this new joint operations doctrine are integration of the services and training the forces. The first part of this article will examine doctrinal developments for the implementation of integrated joint operations, focusing on experimentation with joint task forces that integrate the services at the campaign and tactical levels. The second part of the article will examine training developments to operationalize integrated joint operations, with an emphasis on the Military Training Coordination Zones and the role they play in joint operations developments.
Joint Operations in Transition

The PLA is transitioning from coordinated joint operations to integrated joint operations (yithua lianhe zuozhan), which they believe is a more advanced stage of conducting warfare (Jiefangjun Bao, September 20, 2005; Wen Wei Po, July 31, 2007). The PLA believes that achieving an integrated joint operations capability is a requirement for building a modern armed force, and for fighting and winning wars under informationized conditions (Jiefangjun Bao, July 7, 2004).

Integrated Joint Operations

The Nanjing Army Command Academy is taking the lead in advancing the theoretical basis for integrated joint operations and other transformational issues within the PLA. The academy’s expertise in IJO theory grew out of its research into U.S. operations in the Iraq War in 2003 [1]. This academy published the first book on IJO in the PLA, Integrated Joint Operations Command, indicating the importance of command and control in achieving an integrated joint operations capability. The Academy formed a teaching and research group gathering select personnel, and comprising the reorganized offices of “Command Automation,” “Intelligence Information” and “Military Planning,” combined with two other offices in the academy—“Operational Command” and “Military Theory” (Jiefangjun Bao, November 21, 2006).

National Defense University (NDU) researchers stated that a joint headquarters structure is established or authority is delegated to a commander of an established unit to act as the joint force commander during joint combat. At the time (2004), this designated authority was most likely a military region commander, as the NDU researchers state that campaign and tactical level units will still conduct primarily combined operations with some coordination between services. Joint direction and coordination will primarily occur at the joint headquarters. The main issue for joint operations is that of establishing a high level unified command to coordinate joint combat by the services in different areas and throughout the phases of the operation (Jiefangjun Bao, July 7, 2004).

Integrated joint operations represent a significant refinement in the concept of joint operations for the PLA. The joint operations plan will synthesize and integrate the action plans of the subordinate units, unlike the current focus on issues of coordination. At the campaign and tactical levels, service units will be more unified, providing a greater synergy that will increase their effectiveness and combat power (Jiefangjun Bao, July 7, 2004).

These efforts include (Xinhua, Mar 31):
•    Intensifying research and building the theoretical foundation for integrated joint operations and the supporting command doctrine;
•    Developing new types of combat forces using modularized groupings of forces at both the combined-arms and joint levels;
•    Improving joint C4ISR systems supporting service integration
•    Enhancing integrated joint logistics capabilities;
•    Implementation of a strategic project to develop talented personnel;
•    Intensifying command and control training, joint training of task formations, trans-regional exercises, improving large-scale integrated training bases and developing simulation training.

Joint Task Force Experimentation

A key component in implementing IJO within the PLA is pushing joint operations capabilities down to the campaign and tactical levels, and creating integrated modular forces at those echelons that are organized to execute specific joint missions (Jiefangjun Bao, April 15, 2008; Jiefangjun Bao Online, May 2, 2009). The PLA plans on modularly combining combat units to optimize their mutual support for a specific mission (Jiefangjun Bao Online, September 2, 2008).

The PLA is examining different force groupings to conduct IJO based on level and scale (campaign and tactical) and based on participating forces (Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 14, 2010). The following are groupings based on level and scale:

•    Joint Campaign Large Formation/Corp (lianhe zhanyi juntuan) (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 26, 2009) [2]— group army level units from two or more services to conduct campaign level operations (Zhongguo Xinwen She – China News Service, October 11, 2009; Xinhua Domestic Service, September 22, 2008)
•    Joint Tactical Formation/Corp (lianhe zhanshu bingtuan)—tactical level units (division or brigade and below) from two or more services (Jiefangjun Bao, December 26, 2006)
•    Combined Arms Tactical/Battle Groups—combined arms battalions reinforced with ground force combat arms elements for a specific mission (Jiefangjun Bao, December 26, 2006; Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 15, 2009)

The following are groupings based on participating forces and the operations they might conduct (Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 14, 2010):

•    Ground-air: joint border defense and counterattack campaigns (potential Indian or Korean peninsula contingencies) or anti-terrorism and maintaining stability operations (counterinsurgency or internal stability operations, either supporting a Central Asian regime under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as exercised in the Peace Mission exercises or conducting internal stability operations in Tibet or Xinjiang)
•    Naval-air: blockade or counter-blockade operations (possible contingencies in the South China Sea or Taiwan)
•    Ground-naval-air: joint island landing campaigns (a possible Taiwan contingency)

The force groupings could be formed at either the campaign or higher tactical levels. If fully developed, the campaign level joint task force could command joint tactical formations, depending on the situation (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 26, 2009).
Tactical Level Joint Task Forces

The PLA believes the trend in joint operations is to integrate joint forces at the tactical level, employing smaller formations that can achieve campaign and even strategic goals (Jiefangjun Bao Online, May 2, 2009). The PLA is experimenting with various types of Joint Tactical Formations (JTF), examining various joint issues, particularly command and control, and coordination. While different Military Regions and exercises have experimented with joint task forces, the Lianhe (Joint) series of exercises in Jinan Military Region (MR) appear to be a primary PLA effort of experimenting with JTFs, in particular on command and control issues. Different service elements are assigned the lead in a particular exercise or during a phase of an exercise, which is reportedly raising enthusiasm for joint training within the services. The Military Training Coordination Zones (MTCZ) are attempting to shift away from an army-centric training focus in joint exercises, with joint exercises now planned to allow for the navy and air force to take the lead, which reportedly has raised enthusiasm for joint training within the other services. The MTCZs have reportedly adopted a three year training cycle, with the focus of the exercises changing each year during the cycle (Jiefangjun Bao, April 15, 2008; Jiefangjun Bao Online, September 28, 2010).
•    Lianhe-2004 began testing command models for joint tactical formations by creating a unified joint command. The PLA discovered that this unified group joint command model for a JTF worked well for a short-duration, small-scale operation, but believed that it would not be suitable for a larger-scale joint operation (Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 11, 2008).
•    Lianhe-2006 and Lianhe-2007 tested a “distributed coordination” joint command model for a multi-service JTF. During these two exercises, coordination groups were dispatched to participating units. The PLA found that this reduced the conflicts in the existing service command systems, and promoted a certain level of jointness. The coordination was lax between the services, however (Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 11, 2008; Zhongguo Xinwen She – China News Service, September 4, 2007).
•    Lianhe-2008 experimented with a “distributed embedding” joint command model where “command coordination groups” with coordination and command authority were deployed to units. The JTF commander discussed operational issues with subordinate commanders to determine key operational issues and formulate decisions. There was a shift in command based on phases of the operation. For example, during the embarkation and sea crossing phases, the navy joint commander played the main command role. Exercise participants thought this joint command method was an improvement over the previous models, but they recognized that the PLA was still in an initial stage of joint development (Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 11, 2008).

Campaign Level Joint Task Forces

The PLA began with an emphasis on joint training at the tactical level, and now is progressing up echelon. In 2009-2010, the PLA began a transition to greater experimentation at the campaign level. The MR headquarters is becoming more involved in directing joint training. The PLA is attempting to streamline the standard five stage development process through experimentation in the field to determine what works, and then writing the theoretical foundation and doctrinal manuals (Jiefangjun Bao, January 21, 2010).

The PLA emphasis on joint campaign large formations, based on a service level campaign formation, began in the Qianfeng-2009 exercise organized by the Jinan MR headquarters. The joint pilot training program is considered a “major strategic task” assigned by the Central Military Commission and General Staff Department to the Jinan MR, which established a theater joint training leading group in 2009 to supervise the joint training (Zhongguo Xinwen She – China News Service, October 11, 2009; Jiefangjun Bao, January 21, 2010; Xinhua Domestic Service, August 2, 2010).


The PLA is developing a more advanced joint operations doctrine—integrated joint operations. When fully developed, the PLA will be capable of operating joint task forces at the campaign and tactical level that can achieve campaign or strategic goals during contingencies. The PLA’s effort to develop a more modular force and organize joint task forces is a key to developing the PLA’s concept of integrated joint operations. These modular joint task forces can be specially tailored to meet specific mission requirements for campaigns in various theaters. Command and control issues are an important focus of the experimentation, with Jinan MR taking the lead in joint experimentation.

The development of a more advanced joint operations capability, joint training developments and employment of joint task forces represents a beginning of a move by the PLA away from an army-centric force to one that is more balanced. The role of Naval and Air Force commanders is increasing as they command joint task forces during exercises and provide greater input to planning and operations. Officers are also gaining greater knowledge of the other services as they gain joint training experience and work more closely with their counterparts. Yet, the ground forces will remain the primus inter pares as long as they represent the largest force element within the PLA; but there does appear to be some rebalancing occurring.

The PLA began examining joint operations in earnest after the first Gulf War. It took close to a decade of theoretical development before it began to focus on integrated joint operations, followed by testing and experimentation in the field. The PLA states that “the establishment of the command organizations for joint trainings in our army is still at [a] research and demonstration stage” (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 26, 2009). It could easily take the PLA the remainder of this decade to fully develop and implement its new joint concept force wide. If the PLA can succeed in this major doctrinal undertaking, the PLA’s combat power will increase significantly while allowing it to employ smaller tailored formations. This will provide the PLA with greater agility and flexibility in responding to contingencies along its periphery.


1.    The Nanjing Army Command Academy published a series of books on the Iraq War including, “Analysis of the Iraq War,” and “Electronic Warfare in the Iraq War.”
2.    Since 2009, the PLA has turned to examining how to establish a campaign-level joint formation on the basis of a service-level basic campaign/corps large formation [jiben zhanyi juntuan] for joint operations.