PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part Two): Military Training Coordination Zones

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 10

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is transitioning from a coordinated joint operations doctrine to ostensibly a more advanced form of joint operations capability: integrated joint operations (yithua lianhe zuozhan). Part one of this series explored PLA experimentation with joint task forces at the campaign and tactical levels that will provide tailored joint force groupings designed to execute specific combat missions in different theatres (See “PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part One): Joint Task Force Experimentation,” China Brief, May 20). This second part examines joint training and, specifically, Military Training Coordination Zones (junshi xunlian xiezuo qu) that have been established to support and promote integrated joint training and experimentation. These training zones play an important role in supporting the joint exercises in each Military Region (MR) and further the development of the military’s integrated joint operations capability.

Training is a critical element to the success of the PLA’s transformation and modernization efforts. The PLA is attempting to standardize training across each MR, while recognizing each MR and strategic direction will have operational and training requirements peculiar to its mission focus. In order to implement the new basic form of combat under informationized conditions – integrated joint operations – within the PLA, the focus of training and exercises has turned to integrated joint training at the strategic, campaign (operational), and tactical levels since the 2004-2005 period (Jiefangjun Bao, December 19, 2006).

PLA officers have stated that joint training remains relatively weak. The Academy of Military Science and other organizations have been charged with providing the theoretical guidance for the integrated training of units. The general headquarters departments have established a plan for joint training experimentation and designated experimental units, and the expansion of the MTCZs throughout all of the MRs as an important element of its effort to improve joint training (Jiefangjun Bao, January 17, 2005; June 27, 2006).

The PLA currently conducts primarily two forms of joint training. The first is organized directly by the General Staff Department (GSD). Presumably, the large multi-regional exercises such as Stride-2009 and Mission Action-2010 fall into this category. Yet, the PLA apparently believes that these exercises lack a joint training management mechanism that is in complete control, the training organizational structure and force groupings are temporary, and the quality of personnel is uneven. The second form of joint training is organized by Military Training Coordination Zones (MTCZ). In contrast to the first category of joint training, the PLA believes the MTCZs have more effective and permanent training management mechanisms, force groupings that have established habitual training relationships, and are better suited for developing joint operations theory and joint operations capabilities (Jiefangjun Bao Online, 26 Feb 2009; Xinhua News Agency, March 31).
Military Training Coordination Zones

The first Military Training Coordination Zone (MTCZ) was established in the Dalian area of Shenyang MR in the 1990’s (Jiefangjun Bao Online, February 2, 2009). The emergence of MTCZ for joint training occurred when the Central Military Commission (CMC) approved a plan in 2004 establishing nine MTCZs (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2007), and there could currently be as many as 16 (Jiefangjun Bao Online, December 24, 2008; March 2, 2009; March 11, 2009; June 17, 2010) [1]. The focus of the MTCZs has been on integrated joint group training at the tactical level with joint tactical formations, although joint training in Jinan MR now appears to be emphasizing joint campaign large formation exercises based on the apparent transition from the Lianhe exercises experimenting with joint tactical formations to the campaign-level experimental joint training that began in 2009-2010, discussed in part one of the series. The PLA apparently believes in a building block approach that initially builds a foundation for joint operations at the tactical level that will then support joint developments at the campaign level (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2007; Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 11, 2009; March 26, 2009; June 17, 2010).

The Guangzhou MTCZ’s, established in 2002, reportedly had a difficult beginning. The PLA press stated that initially the joint training task was not implemented, with the services instead training on individual service requirements. The lack of understanding and communications systems that were not compatible between the services created a barrier to joint training. Only after intervention by the theater command and construction of an integrated theater C4ISR system was joint training accomplished (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 2, 2009). Based on press reporting, these issues were not unique to Guangzhou MR, and had to be overcome at other MTCZs.

The MTCZs are also improving the PLA’s exercise assessment and evaluation system. The PLA is moving from a manual system of collecting data from exercises that was incomplete, to on-line monitoring and collection of data of unit movement and operations even during large-scale multi-service exercises. The automation of the data collection is allowing the PLA to move to a dynamic evaluation system. The collection includes battlefield video feeds and casualty data in order to conduct more thorough and precise evaluations of the training. The purpose is to develop an improved unit assessment system to more scientifically assess and standardize unit training. The new evaluation system provides feedback to units in order to identify and correct problems (Jiefangjun Bao, April 15, 2008; Jiefangjun Bao Online, September 28, 2010).

In 2004, the Shenyang MR created a specialized training coordination zone to improve joint operations command talent, break down service centric thinking, and also improve the combined-arms knowledge of its officers. The initiative coordinates with 18 units in the MR, including the three services, Second Artillery Force, and local and military colleges. Under the coordination cone is a “Talents Building Guidance Commission” and a “Talents Building Research Department” composed of experts and scholars. Cross-training, assignments to other service units and attendance in other service academies are employed to develop talent (Jiefangjun Bao Online, February 2, 2009).
Weifang Military Training Coordination Zone

The Weifang Military Training Coordination Zone in the Jinan MR is the most written about in the Chinese press of all the MTCZs, and considered a leading coordination zone according to the PLA press. The Weifang MTCZ was established in 2001 [2], and reportedly includes 12 training areas and facilities. The Weifang MTCZ has been able to consolidate training facilities of the various participating services to foster jointness. The coordination zone has also brought in officers of various non-participating units to observe joint exercises to cultivate joint operational command talent throughout the MR (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2007; Zhongguo Xinwen She, September 20, 2008).

The Weifang MTCZ experiments and perfects new joint operational methods to promote the transition to integrated joint training under informationized conditions. The Lianhe (Joint) series of exercises are conducted by the Weifang MTCZ to study command and coordination procedures within the joint formations (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2007; Zhongguo Xinwen She, September 20, 2008). Weifang MTCZ is run by the 26th Group Army (GA) as the lead work unit. The 26th GA is headquartered at Weifang, Jinan MR, and the MTCZ includes from 10 to 20 units from the ground forces, PLAAF and PLAN. The GA chief of staff has served as supervisor, while the GA political officer has served as exercise general director for the MTCZ. The GA sometimes serves as a joint campaign large formation, with a subordinate unit, often one of its motorized infantry brigades forming a joint tactical formation with air force and navy units during exercises (Jiefangjun Bao, November 2, 2007; Zhongguo Xinwen She, September 20, 2008; Jiefangjun Bao Online, November 11, 2008).

The MTCZ has also established a Blue Force for confrontation exercises to improve training realism. The joint training directing department selected officers and troops to build up a “blue army” equipped with advanced weapons and technology, particularly reconnaissance equipment. Across the board, there is an increased emphasis on use of opposing forces in PLA training to increase realism, move away from static training scenarios, and force officers at lower echelons to display initiative on a fast paced battlefield (Jiefangjun Bao,  November 2, 2007). A Chinese defense ministry spokesman recently announced the creation of a cyber defense blue team in Guangzhou MR to improve PLA network security. This team of thirty specialists could provide an information warfare opposing force during joint training in Guangzhou’s MTCZs (Xinhua News Agency, May 26; Global Times, May 27).


The CMC pushed the expansion of MTCZs throughout China in 2004 to support integrated joint training, and coinciding with the PLA’s focus on developing the theoretical basis for integrated joint operations following the second Gulf War. There have been growing pains with joint training, as barriers between the services are broken down, and communications and command and control problems surmounted. Yet, these training coordination zones appear to be supporting the development and experimentation for the advancement of an integrated joint operations capability within the PLA. For example, the first part of the article discussed joint command and control improvements developed through a series of Lianhe exercises in the Weifang MTCZ in Jinan MR.

The PLA is enhancing joint training through multiple paths, such as the GSD plan for joint training and the designation of experimental units to test different joint capabilities (such as ground-air coordination, joint firepower strikes and joint logistics), and improve military talent to expand joint knowledge and experience as is occurring in Shenyang MR.
PLA officers have stated that the MTCZs have achieved good results by providing a more effective and permanent training management organization than is available in other training areas. The MTCZs are also playing an important role in establishing an effective automated exercise assessment and evaluation system to improve unit performance. The PLA believes the coordination zones have advanced joint operational capabilities and promoted the transformation of the joint training system (Zhongguo Xinwen She, September 20, 2008).

These joint training areas should remain a key focal point for the PLA’s joint experimentation and development of joint operational methods into the future. The exercises at the MTCZs should provide important insights into the degree of progress the PLA is making toward operationalizing integrated joint operations within the force.


1.    There could be some double counting relying on PLA press reports, but there is at least one coordination zone per MR, with Guangzhou MR having four, Jinan MR possibly having two, Lanzhou MR possibly having three, and several specialized coordination zones for naval-air, joint command, and military-civilian training coordination.
2.    Other reporting indicates Weifang MTCZ was established in 2004.