PLA Exercises March Toward Trans-Regional Joint Training

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 22

While elements of units from all services in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were preparing for the military parade on October 1st, a much larger slice of the PLA was conducting routine unit training. Following several months of individual skill and small unit training, late summer/early fall is the peak season for unit evaluation training, often culminating in relatively large force-on-force exercises and live fire drills. Even as the most modern equipment in the PLA was on display in the parade, units from all over the country were practicing how to deploy, operate and sustain the mix of old and new equipment that is actually found in operational formations.

Adding new equipment and upgrading or retiring older weapons is but one element of the PLA’s long-term modernization program. Training is another keystone of reform. Former Central Military Commission Chairman Jiang Zemin instructed, “We must train qualified personnel first, for we would rather let our qualified personnel wait for equipment than the other way round” [1]. Large amounts of new equipment have entered the PLA inventory over the past decade, but an even greater task is training personnel to properly plan for the employment and maintain and operate the new gear.

As the PLA transforms itself into a modernized military, the exercises it conducts reflect to some degree its capacity to implement the joint doctrine issued in 1999, which seeks to integrate all services and civilian support into seamless operations. Every year there are a number of “firsts” or “largest” events. This year was no exception and included some significant accomplishments. These advances notwithstanding, the PLA recognizes it is still experimenting to find operational solutions appropriate for its large force with limited funding. It also acknowledges it still has a long way to go before it meets the standards other countries have demonstrated in modern operations.

The following sections address the much-publicized, mainly ground-oriented exercises “Stride-2009,” “Airborne Movement-2009,” and “Vanguard-2009.” These were only a few of many exercises in 2009 from which the PLA seeks to identify shortcomings in order to improve capabilities in future training.

“Stride-2009” (Kuayue-2009)

The 2008 Defense White Paper foreshadowed the emphasis on ground force training seen in 2009, stating, “The [PLA] Army has been moving from regional defense to trans-regional mobility. It is gradually making its units small, modular and multi-functional in organization through appropriate downsizing and structural reform…”

“Trans-regional mobility” focuses on moving units within China from one of its seven Military Regions (MR) to another. Multi-mode movements (by ground, rail, water and/or air) have been reported in the PLA press for at least a decade including some cross-MR movements. These exercises do not represent armed invasions of foreign countries, but the lessons learned in trans-regional mobility exercises could be used outside of China if countries permit movement of PLA units through or over their territory.

For several years, “small, modular and multi-functional” unit organization has focused on forming combined arms battalion task forces within both divisions and brigades [2]. “Modularization” (mokuaihua), also known in the West as “task organization,” consists of temporarily assigning smaller combat and support units (such as artillery, air defense or engineers) to infantry or armor battalions based on the mission, terrain and enemy. Once organized, however, in many cases combined arms battalions face challenges because most battalion commanders have not been formally trained to command such formations. Moreover, battalion staffs are yet too small to handle all the tasks that come with added units. Some battalions have temporarily brought officers up from companies to work on the headquarters staff (PLA Daily Online, February 6), but these problems require formal long-term changes to both the organizational structure and professional military education system to properly train and staff for these new responsibilities.

“Stride-2009” was a two-month exercise in which approximately 50,000 troops from four divisions in four different MRs crisscrossed the country moving to four regional combined arms training bases. While there was some Air Force support in moving the troops and providing air cover, the exercise was primarily a ground operation (China Daily, August 12). During deployments of approximately five days in length, small reconnaissance, headquarters and communications units were flown on both PLA Air Force and chartered civilian aircraft while larger formations of personnel drove in trucks along highways and heavy equipment was transported via rail.

The four divisions involved in the exercise moved independently of each other as follows:

o    In mid-August, the 61st (“Red Army”) Division of 21st Group Army from the Lanzhou MR moved to the Shenyang MR Taonan Combined Arms Training Base
o    In mid-to late-August, the 162nd Motorized Infantry Division (“Ferocious Tigers”) of the 54th Group Army from Jinan MR traveled to the Guangzhou MR Luzhai Combined Arms Training Base
o    In early September, the 115th Mechanized Infantry Division of the 39th Group Army from the Shenyang MR moved to the Lanzhou MR Qingtongxia Combined Arms Training Base
o    In mid-to late-September, the 121st Motorized Infantry Division of the 41st Group Army moved to the Jinan MR Queshan Combined Arms Training Base [3]

While en route, troop convoys practiced defending against air and chemical attacks and bivouacked along the roads at night. Local military and militia units provided traffic control and logistics support (such as food, water and maintenance) along the way. Once they arrived at their objectives, troops linked up with their heavy equipment and conducted force-on-force drills and live-fire exercises.

While units took 90 percent of their organic “artillery, engineering machinery and other large weapons,” only 50 percent of armored vehicles, such as tanks and armored personnel carriers, were transported. Since tanks provide both mass and firepower, the participating divisions would have lacked a large portion of their combat power in an actual situation.

CCTV reports show that the 162nd Motorized Infantry Division and the 61st Division formed combined arms battalion task forces in exercises [4]. Such task organization was seen in several other exercises conducted by Army divisions and brigades (e.g., the 1st Armored Division and 235th Mechanized Infantry Brigade in Beijing MR and a motorized infantry brigade in Jinan MR) broadcast on CCTV in August and September [5].

With 50,000 personnel involved, most Chinese sources called “Stride-2009” “the army’s largest-ever tactical event, in which they will be mobilized and transported vast distances across the nation” (China Daily, August 12). The key to that claim is its reference to the “trans-regional” nature, not the overall size. For example, the amphibious exercise “Liberation 1” on Dongshan Island in 2001 was reported to be “the largest ever joint exercise of the three services (army, navy and air force), involving nearly 100,000 troops” (China Daily, July 12, 2004). Yet, troops from either the Nanjing or Guangzhou MRs for “Liberation 1” did not have to cross MR borders to get to the training area, which is located along the boundary between the two MRs.

“Airborne Movement-2009” (Kongjiang Jidong-2009)

After “Stride-2009” was completed, the Air Force’s 15th Airborne Corps conducted a similar 20-day, large-scale, multi-modal transportation, trans-regional exercise called “Airborne Movement-2009” beginning in mid-October. “Airborne Movement-2009” paralleled the tasks Army divisions performed in “Stride-2009,” but with the addition of personnel parachute jumps and long-distance foot marches.

Starting on October 18th, elements of all three of the 15th Airborne Corps’ divisions, including “more than 13,000 people, 1,500 vehicles, and 7,000 pieces of equipment,” began moving through Hubei, Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu provinces (Xinhua News Agency, October 18; PLA Daily, October 26).

Heavy equipment, including ZBD-03 Airborne Fighting Vehicles, which were seen in the October 1st parade, was transported by rail while other personnel moved by road convoys to the exercise area in “central China.” Airborne infantry battalions performed parachute drops to enter the exercise area and then subsequently linked up with their equipment [6]. After assembling into regimental formations on October 20th the units began opposing force exercises which included evaluation of battalion and company-size elements. Six battalions were selected “by lot” to conduct force-on-force maneuvers “with troops air-landing at the rear of the enemy” as the scenario. Live fire exercises were also included.

After a week of training, the units moved to northern Jiangsu province to conduct another week of confrontation exercises. In addition to unit evaluations, training focused on duties of regimental staffs and officers at battalion and lower levels. Redeployment was scheduled to take place from November 4th to 6th.

The size and scope of this training probably merits the superlative of “the largest ever Chinese airborne force trans-regional campaign mobility comprehensive training exercise” (Xinhua News Agency, October 18).

“Vanguard-2009” (Qianfeng 2009)

Beginning on October 21st, the joint exercise “Vanguard 2009” got underway at the Queshan Combined Arms Training Base. The main participants were the armored brigade of the 20th Group Army, the 1st Army Aviation Regiment, an element of the 15th Airborne Corps, and aircraft from units in the Guangzhou and Jinan MR Air Forces [7].

According to exercise director and deputy commander of the Jinan MR Lieutenant General Feng Zhaoju, “This exercise is the PLA’s first joint operation and joint training activity for basic campaign army groups in the true sense” (China News Service, Oct 11). In other words, the key to “Vanguard-2009” is that a group army headquarters formed the exercise’s joint headquarters incorporating both ground and PLA Air Force officers. Although the doctrinal basis for independent group army campaigns is found in both the 2000 and 2006 versions of The Science of Campaigns (Zhanyi Xue), evidently all other joint training exercises had been controlled by Military Region headquarters. “Vanguard-2009” thus serves as a good illustration of how long it can take to move from doctrinal guidance to actual implementation of tactical and operational concepts.

In an interview with the official Xinhua News Agency, Major General Xu Jingnian, commander of the 20th Group Army, stated, “We are an experiment unit. We are still in a testing and evaluation stage, in terms of how to organize joint combat operations at the basic campaign group level … joint training exercise at the basic campaign group level is still in its infancy, leaving issues at many deeper levels to be further resolved” (Xinhua News Agency, October 13).

In the same interview, General Xu pointed out that communications was the biggest challenge for the exercise, saying, “How to achieve mutual connections and real-time intelligence gathering and sharing among various service branches is the biggest issue … we are able to resolve issues related to voice command; we are able to partially resolve digital communications issues also. However, we are still unable to achieve seamless [communications] connectivity.”

An important element of “Vanguard-2009” was helicopter and fixed wing air support to ground operations: “We will adopt the method of having planned fire power playing the leading role, supplemented by impromptu requests for fire power; meticulously organize the overall coordination of air, ground, and air defense fire power…” (China News Service, October 11). Listing “planned fire power” first reflects existing PLA doctrine that includes Air Force provision of “battlefield air interdiction” (preplanned attacks against enemy locations not in close proximity to friendly forces). “Impromptu requests for fire power” suggests something approaching “Close Air Support” (also known as CAS—air attacks against enemy locations in close proximity to friendly forces, which are controlled by units in contact with the enemy). PLA procedures for conducting CAS are still in the developmental and experimental stage. At the same time as “Vanguard-2009,” a division of the 14th Group Army and a PLA Air Force aviation division in the Chengdu MR were also experimenting with air support to ground operations (PLA Daily, October 28).

The PLA invited over 200 foreign military observers and military students studying in China to attend parts of “Vanguard-2009.”

The 20th Group Army is one of a few group armies organized into an all-brigade structure in which the group army headquarters has no divisions under its command. As demonstrated by “Vanguard-2009,” group armies are only beginning to explore how to conduct independent joint operations.


Perhaps the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the pace and scope of PLA training in 2009 is that these exercises are much more costly and complex than the exercise seasons of the mid-1990s. Units now routinely spend weeks in the field often calling on civilian logistics support, which requires the military to reimburse the enterprises that have been mobilized to support operations. Advanced weapons consume more fuel and fire more expensive ammunition than their less technologically complex predecessors. Long distance maneuvers outside of traditional training areas results in “maneuver damage,” which requires the PLA to provide compensation to local entities. Moving even portions of units by air is much more expensive than ground transport. If the PLA continues to train at recent levels, or increases the pace, the central government must continue to provide adequate funds to support this operations tempo.

Over the past decade, all units, not only those considered as “rapid reaction units,” have trained to assemble and deploy quickly. If “Stride-2009” and “Airborne Movement-2009” are considered successful by higher headquarters, the relatively rapid movement of large units across Military Region borders could portend the need for fewer units. Therefore, MRs may not need as many standing forces if they can count on out-of-area reinforcements to arrive within reasonable timeframes. A more rapidly deployable ground force may not require as many active units as found today. This could set the stage for more personnel cuts and force reductions.

These exercises also reflect the transitional nature of the PLA today. Its leaders recognize they have not yet reached their operational objectives and must continue to motivate their troops to continue to improve their capabilities. Military leaders have a realistic understanding of the capabilities of their forces compared to other modern militaries and the diverse missions the PLA may be called on to perform. Many other senior leaders would agree with 20th Group Army Commander Xu Jingnian: “We are still in a testing and evaluation stage…”

In March the commander of the 38th Group Army (generally considered one of the PLA’s premier units), Major General Wang Xixin, gave an interview noting that despite a “series of achievements” made in his unit, “the modernization level of the PLA is still incommensurate to the demand of winning local war under information-based conditions, the military power is still incommensurate to the demand of performing the historical mission in the new century and the new period and raising the capability of troops in accomplishing diversified military mission is still a historical subject in front of the officers and men” (PLA Daily, March 2).

General Wang’s observation is similar to many others found in PLA literature (China Brief, July 3, 2008). It indicates the senior leadership’s self-knowledge of the PLA’s level of modernization and the need for many years of hard work in the classroom, on the training field, and in unit maintenance bays. The Chinese expect several more anniversary parades to pass before the PLA reaches its “strategic goal of building informationalized armed forces and being capable of winning informationalized wars by the mid-21st century” [8].


1. Jiang Zemin’s Book on Technology, Army Building Viewed CPP20010221000077 Guangzhou Yangcheng Wanbao (Internet Version-WWW) in Chinese 13 Feb 01, translated by the Open Source Center (OSC).
2. According to The Military Balance 1996-1997, by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 1996, prior to the two force reductions amounting 700,000 from 1997 to 2005, the PLA had a total of some 90-100 infantry and tank divisions and another 15-20 infantry and tank brigades. The author’s current estimate of the Army order-of-battle shows a reduction to approximately 35 infantry and armored divisions and an increase to some 41 infantry and armored brigades. Many of the divisions remaining in the force have been restructured so that they now have only three maneuver regiments instead of the four regiments found in the former Soviet style organization. Divisions in the PLA command regiments, not brigades (as in the U.S. Army model). Despite the growth of the number of brigades in the PLA, the division appears to still be a viable organizational level for some time into the future.
3. PLA Daily has a series of reports at Unit identifications can be derived from information at The time sequence of movement is found at Xinhua Chart: Locations, Times for PLA’s Stride 2009 Series of Exercises CPP20090911540004 Beijing Xinhua Wang in Chinese 12 Aug 09, translated by OSC.
4. Video: Jinan MR Motorized Division Holds Drill With Modular Combat, Tactical Units CPM20091015013024 Beijing CCTV-7 in Mandarin 1130 GMT 28 Aug 09 and Video: Lanzhou MR Division in ‘Stride 2009’ Presents New-Type Combined-Arms Battalion CPM20091015017010 Beijing CCTV-7 in Mandarin 1130 GMT 18 Aug 09, translated by OSC.
5. Video: Beijing MR Armored Division Adopts New Combat Methods in Training CPM20091015017036 Beijing CCTV-7 in Mandarin 1130 GMT 26 Aug 09; Video: Beijing MR Mechanized Infantry Brigade Holds Confrontation Exercise CPM20091015013006 Beijing CCTV-7 in Mandarin 1130 GMT 05 Aug 09; and Clip: Jinan MR Motorized Infantry Brigade Conducts Exercise in Mountain Area CPM20091015017003 Beijing CCTV-7 in Mandarin 1130 GMT 18 Sep 09, translated by OSC.
6. The exact sizes of the personnel drops were not published. However, the PLA Air Force’s capacity to airdrop both personnel and equipment is limited, thus requiring the large-scale ground and rail movement of equipment.
7. People’s Daily has a webpage that compiles reports on the exercise at Unit identifications are made based on information in PRC: PLA To Conduct ‘Vangard-2009’ Exercise in Jinan Theater CPP20091011172003 Beijing Zhongguo Xinwen She in Chinese 0914 GMT 11 Oct 09. Some sources say this exercise involves 10,000 personnel, while others claim 5,000. With an armored brigade as its core, the lower number is more likely.
8.  “China’s National Defense in 2006,” at