PLA Joint Operations Developments and Military Reform

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 7

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During recent high-level political meetings, Chinese leaders have made repeated calls for “military reform.” While these speeches have given little detail about the content of such reform, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), in particular PLA academics and theorists, appears to have a well-developed, complex and challenging concept of the future modern military force that is required to meet China’s security requirements and to fight and win future conflicts, although the devil is in the details. Many concepts have been proposed in the past, but more ambitious changes have never been implemented, apparently due to resistance from the established military hierarchy. Now the log-jam impeding some of the more far reaching reforms appears to be breaking, as indicated in the recent push in the Third Plenary Session for significant military reform and the creation of a leading group to push forward some of the more bureaucratically painful command, force structure and organizational changes required to create a modern military force.

The recent Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee proposed military reforms and modernization efforts, including reorganizing the command system, force structure, education and training, modernization process. Many of these modernization goals are related to implementing and advanced joint operations capability. The development of an integrated joint operations capability is one of the most important issues for the PLA, demonstrated by the extensive PLA academic research effort. Once realized and operationalized throughout the PLA, an integrated joint operations capability, and the supporting system of systems operations, would provide advanced capabilities to detect long-range targets and conduct long-range precision strikes; provide a real-time common operating picture; coordinate the combat actions of dispersed joint forces; and achieve air, sea and information superiority over enemy forces in potential conflicts at increasing distances from China’s borders.

This article examines key PLA joint research issues, areas of disagreement and self-assessments. Joint areas that are discussed include the joint operations command, coordination and force groupings.

Creation of Joint Operations Commands

The recent Third Plenary Session proposed to reform the joint operational command structure, including establishing theater (military region) joint operations commands (Xinhua, November 16, 2013). Although discussed for some time, this is perhaps one of the more difficult changes to implement as it challenges the dominance of the ground forces and the current military region structure. In addition, there is disagreement on the organization of the joint headquarters. A Yomiuri Shimbun article, repeated in the Chinese press, claimed that joint commands would be created in Jinan, Nanjing and Guangzhou Military Regions (MR) over a five-year period, followed by a consolidation of the remaining four MRs into two joint commands (Yomiuri Shimbun, January 2). The Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) denied the details of these press articles. The MND press spokesman also stated that establishing a joint operations command system was necessary to meet the requirements of modern warfare and that the PLA was conducting research into joint operations command system with Chinese characteristics (China Military Online, November 29, 2013; January 6; Xinhua, January 6). On the basis of this clarification, it appears that at some point in the future joint operations commands will be established after further research to work out the details of the commands, which could include a reduction in military regions.

A National Defense University (NDU) book argued strongly for creating joint operations commands on strategic directions in peacetime to meet the requirements of future joint operations and ease the transition from a peacetime to wartime posture. However, difficulties to reforms include institutional impediments, as well as divergent views on the organization of the joint operations commands. There are entrenched interests in the current military region system, making a reduction potentially difficult, although announcements related to military reform suggest these impediments have been overcome and significant military reforms are planned. The last military region reduction occurred during the 1985 force restructuring. The NDU publication also notes divergent views on a future joint operation command system of systems, with organizational and functional structures proposed (China Military Online, March 16). [1] Various PLA sources appear to support the MND spokesman’s statement that research into the issue is ongoing, leading eventually to the establishment of a theater joint operations command system necessary for future integrated joint operations.

Joint Command

The PLA plans on establishing a flatter, mesh-type command system of systems structure which will drive changes to the command structure and procedures through all echelons of the PLA as well as C4ISR modernization requirements. New command relationships and procedures will require improved joint education and training to perfect and operationalize new concepts, which will take time. This flatter, mesh command will better support the accelerated operational tempo, intense confrontation, and high requirements for information access, processing and transmission than the traditional hierarchical “tree” command structure. The PLA also believes that this flat, mesh (see figure 1) joint command system of systems will be less vulnerable to destruction of individual command nodes, provide real-time information sharing and horizontal and lateral communications and coordination functions. [2]

The PLA hopes to improve command efficiency, accelerate decision-making and reduce operational planning time as advanced command information systems are deployed widely throughout the force. The command information system is a key component of the military information system (see figure 2) and a fundamental requirement for achieving an efficient joint command. The command information system will provide enhanced battlefield information sharing, a common operating picture to units at all echelons, and allow for remote synchronization of planning between units at dispersed locations (Joint Operations Research, pp.  166-170).

Joint Coordination

Along with command procedures, future joint operations will require changes to the predominantly centralized and planned coordination methods currently employed. Again, changing coordination methods and training staffs, combined with differences in opinion in academic circles, indicate that implementation of new coordination methods will take time. Coordination requirements are higher and more difficult during joint operations. PLA academics are continuing to research coordination issues in order to resolve differing points of view. Coordination is based on the joint commander’s intent as expressed in the overall operational plan and the coordination plan, while taking into account transitions in operational phases. Initiative, adaptability and flexibility are required for subordinate commanders to quickly make adjustments in reaction to changing battlefield conditions and react to an accelerated operational tempo, within the context of the joint commander’s intent. Joint coordination requirements include the following: Precision combat actions, particularly with long-range precision strike weapons systems, to ensure the desired destruction effects and minimize collateral damage; reconnaissance, target acquisition and identification; and rapid maneuver of joint operational system of systems (zuozhan tixi—a highly integrated force grouping) in a dynamic, multi-dimensional battlespace. Coordination includes joint commanders conferring with and considering the opinions and suggestions from subordinate commands, if the situation and time permits (Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp.  178-189; Military Terms, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011) pp. 86 and 180-181). [3]

Joint operations coordination content includes coordination between the following: joint operational forces; various operational directions; operational phases; combat actions; and combat and support. Currently, joint operations coordination includes primarily planned coordination (jihua xietong), supplemented by improvised coordination (linji xietong), and can also be based on operational objectives, time and space, and other considerations. Planned coordination, currently considered the main coordination method, is based on the pre-war plan’s instructions for adjusting combat actions during the operational preparation and implementation phases. Improvised coordination provides for operational flexibility to meet emergency and unforeseen fundamental changes in the battlefield situation, or seize battlefield opportunities. [4]

Joint Force Groupings

The PLA views integration of joint forces down to the tactical level as an important joint operations requirement which will stress command and coordination measures in future operations. As in other research areas on joint operations, there are divergent views on forming joint operations forces, ranging from traditional service-based force groupings to more unconventional concepts that will need to be sorted out before moving forward. The PLA considers three general methods for joint operational force groupings. The first method has the services each forming operational groups (jituan), including a SAF operational group and logistics units forming an operational rear group. However, the PLA notes the lack of joint integration of the forces and poor independent operational capability with this method. The second method is integrating joint forces into functional groups. For example, an air operations group would consist of naval aviation and PLAAF forces, while a missile assault group would consist of SAF and ground forces tactical missile units. An island offensive operation could contain a landing operations group, air operations group, naval operations group, missile assault group, special operations group, operational reserve, coastal defense group, and operational rear group. This functional form breaks service boundaries improves operational capabilities and independent operational capabilities of the groups, although the PLA believes that this method breaks service support relationships and makes command and coordination more difficult. The preference moving forward is to form modular groupings combining multiple functions—firepower, information, aviation and support for example—based on mission requirements, which the PLA believes, is the better solution even though command and support will be complex. This modular grouping approach remains in the research and development phase, with exercises experimenting in the employment of both joint campaign formations (juntuan—sometimes translated as large formation) and joint tactical formations (bingtuan) (Joint Operations Research, pp. 123-125).

In general, joint operations forces are divided into strategic, campaign and tactical joint operations forces, although campaign forces are considered primary. Joint campaign formations would be formed at three levels as follows: theater (large-scale), theater direction (medium) and at group army-level (small). Joint forces would be dispersed over a wide area including in depth, requiring a strong joint command structure but improving survivability (Joint Operations Research, pp. 105-113 and 125-126).

PLA Progress Assessments

The PLA has stated that it is in the research and demonstration stage of joint operations development (Jiefangjun Bao Online, March 26, 2009). The following assessments of the current status of several joint capabilities combined with the divergent opinions on multiple joint issues, lend credence to this appraisal.

In the area of joint operations ground-air coordination for aviation firepower support, the PLA currently relies primarily on planned firepower support, noting that it is difficult to request the dispatch of an aviation attack group, which requires several hours of preparation. The current solution appears to be better advanced planning (Joint Operations Research, p. 192). Good planning could provide a degree of flexibility depending on how PLA planning is conducted. However, it is surprising that the PLA has not advanced further in ground-air coordination since it has been a research topic for the last two decades with some experimentation in exercises.

The PLA states that long-range precision strike targets are predetermined (Joint Operations Research, pp.  225-227). The PLA does have the capability to address newly discovered targets, which includes target identification, assessment of target damage requirements, and passing the information to combat units. However, the sensor-to-shooter time is unknown (Joint Operations Research, p.  267). This reliance on planned targets could lead to difficulties in providing timely firepower support as unforeseen battlefield situations lead to changes in the planned operation.

Currently, the PLA does not believe most units could conduct tactical level joint operations due to technology and capability limitations. The PLA has conducted experimental exercises with modular joint tactical formations (bingtuan), however difficulties with integrated joint communications have been cited in the Chinese press as impediments to jointness (Joint Operations Research, p.  113-114). While these assessments are likely true for the PLA force wide, there are likely units conducting advanced experimentation, such as the 38th Group Army in Beijing Military Region, that are further ahead in practicing more advanced operational theories.


Ongoing debates both within the PLA and in academic circles, and limited current joint capabilities, indicate that development of an integrated joint operations capability along with supporting operations theory will be a long process, perhaps taking several decades. This is not to say that the PLA could not conduct joint operations during a conflict. Currently, the PLA would conduct coordinated joint operation, which lacks the close service integration and the command and coordination flexibility and agility of the more advanced integrated joint operations.

It appears likely that the PLA will establish theater joint commands at some point in the future, which also could lead to a reduction in the current seven military regions. The creation of peacetime joint commands will represent a significant signpost in the PLA’s advance towards an integrated joint operational capability, breaking down barriers between the services, and will speed up a transition to a wartime posture in the event of a crisis. However, organizational issues need to be decided, although it appears that institutional impediments and vested interests might have been overcome. An integrated command information system forms the foundation for joint operations and the recent attention to standardization and high-level direction are in part intended to resolve integration issues between the services and regions.

Future PLA military reforms represent a significant reorganization and transformation of all aspects of the force. The goal is to build a modern military organization. This requires restructuring the command at all echelons and rebalancing the force structure, establishing new type forces, standardizing equipment modernization, policies and procedures, deciding on new operational methods, and improving and education and training. The complexity and vastness of the project, combined with past impediments to some of the more dramatic changes, will require a new degree of high-level direction. The renewed emphasis at the Third Plenary session and establishment of a leading group to manage the vast modernization program indicate that the log-jam is broken, or in the process of breaking up.

The pace of significant military reforms over the next few years could provide an indication whether change is accelerating. However, despite comments about seizing a strategic opportunity to promote comprehensive reforms, reports also indicate that the PLA will take a slow and deliberate approach to change. Reporting states that prior to the reforms, repeated demonstrations and scientific assessments must be conducted to ensure that the reforms are sound, as major initiatives can affect the entire military system. Therefore, it is likely that the PLA will undergo significant change, but through the process of “unceasing little steps” forward to reform (China Military Online, March 16).


  1. Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2012) p. 244; Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions (Beijing: National Defense University Press, Jun 2011)  pp. 196-197.
  2. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp.  163- 173; Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability Study, Volume 2: Operational Command, (Beijing: Nanjing Army Command College Printing, 2010) pp. 13-15 [Hereafter Operational Capability Study].
  3. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp.  178-189 ; Military Terms, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011) pp. 86 and 180-181.
  4. Military Terms, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011) p. 174, 178, 182; Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp.  189-197; Joint Operations Command Organ Work Course of Study, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2008) pp. 259 -263.
A. Joint Operations Research, p. 166.

B. Command Information System Course of Study, (Beijing, Military Science
    Press, 2013) p. 22.