PLA Yijiangshan Joint Amphibious Operation: Past is Prologue

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 14

PLA soldiers participate in the Yijiangshan Campaign in the mid-1950s; PLA Navy Marines today.

China and Russia are staging a Joint naval exercise in the South China Sea. The exercises are meant, in part, to practice joint island assaults and other amphibious operations (China News, September 11). The PLA’s emphasis on improving joint training, amphibious modernization and landing exercises supports President Xi’s current military reforms that are focused on accelerating joint operations capability (PLA Daily, July 26; People’s Daily Online, August 19; China Military Online, July 14). As the PLA transitions from the current “coordinated capability” to an “integrated joint operations capability,” the PLA’s successful Yijiangshan joint island landing campaign in 1954–1955 provides some insight as well as a benchmark for how the PLA would currently conduct joint operations. Coordinated joint operations consist of the services operating towards the common objectives of the operational plan, but with little interaction except at higher echelons; integrated joint operations envisions the employment of joint task forces down to the tactical level supported by advanced communications. Currently the PLA is operationalizing components of integrated joint operations, including improving key areas of joint command, an advanced command information system, and formation of integrated modular joint task forces.

Between 1954–1955, the PLA conducted a successful, small joint island landing campaign against Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist forces defending two Yijiangshan (一江山) islands off the Zhejiang coast. Involving units from the Air Force, Army and Navy, the PLA considers this campaign their first joint operation. The KMT’s loss of the Yijiangshan Islands made the Dachen islands (大陈群岛defensive system untenable. The Dachen islands were considered a staging area for attacks on the mainland and the KMT loss of these islands reduced the Republic of China’s capacity to threaten the coast in this area. [1] PLA planning, command, coordination, and intelligence preparation were critical to the successful operation.

Establishing a Joint Command Structure

Since the PLA did not have an established peacetime joint command structure at the time, the East China Military Region (MR), with Central Military Commission (CMC) approval, established an Eastern Zhejiang Frontline Headquarters in August 1954 to command the joint campaign. [2] The joint command structure included a Navy Command Post (CP), Air Force CP, Landing CP, a Political Work Group and a Joint Logistics headquarters. The East China MR Chief of Staff (CoS) Zhang Aiping (张爱萍) served as commander and political commissar for the joint operation. [3]

Preparing Joint Coordination

Coordination planning between the services was critical as the PLA acknowledged its general lack of modern operational knowledge, as well as a poor understanding between the services of the other service’s tactics and weapons characteristics. Additionally, the services expressed doubts and concerns over the conduct of the operation. Therefore, the Eastern Zhejiang Front Command initiated exchange visits to promote understanding between the services and eliminate concerns. The joint command also held a commanders’ conference to examine coordination issues and establish coordination methods. [4]

As a result, the joint command developed a coordination planning table with the support from Soviet advisors. The joint command conducted a series of exercises to prepare the force. The services first conducted separate training, followed by joint and political training. Amphibious landing exercises were conducted at a peninsula resembling the actual Yijiangshan landing sites. The exercises helped develop a better understanding between the services, established coordination procedures, as well as resolving newly identified issues. [5]

Key command and coordination issues were resolved between the ground forces and PLAN during the sea crossing and landing operations. During embarkation of the landing force, the Army and PLAN jointly commanded; the PLAN commanded during the sea crossing; the Army and PLAN jointly commanded during the amphibious assault phase; and the Army took command during combat on the island. [6]

Additional coordination issues included dispatch of aviation and artillery liaison to infantry battalions to coordinate firepower support and relay the infantry units’ location and fire support requirements. Aviation representatives were also assigned to various command posts for coordination. Artillery and aviation units coordinated their fires to avoid having artillery fire strike aircraft conducting close in ground strikes. Coordination between the PLAAF and PLAN was accomplished by dispatching PLAAF liaison to the command ship to relay PLAN requirements for aviation support. [7]

The Joint Amphibious Operation

Overall PLA forces totaled some 10,000 personnel, with 5920 personnel engaged in the landing operation. The joint force included the following: four infantry battalions from the 60th Infantry Division, the PLA had no Marines at that time; 5 artillery battalions plus 4 batteries with 295 artillery and anti-aircraft guns of various types; 184 PLAAF and PLAN aircraft; and 186 ships. The KMT defenders consisted of 1,100 troops, 51 artillery of various types, and 8–12 vessels. [8]

The joint operation consisted of two main phases: seizing command of the air and sea in order to cover pre-war training, blockade and isolate the KMT defenders, and create the conditions for a successful landing operation. Ground force officers first took a coastal defense vessel to survey the island terrain in late August 1954. Intelligence collection in support of the campaign began in earnest in September 1954. Reconnaissance included ground forces establishing observation posts, formation of an amphibious reconnaissance unit, and the capture of prisoners; PLAAF photo reconnaissance of the islands; and the PLAN surveillance of the island and beach reconnaissance to determine water depth, current velocity and direction, and identification of obstacles. Operations to gain air and sea superiority for the Yijiangshan campaign began in November 1954 as a prerequisite for the landing operation. [9]

The amphibious landing consisted of three phases. The first phase was the firepower preparation and sea crossing operations commencing at 0800 on January 18, 1955 and lasting until 1330. Aviation fire strikes by bombers and fighter-bombers were launched against artillery positions and communications facilities on the Yijiangshan and Dachen islands to destroy key targets endangering the amphibious force and achieve information superiority. Firepower strikes then began against KMT defensive positions. Under cover of the PLAN, PLAAF and artillery firepower, the landing forces sailed in three columns towards the Yijiangshan landing beaches. KMT artillery conducted barrage fire against the formations, with PLA coastal artillery and aviation countering with firepower suppression against the artillery positions. [10]

The second phase was the amphibious assault at over twenty landing sites lasting from 1330 to 1500 on January 18, 1955. Naval forces screened the operation to the northeast and southwest, and aircraft screened to the south as well as providing cover over Yijiangshan. The 1st and 2nd Battalions, 178th Infantry Regiment, 60th Infantry Division landed on the larger northern island along the western and northern coast, with the 3rd Battalion in the second echelon. The 2nd Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment landed on the southwestern end of the smaller southern island. Bombers and fighter bombers conducted a second firepower preparation, with gunboats providing direct fire support destroying and suppressing KMT frontline fortified positions, and paralyzing command and control. Under covering fire, the three infantry battalions conducted the initial assaults on the two islands and secured beachheads. A landing command post was established on land at 1500. Five KMT warships counterattacked from the Dachen islands, but PLA aviation forced them back to their anchorage. [11]

The third phase consisted of combat to seize the islands lasting until 0200 on January 19, 1955. Propaganda and psychological operations were conducted against the defenders during the offensive. The landing force quickly broke through the enemy forward positions, and executed small group assaults on enemy defensive points throughout the islands. The enemy troops were defeated by 1750, and the landing forces began establishing a defense of the islands. The strategic consequence of the seizure of the Yijiangshan islands was that KMT control of the Dachen islands was rendered untenable, and KMT forces were evacuated in February 1955 under cover of the U.S. Navy and Air Force. [12]

The preparation and planning ensured the successful execution of the coordinated joint operation. Despite the lack of an established joint command structure, joint coordination procedures and limited knowledge between the services of each others capabilities, the joint commander’s careful preparation of the forces, and in particular the attention to intelligence collection and resolving coordination issues between the services, and emphasis on seizing air, sea, and information dominance contributed to the victory. Problems included several instances of poor organization and execution of the operational plan, and unauthorized changes to the plan without consulting with superior headquarters. The PLA continues to resolve joint command and coordination procedures with the establishment of joint theater commands, and PLA publications such as Science of Joint Tactics and Joint Operations Research discuss these subjects in detail, and the latter book uses the Yijiangshan operation as a lesson learned for joint command and coordination. The Yijiangshan joint operation is an example of the PLA’s ingenuity and flexibility successfully solving operational problems.[13]

Recent Areas of Improvement

Currently the PLA is transitioning from coordinated joint to integrated joint operations. While full implementation of an advanced integrated joint operations capability remains aspirational, the PLA has been incrementally improving their joint operations capabilities for more than a decade in the areas of joint command and coordination, fielding a more modern command information system, and conducting exercises with modular integrated joint task forces. While problems remain, the PLA’s capability to conduct joint operations is continually improving while working to identify and eliminate deficiencies.

The recent acceleration of military reforms by President Xi has jump started the effort to improve joint operations capabilities by establishing peacetime theater joint commands in place of the Army centric MRs, and emphasizing improvements to joint exercises and professional military education. The creation of the theater joint commands is an important step in removing impediments and moving towards a joint force. However, it will take time for the new headquarters to fully develop joint command and coordination procedures. The emphasis on training joint officers will support these efforts. The PLA is examining more flexible command and coordination measures to allow for greater initiative, realizing that the operational plan might not survive long in a modern, dynamic battlespace. While the PLA continues to prefer to follow the operational plan as long as possible, initiative and flexibility by commanders to respond to unforeseen situations or take advantage of fleeting opportunities are advocated as long as units achieve their assigned objectives. [14]

An integrated C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) system, or command information system in PLA parlance, represents the necessary foundation for both system of systems and integrated joint operations. The PLA is fielding integrated communications systems to better support joint forces at the campaign and tactical levels as part of the regional integrated electronic information system (区域综合电子信息系统qūyù zònghé diànzǐ xìnxī xìtǒng), a key program in C4ISR modernization efforts. A component of the system is the integrated command platform (一体指挥平台 yītǐ huà zhǐhuī píngtái) reportedly promoting integration of forces in part through the ability to share information, as well as promote improved real-time command and battlefield transparency. Importantly the command information system is intended to provide sensor-to-shooter integration with intelligence fusion and display of a common operating picture through an integrated battlefield situation map display. The new system is intended to solve interoperability problems prevalent in previous command and control systems. Problems continue including incompatibility between old and new systems, different technical standards and interface formats, as well as inadequate training of personnel. [15]

Another key component of integrated joint operations is developing modular integrated joint force groupings. These operational system of systems (作战体系 zuòzhàn tǐxì) have been exercised for over a decade in the form of joint campaign formations (联合战役军团liánhé zhànyì jūntuán) and joint tactical formations (联合战术兵团liánhé zhànshù bīngtuán). The PLA appeared to begin testing joint tactical formations in exercises as early as 2004. The focus transitioned to include increased joint campaign formation exercises by 2009. The ability to flexibly task organize joint forces at both the campaign and tactical levels will optimize the force mix for specific combat missions, and advanced command information systems will better integrate the joint forces. The integration of joint forces at lower echelons—the campaign and tactical levels—significantly improves the PLA’s joint operations capability over the coordinated joint operations where the services conduct operations according to the operational plan working towards assigned objectives, but with little integration of the services. [16]

While the PLA acknowledges problems and is working towards solutions, the PLA also identifies improvements in its joint capabilities. A recent authoritative publication by the Academy of Military Sciences, Science of Joint Tactics, concludes that the PLA has achieved significant improvements in long-range force projection and maneuver, reconnaissance and surveillance, long-range fire strikes, and information offensive and defensive capabilities. [17] These are important capabilities improving joint operations.

Advancing Joint Operations Capabilities

If the PLA were to conduct a joint operation currently, it would tend to be more coordinated than integrated. The PLA successfully conducted a coordinated joint operation, albeit small in scale, during the Yijiangshan island landing campaign, and the PLA is currently capable of conducting such a joint operation particularly against an adversary in the South China Sea. Careful preparation, planning, intelligence preparation, and attention to coordination between the joint forces are key elements to a successful coordinated joint campaign. A larger scale joint operation in a fast changing battlespace, particularly against an advanced military, could be problematic currently if the PLA were forced to deviate significantly from the operational plan. Under such circumstances command and control, and coordination between forces could be stressed greatly. However, the PLA does believe that a near-term conflict would be small-scale, short duration, with limited forces and objectives. Such a limited conflict would match current PLA joint capabilities, as long as the conflict did not escalate, which would always be a possibility. [18]


The PLA has advanced in key areas for more than a decade as it builds an integrated joint operations capability. These areas include joint command and coordination, an integrated C4ISR system, and employment of modular joint task forces at the campaign and tactical echelons during exercises. President Xi’s acceleration of military reforms emphasizes the advancement of joint operations capabilities, including joint training and education. While full implementation of an integrated joint capability will require time, the PLA has progressively enhanced its joint capabilities for over a decade, is better prepared to conduct joint operations now, and with successful implementation of the current military reforms in 2020, should continue improving integrated joint capabilities.

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Taiwan during 31 years in the U.S. Government. He has written numerous intelligence products for decision makers, combatant commands, combat and force developers, as well as contributing to the annual Report to Congress on China’s military power. Mr. McCauley has a forthcoming book, “Russian Influence Campaigns against the West. From the Cold War to Putin.”


1. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013), p. 200; Note that in December 1954 the U.S. and Republic of China signed a Mutual Defense Treaty after preparations for the joint landing operation had begun, coming into force in March 1955. However, the treaty only covered the main island of Taiwan and the Penghu archipelago, excluding Taiwan-held outer islands near the mainland coast including Kinmen, Matsu, and the Dachen island groups. Thus, China did not have to prepare for possible U.S. intervention.

2. China established six Military Regions in 1950, which were increased to 12 during 1955, 13 in 1956, reduced to 11 in 1968, seven in 1985, and finally reorganized into five Joint Theater Commands in 2016.

3. Joint Operations Research, pp. 28–29.

4. Joint Operations Research, p. 204.

5. Joint Operations Research, pp. 205–206; Armed Forces First Battle Yijiangshan, (Beijing: PLA Press, 2004), pp 76–86.

6. Joint Operations Research, pp. 204–205.

7. Joint Operations Research, p. 205.

8. Joint Operations Research, p. 28 and 204.

9. Armed Forces First Battle Yijiangshan, pp 71–76; Joint Operations Research, pp. 29 and 200.

10. Joint Operations Research, p. 201.

11. Joint Operations Research, p. 201; Armed Forces First Battle Yijiangshan, pp. 282–283.

12. Joint Operations Research, pp. 29–30 and 201.

13. Joint Operations Research, pp. 206–207.

14. Jiefangjun Bao Online, August 15, 2016; China Brief, April 9, 2014; Science of Joint Tactics, (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2014), pp. 169–174.

15. Jiefangjun Bao Online, April 24, 2010, “Incorporating Joint Military Training Into Track of System of Systems Operations Capability Building;” Jiefangjun Bao, January 23, 2006; Jiefangjun Bao, March 1, 2016; Jiefangjun Bao, March 25, 2016

16. Jiefangjun Bao Online, October 28, 2004, “Joint Training forms Joint Operations Capability;” Jiefangjun Bao, March 15, 2005, “Integrated Training from Theory to Practice;” Jiefangjun Bao, October 13, 2009, “Jinan Theater Armed Forces Joint Training…”

17. Science of Joint Tactics, pp. 185–186.

18. Science of Joint Tactics, p. 185.