Quality Over Quantity: A New PLA Modernization Methodology?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 14

Figure 1 Plan for System of Systems Generation of Warfighting Capabilities (Transformation, p. 88)

China announced a renewed push on military reforms in November 2013. A theoretical People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publication titled “Transformation of Generating Mode of Warfighting Capability” (official translation of zhandouli shengcheng moshi zhuanbian) proposes an accelerated and focused methodology for modernization to implement a system of systems operational capability (integration of information/weapons systems and units—for a discussion of system of systems operations terminology, see China Brief, October 5, 2012 and March 15, 2013). Authored by Colonel Dong Zifeng, who has held numerous positions in the PLAAF and military educational institutes as well as serving as a joint operations expert at the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), the book is intended to inform the PLA and specifically its effort at military modernization. The widespread adoption of the transformation concept by military publications suggests that the book may have influenced—or at least describes—an ongoing shift in the PLA’s approach to modernization.

In contrast to the current strategic modernization plan, which has a very general focus spread over a timeline out to mid-century, the author’s plan advocates a highly focused methodology and specific goals for accelerating and implementing the PLA’s transformational effort. This plan emphasizes the creation of improved command structures, operational methods and training methods, but also targeted equipment modernization, to achieve goals such as making effective joint operations possible. Unlike the ongoing plan emphasizing a broad approach to mechanizing and then “informationizing” the military with modern hardware, reforms to command structures appear to be bureaucratically difficult to achieve, with no real change to date. Recognizing these challenges, Dong argues that the PLA’s top modernization priority should be a focused effort to specifically develop system of systems operations with a flat command structure in order to enable integrated joint operations and other new operational methods.

In addition to the author’s association with the AMS, there are a number of reasons to think that his proposals reflect the direction of current policy. In last year’s defense white paper, the section on military modernization stressed the need to “speed up the transformation of the generating mode of combat effectiveness [warfighting capabilities],” the topic of the author’s book, while omitting reference to the official three-stage strategic modernization plan. President Xi Jinping has also associated himself with a high-profile campaign for military reform, prioritizing implementing system of systems operations, integrated joint operations and other new operational methods. Finally, the book’s topic—transforming the mode of generating combat effectiveness—is discussed regularly in the PLA press.

This does not necessarily mean that the author’s proposed plan is supplementing or supplanting the official strategic modernization plan, but China analysts should be aware of the possibility of significant change. [1] This article examines this proposal, as it contains a number of signposts for analysts to gauge possible ongoing or future changes in the PLA’s modernization plan and efforts to accelerate the transformation process that could provide China with enhanced military capabilities to respond to territorial disputes or possible instability on the Korean peninsula.


As with many PLA terms and phrases, the meaning of the transformation concept is opaque. When Dong and the PLA use the phrase “transforming the mode of generating combat effectiveness,” they are talking about an effort to shift the focus of modernization from quantity to quality, increasing the warfighting potential of the PLA by embracing the revolution in military affairs based on information technology; fielding high tech equipment; improving professional military education and unit training; and adopting new, modern doctrines and tactics. Dong views this shift as key to overcoming challenges facing the PLA.

These problem areas include the PLA’s fielding of multiple generations of weapons and equipment; contentious issues in theoretical research; concurrent development of mechanization and informationization; lack of recent combat experience; and a step-by-step development process which threatens to leave the PLA behind the world’s advanced militaries. The intent is to accelerate modernization by focusing the effort on the key transformational areas of system of systems operations, establishing integrated force groupings and conceiving new operational methods (operational art and tactics). [2]

The author believes there are four main fulcrums for leveraging the PLA’s transformation and increasing warfighting capabilities, which are also major themes in official PLA publications:

  • The leading role of information, which is the dominant element in information age warfare
  • Flat control, leading to new command and control relationships
  • System of systems operations, providing integrated information systems
  • Comprehensive integration based on systems of systems operations, leading to integration of combat and support forces with advanced capabilities (Transformation, pp. 1-2).

Basic Methods for Generating Combat Effectiveness

Generating warfighting capabilities based on quality involves the development and acquisition of modern systems, but also requires the PLA to create soldiers and organizational structures that can use them effectively. Dong believes there are five basic methods to increase warfighting capabilities, most of which are already discussed in existing PLA modernization plans. However, Dong proposes a comprehensive scheme to identify and create only the most effective equipment and institutional structures, rebalancing these five methods:

  • Expanding quantity—the military structure, quantity and scale of equipment. This is a traditional model that the Transformation model relegates to a secondary status.
  • Improve quality, including weapons and equipment, formation of new type operational forces, reform and improvements in military training using such means as advanced training bases, network and simulation training centers. These areas are currently being improved to a degree, but Transformation views this as an important method requiring new content and closer coordination.
  • Reform the command structure to form a flat, efficient command system of systems; change force structure towards integrated joint operations forces; adjust forces and deployment to meet new operational requirements; and adopt innovative theories and new operational methods to increase the forces capabilities. The author views this as a new, key method to generate combat effectiveness, and these are key components of the recently announced military reforms.
  • Building/seizing advantageous situations created by various actions globally, regionally, in theaters of operation or on a battlefield to accelerate the development of advantages into deterrence, and if deterrence fails, transform advantageous situations into wartime victory. The author views this as the information age method of generating combat capabilities.
  • Reform of military practices to support PLA transformation, such as increased use of computer simulations to determine optimal force structures, use of Battle Lab experimentation as a less expensive alternative to field exercises for testing new operational concepts and plans. This is occurring within the PLA, but perhaps not as extensively or in an integrated matter as the author proposes (Transformation, pp. 20-21).

Methodology for Combat Effectiveness Generation

Even though both Dong and the PLA want to speed up the modernization process, his methodology proposes a shift from a single long-term plan to an evolutionary cycle with updates throughout the process.  The cycle includes:

  1. Operational methods provide requirements for core technologies
  2. A focused research and development process for weapons and equipment modernization
  3. Integration of modern equipment into operational forces
  4. Tactical innovation and experimentation to develop new operational methods, feeding new requirements back into the process

The core elements—operational methods, key technologies, weapons and equipment and operational forces—also drive the requirements for specific personnel skills and talents (Transformation, pp. 50-53).

The author’s methodology to increase combat effectiveness by implementing the system of systems operations and joint operations capability consists of three stages (see figure 1). National security requirements lead to military capability requirements which drive the entire process, ending in battlefield testing. A feedback loop exists for newly developed concepts updating the process.

The first stage generates operational elements (basic combat capabilities such as command and control, reconnaissance or firepower), necessary for the generation of operational systems of systems in stage two, and finally leading to generation of new operational methods in the third stage. Generation of operational elements is influenced by requirements based on the international environment, military strategy, military technology and military theory, as well as the status of personnel, weapons and equipment and military organization.

The second stage is the generation of force groupings tightly knit with integrated C4ISR. This is defined as having a flat command, information dominance, and system of systems operations capability providing comprehensive integration of units and equipment—covering the four main fulcrums discussed above for leveraging the transformation and generation of warfighting capabilities. This stage is influenced by training, Battle Lab experimentation and testing, and warfare analysis. Testing and experimentation also leads to new theoretical development for possible feedback into the ongoing process.

The third stage, generating new operational methods, is considered the most important. This determines new operational art and tactics for employment by the new integrated force groupings (operational system of systems), producing enhanced warfighting capabilities.

Dong believes that new operational methods will lead to combat that is shorter in duration and limited spatially, which in turn increases war control, and thereby reduces risks and costs. These same ideas have been presented in PLA discussions of precision operations (See China Brief Volume 12 Issue 6) (Transformation, pp. 86-89).

Adopting a Transformation Approach?

Even though the official three-stage strategic modernization plan was not mentioned in last year’s defense white paper, it still appears to remain the general modernization plan. A Jiefangjun Bao article from February 2013 does refer to the three-step strategic modernization plan and the 2020 milestone for the second stage. The author does not provide timelines for his more focused modernization plan, or whether it is intended to supplant or supplement the more general strategic plan. Last year’s defense white paper clearly emphasizes several times the need to accelerate modernization while specifically mentioning transformation of the generating mode of combat effectiveness. Table 1 shows a comparison of the two plans. Time will tell whether the author’s modernization plan is adopted, although there is some evidence that at least  similar concepts are becoming  part of PLA modernization planning based on the white paper and the fact that system of systems operations and joint operations are an important focus of PLA research.

Developing new operational methods and concepts are a key element in generating warfighting capabilities. Battle Labs are considered by the author and the PLA as an important information age simulation and wargaming means to test new operational theories, verify concepts before moving to expensive field testing, and in the end generate warfighting capabilities. However, the PLA considers its Battle Lab system incomplete. Some Battle Labs have been established, but they act independently rather than coordinating work with other military operations laboratories. With the recent emphasis on standardization and high level direction in important issues, it would seem likely that the PLA will take a more centralized approach towards establishing a network of Battle Labs with coordinated research efforts in the future (Transformation, p. 37; Jiefangjun Bao, December 9, 2010, June 28, 2012, and February 4, 2010; Zhongguo Tongxin She, July 22, 2007; China’s National Defense in 2008).

Dong’s plan to accelerate PLA modernization appears to rely on establishing more precise goals then the strategic plan, and on speeding the development and implementation of new operational methods. Of course, accelerate is a relative term in “PLA time.” Even as President Xi is reemphasizing military reform, the PLA press has stated that any changes would be deliberate, requiring repeated demonstrations and scientific assessments prior to implementation, as major reform initiatives can affect the entire military system (Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces; China’s National Defense in 2008; Jiefangjun Bao, Febrauary 3, 2013; China Military Online, March 16). Again, it is not clear how this deliberate approach squares with the stated need to speed up modernization.

Table 1: Modernization Plans

Strategic Plan for National Defense and Armed Forces Building

(official plan)

System of Systems Warfighting Capabilities Generation

(proposed plan)

Stage One

Lay a solid foundation by 2010


Stage Two

Accomplish mechanization and make major progress towards informationization by 2020

Stage One

Operational Elements (combat capabilities) Generation

Stage Three

Basically reach strategic goal of modernization by mid-21st Century

Stage Two

Operational System of Systems (integrated force grouping) Generation

Stage Three

Operational Methods (operational art and tactics) Generation



Possible Signs of a Change of Approach

Dong highlights key elements of his plan, giving analysts metrics to watch for a possible change and acceleration of the PLA modernization plan. These include key areas that he believes are required to build the synergistic effect between highly integrated forces and systems:

  • Developing new operational methods and theories, and importantly, accelerating the transition from theory into capability. This is critical. Heretofore, it has taken the PLA extensive time to develop theories and operationalize them within the force. An example is PLAAF firepower support to the ground forces, which has been a research and experimentation focus since the early 1990s, but by the PLA’s own admission is still not flexible.
  • Significant downsizing and/or focusing fielding of standardized modern equipment to key units to allow for accelerated force modernization, and eliminate problems with units fielding multiple generations and types of equipment. This would support a single focus on implementing systems of systems operations capability in order to speed up the process, rather than the current dual focus on mechanization and informationization.
  • Expansion and integration of Battle Labs, simulation and wargaming centers, and key training bases. This would be in conjunction with standardization and improvements in unit training, training evaluation, and military education.
  • Construction of a force wide integrated C4ISR system in order to implement joint operations, including a long-promised flatter command structure (Transformation, pp. 25-28).


Transformation of generating mode of combat effectiveness, as described by the author, represents a more focused modernization effort to implement the key warfighting capabilities of system of systems operational capability and integrated joint operations viewed by the PLA  as critical to winning future wars. The author views his methodology as a proactive approach to accelerate the slow, incremental progress towards modernization to date, in part by narrowing the focus of the modernization effort and by more rapidly developing and implementing new concepts to drive requirements for the PLA’s transformation. The expressed need to accelerate modernization is not specifically addressed in either PLA literature or the author’s discussion. This requirement could be a recognition of the inadequacy of the current slow approach with unending research of new operational theories with a seeming inability to reach the implementation phase, or it could be in response to fears that territorial tensions or instability on the Korean peninsula could lead to conflicts sooner rather than later.  However, the PLA press appears contradictory, stating the need to accelerate modernization, while at the same time stressing a careful, deliberate approach to avoid disrupting the military.

The PLA and the author both envision a smaller, leaner, flexible, high-tech military, capable of conducting new types of joint operations during a broad array of potential missions.  President Xi’s recently announced military reform reset demonstrates renewed pressure to achieve progress on these goals. Dong’s plan represents a possible means to do so, and one which has attracted interest—but only time will tell if it is adopted, and whether it can overcome the obstacles that slowed former plans.

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the former-Soviet Union, Russia, and China during his career in the federal government. He has written numerous intelligence products for decision makers and combatant commands, including contributing to the annual Report to Congress on China’s military power. Mr. McCauley is currently researching and writing a book on Chinese warfare.


  1. Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2013).
  2. Dong Zifeng, Transformation of Generating Mode of War Fighting Capability, (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2012) pp. 23-24. Hereafter Transformation.