System of System Operational Capability: Impact on PLA Transformation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 8

Several recent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publications discuss requirements for implementing system of systems operations, which is considered the key enabler for integrated joint operations (IJO). The requirements are both broad and deep, indicating that these two theoretical developments are driving many of the changes that are part of the PLA’s transformational efforts. While both of these areas—system of systems and IJO—remain largely aspirational, they are critical to generating greater combat effectiveness and operational capabilities in the future. This article examines reform to training, exercises and education; modernization and integration of information systems; and streamlining and modernization of the force structure to support development of system of systems operations and modernization of key operational elements (“System of Systems Operational Capability: Operational Units and Elements,” China Brief, March 15; “System of Systems Operational Capability: Key Supporting Concepts For Future Joint Operations,” China Brief, October 5, 2012). Many of the modernization and restructuring efforts already are evident, such as reorganizations within the General Staff Department (GSD) to create lead agencies for joint training and information technology modernization, while some are not.

A National Defense University (NDU) publication notes that equipment modernization is not the main impediment to the PLA’s transformational efforts. The main constraints are the needs to cultivate quality personnel, eliminate parochial interests of the services and institutional conflicts. While the PLA is working to increase personnel with joint operations and high-tech capabilities, proposed solutions to institutional problems appear limited [1].

Exercises, Training and Education

System of systems and joint operations theories are changing operational patterns and methods, which in turn are leading to new educational and training requirements to address the lack of personnel with high-tech and joint operations experience; to train units on integrated information systems to promote the establishment of operational system of systems; and to move toward greater testing and demonstrations in exercises to advance theoretical concepts. Cultivating skilled personnel—especially joint commanders and staff—is viewed as critical to this effort, as highlighted by the PLA in the recent National People’s Congress (NPC) (PLA Daily, March 12; China Military Online, March 1; March 8). Interestingly, the PLA also cites the problem of limited funding for training, leading to the search for more effective and efficient training methods to save money, material, manpower and time (SOSOC 100 Questions, p. 226).

The creation of the Military Training Department of the GSD in December 2011—which was formed from the Military Training and Arms Department—appears to have been in response to a recommendation to establish an authoritative lead training agency for management, decision making, and greater standardization across the PLA. This lead agency also is tasked to oversee and direct joint training in a more scientific and rational manner, focusing on the strategic and operational levels; and establish a standardized training system and regime to improve training coordination, support and evaluation system (ISBSOSOS pp. 344–347; SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 225–226, 232; PLA Daily, December 22, 2011).

Recent press reporting has highlighted the need to conduct realistic combat training and strengthen the psychological and physical toughness of troops to meet the demands of future combat operations. The PLA is concerned with the lengthy process to convert from peacetime to wartime status in response to a sudden crisis. Training based on realistic combat conditions will better prepare troops psychologically, maintain a higher level of combat preparation, and shorten the time for units to convert to wartime readiness levels. A recommendation to establish theater joint commands in peacetime is part of this requirement to prepare for a sudden conflict (SOSOC 100 Questions pp. 218, 230).

Integrated Joint Training

The PLA views integrated joint training as an advanced training method to achieve an integrated joint operations capability. This type of training will assist in forming system of systems capabilities through the vertical and lateral integration of operational elements, units and systems between branches and services in order to generate greater combat effectiveness and win an informationized war. Integrated joint training requirements include the following:

  • Command information system linking informationized equipment training to further the integration of weapons, equipment, and units;
  • Training focused on theater combat missions such as joint fire strikes, large-scale amphibious landing operations, or isolating near-shore islands;
  • Integration of key operational elements, particularly intelligence, command and control, joint strike, full-dimensional protection and comprehensive support that are viewed by the PLA as critical to the implementation of IJO;
  • High-level direction to prioritize training objectives, system demonstrations and pilot projects for experimentation;
  • Modular group training (SOSOC 100 Questions pp. 241–253).

Training Bases

The PLA believes that integrated training bases are also a key component to implementing its warfighting concepts, promote continued theoretical research, develop new tactics and enhance combat capabilities. Its large training bases have been upgraded in the past decade, but further modernization is required. The PLA hopes to create multi-functional training bases that are teamed with military educational institutes to promote greater interaction and rigor in evaluating training exercises. Some of the suggested facility upgrades include simulation and network training; multi-media classrooms; equipment simulators; and officer educational centers. On a larger scale, authoritative PLA writings recommend expanding training facilities to create high-tech combat, confrontational, complex electromagnetic and non-combat contingency training environments as well as sufficient capacity to enable large-scale unit rotations.

Additional recommendations to improve training management in order to coordinate, monitor and evaluate training include the following:

  • Greater standardization of exercise programs for uniformity in training quality;
  • Real or near real-time monitoring and tracking of training events;
  • Objective and accurate joint and combined arms training examination and evaluation standards for units focused on combat effectiveness;
  • Improved digital evaluation system embedded into weapon systems with rapid recording, processing, feedback and assessment capabilities (ISBSOSOS pp. 344–347; SOSOC 100 Questions pp. 220–241).

A recent PLA press release reported that the Jinan MR was assigned the first pilot project on joint campaign training evaluation on March 29, 2013. In coordination with military educational institutes, the Jinan MR is tasked with promoting standardization of a joint evaluation system, which solves problems with content, quality index, and evaluation means and methods (China Military Online, April 1).

Simulation and Network Training

The PLA plans to improve and expand use of simulation and network training as part of its informationized training effort. The PLA views this type of training as an efficient and cost-effective method that can flexibly increase the complexity of training scenarios; provide repetition of scenarios; simulate future operational environments for experimentation; and validate campaign and tactical combat theories while reducing equipment wear and material consumption. In parallel with other recommendations for high-level management and direction, the PLA proposes the establishment of a national-level simulation institution, perhaps within the Military Training Department of the GSD. Such an institute would be used to establish and manage uniform training technology and standards, promote computer simulation training, cultivate combat simulation system research and development specialists as well as develop simulation software and equipment, including a high-tech simulation platform for training multiple command levels (ISBSOSOS, pp. 344–347; SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 218–236).

Cultivating Quality Personnel

The PLA realizes that military personnel are a critical resource to support modernization and meet the needs of future warfare. The PLA also notes that compared to highly advanced armed forces, the PLA’s current information literacy is low and its lack of specialized and technical personnel is constraining modernization (SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 208, 224). Personnel training recommendations to cultivate high quality personnel include: reform academic training program content, particularly high-tech and joint command knowledge; increase job rotation and cross-training efforts; expand opportunities for joint command personnel to study abroad; integrate academic institutes with exercises; and increase use of on-line courses (ISBSOSOS, pp. 347–351; SOSOC 100 Questions, p. 236).

The PLA reform of the noncommissioned officer corps to create a foundation for technical expertise to master weapons and equipment is part of this effort (“Reforming the People’s Liberation Army’s Noncommissioned Officer Corps and Conscripts,” China Brief, October 28, 2011). Other plans include an improved examination and evaluation mechanism to recruit, select and promote information technology talent and better students for military education institutes; and a greater training focus on use of digital maps, satellite navigation and positioning, intelligence and communications systems (SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 210–224).

Modernization and Integration of Information Systems

Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) development represents the foundation for system of systems operations, and the PLA has been fielding components of the regional integrated electronic information system (quyu zonghe dianzi xinxi xitong)—a key program in C4ISR modernization efforts (China Military Online, April 24, 2010) [2]. Various PLA publications have described problems with the information systems, including lack of integration, fragmentation and outdated software. Integration, particularly between the services, has appeared as an ad hoc effort left to the individual military regions (MR). A major recommendation to correct identified problems is to establish a high-level management institution for research and development issues, such as instituting comprehensive information system construction norms and standards (China Military Online, December 14, 2011; March 10, 2011; ISBSOSOS pp. 243–244) [3].

The GSD Communication Department was restructured into the Informationization Department in June 2011 to serve as a lead agency for greater centralization over information technology modernization, including development of integrated information systems and information security. Recent press reports describe improved integration of the command information system, and Jinan MR’s debut in October 2011 of an integrated joint command system was touted as an example of progress. This effort was probably part of a pilot project launched in 2010 in Beijing, Jinan and Nanjing MRs experimenting with the employment of information systems. This pilot project included the Academy of Military Sciences, Shijiazhuang Army Command College, Nanjing Army Command College and the Communication Command College. The inclusion of these high-level organizations in the process indicates the project’s importance (China Military Online, November 21, 2012; December 14, 2011) [4].

At least some within the PLA recognize the need to create theater joint operational commands. The current MR headquarters are dominated by the Army and do not represent a joint command. This reportedly leads to friction between the services affecting timeliness and precision command at this level (ISBSOSOS, pp. 244–246). One recommendation—based on the Russian military’s creation of operational commands based on main strategic directions—is to transform the MR headquarters into joint operational commands. The suggestion that they be based on main strategic directions implies a possible reduction in MRs or having some joint commands covering more than one MR. Several joint command structures have been proposed, including the following:

  • An organizational-based joint command system with subordinate service, Second Artillery Force (SAF), logistics, equipment and national defense mobilization command elements;
  • A functional-based system with subordinate command elements, such as strike operations, counterattack, air defense, information operations and rear operations;
  • Several subordinate area commands organized functionally (ISBSOSOS, pp. 244–254; China Military Online, November 25, 2011; July 1, 2011).

Force Restructuring and Modernization

Efforts to improve efficiency, particularly operational command efficiency, across the services include reduction of staffs and redundant organizations to eliminate overlapping functions and mandates as well as flattening command levels. According to PLA publications, failure to resolve these issues will limit the military’s efficiency and execution of orders, resulting in passive, reactive combat operations (ISBSOSOS, pp. 241–243).

Recent force reductions and restructuring occurred in the late 1990s and again in 2003–2005, but the PLA believes further efforts are needed. Recommendations for all the services include streamlining the force structure, optimizing the force composition and combined arms capabilities, and compression of non-combat units. A further ground force reduction is probable, perhaps after more extensive modernization. Some areas will continue to expand, including Army Aviation, special operations, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) offensive forces, psychological warfare, cyber operations and space operations forces (ISBSOSOS, pp. 341; SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 177–183)

General equipment modernization trends are focused on developing key operational elements across the services including the following capabilities: long-range precision strike, maneuver and force projection, reconnaissance, air defense as well as information and electronic warfare. Robotic and stealth technologies also are highlighted. Interestingly, Second Artillery modernization is not discussed, and space operations are discussed within the context of foreign developments (SOSOC 100 Questions, pp. 165–189).


Successful implementation of system of systems and integrated joint operations can enhance PLA future combat capabilities greatly. Operationalizing these concepts is having a wide-ranging impact on transformational efforts, including reform to training, exercises, and education; organizational restructuring; and equipment modernization to support the development of operational elements. Many of the efforts detailed in this article are underway, although continued and improved efforts are required. Other changes—such as the establishment of theater joint commands—appear to remain recommendations for now.

Proposed solutions to the identified problem of parochial service interests and institutional impediments are limited. Education reform to cultivate a new generation of joint officers will take time. It is not clear that proposals to establish theater joint commands, or the reorganization of key GSD departments will provide the centralized and authoritative leadership required to remove these road blocks to reform.

Professional military education, training and exercise reform can have significant effects on the success or failure of transformation efforts. The PLA appears to be acting on a number of recommendations coming out of its studies of system of systems operations, such as upgrading training bases and restructuring of military educational institutes. Analysis of integrated joint exercises can provide insights into the development of IJO; however, the recommendation to rely to a greater extent on simulations and network wargaming for joint training, perhaps combined with dispersed field training, could make this analysis difficult. This approach to joint training and experimentation would make it difficult if not impossible to collect information on the PLA’s progress. The focus on realistic training and increasing combat capabilities is in part an effort to reduce the time for units to transition to wartime readiness and prepare personnel psychologically for combat in the event of a sudden crisis. High combat readiness combined with training based on theater combat missions would allow PLA units to rapidly mobilize and depart their garrisons and require less pre-battle training preparation, which could lead to reduced warning time and indicators during a crisis, particularly when denial and deception measures are employed.

Equipment modernization is important to the PLA’s informationization effort with C4ISR being the critical component. Other modernization efforts across the services are focused on supporting the key operational elements such as joint firepower strikes, maneuver and mobility, reconnaissance and information confrontation.

Again, system of systems and IJO are in an early stage of development, and the broad range of modernization and reform efforts required will likely make their implementation a long, difficult process. Success in operationalizing these theories, however, can lead to a PLA that is an advanced military force capable of meeting diverse contingencies.


  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, 2011, pp. 196–197. The former is cited hereafter in text as ISBSOSOS and the latter as SOSOC 100 Questions.
  2. Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 5, Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, p. 3. This will be cited hereafter in text as SoSBSOSOC.
  3. Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 2, Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, p 3. This will be cited hereafter in text as SoSBSOSOC.
  4. Nanjing Army Command College, Operational Use of Information Systems, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011, p. 1.