A current focus of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) theoretical writings and exercises is information system-based system of systems operational capability, which they view as a key requirement and enabler for integrated joint operations. The PLA views integrated joint operations as the future trend that represents an advanced stage of joint operations, unifying forces down to the tactical level through information technology to create a seamless networked information system to increase combat effectiveness (“PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability [Part One]: Joint Task Force Experimentation,” China Brief, May 20, 2011; PLA Daily, July 7, 2004). PLA theory in this area is influenced by U.S. joint developments, network centric warfare and system of systems theory .
Recently, the PLA press described modernization advances in communications, satellite navigation, and reconnaissance capabilities that enable greater sharing of information, situational awareness, and a flatter command structure. These have all been identified in PLA doctrinal writings as important components supporting these theoretical concepts (PLA Daily, September 17). This article examines system of systems operations and the related concept of operational system of systems—both related to the integration of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and the capabilities that form the foundation for PLA efforts to implement integrated joint operations.
While integrated joint operation is the goal, the PLA believes operationalizing it will require extensive force modernization as well as qualified personnel adept in information technology and joint operations command. The PLA appears to view joint operations under informationized conditions (xinxi hua tiaojian xia lianhe zuozhan), relying on lower levels of force modernization and joint operations capabilities, as an evolutionary step in its transformation .
C4ISR and Force Integration Capabilities
An integrated C4ISR system and command & control procedures with greater agility are fundamental requirements for integrated joint operation capabilities, representing a key area of PLA modernization, research and experimentation (“The PLA’s Three-Pronged Approach to Achieving Jointness in Command and Control,” China Brief, March 15). The regional integrated electronic information system (quyu zonghe dianzi xinxi xitong) is a key component of C4ISR modernization efforts .
As the PLA has modernized, it has come to realize that the development of combat and support capabilities are based on the integration of the armaments of entire units and entire systems at different layers, with different structures, and in different ways to create a synergy boosting overall capabilities and combat effectiveness (PLA Daily, September 9, 2010). The area of C4ISR capabilities to integrate forces and generate combat effectiveness by means of a complex system of systems is where PLA concepts become especially intertwined and difficult to understand.
The most important theoretical concept, which the PLA began to examine at the end of 2005, is information system-based system of systems operational capability (jiyu xinxi xitong de tixi zuozhan nengli), representing key integration and capabilities required to implement integrated joint operations. The capability also will support precision operations, combined arms combat, and diverse military tasks (“Developing a Framework for PLA Precision Operations” China Brief, July 7, 2010) . System of systems operational capability, as conceived, will enable complex confrontation between systems of systems rather than single system on system confrontation of the past. The PLA considers system of systems operations a transformation in generating combat capabilities, often portrayed by the PLA as 1 + 1 > 2. It relies on information systems, specifically the military information system linkage and interoperability capabilities to unify and optimize force groupings, provide real-time information sharing and precision control of combat operations. System of systems operations serves as a multiplier for the capabilities of real-time awareness, efficient command, precision strike, rapid maneuver, full-dimensional protection and comprehensive support (PLA Daily, January 27, 2011; Military Terms, 2011, p. 79) .
A system of systems operational capability will accelerate operational response times to enhance firepower and maneuver, particularly by shortening and streamlining decision making and sensor to shooter times to get inside an opponent’s decision cycle. Additionally, it will enable units to operate with greater independence in dispersed deployment in a nonlinear battlespace; yet synchronize operations within a centralized command structure with some allowance for initiative (PLA Daily, November 11, 2010).
System of systems operations is described as essentially a process, based on the information systems, to optimize and allocate operational forces and resources in order to generate combat power, increase combat effectiveness, and streamline and integrate systems and organizations (PLA Daily, August 18, 2011; April 24, 2010). System of systems operations has the following requirements: support of the military information system, and in particular the subset command information system; real-time sharing of battlefield information through the interconnection, interoperability and intercommunication of the military information system; establishment of a centralized but geographically distributed interactive command network to synchronize the combat of dispersed forces; linkage of operational elements; the ability to rapidly recover and regenerate capabilities after enemy strikes; and the ability to dynamically reorganize modular task forces to meet changing operational requirements (PLA Daily, August 18, 2011; April 24, 2010) .
A related concept is operational system of systems (zuozhan tixi). This represents a network information system based on the combination of various operational systems (zuozhan xitong) and forces formed into an organic whole (Military Terms, 2011, p. 63) . It refers to the entire system that conducts combat operations including systems, forces and support. For example, the air defense forces of a service could represent a branch-level operational system of systems that are linked together with air defense units from other services to build an integrated multi-service joint operations system that has redundancy and reorganization capabilities for greater survivability and agility (PLA Daily, September 23, 2011) .
PLA writings discuss forming operational system of systems with a three- or four-tiered structure. A four-tiered structure could be formed with the following components: operational system of systems; service-level operational unit; branch-level operational unit; and operational entity (shiti, the smallest unit in an operational system of systems). A three-tiered structure would include the following: operational system of systems; service- or branch-level operational unit; and operational entity .
Operational system of systems, essentially a campaign or tactical level group, will be task organized depending on the mission. For example, in a large-scale island offensive in a potential Taiwan scenario, the operational system of systems could be composed of informationized joint forces, including rapid maneuver forces as a vanguard, precision strike forces as the main body with backing by other forces .
There are additional terms employed in PLA writings on system of system operational capability that appear with some frequency, including the following:
· Operational Unit (zuozhan danyuan): Operational units, composed of various operational elements, are task organized to meet mission requirements and represent a basic unit that can complete an operational task. They can be combined to form higher level operational units and operational system of systems. Examples include an armor brigade or regiment task organized for an assault or various operational groupings such as an assault group (jituan), in-depth defense group (qun) or special operations group (zu) (Military Terms, 2011, p. 63) .
· Operational Element (zuozhan yaosu): Operational elements constitute the necessary factors of operational units and operational systems (xitong). The new Military Terms (2011) lists the following operational elements: command and control; reconnaissance and intelligence; firepower strike; information confrontation; maneuver; protection; and support ( p. 63).
· Information Systems (xinxi xitong): These provide the material foundation, consisting of multiple civilian information systems and the military information system. System of systems operational capabilities rely primarily on the military information system, particularly the subset command information system. The command information system—which consists of the command and control, reconnaissance and early warning, and comprehensive support systems—plays a fundamental role in the formation of the system of systems operational capability (PLA Daily, November 11, 2010) .
· Operational System (zuozhan xitong): An operational system is composed of operational units formed into an organic whole, constituting basic functions of the operational system of systems, such as firepower strike systems, information confrontation systems and comprehensive support systems (Military Terms, 2011, p. 63).
The PLA currently is working on these concepts to establish the required foundation for integrated joint operations. It has identified several areas to address in order to support these doctrinal concepts. The focus areas include improving the informationization level of the command system; improving the quality of officer’s information technology knowledge and skills; optimizing command procedures and architecture; and improving capabilities of information technology for command confrontation .
The PLA’s evolving theoretical concepts and terminology in pursuit of integrated joint operations is complex and interrelated. These key PLA doctrinal concepts and their importance and relationship to overall transformation efforts are critical for understanding evolving operational art, tactics and training. It appears the PLA considers its current joint doctrine as joint operations under conditions of informationization relying on limited force modernization and joint capabilities. Integrated joint operations, if successfully implemented, will greatly increase the PLA’s operational capabilities and flexibility in a potential conflict. The PLA is making incremental progress towards implementing integrated joint operations with its modernization program, training and exercise efforts, and its success will depend on the establishment of a system of systems operational capability.
System of systems operational capabilities based on information systems is viewed by the PLA as a key enabler for future combat operations (PLA Daily, September 26, 2011). It represents the integration of systems and forces that will provide significant capabilities, such as situational awareness, precision command & strike and rapid maneuver. The importance of developing these capabilities explains the PLA’s focus on this subject in recent writings and training.
Operational system of systems appears to be a new way of addressing force groupings at the campaign and tactical levels incorporating a system of systems building block approach that, if successful, should support modular grouping or regrouping of forces to meet operational requirements or make adjustments during the course of operational phases.
These theoretical concepts represent a major PLA doctrinal effort. Major impediments, as born out in exercises, are continued C4ISR integration issues and the lack of qualified officers. Consequently, the PLA is emphasizing C4ISR modernization, experimental joint exercises and professional military education efforts. Success in these efforts is critical for the PLA’s overall transformation efforts and future warfighting capabilities.
Comprehensive Integrated Study of the Military Information System, PLA Communication Command Academy, Beijing: Haichao Publishing House, 2011, pp. 168–170; Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011,, pp. 30–31. PLA writings also indicate an influence by the futurist writings of the Alvin and Heidi Toffler.
Military Terms (Academy of Military Sciences. Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011), p. 68. Hereafter, cited in text as Military Terms, 2011.
Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 5 Information Systems, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, p. 3.
Translated by the PLA as “system war-fighting capability based on information systems,” Military Terms, Academy of Military Sciences. Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011, p. 79. The series Information System-Based System of System Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, discusses the subject in relation to ground force combined arms combat; Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, Jun 2011, p. 101.
Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011, pp. 3, 8.
Ibid., pp. 3–7.
The PLA translates both zuozhan tixi and zuozhan xitong as “operational system” in Military Terms (2011), to avoid confusion operational system of systems will be used for the former and operational system for the latter.
Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011, pp. 7–11.
Ibid., pp. 28–29.
Ibid., pp. 48–49.
Ibid., pp. 27–28; Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 1 Operations, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 5–7.
Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijng: National Defense University Press, June 2011, pp. 11–22; Study on Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability, Vol. 5 Information Systems, Nanjing Army Command College. Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. xx.
Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011, pp. 48–49.