System of Systems Operational Capability: Operational Units and Elements

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 6

Editor’s Note: This article as well as a subsequent article on the impact of System of Systems of Operations on Chinese military modernization are based upon Mr. McCauley’s presentation at Jamestown’s Third Annual China Defense and Security Conference held on February 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The successful development and implementation of Integrated Joint Operations (IJO) and the supporting “System of Systems Operations” probably will have a significant impact on future People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warfighting capabilities. Ongoing education and training reforms, organizational restructuring and equipment modernization efforts are interrelated and will have an important role in the success or failure of PLA transformational efforts.

The PLA has developed a series of terms that are essential to following discussions and understanding the complex theoretical foundation for system of systems operational capability (tixi zuozhan nengli). This article examines two of the terms in greater depth: “operational unit” (zuozhan danyuan) and “operational elements” (zuozhan yaosu), to gain a deeper understanding of system of systems operations (“System of Systems Operational Capability: Key Supporting Concepts for Future Joint Operations,” China Brief October 5, 2012). Operational unit is important for understanding the concept of modular force groupings, while operational elements are the warfighting capabilities that are fused by system of systems operations in order to generate a greater combat effectiveness.

Until recently, some PLA academics and operational analysts disagreed on the definitions associated with system of systems operational capability. Last year, however, the Academy of Military Science (AMS) and National Defense University (NDU) appear to have settled on official definitions for the various terms through NDU’s publication of Information-Based System of Systems Operations Study and AMS’s Military Terms [1].

It must be emphasized that both system of systems operations and IJO still are mostly theoretical and being experimented with and tested in exercises. They represent the operational capabilities the PLA hopes to achieve at some point in the future. A broad and deep transformational effort is required, including continued theoretical development, cultivating quality personnel, restructuring organizations, changing institutional culture as well as equipment modernization.

Operational Units

Operational units are the basis for understanding the PLA concept of modular units. Operational units are organized by task for a specific mission primarily at the tactical level. They can independently accomplish certain combat missions and represent basic “plug and play,” building-block modular units. These modular forces can be rapidly formed or reformed in larger groupings to meet changing operational requirements. Within the ground forces, combined arms battalions are considered the basic operational unit to be used as a modular force for building larger task organized groups or tactical formations (bingtuan), which in turn form joint campaign formations (juntuan) and operational system of systems (zuozhan tixi) [2].

The PLA defines four general categories of operational units that usually include multiple operational elements or capabilities. These four categories are as follows:

  • Assault Unit: Units within an operational system of systems with a comprehensive assault capability, and usually include the capabilities of reconnaissance and intelligence; command and control; strike/attack; firepower and support;
  • Command Unit: A command post (basic, rear, alternate or forward) to ensure control and coordination by means of the integrated information system through information sharing, distributed decision-making, parallel planning, real-time control as well as effective evaluation and assessment capabilities;
  • Firepower Unit: Comprehensive firepower strike capability, including air defense forces, with the capabilities of reconnaissance and intelligence, command and control, firepower and firepower effects assessments;
  • Support Unit: Combat, logistics and equipment support, usually including the capabilities of reconnaissance and intelligence as well as command and control [3].

The modular force formation or restructuring during the course of a combat operation using the building block operational units with the capabilities of multiple operational elements will support the formation of operational system of systems—the highly integrated force groupings to conduct IJO. The modular force concept provides for flexibility in tailoring the correct force composition to meet changing operational requirements on the future battlefield.

Operational Elements [4]

Operational elements are key capabilities that are fused by the integrated information system to generate greater combat effectiveness. They represent the capabilities the PLA is developing in integrated joint training and supported by modernization efforts. Operational elements are as follows: reconnaissance and intelligence, command and control, precision strike, three-dimensional maneuver, information confrontation, full-dimensional protection, comprehensive support and the “Three Warfares” [5].

Reconnaissance and Intelligence

Reconnaissance and intelligence are required to support commanders at all levels to maintain initiative and successfully conduct combat operations on the dynamic battlefield [6]. System of systems operations require the timely fusion of accurate multi-source intelligence and reconnaissance information to provide a common operating picture to commanders and staffs, meet the requirements of operational units, and shorten the sensor-to-shooter time to optimize joint fire strikes. The PLA currently considers its intelligence structure fragmented (ISBSOSOS, pp. 41–45).

Command and Control

Operational forces dispersed over a vast battlespace conducting complex operations will stress the ability to conduct efficient and smooth Command and Control (C2). Effective C2 is the core of joint operations directly determining success or failure. As important as equipment modernization is to construct an integrated information system, the PLA realizes that training qualified personnel, particularly joint commanders, is critical to developing this operational element (ISBSOSOS, pp. 46–50; “PLA Deputies Offer Clarifications on Military Intentions,” China Brief, March 15).

Within the military information system, the command information system plays a fundamental role for combat operations. The command information system is composed of the following sub-systems: command and control system, reconnaissance and early warning system, and the comprehensive support system. The command and control system provides the core function supporting the planning and execution of combat operations for the ground forces, PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Second Artillery from the strategic to the tactical levels. The reconnaissance and early warning system provides situational awareness, targeting data and assists decision making by commanders. The comprehensive support system provides the basis for achieving precision support. This information system includes the following sub-systems: meteorological and hydrological support, mapping and navigation support, logistics support, equipment support as well as engineering and chemical defense support information systems. Other main components of the military information system include the information operations system (electronic warfare system, network warfare system and psychological warfare system) and the day-to-day administrative system.

The main command and control processes are operational decision making, planning, coordination and control capabilities. According to PLA sources, an important aspect of C2 will be distributed joint decision making, which represents a significant break from the past. This entails various commanders and their staffs dispersed at different locations—but connected by the integrated command information system—supporting the planning and execution of operational missions. Subordinate commanders, thus, would provide greater input to planning processes. While centralized C2 remains the preferred method, the PLA realizes that more decentralized command, which provides for greater initiative by subordinate commanders within prescribed limits, will be required on a fast-paced, future battlefield (ISBSOSOS, pp. 47–50).

Precision Strike

The PLA believes that precision strikes or information firepower strikes will represent a basic operation and effective means of achieving IJO-related operational objectives and even strategic aims (“Developing a Framework for PLA Precision Operations,” China Brief, July 6, 2012). Precision strikes are intended to attack and destroy the enemy’s operational system of systems as well as their will to resist by disrupting the enemy’s decision cycle. The precision strike process includes precision reconnaissance, C2, joint strikes and damage assessment. Precision strikes also are not limited to conventional munitions. “Information fire strikes” (xinxi huoli daji) combine “soft” and “hard” destruction means to paralyze and destroy key enemy information-processing nodes. In addition to military targets, the PLA also stresses political, economic, transportation, energy and infrastructure targets that can damage, if not destroy, the enemy’s ability to continue operations and/or will to fight (ISBSOSOS, pp. 50–54).

Three-Dimensional Maneuver

Three-dimensional maneuver includes deployment by land, air and sea to an operational area, or maneuver during combat by land, air (including air assault, para-drops, or air-landing operations) or sea (including amphibious landings) in order to seize and maintain operational initiative. It can include operational maneuver from dispersed locations to concentrate superior forces at the decisive time and place. The PLA believes that the modern battlefield has non-linear characteristics that create opportunities for rapid maneuvers to attack enemy weaknesses, avoid enemy detection and precision strikes, and defeat the enemy’s decision cycle forcing a reactive enemy position (ISBSOSOS, pp. 54–57).

Information Confrontation

Information offensive and defensive operations precede and are the prerequisite for the smooth conduct of combat operations, continuing throughout the course of combat. Information offense represent proactive action to disrupt enemy operations as well as to seize and maintain information superiority. Information offense and defense integrate a variety of means to interfere, suppress or destroy the enemy’s information and information systems, while protecting one’s own information and information systems (ISBSOSOS, pp. 57–60).

Information operations include both traditional electronic warfare methods as well as emerging cyber- or network-based techniques to supplement kinetic operations. Such operations, however, go beyond efforts to destroy or disrupt an enemy’s information-processing systems and include efforts to manipulate the information reaching enemy decision makers. Because system of systems operations and IJO requires greater Chinese reliance on information systems—and awareness of the resulting vulnerabilities—PLA sources make information and network protection a high priority, recommending, for example, the establishment of network emergency response forces to ensure network resilience (ISBSOSOS, pp. 57–60).

Full-Dimensional Protection

As firepower strikes increase in accuracy and lethality, force protection measures also increase in importance to ensure the security and stability of one’s own operational system of systems. Full-dimensional protection includes defense against enemy reconnaissance and surveillance, electronic and network attacks, psychological operations, precision strikes, and chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons. Active protection includes all kinds of offensive actions to disrupt an enemy’s ability to strike and explicitly includes preemption. Passive measures include maneuver, withdrawal, concealment and camouflage, air and missile defense, and information protection. Information protection covers technical and psychological measures to preserve the integrity of the PLA’s information processing system—collection, processing and dissemination—including the people operating the equipment (ISBSOSOS, pp. 60–63).

Comprehensive Support

Comprehensive support will be difficult in future wars featuring a multi-dimensional and extensive battlespace, complex and fast-paced operations as well as high consumption rates and support requirements. The PLA views precision support as the basic mode of support, including combat, logistics and equipment support. Precision support can improve overall efficiency, while reducing duplication and resource waste. “Precision logistics support” (houqin jingque baozhang) uses the minimum resources to meet support needs at the precise time and place—a military version of the business concept “just-in-time” logistics. It focuses on integration of joint military assets at the strategic, campaign and tactical levels as well as military-civilian support functions—such as civil air and maritime transport or special integrated logistics support bases. An integrated support network is required to link all support organizations and forces, provide unified C2, requirements analysis, and resource allocation for timely and accurate distribution of materials, including in adjacent combat zones (ISBSOSOS, pp. 63–67).

Logistics support for informationized warfare requires the following: civil-military integration of strategic projection forces, including civil air transport and large transport ships; an integrated combat zone with a base system focused on fixed support forces including general purpose and special integrated logistics support bases to service the combat zone and adjacent combat zones; groupings of flexible strategic logistics contingency support forces, mobile maritime support forces including large supply ships; and PLAAF emergency mobile support groups and air refueling forces. The PLA’s concept also calls for small, mobile and modular tactical logistics groups. Requirements for future combat include a combination of echelon-by-echelon and skip echelon support, with strengthening of the skip echelon method for flexible and rapid support to major combat equipment, high-tech systems, and movement of spare parts, ammunition and other material; and a combination of fixed and maneuver support (ISBSOSOS, pp. 63–67).

“Three Warfares”

The “Three Warfares” are psychological, public opinion and legal warfares, and their integrated employment is designed to seize political advantage, foment the psychological disintegration of the enemy, influence other countries and support one’s own morale. These actions begin before other combat actions and continue through all operational phases. The ideal goal is to achieve one’s objectives without fighting or subdue the enemy with minimal destruction. Public opinion warfare uses mass media to promote one’s own political positions, and block the enemy’s media offensive in order to influence domestic and foreign public opinion. Psychological warfare uses principals of modern psychology to select strategies against specific audiences, to consolidate one’s own psychological line of defense and to influence enemy military and civilians to achieve military and political objectives. Legal warfare substitutes the law for conventional military methods to gain the initiative and achieve political-military objectives (ISBSOSOS, pp. 67–69).


The PLA has developed terminology to support its evolving theory for system of systems operations. Understanding the definitions is necessary to decipher the complex concept, with operational unit and operational element being two particularly important terms. Operational units are the basic task organized force modules providing a “plug and play” capability to form larger combined arms and joint formations at the tactical and campaign levels. These modular operational units support the formation of operational system of systems, the integrated force groupings important to system of systems and integrated joint operations. This modular approach provides greater flexibility to structure the correct force composition for a specific combat mission and enable rapid restructuring to tailor the force as the operational phase and requirements change.

Operational elements are key capabilities that are integrated by the information systems and system of system operations, acting as a multiplier to generate greater combat effectiveness beyond the sum of the individual parts. The integration of forces and key capabilities is a key objective of systems of systems operations, and this integration forms IJO’s foundation. The successful implementation of these efforts is intended to increase PLA combat capabilities and flexibility significantly during future operations.

System of systems operations and IJO, however, are mostly aspirational at present. Creating an IJO capability will require extensive reforms, organizational restructuring and equipment modernization, representing a long complex, and difficult process.


  1. Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study, Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2012, pp. 2–8.
  2. Information System-Based System of Systems Operational Capability Study: Vol. 1 Operations, Beijing: Military Yiwen Press, 2010, pp. 5–6.
  3. Ibid., pp. 5–7; Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions, Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011, pp. 27–28; Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study, pp. 37–41.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, the information below comes from the Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study and will appear in-text as (ISBSOSOS, page number).
  5. Academy of Military Science, Military Terms, Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2011, p. 63. Military Terms does not include “Three Warfares” or political work as an operational element; however, it is included in Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study, pp. 41–68.
  6. “Reconnaissance and Intelligence” also is referred to as “Reconnaissance and Early Warning.”