The People’s Liberation Army Attempts to Jump Start Training Reforms

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 3

Image: Chinese President, CCP General Secretary, and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping gives the keynote address at the November 2020 PLA training conference (Image source: PLA Pictoral).

Introduction

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is attempting to reinvigorate lagging unit training and military education reforms to enable an integrated joint operations capability. A training conference, training mobilization order for 2021 and a regulation reinforcing the “Triad” (“三位一体,” sanwei yiti) joint education reform represent recent efforts. Cultivating quality personnel and raising unit combat capability through training are foundational areas supporting the PLA’s ambitious modernization. The Triad educational reform regulation addresses the importance of linking military academies to unit training, while the training conference also raised the issue of education. Reforms in both military training and education have been underway for at least the past two decades, resulting in mixed results at best. The PLA’s renewed resolve to accelerate these critical reforms reinforces its own assessment that past efforts have achieved limited results.[1]

The Central Military Commission (CMC) held a Military Training Conference on November 25, 2020 focused on strengthening actual combat training (Xinhua, November 25, 2020). In early January, Chinese President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping (习近平) issued a military training order for 2021 reinforcing some of the issues discussed in the training conference (China Military Online, January 19). Per these signals, military training in 2021 will focus on actual combat training to raise combat readiness, joint command and joint specialized training, new equipment and force training, and operational system of systems integration training. The PLA intends this year’s training to support the transformation of a new military training system discussed at the training conference (China Military Online, January 29; PRC Ministry of National Defense, February 1). This article will focus primarily on analyzing themes from the CMC training conference.

CMC Military Training Conference

Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the conference on preparing to win wars by improving actual combat training; joint training; leveraging science and technology to strengthen training; encouraging training innovation and establishing a new military training system. Improvements in these training areas are required to solve continuing problems recognized by the PLA as hampering combat effectiveness and modernization goals (plapic.com.cn, January 6; China Military Online, January 5; China Military Online, January 28).

The conference discussed developing innovative training methods and accelerating the construction of a high-level integrated training support system to enhance actual combat training and address the requirements of modern warfare. Actual combat training is intended to increase training realism in part to overcome a lack of recent PLA combat experience and improve overall combat capabilities. Although Xi stressed that the PLA had resolved some training problems, he also addressed additional requirements that still needed work, to include strengthen strategic planning and top-level design to ensure uniformity in training; accelerate the development of integrated joint operations capabilities; raise the science and technology literacy of officers and troops; improve training with new equipment and new forces; implement the policy of military education in the new era to cultivate talent and better support unit training (plapic.com.cn, January 6). These reforms are intended in part to support the implementation of system of systems operations (体系作战, tixi zuozhan). System of systems operations is the foundation of an integrated joint operations capability and includes the establishment of operational system of systems (作战体系, zuozhan tixi – an integrated modular task force) to conduct modern operations. The PLA views modern warfare as a system of systems confrontation (体系对抗, tixi duikang) with integrated joint operations as the basic form of combat (China Military Online, January 5; Jamestown Foundation, January 2017).

The training conference presented integrated training support as a prerequisite for improving strategic and campaign training, theater joint training, service integration training, and optimizing training support institutions. The conference recognized the challenges and complexity of organizing integrated joint training and support across a varied range of operational environments and mission requirements facing the theaters (China Military Online, January 5).

To this end, the PLA has upgraded training bases viewed as key integrated training support institutions over the past decade to better support realistic combat training. Training bases in each theater provide a range of operational environments – mountain, high-altitude plateau, jungle, grasslands and so on – with improved training evaluation and data collection. The PLA has examined foreign training bases to adjust, optimize and enlarge their training centers for joint and service exercises. Joint logistic support units provide specialized training support relying on military and local logistics support throughout each theater (China Military Online, January 5).

According to conference reporting, training support includes the following: quality support for new forces and equipment; standardize big data usage and the sharing of data resources; standardize training support to provide uniformity; strengthen multi-dimensional support for cross-region and long-range mobility exercises and expand the use of military and local support resources to include local transportation, materials, maintenance, supply and medical treatment. The conference further explored the need to transform and upgrade training and support methods to meet the requirements of military training in the new era. This includes improving precision logistics support and exploring the use of intelligent autonomous support. New technological developments to improve training include big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence to establish an intelligent training support planning system platform (智能化训练保障规划系统平台, zhinenghua xunlian baozhang guihua xitong pingtai). The intelligent platform will provide automated analysis of support requirements, automated planning of support tasks, and automated matching of resources to requirements to provide precision support. These technological plans place a priority on developing quality talent throughout the force (China Military Online, January 5).

Construction of realistic combat battlefields to train forces can include the use of virtual simulations, intelligent simulation, and other technologies. Training bases should combine real and simulated training. Realistic training should include accurate mission area environments, electronic countermeasures, information support, and network offense and defense establishing a complex electromagnetic environment. The conference raised a proposal to add realism to training simulations by hiring personnel to portray indigenous civilians from potential mission areas providing complex scenarios portraying cultural traditions, customs, and habits of the combat area. This would allow troops to interact with “local” people and social media to provide effective skills in contact and dialogue with civilians (China Military Online, January 5).

Image: (Left) Artillerymen assigned to a brigade under the PLA 76th Group Army conduct an anti-tank missile live-fire test during cold weather training at an undisclosed mountainous region on December 17, 2020 (Image Source: China Military Online). (Right) Soldiers of an army aviation brigade under the PLA 72nd Group Army disembark from a Mi-171 transport helicopter during a training exercise on January 4 (Image source: China Military Online).

The conference also recognized confrontation training as a method to improve actual combat training. The conference viewed confrontation training based on operational plans as a means to improve command and joint operations capabilities while providing a realistic and complex battlefield environment. While articles on the training conference did not specifically mention battle labs, simulation centers or reforms in the training evaluation system, the PLA has previously recognized that these methods can improve training and experimentation. The 2021 training order mentions operational system of systems training, and the PLA has explored a step-by-step training approach to operationalize these modular task force organizations that can be formed at the strategic, campaign and tactical levels. The PLA usually refers to joint or service operational system of systems as campaign-level formations (军团, juntuan) or tactical-level formations (兵团, bingtuan) (PRC Ministry of National Defense, February 1; Jamestown Foundation, January 2017).

Conclusion

The PLA recognizes that while past training and educational reforms have made some progress, serious problems remain, hampering its ambitious modernization goals. The CMC Military Training Conference and other recent efforts appear to attempt to jump start lagging reforms in these critical areas. The conference identified numerous areas still requiring improvement or implementation indicating the deficiencies of past reform efforts. Since taking power, Xi has pushed through long needed reforms creating theater commands and reorganizing the force. Only time will tell whether the most recent reform efforts will overcome impediments to the PLA’s ongoing training and education reforms.

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China and Taiwan during 31 years in the U.S. government. His publications include “PLA System of Systems Operations: Enabling Joint Operations,” “Cultivating Joint Talent” in a forthcoming Army War College publication “The People in the People’s Liberation Army 2.0,””People’s Liberation Army: Army Campaign Doctrine in Transition, and “Russian Influence Campaigns against the West: From the Cold War to Putin.” Mr. McCauley writes primarily on PLA and Taiwan military affairs.

Notes

[1] See: Kevin McCauley, “Cultivating Joint Talent,” in the forthcoming Army War College publication “The People in the People’s Liberation Army 2.0.” This chapter provides a detailed analysis of the status of military education and joint training and PLA reforms designed to correct problems in these two critical areas; Qiang Hao (强昊), “Unite the “Triad” of Educating People (凝聚“三位一体”的育人合力),” available at http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2021-01/31/content_281842.htm, accessed January 31, 2021; Xu You (徐有), “Promoting the innovative development of military professional education in the new era (推进新时代军事职业教育创新发展),” available at http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2021-01/19/content_280865.htm, accessed February 3, 2021; Kevin McCauley, ““Triad” Military Education and Training Reforms: The PLA’s Cultivation of Talent for Integrated Joint Operations,” available at https://jamestown.org/program/triad-military-education-and-training-reforms-the-plas-cultivation-of-talent-for-integrated-joint-operations/?mc_cid=8eea1df3d7&mc_eid=21615ca4d8, accessed February 4, 2021.