As part of its broader effort to develop a distant seas capability, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) held an annual Southern Theater Command (STC) far seas training exercise from late January to late February 2021. This event is likely the 2021 iteration of the ZHANLAN (湛蓝) series of far seas training exercises, which the PLAN has conducted annually since at least 2016.
As the only far seas training event that the PLA consistently reports on each year, the capabilities displayed at ZHANLAN serve as a useful metric for tracking the PLAN’s progress in far seas operations over time. This article follows a previous piece discussing training evolution in ZHANLAN 2020 (China Brief, April 13, 2020). Careful observation of this year’s ZHANLAN exercises reveals progress in the PLA’s ability to command and employ joint forces at the tactical level. However, the exercises also highlight long standing issues that may hamper the PLA’s ability to translate such progress into operational effectiveness in wartime.
Overview of ZHANLAN 2021
Unlike in past years, the PLA did not identify a start or end date for ZHANLAN 2021. The official online publication China Military states that the event lasted over 30 days and that the task group covered 8,000 nautical miles (China Military, March 26). Given that Vice Admiral Wang Hai (王海)—who was seen embarked on the task group in early February—later attended the National People’s Congress in early March, the task group likely left port in late January and returned in late February (Military Report, March 4).
The ZHANLAN-2021 training task group consisted of five vessels: the LUYANG III class (Type 052D) guided missile destroyer YINCHUAN (DDG-175); the FUYU class (Type 901) support ship CHAGAN HU (查干湖) (AOR-967); the JIANGKAI II class (Type 054A) guided missile frigate HENGYANG (FFG-568); the YUZHAO class (Type 071) amphibious transport dock WUZHI SHAN (LPD-978); and the DONGDIAO-class AGI (AGI-857) (Morning Report on Defense, March 2).
Little information is available about where the task group transited during its one-month deployment. The only known geographic reference is that at some point, it passed over the equator (People’s Navy, February 25). Although it is possible that the task group transited out towards the Marshall Islands in the Central Pacific, it is more likely that the formation went south towards Australia and the Indian Ocean. The Central Pacific offers little in the way of simulated targets or messaging, while Australia affords greater opportunities for both. That being said, no publicly available evidence exists to corroborate this assumption.
Integrating Factors in 2021
The PLAN has clear aspirations of becoming a blue water navy capable of executing deep offensive strikes. Using the integrating factors necessary for “multi-mission air control, limited sea control, and deep strike proficiencies,” identified in a 2000 RAND Corporation study, one can track the PLAN’s recent progress in achieving these goals.
First, the task group continues to build competency in the subject of underway replenishment. Video footage of an underway replenishment training evolution shows AOR-967 CHAGAN HU once again transferring a probable HQ-10 short-range surface to air missile storage canister to DDG-175 YINCHUAN. (People’s Navy, February 25). This continued emphasis on underway munitions replenishment indicates that the PLAN remains on track towards sustaining some magazine depth in far seas.
Second, the PLAN continues to train in using advanced intelligence assets. This year’s evolution of ZHANLAN once again involved AGI-857 as well as probable elements of the PLA Strategic Support Force’s (PLASSF) Network Systems Department (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). Limited evidence shows that the SSF’s presence onboard the ZHANLAN 2020 task group consisted of elements of the PLAN’s former 2nd Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (Roderick Lee via Twitter, March 1). The SSF’s presence on the ZHANLAN 2021 task group is similar to what was seen on ZHANLAN 2020’s task group, which suggests that the same element participated in both evolutions. If this is the case, the SSF and AGI-857 may be providing signals intelligence support to the task group.
PRC media reports discuss how the task group completed training in now-typical areas such as air defense and counterpiracy operations (China Military, March 26). In addition, ZHANLAN 2021 notably featured a major push for increased jointness at the tactical level.
A Push for Joint Lethality
One of the crucial integrating factors identified by RAND is “joint exercise.” The PLA has long pushed for its forces to become more joint and integrated, often under the mantra that “1+1>2” (People’s Daily APP, November 27, 2020). One can clearly track the PLAN’s progress in this integrating factor from ZHANLAN exercises from 2016, when the PLAN barely engaged in combined arms training, to when the training task group was first classified as a “joint far seas training task group” in 2019.
Press releases were ambiguous about how joint ZHANLAN 2019 truly was, stating nothing beyond reporting that the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), Rocket Force (PLARF), PLASSF and other services participated (PRC Ministry of National Defense, February 19 2019). ZHANLAN 2020 featured more tangible jointness by integrating STC staff into senior task group command positions and having an observable PLASSF presence (China Brief, April 13, 2020).
ZHANLAN 2021 placed joint operations in the limelight. The task group’s command post command group director, senior captain Zhu Zhengzhong (朱正中), stated in an interview with CCTV-7 that this year’s training featured three characteristics: first to allow forces to adapt to a joint training command mechanism; second to validate operational methods; and third to explore combat methods involving combined strengths. Similarly, senior colonel Zhang Jun (张军), a member of ZHANLAN’s training guidance group, said that the training highlighted the need to unify training and operations, standardize joint training, and train troops as part of “system of systems“ operations (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). This commentary clearly points to an emphasis on joint training at the tactical level.
Statements of the importance of jointness in the PLA also featured prominently in previous events, although measuring the true extent of jointness during these training events is nearly impossible. Still, the ZHANLAN series shows clear and distinct progress within the PLAN year-over-year.
A Joint Training Command Mechanism
ZHANLAN 2021’s task group command post elevated the prominence of the joint element compared to previous years (Roderick Lee via Twitter, February 26). The task group command post positioned the joint element on the literal periphery during ZHANLAN 2019 and 2020. This year, the task group command post positioned the joint element in a centralized position in terms of protocol order (see below).
The reason for this elevation in protocol is likely not only due to the elevated prominence of joint command, but also because of how much more joint the command group has become. Previous ZHANLAN iterations featured staff officers from the STC, but press reporting did not explicitly identify service representatives. In contrast, ZHANLAN 2021’s command group included staff officers from the PLAAF, PLARF, PLASSF and STC headquarters organs (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). Although multi-service representation in a tactical command post is not new, the gradual institution of joint command elements within a tactical formation over time has been well-demonstrated through the evolution of the ZHANLAN training series.
More importantly, these multi-service command staff participants appear to be empowered with certain authorities over their respective service forces. CCTV-7 video reporting shows the Air Force command staff member ordering a PLAAF bomber to take off and participate in an air-maritime joint assault drill (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). The same reporting shows PLAN, PLA Army, and STC headquarters officers jointly planning what is likely the amphibious island landing drill that occurred towards the end of the training deployment.
Combined Strengths into a System of Systems
In addition to having the joint expertise and authorities within the task group’s command post, ZHANLAN 2021 also featured the first publicized participation of forces from other services within this training series. This integration of actual forces in field training provides personnel with the crucial experience of operating within a joint force.
The most visually prominent joint participant in ZHANLAN 2021 was the PLA Army. An unidentified armored element, possibly from the 74th Group Army 16th Heavy Combined Arms Brigade, likely boarded a second landing platform dock (LPD) and joined the task group towards the end of the deployment. The PLA Army element then participated in a small island reef seizure training event on Pattle Island alongside an unidentified PLAN Marine Corps infantry company (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). This is far from the first instance of joint Army-Navy amphibious training, but it is the first time such an event has occurred in the ZHANLAN series.
Less noticeable but perhaps more important is the participation of at least one PLAAF H-6K bomber that participated in an air-maritime joint assault drill (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). Integrating H-6Ks with a naval task group to conduct joint fires greatly improves the PLA’s ability to overwhelm maritime or land targets as far as the second island chain or even Australia. The presence of a PLARF officer in press reports suggests that simulated fires involving PLARF assets might have also occurred.
Finally, elements of the PLASSF Space Systems Department seem to have played some role in ZHANLAN 2021. The SSF lieutenant colonel Wang Dong, a staff officer under the task group’s command group, discussed how he initially thought the PLAN prioritized precise location data. However, after participating in ZHANLAN, he grew to understand that the PLAN places greater value on precise time and time interval (PTTI) (Morning Report on Defense, March 2). The discussion of navigation and timing support by an SSF officer circumstantially suggests that some element of the SSF Space Systems Department’s Base 35, the unit in charge of battlefield environment support that notably also oversees the military side of China’s Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), was involved in ZHANLAN 2021 (CASI, June 24, 2020). This indicates that the PLA is training to improve its ability to push PTTI data out to distant seas formations. Better PTTI can in turn improve the task group’s ability to operate in degraded electromagnetic environments, maintain secure communications, and synchronize time-sensitive fires.
For all the growing competencies in joint operations demonstrated in ZHANLAN 2021, the event also reveals some potential issues that the PLA is currently grappling with or may face in wartime.
The first potential issue is identified by the PLA itself when describing this event: unifying training and operations. PLA training has long been hampered by heavy scripting. Although more recent descriptions emphasize that PLA training has moved away from scripted events, this does not discount the possibility that some amount of scripting occurs or that extensive preparations are made before hand to ensure things go smoothly. In fact, the PLAN and PLA Army appear to have engaged in extensive “preparatory training” leading up to ZHANLAN 2021, including similar amphibious training involving PLA Army tanks that occurred sometime around November 2020 (Sina, November 25, 2020). Given this apparent extensive preparation, the PLAN’s ability to leverage joint forces and authorities in a timely fashion during real world operations is questionable.
A second and more obvious issue remains the PLA’s persistent tendency to send senior officers to oversee tactical formations. In 2019, the PLAN was forced to issue a document that prohibits units from sending senior commanders to oversee single-ship deployments (PLA Daily, April 16, 2019). The presence of senior officers overseeing actual unit commanders often hampers the unit commander’s ability to command and is an unsustainable practice in wartime. Nevertheless, ZHANLAN 2021 saw Southern Theater Navy Commander vice admiral Wang Hai embark onboard DDG-175 as an observer (Military Report, February 9). The presence of such a senior officer likely distorts the actual formation commander’s efficacy in exercising joint command authorities and hampers his ability to do his job.
These shortcomings point towards the growing recognition that the weakness of the PLA lies within its people and processes. In fact, the PLA’s self-identified weaknesses tend to point to a lack of confidence in its “software” (War on the Rocks, February 18, 2019). Potential scripting, overplanning, and overbearing command all risk creating large discrepancies between observations of PLA training in peacetime and their projected performance in wartime. While the U.S. should be mindful of the progress shown in high-end training events like ZHANLAN, it should also watch carefully for where the PLA is inadvertently exposing its own flaws.
Roderick Lee is the Director of Research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), where he oversees research on Chinese military aerospace forces and the Chinese civilian aerospace sector as it relates to the military. Prior to joining CASI, he served as an analyst with the United States Navy covering Chinese naval forces. He earned his Master of Arts degree from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
 Tellis, Ashley J., Janice Bially, Christopher Layne, and Melissa McPherson, Measuring National Power in the Postindustrial Age, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2000. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR1110.html.
 National Research Council, “Chapter 5: Defense Needs for PTTI” in An Assessment of Precision Time and Time Interval Science and Technology, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002, https://www.nap.edu/read/10541/chapter/7.
 Jana Allen and Kenneth Allen, The PLA Air Force’s Four Key Training Brands, China Aerospace Studies Institute, June 14, 2020, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/CASI/Books/CASI_Four_Brands.pdf?ver=2020-06-14-134806-837.