The PLA’s Evolving Operational Doctrine: Experiments in Modularity

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 5

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) focus on creating modular combined arms forces is part of its plan to create a Hardened and Networked Army (HNA) [1]. It is mechanizing the force while introducing information operations doctrine and equipment. The first PLA division developed as part of this new doctrine is designed for operations in urbanized and high altitude environments and has armored command vehicles at the company level, to enable a company commander command and control of any assigned forces (China Brief, May 16, 2007). “Complex Warfighting” is the key concept underpinning the HNA, which identifies the contemporary combat environment as complex, diverse, diffuse and highly lethal. Land forces will be required to undertake an extremely wide range of tasks simultaneously within the same geographical area, at short notice and in complex, urbanized terrain [2].

This mechanized division is based in Xinjiang to ensure the protection of the oil refineries and infrastructure, which will be a key component of China’s near-term energy requirements. This includes operations outside of China’s borders, and these forces need to be versatile, agile and able to orchestrate attacks in a precise fashion, which demands modular, highly skilled forces with a capacity for network-enabled operations, optimized for close combat in combined arms teams. These teams will be semi-autonomous and highly networked with a capacity for protracted independent operations within a joint interagency framework. The team could be as small as a squad or as large as a battalion.

The PLA is modifying unit structures to meet the requirements of complex war fighting, enabling them to make the best use of the new equipment being delivered by its defense industries and their optimum employment in combined arms battle groups [3]. This is done by increasing the use of firepower for protected mobility—enabling battle groups to be network capable and increasing their combat readiness so that units are deployable at short notice without significant augmentation [4].

The combined arms approach—whereby infantry, armor, artillery, aviation and engineers work together to support and protect each other—is the key to achieving success on the battlefield. The PLA is expected to continue organizing unit structures in barracks, but will ensure that those units can quickly transition to form combined arms battle groups for training and operations. In this way, a battle group can be ideally structured for a particular operation and can be easily modified in theatre, as the situation requires (China Brief, May 16, 2007).

HNA organizational platforms are being developed so unit headquarters are capable of deploying as battle group headquarters and all capable of commanding combat teams from any other unit. To do this, battle groups and headquarters are constructed with robust command and control structures and first-line logistics control. Recently the PLA experimented with a Cavalry brigade by bringing together under a battle group’s headquarters a mechanized infantry battalion, a transport and an attack helicopter squadron and support elements. Under a HNA modular structure, combat support—such as artillery, engineers and signals and combat service support units providing the necessary logistics—are attached to combined arms battle groups in support of the maneuver (combat) elements. This is not new to the PLA, as early as the 1960s, moves toward the use of battle groups was in trial period. In the early 1960s, the PLA based its combat maneuver and power around the infantry company [5]. Its training regimen was concentrated at the platoon and squad level, with the infantry company being the basic tactical unit. This meant it was also easier to create more ready reaction force units when funding allowed. Platoons and companies were to have artillery, armor and flame-throwing units attached. Training at the battalion level and above was to be combined arms, and at the regimental level and above for command and control training [6]. Due to funding constraints, training at the operational level was not emphasized; the focus was on the tactical and close combat levels [7].

After years of evolution in its operational doctrine, the operational art of the PLA is now firmly rooted in the concepts and doctrine of pei shu (attaching troops to a subordinate unit) creating independent battle groups within the division, or augmenting a division seamlessly with heavier forces if a major offensive or heavy armor is required. The new mechanized infantry division can call on the Sixth Armored Division and extra self-propelled artillery and air defense forces for breakthrough operations or when enemy main battle tanks and air support are expected to be encountered [8]. Battle groups are generally based around a battalion and the PLA is going toward a three-level command structure of corps, brigade and battalion. The divisional structure remains for administrative purposes in many military regions containing brigades instead of regiments to accommodate the battle group concept. The idea behind these brigades is to “adapt to informationalized warfare and to enable more rapid decision making on the battlefield” (China Brief, May 16, 2007). In the PLA, the primary difference between a regiment and a brigade is that the brigade is capable of independent operations whereas a regiment is directly subordinate to the division and does not have the headquarters staff to carry out independent operations. The other important concept is zhi chi (to support) meaning the creation of a battlefield logistics organization able to supply and support forces far behind the enemy line (Xinhua, July 13, 2005).

The Sino-Russian Peace Mission 2007 exercise held in Russia in August 2007 demonstrates the PLA’s move towards a HNA with modular forces. The PLA created a cavalry brigade in what was the first major test of the pei shu concept. This composite brigade of light armor and helicopters was created from existing forces and was able to conduct light infantry operations, including counter-terrorism, reconnaissance and screening operations across a wide area.

In Peace Mission 2007, the PLA forces deployed:

• A battalion of wheeled mechanized infantry battalion comprising 40 Type 92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles, each mounting an enclosed turret-mounted 25mm automatic cannon, and 15 Type 92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles, each mounting an open turret-mounted 12.7mm machine gun;

• Two companies of 18 PL02 assault guns, each mounting an enclosed turret with a 100mm cannon and co-axial 7.62mm machine gun;

• One battalion of 16 Z-9W attack helicopters;

• One battalion of 16 Mi-17 transport helicopters;

• A company of 12 ZBD05 airborne vehicles each mounting a 30mm automatic cannon.

The Type 92 wheeled infantry fighting vehicles and Type 02 assault guns use the WZ551 six-wheeled armored chassis (China Brief, May 16, 2007).

The force was a composite of a cavalry brigade combining both ground and heliborne assets. This force integrated both mechanized and airmobile infantry, fire support from the 100mm assault guns and the attack helicopters, reconnaissance from the helicopters and some of the six wheeled IFVs, and logistics from the Mi-17 and 12.7mm armed Type 92 vehicles.

The deployed Type 92s could transport a mechanized infantry battalion of three companies with the support provided by two companies of the assault guns, which is an unusually large amount of huoli (firepower) for a mechanized infantry battalion. The Type 92A’s would have provided the vehicles for the battalion headquarters and company support weapons. Infantry support weapons deployed include the QBZ87 35mm automatic grenade launcher, PF98 anti-tank rocket launcher and Type 58 backpack flame throwers. The Mi-17s could lift two infantry companies with their support elements providing the brigade commander with six company level maneuver elements. The Z-9W attack helicopters provided aerial reconnaissance, fire support and liaison.

A cavalry brigade like this force could act as the corps reconnaissance and screening force, provide flank protection and act as an assault force to seize high-value targets as part of the PLA’s new heavy corps. The ZDB05 airborne vehicles would have been used to test their use in airborne operations.

The influences of pei shu and zhi chi are seen in the PLA’s new mechanized infantry division unveiled in 2006, which are claimed by the PLA to be two generations ahead of its predecessor (China Brief, May 16, 2007). The division is organized and equipped to fight as independent battle groups on mountainous and urban terrain, its equipment being lighter in weight and firepower than those of the PLA’s divisions tasked to defend the nation against aggressors with main battle tanks. Its theatres of operation are Xinjiang and Tibet where the division’s lighter vehicles and support weapons can operate in areas with—at best—poor communications infrastructure. Nine of Asia’s main river systems including the Mekong and Brahmaputra originate from the Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese are damming these and hope to be able to divert some of these waters to areas of China currently too dry for agriculture [9]. The governments of India, Bangladesh, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia are unhappy with this, which could lead to conflict [10]. The new mechanized infantry division is ideally suited to intervene in the event of attacks on the Tibetan Plateau if other countries try to destroy the dams to increase their water flow. The cavalry brigade/battle group created for the Peace Mission 2007 exercise mentioned earlier—besides being the first major test of the pei shu concept—showed how an easily created composite brigade of light armor and helicopters could be used on the Tibetan Plateau along with the helicopter-borne light mechanized infantry experimental group.

The PLA is now firmly committed to hardening the army with both tracked and wheeled armored vehicles and the doctrine of information operations. Existing equipment is being updated and new equipment introduced. Divisions are being reorganized into brigades and their battalions and companies turned into independent modular forces to enable them to perform combined arms operations at the company level if required. Units are also being designated as support units to thicken the firepower and provide heavy armor and artillery to forces on China’s periphery. The People’s Liberation Army is transforming into a force able to operate for sustained periods in combined arms operations along and deep beyond China’s frontiers. The new light mechanized division in Xinjiang is the first unit capable with its augmenting units already identified and equipped. This is a capability the PLA has previously lacked and places it along the few modern armies that can operate out of area.


1. The term “hardened and networked army” has been taken from The Hardened and Networked Army, Australian Army Headquarters website, accessed 5 January 2008.

2. Ibid.

3. Guo Jianyue and Luo Luyun. “Armoured division blazes new trail in upgrading old armaments with IT,” PLA Daily,, 5 June 2007 accessed 5 June 2007. This unit is the Sixth Armored division, which is the PLA’s premier armored division.

4. “Chinese Increased Mechanized Infantry Offensive Capability Model” [Zhongguo zengqiang jixiehua bubing shi gonglji nengli], Tank and Armored Vehicle [Tanke zhangjia cheliang], November 2006, Number 249, pp. 12-15.

5. “Endorsement by the Military Affairs Commission on the Problems of Military Training” in Cheng, C.J. (ed). The Politics of the Chinese Red Army: A Translation of the Bulletin of Activities of the People’s Liberation Army, Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford, 1966, p. 683.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p. 684.

8. Compiled from :“‘Heping shinming _ 2007” duoguo lianhe kandian jiexi, Binggong keji, Zhongdi 9/2007, pp.18 – 21; “Kuachu guomin _ zhanxiong feng __ ‘heping shinming _ 2007 yanxi zaixian shang”, Tanke zhuangjia cheliang, 2007 Niandi, 9 Qi, Zhongdi 259, pp. 17– 19; “Jiefangjun kuaifan zhuangbei liangxiang,” Guoji zhanwang jianduan keji baodao, 2007 Niandi, 16 Qi, Zhongdi 570, p. 21; “Wanli furang _ heping shinming _ 2007 fankong junyan,” Hangkong shijie, 2007 Niandi, 9 Qi, Zhongdi 99, pp. 16 – 23.

9. Deabnath, S. “Chinese plans to divert Brahmaputra waters,” News from Bangladesh, 8 May 2007 at www.bangladeshweb.cpm/view.php?hidDate+2007-05-08%HidType=HIG&hidRecord=0000000000000159267 accessed 3 November 2007.

10. Lynne, M. “Ethics Be Dammed,” China’s Water Projects, Carnegie Council, 10 January 2007 at accessed 3 November 2007.