The PLA’s Forthcoming Fifth-Generation Operational Regulations—The Latest “Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs”?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 7

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Based on reports in official media, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appears to be preparing for the official release of its fifth-generation of operational regulations (第五代作战条令). The PLA’s operational regulations, which are approximately equivalent to doctrine, provide guidance for the PLA at the campaign (战役) and tactical (战术) levels of warfare, based on two components: campaign guidance (战役纲要) and combat regulations (战斗条令). [1] Since the prior announcement of the PLA’s “new-generation operational regulations” (新一代作战条令) in January 1999, which were the fourth generation of operational regulations issued during the PLA’s history, there has not been a fifth generation officially released, despite the references to a revision process that dates back to 2004 (PLA Daily, January 25, 1999). [2] Although the fifth-generation operational regulations were reportedly finished and had been submitted to the Central Military Commission (CMC) for approval as of March 2008, their release was never announced (Xinhua, March 13, 2008). Indeed, according to the PLA’s official newspaper, the PLA has only “formally issued four generations of operational regulations” [emphasis added] (PLA Daily, February 16). Given references to the process, the revision (编修) of operational regulations has apparently been either continued through or perhaps restarted in recent years without an officially announced conclusion, despite the release of a revised Joint Campaign Guidance (中国人民解放军联合战役纲要) and other regulations in 2008 (e.g., PLA Daily, July 6, 2014; PLA Daily, March 18, 2009; PLA Daily, October 31, 2012). [3]

In July 2014, the PLA’s General Staff Department organized an “all-military research and discussion activity” that was intended as “preparation for the revision of operational regulations” (PLA Daily, July 6, 2014). As of February 2016, official PLA media reported that a new book, Introduction to Operational Regulations (作战条令概论), written by the Academy of Military Science (AMS) Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department (军事科学院作战理论和条令研究部), had recently been evaluated and approved by military experts and would serve as a “cornerstone” for the PLA’s revision of its operational regulations (PLA Daily, February 16). In April 2016, there was further commentary in official PLA media expressing concern that the PLA’s construction of operational regulations was “rather lagging behind” (稍显滞后), relative to the revolution in military affairs and evolution of warfare towards informationization, and calling for innovation in the “joint operational regulations content system” (创新联合作战条令内容体系) (PLA Daily, April 12, 2016). Despite the limitations of available information, such references to the continuing revision allow for an initial examination of this protracted process, as well as potential doctrinal changes about which additional details could be revealed in the coming months.

Certainly, the timing of this latest “revolution in doctrinal affairs” is not unexpected, given the PLA’s recent strategic shift and ongoing organizational reforms. [4] The focus of the revised operational regulations is likely consistent with the new military strategic guideline on “winning informationized local wars” (打赢信息化局部战争), as outlined by “China’s Military Strategy,” the PRC’s latest national defense white paper (SCIO, May 26, 2015; China Brief, June 23, 2015). They will likely also mirror the PLA’s prioritization of advancing its capability to engage in joint operations. Looking forward, the PLA’s forthcoming fifth-generation operational regulations will probably reflect its longstanding attempts to advance its capability to engage in joint operations and could deeply influence its approach to future warfare.

Prior Generations of Operational Regulations

A review of prior generations of the PLA’s operational regulations is necessary to contextualize this latest revision appropriately. It seems somewhat unusual that the PLA has not formally issued a new generation of operational regulations in over seventeen years, since successive generations of doctrine had previously been issued approximately every decade throughout the PLA’s history, typically after three to four years of revision. The PLA’s first-generation operational regulations were issued around 1963, and the second and third generations were issued in the early or mid- 1970s and 1980s respectively (Xinhua, March 13, 2008). In January 1999, the PLA officially announced “new-generation operational regulations” (新一代作战条令), which were the fourth generation of operational regulations since the PLA’s founding (PLA Daily, January 25, 1999). At the time, there was an inaugural campaign guidance (战役纲要) published for each service, as well as for joint operations and logistics (PLA Daily, January 25, 1999). This revision was the result of about four years of intensive work by the PLA Operational Regulations Compilation Committee and probably driven by the need to develop new operational concepts in response to the 1993 military strategic guideline of “winning local wars under modern, high-technology conditions.” [5]

After the adoption of the updated military strategic guideline of “winning local wars under conditions of informationization,” the PLA started working on the revision of its fourth-generation operational regulations around 2004, based on a process of “rolling development,” such that new regulations could be issued individually as needed. [6] Although the fifth-generation operational regulations were reportedly complete and only pending CMC approval as of March 2008, their official release was never announced and evidently did not occur (Xinhua, March 13, 2008). However, certain components of the PLA’s operational regulations were issued in 2008, including a “newly revised” Joint Campaign Guidance (联合战役纲要) (Xinhua, April 16, 2008; PLA Daily, March 18, 2009). [7] The fifth-generation operational regulations have not been approved or released to this day, and their revision was apparently resumed again in subsequent years.

The Future of the PLA’s Fifth-Generation Operational Regulations?

Although the reasons for the PLA’s failure to issue fifth-generation operational regulations cannot be determined based on the available information—it is clear that the PLA has remained dilatory in actualizing ongoing strategic changes and theoretical frameworks into doctrinal guidance. While it is unclear whether this continued revision should be considered an extension of the process that dates back to 2004 or a distinct revision that was (re)started, there have been multiple references in official PLA media, especially since 2012, to the need to advance and accelerate the revision of operational regulations. Perhaps, the initial alterations to the fourth-generation operational regulations were deemed inadequate in achieving sufficient progress toward true “jointness,” given allusions in official PLA media to continued challenges in joint training and achieving “joint culture” (e.g., PLA Daily, August 23, 2012; PLA Daily, December 23, 2015). For instance, an article published in PLA Daily in the summer of 2012 urged that the PLA “should strengthen joint operational regulations” and also “revise and issue joint operational regulations and joint campaign guidance…” (PLA Daily, August 23, 2012). As of the summer of 2013, according to articles at the time, “new operational regulations hadn’t yet been issued,” and there was a need to “accelerate the transformation of theoretical outcomes toward operational regulations” (PLA Daily, July 18, 2013; PLA Daily, July 4, 2013). By the spring of 2014, another article urged, “the revision of regulations should be conducive to guidance for warfare” (PLA Daily, April 29, 2014).

At that point, there was apparently extensive study and consultation occurring across the PLA in support of that revision process. Notably, in July 2014, the PLA’s General Staff Department organized an “all-military research and discussion activity” that was intended as “preparation for the revision of operational regulations” (PLA Daily, July 6, 2014). The event focused on “the innovation and development of operational theories,” as well as the “resolution of important operational difficulties [and] problems,” in order to provide “theoretical support” for the revision of operational regulations. [8] In particular, the content covered had three areas of focus: “the mechanism for victory in informationized warfare, basic problems of joint operations, and models for operational tactics” (信息化战争制胜机理、联合作战基本问题、典型作战战法). This joint evaluation of the results of studies undertaken for the revision process was reportedly intended to “avoid tactical innovation ‘behind closed doors’” (PLA Daily, July 6, 2014). Perhaps, this consultative process and discussion might have been intended to make the revision more inclusive of stakeholders throughout the PLA and to build a broader consensus on certain issues that might have proved contentious in the previous attempt at revision.

Currently, it seems that the PLA might finally be progressing toward the official issuance of fifth-generation operational regulations. The drafting of the AMS text, Introduction to Operational Regulations (作战条令概论), started in January 2015, and the book has “guided the all-military revision of operational regulations” and also “provided strong academic support and methodological guidance” to the revision process (PLA Daily, February 16). Similarly, an April 2016 article in official PLA media also alluded to progression towards a new generation of operational regulations, characterizing the current operational regulations as insufficient and requiring expansion in accordance with the PLA’s new duties and missions (PLA Daily, April 12, 2016). In particular, the author alluded to the need to improve certain aspects of the operational regulations, including regulations for the coordination of joint operations and management of airspace in joint operations, as well as potential new areas of focus, such as maritime rights defense operations regulations (海上维权行动条令) and border area rights defense operations regulations (边境地区维权行动条令), seemingly a reflection of the PLA intensified focus on potential maritime and border contingencies (PLA Daily, April 12, 2016). In addition, given the complexities associated with the revision process, the PLA should learn from the experiences of other militaries in editing doctrine, including the establishment of a professional editing contingent and further systematization of the process (PLA Daily, April 12, 2016). Although the approval of this text by military experts as of February 2016 does not necessarily offer a clear indication of the status of the revision process itself, this recent development does offer an indication of its continued progression.

To Win Informationized Wars?

Despite the ambiguities associated with the evolution of the PLA’s operational regulations, among the primary impulses for this ongoing doctrinal revision would appear to be the PLA’s strategic imperatives of winning future informationized wars and successfully engaging in joint operations. This latest revision likely corresponds with the PLA’s recent adjustment of its military strategic guideline, from “winning local wars under informationized conditions” to “winning informationized local wars” (China Brief, June 23, 2015). The revision has also corresponded with a high-level directive emphasis on the need for “military innovation.” In particular, in an August 2014 speech, Chinese President and CMC Chairman Xi Jinping urged the PLA to advance innovation, including of military strategy, military technology, operational thinking, and operational forces (People’s Daily, August 31, 2015). In particular, Xi called for changes in “single services’ operational mindsets” (单一军种作战的思维定势) and the establishment of the “ideological concept of integrated joint operations.” In this context, his phrasing implies the need to overcome narrower, service-oriented mentalities and instead develop a shared approach to joint operations.

Looking forward, it seems reasonable to expect that the revised operational regulations will inform the PLA’s approach to future campaigns and training at the service level and for joint operations. This revision might be accompanied by the editing of the campaign outlines of each of the PLA’s services and could include the formulation of the inaugural campaign guidance for the Strategic Support Force (SSF), the PLA’s new information warfare service (China Brief, February 8). Despite the limited information on the official documents, analysis of available PLA literature—especially that associated with scholars from the AMS Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department, given their extensive involvement in the revision process—might provide further insights into the operational thinking associated with these pending, non-public doctrinal documents. For instance, it is possible that the SSF’s operational regulations could reflect key aspects of the strategic guidance (战略指导) articulated by AMS information warfare theorist, Ye Zheng, who was involved in the original 2004–2008 revision process, in his authoritative 2013 text, Lectures on the Science of Information Operations: “[engage in] integrated operations; emphasize offense, take defense seriously; seize and preserve the battlefield information advantage” (一体作战, 重攻严防, 夺取和保持战场信息优势) (Xinhua, March 13, 2008). [9] Perhaps, the operational regulations might also draw upon precedents and lessons learned from the U.S. approach to joint operations, as one article implies (PLA Daily, April 29, 2014).


Despite the PLA’s lack of transparency about its operational regulations, it appears that a new “revolution in doctrinal affairs” has been gradually occurring. Although the apparent lengthiness of the revision process—and the unexpected and unprecedented delay in the issuance of fifth-generation operational regulations—presents a puzzle that merits further consideration, the above analysis constitutes an initial attempt to assess this continuing doctrinal evolution. Despite multiple indications of recent progress, it is difficult to predict when the official release of the PLA’s new operational regulations might be announced.

Perhaps, the revision process was continued or resumed in response to the planning for and now implementation of a historic agenda of organizational reforms that includes measures to advance “jointness” (China Brief, February 4). It is logical that such significant changes, first to the PLA’s military strategy in 2014–2015 and recently to its organizational structure, would be accompanied by concurrent alterations to its doctrine, especially with regard to joint operations. Regardless of the unknowns, the ongoing revisions to the PLA’s doctrine merit additional analysis, since the eventual issuance of fifth-generation operational regulations certainly will deeply impact the PLA’s approach to winning future informationized local wars.

Elsa Kania will be a 2016 graduate of Harvard College, where she has majored in Government and wrote her thesis on the PLA’s strategic thinking on information warfare. Elsa was a 2014–2015 Boren Scholar in Beijing, China and is a 2015–2016 undergraduate associate of Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She has worked at the Belfer Center, the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, the Department of Defense, and FireEye, Inc.


1. For analysis of the PLA’s operational regulations, see also: David Finkelstein, “Thinking About the PLA’s ‘Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs,’” James Mulvenon and David Finkelstein, The Revolution in Chinese Military Doctrinal Affairs, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, (2005); or Roger Cliff, China’s Military Power, Cambridge University Press, 2015. “作战条令” might also be translated as “operations regulations” or simply as “doctrine.” 战役纲要 could also be translated as “campaign outline.”

2. A special thank you to Dr. Roger Cliff both for sharing his insightful perspectives on the topic and for his comments on this article.

3. There are not active links available for certain of the PLA Daily articles cited in this article, which I accessed through the East View database.

4. My use of this term is in reference to Dr. Finkelstein’s examination of the PLA’s prior revision of its operational regulations. See: David Finkelstein, “Thinking About the PLA’s ‘Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs.’”

5. David Finkelstein, “Thinking About the PLA’s ‘Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs.’” For more information about the military strategic guidelines, see: David M. Finkelstein, “China’s National Military Strategy: An Overview of the” Military Strategic Guidelines,” Asia Policy 4, no. 1 (2007): pp. 67–72.

6. Roger Cliff, China’s Military Power, Cambridge University Press, 2015.

7. There was also a “new generation” of Guidelines/Outlines of Military Training and Evaluation (OMTE, 军事训练与考核大纲) issued at that time. OMTE appear to be influenced by higher-level doctrinal guidance.

8. The event took place at the AMS, and a total 130 experts on operations and training from GSD Departments, military educational institutions, and scientific research organizations participated in the evaluation of the outcomes of sixty different studies. In attendance were Chen Yong, the assistant head of the General Staff Department, and Chen Rongdi, the deputy head of the AMS Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department.

9. Ye Zheng [叶征]. Lectures on the Science of Information Operations [信息作战学习教程]. Military Science Press [军事科学出版社]. 2013.