The PLA’s Three-Pronged Approach to Achieving Jointness in Command and Control

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 6

Pictures from One of the Now Numerous Joint Command and Control Exercises

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to develop a more complex form of joint operations (“PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part One): Joint Task Force Experimentation,” China Brief, May 20, 2011; “PLA Developing Joint Operations Capability (Part Two): Military Training Coordination Zones,” China Brief, June 3, 2011). A system of systems (tixi) integrated communications network, building joint military talent and development of a joint operations doctrine are fundamental to this effort; yet, the PLA perceives the persistence of significant problems. The PLA is taking a multi-faceted approach to find solutions and this article examines the PLA’s three-pronged approach during 2011: 

  •  professional military education reform to educate and train joint commanders and staff; 
  • construction of an integrated command, control, computers, communications, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) system;
  • experimentation and testing concepts and communications systems in joint exercises.

Shortfalls in Joint Operations Development

Despite years of development, PLA self-assessments in 2011 continued to identify joint command methods and integrated communications as problem areas limiting the development of a joint operations capability. A recent commentary in the PLA Daily by an author in the 41st Group Army addressed problem areas remaining in developing an integrated joint operations capability. These problems include the lack of jointness and integration between the services, continuing command and control issues and old command procedures employed in units with modern equipment (PLA Daily, December 23, 2011) [1].

Another PLA Daily article also discussed command and control problems, including the need to resolve the issue of overlapping command relationships in the current command and control structure. Mirroring repeated themes in PLA publications, the article stressed the need to optimize the vertical command structure while transitioning to a flatter command network with fewer command tiers and more effectively integrating forces with a joint C4ISR architecture (PLA Daily, July 14, 2011).

The Soft Factor Solution: Reform of Professional Military Education and Institutes to Build Joint Military Talent

An important component in achieving a joint operations capability is building a cohort of joint commanders and staff. The PLA is continuing to implement the 2003 strategic program to develop military talent by reforming professional military education. Last year saw several changes as the PLA initiated a 2011 reorganization of the military institutions and training with a focus on improving training and education of joint operations commanders and staff officers. The PLA also is stressing the training of commanders, placing an emphasis on developing and promoting staff with great potential and has reformed graduate training programs to cultivate joint operations commanders (China’s National Defense in 2008).

The General Staff Department (GSD) has initiated a reform and reorganization of military educational institutes and training organizations to better support the development of military talent. The plan includes efforts to optimize structures, adjust training, integrate resources, and improve training and curricula. Mergers and readjustments of PLA academies have already begun and the GSD created a new training department (PLA Daily, November 4, 2011; September 20, 2011; January 14, 2011; Ta Kung Pao, August 9, 2011).

Combined courses including PLA and foreign military officers and increased joint training with foreign countries also are part of the overall effort. These plans attempt to address the lack of interdisciplinary command talent and high-caliber information technology talent. Recent PLA press reports have highlighted programs for joint operational commanders and staff officers at the National Defense University (NDU) and National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) (PLA Daily, February 16).

The Technical Solution: Integrated C4ISR Developments

An integrated C4ISR architecture with “system of systems” operations capability (tixi zuozhan nengli) based on modern information systems will act as the foundation of the PLA’s joint operations capabilities (PLA Daily, May 27, 2010). The lack of integration has, according to the PLA, caused the services to spin their wheels for many years, because of the inability to share a common operating picture and communicate laterally (PLA Daily, September 26, 2011).

The PLA press has reported rapid developments made during the 10th and 11th Five Year Plans, yet integration remains problematic (PLA Daily, March 10, 2011). According to the PLA, important components of the integrated system are early warning and reconnaissance, command and control, firepower attack, network warfare and comprehensive support—some of which were tested in joint training this year (PLA Daily, February 4, 2010). Although the importance of information projects has been recognized at the national level, construction of integrated C4ISR systems has remained an ad hoc effort within individual MRs as evidenced in recent exercises (PLA Daily, December 14, 2011).

Last November, the PLA announced that the research institute of the GSD Informationization Department (until last year, known as the Communications Department) finally had developed a new-generation information system to integrate the ground forces, PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Second Artillery Force at all echelons. The new system was hailed as a major breakthrough supporting command and control in joint operations and filling a gap in the C4ISR network (PLA Daily, November 17, 2011). It is difficult however to assess the veracity of the report, whether this really represents central direction to replace the individual regional efforts, how far the new system has progressed in the development process or how well it supports joint command and control—especially horizontal integration. Whatever the true state of the technology’s development, the PLA is looking to correct the technical inability of its forces to communicate across the services and branches.

Experimentation and Testing Concepts in Joint Exercises

Exercises provide the laboratory for experimentation and testing joint doctrine and integrated communications systems in a resistant medium that is as close as the PLA can get to real combat.

Joint exercises in 2011 have continued the focus on experimentation to develop the joint command methods and C4ISR architecture that are fundamental to developing a modern joint operations capability. The continuing focus of experimental joint exercises on command methods and communications indicates the PLA is still struggling with significant issues (“Shifting Perspectives: Assessing the PLA from the Ground Up,” China Brief, January 20).

The important PLA joint exercises in 2011, several of which had high level observers, featured command and control coordination within joint task forces, testing of integrated C4ISR or both. Many of the exercises were described in the Chinese press as experimental, indicating that problems establishing joint command and control methods remain. While ground force units still appeared to command many of the joint task forces in the exercises, the PLAAF or PLAN also led joint formations to provide joint command experience.

The GSD 2011 Military Training Plan emphasized improving integration of command information systems between the services, campaign planning and preparation, and joint command drills. Attempts to improve communications integration and command and control were evident in 2011 exercises (PLA Daily, March 31, 2011; January 14, 2011).

PLA joint exercises have continued to experiment with command and control models in a joint task force. In the past, the Lianhe-series of experimental joint exercises in Jinan Military Region (MR) have tested command and control, and coordination methods within a joint task force (PLA Daily, November 11, 2008).

Joint training in 2011 included joint air defense training led by the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and joint disaster relief training featuring an integrated military-civilian emergency command system (PLA Daily, May 10, 2011; May 9, 2011; May 1, 2011). Based on Chinese press reporting, the following appear to be the more important joint exercises in 2011 that tested command and control, and C4ISR issues:

  • A Nanjing MR joint amphibious landing exercise in August with 1st Group Army leading a multi-service joint task force, including the PLAAF and PLAN. The exercise tested joint command integration of the force, based on an effort initiated in 2009 to construct an integrated command and control system extending to units at the campaign and tactical levels designed to correct difficulties experienced over the past decade. This effort also included cross training service personnel and developing joint operations staff personnel. The integrated communications system allowed the campaign-level joint task force to exercise joint firepower strikes, joint maritime defense and ground and air electronic countermeasures. Although the system was considered to function at a basic level and was incomplete, the press report did state it integrated the joint forces and allowed the services to share operational information (PLA Daily, September 26, 2011).
  • The experimental “Qianwei-211” exercise, held at the Queshan Combined Arms Tactical Training Base (CATTB) in mid-summer, was directed by the Jinan MR employing a ground-air joint task force testing multi-level joint command and control, mobile command posts, transfer of command between command posts, and integrated command systems against a simulated “Blue Force” (PLA Daily, July 6, 2011).
  • The experimental “Lianmeng 211” joint exercise, held from 22-26 October 2011, featured a multi-service joint task force formed by Jinan MR units and led by the North Sea Fleet. General Staff officers, Jinan MR, and other PLA organizations observed the exercise indicating its importance. This is one of the few examples of the PLA following through on its stated plan to alternate lead services for joint exercises to give each service experience in leading a joint task force. It should be noted that a unit given the lead in an exercise to gain joint experience however does not mean this will be the case in wartime. This joint exercise, which had an amphibious landing phase, included PLAN, PLAAF, ground forces, the Second Artillery Force, People’s Armed Police (PAP) and reserve units. Training objectives were joint campaign planning, joint command coordination, political work and comprehensive logistics support (PLA Daily, December 8, 2011; October 27 2011).
  •  Fuxiao-11”, a Lanzhou MR opposing force exercise in October 2011, included the 21st Group Army providing the joint operation group commander. A multi-service joint task force included a ground force division and PLAAF and Second Artillery Force elements. Integrated command and control—including coordination of air and ground firepower strikes and synchronization of unit movements and actions during operational phases—was exercised from mobile joint command posts to test multi-service command and a new joint C4ISR system (PLA Daily, October 31, 2011; October 29, 2011).
  •  Jingwei-2011” in Chengdu MR exercised a ground-air joint task force in late October 2011 testing informationized mapping and navigation support. Qi Jianguo, Director of the First Department (Operations) of the GSD, directed the exercise. Qi was accompanied by personnel from the four General Departments (Staff, Political, Logistics and Armament), national-level organizations, each MR and scientific research institutes. In addition to mapping and navigation support to joint campaign planning, joint objectives included precision command, coordination, fire strikes and logistics (PLA Daily, October 30, 2011).
  • Shenyang MR held the Lianhe-2011 joint exercise in October exercising a ground-air joint task force coordinating air firepower support and a precision logistics system as well as testing a joint tactical integrated communication system (PLA Daily, November 7, 2011).
  • The “Qianfeng-2011 Queshan” exercise held at the Queshan CATTB in the fall featured a joint tactical exercise by an armored brigade and PLAAF airborne troops to test innovations in command methods to improve the command process, combat planning and preparation; reduce redundancy in command functions; and improve target planning, preparation, and decision making (PLA Daily, November 2, 2011).
  • The Guangzhou MR directed a joint amphibious exercise in the fall with a multi-service joint campaign task force comprised of the 42nd Group Army, PLAN and PLAAF units testing a joint command system. The joint exercise was dispersed across thirteen training sites testing the ability of the exercise headquarters to simultaneously control units from multiple services over a wide area of operations within a single scenario (PLA Daily, November 7, 2011).
  • A fall exercise of a ground-air joint tactical task force at the Zhurihe CATTB in Beijing MR, involving a mechanized infantry division of the 38th Group Army and a Beijing MR Air Force (MRAF) Air Division, tested joint communications and information sharing under real combat conditions and in a complex electromagnetic environment. The PLA press reported a new information system was tested (PLA Daily, December 9, 2011).


The PLA focused on three areas to solve fundamental problems that are retarding operationalization of a joint operations capability. The PLA continues experimenting with a new joint operations doctrine in exercises and reforming education and training of joint commanders and staff who will execute the new doctrine. However, it will take time to overcome identified problems in developing joint command and control models, testing joint operations concepts in exercises, constructing an integrated C4ISR architecture, and developing the command talent to lead joint task forces at the campaign and tactical levels (China’s National Defense in 2008).

The ad hoc development of an integrated C4ISR system, which will serve as the foundation for developing a modern joint operations capability, is undoubtedly slowing the PLA’s efforts to develop a joint operations doctrine, and command and control structure and methods. C4ISR integration issues are limiting the results of experimentation and testing in exercises. While the GSD’s announcement of a new integrated information system appears to be the type of high-level direction required to address the problem, the systems capabilities and deployment are unknown and likely to remain so for some time..

The PLA press notes some progress, but recognizes problems remain. A focus of the 12th Five Year Plan is in the area of informationization to refine and expand joint developments and use informationization of the force to improve combat effectiveness (PLA Daily, March 10, 2011). An expert in military technology at the NUDT discussed the need for the PLA to quicken the pace of developing an integrated C4ISR system capable of supporting joint operations (PLA Daily, May 27, 2010). While the PLA is making progress, development of a modern joint operations capability and deployment of a force wide integrated C4ISR system will take considerable time. Near-term modernization and military talent reform are planned to 2020 with long-term planning extending well beyond.


  1. It is interesting that the author also addressed issues concerning the role of the Party Committee’s leadership role in dynamic modern combat, challenge’s with planning and coordination, and the impact of fast-paced operations on the decision-making process. This is in contradiction of the modern PLA practice of the unit commander having the final say in operational decisions during combat. While the author discusses the Party Committee, it is likely he is referring to the Standing Committee that meets regularly to make decisions concerning unit activities. It is also unclear whether the author is only discussing perceived issues at the Group Army level or what he believes is a wider problem.