“Triad” Military Education and Training Reforms: The PLA’s Cultivation of Talent for Integrated Joint Operations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 5

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping meets with PLA personnel at the National Defense University (March 2016).


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is currently implementing what it calls the “Triad” military education and training reform concept intended to develop more capable joint commanders and staff officers. This reform effort is critical to the implementation of integrated joint operations, and to the transformation of the PLA into an advanced military force. The operationalization of integrated joint and “system of systems” operations is placing complex requirements on joint officers—to include the command and coordination of dispersed forces, employment of joint modular task forces down to the tactical level, employment of informationized weapons and equipment, and the introduction of innovative operational concepts (Jamestown Foundation, January 2017).

Although military educational reforms began more than two decades ago, the PLA continues to identify numerous and significant problems in cultivating joint talent. Communist Party General Secretary and PLA Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping has stated that the development of joint command officers is an urgent priority for addressing the shortage of qualified personnel. [1] The PLA has identified numerous problems in its military educational institutions: outdated faculty and courses; fraud and corruption that pollutes the academic environment, and diverts funds and resources; poor coordination between military educational institutions and units; as well as poor planning and management in implementing military education reforms. Xi has accused the military academic institutions of the “four winds” (si feng, 四风)—namely formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and waste—and has asserted that reforms will be a difficult struggle that must be won. [2]

The PLA is also addressing the information revolution in its cultivation of joint talent, improvements in joint training, and overall modernization. The cultivation of joint talent reforms is primarily focused on adapting to the information technology revolution in military affairs, and building an “informationized” (xinxihua, 信息化) warfare capability. Now PLA theorists are discussing the next revolution in military affairs based on “intelligent” (zhinenghua, 智能化) technologies, which they believe can have a significant impact on all aspects of the military. These theorists believe that the intelligent technology revolution could provide an opportunity to leapfrog in front of the advanced militaries that have already incorporated information technologies (China Military Net, January 4 2018; China Brief, February 15). While military educational institutions are beginning to incorporate intelligent technology issues into the classroom, the focus remains primarily on informationization. The PLA will need to rapidly catch up with the last revolution in military affairs, or else risk falling behind in the new revolution (China Military Net, January 22).

“Triad” Military Education Reforms to Cultivate Joint Talent

The PLA has researched the education of joint operations officers beginning as early as the mid-1980s, with an increasing focus from the 1990s to the present. In early 2016 the Central Military Commission (CMC) issued a formal “Opinion on Deepening National Defense and Military Reform,” with the current reforms scheduled to be completed between 2017 and the end of 2020. The “Opinion” proposed deepening the existing “Triad New Military Talent Education System of Systems” (三位一体新型军事人才培养体系) composed of three program areas: military academy education, unit training practice, and military professional education (State Council Information Office, May 2015).

None of the three components of the “Triad” system are new, but the ongoing reforms are updating and fusing the three systems to create a synergistic effect. This new educational system of systems is intended to further integrate military educational institutions with unit-level training in order to provide cross-fertilization across multiple skill sets and mental disciplines. PLA analysis concludes that new quality military talent— especially joint talent—will play an increasingly important and decisive role on the informationized battlefield. Importantly, the PLA continues to believe that the human factor is the most decisive for victory on the battlefield, reinforcing the importance of developing quality joint personnel (Sina, December 30 2008). [3]

“Military academy education” (jundui yuanxiao jiaoyu, 军队院校教育) is the main channel to improve the quality of military personnel, as well as to teach basic professional knowledge and skills. Military academic institutions need to promote innovative minds and thinking abilities, laying the foundation for long term talent development. Cultivating faculty personnel with both military experience and advanced degrees—along with the parallel creation of solid faculty evaluation systems—are important components of the reform process (Xinhua, April 10 2018). The PLA considers the National Defense University to be its premier joint military educational institution (although the National University of Defense Technology and service colleges also provide some joint courses). The theater commands have also initiated on-the-job training and certification programs for joint personnel. Additionally, the PLA intends to create a virtual joint command college with online courses and learning resources (China Military Net, September 12 2017; China Military Net, November 2 2015; Sina, December 30 2008; State Council Information Office, December 2004).

“Unit training practice” (budui xunlian shijian, 部队训练实践) is critical to enhancing the capability to fight and win, as well as an important basic program to develop command officers. [4] Joint exercises provide officers with experience in the complexities of joint operations: comprehensive exercises integrate personnel and equipment, transform theory into practice, and place the classroom in the battlefield. The PLA believes that in order to improve joint education, military education needs to move closer to unit training, focus on actual combat training, and form a seamless linkage between military educational institutions and units (Xinhua, April 10 2018).

“Military professional education” (junshi zhiye jiaoyu, 军事职业教育) is seeking to leverage information technology to provide PLA officers with continuing web-based education opportunities outside of brick-and-mortar institutions. The PLA is introducing Western educational concepts in the interactive, massive open online course (MOOC) program for online learning and the sharing of resources. A pilot project within the PLA has been implemented within 24 units. The online course program includes leveraging civilian educational resources, as well as continuing assessment and revision of the program on an ongoing basis (Xinhua, November 25 2017; Xinhua, November 16 2017).

Although not one of the three main elements of the “triad,” PLA reforms also embrace a fourth category: “joint teaching and training” (lian jiao lian xun, 联教联训), which leverages the teaching and research resources of military education institutions to support unit-level training. The PLA considers the “Joint Teaching-2012 Queshan” (Lian Jiao-2012 Queshan, 联教-2012 确山) Exercise as the first multi-dimensional joint teaching and training exercise that integrated military education institutions with units in the field (Jamestown Foundation, January 2017).

Some PLA sources assert the goal of achieving military educational reforms by 2020, but this appears unattainable due to continuing problems. The official PLA goal for completion of the overall reforms in joint education is 2035—a target that appears reasonable if key objectives are met. These include: controlling corruption that adversely affects military education; constructing quality joint faculties and curricula; improving pay, benefits, and rewards in order to attract and retain quality faculty; establishing effective evaluation methods for students and instructors; and integrating the new military revolution based on intelligent technologies into existing coursework.

However, the lack of progress in military education reforms over the past twenty years leaves ultimate success in doubt. There appears to be an inability or institutional impediment derailing military educational reforms that the CMC needs to overcome (China Military, October 30 2018). President Xi’s speech at a national education conference in September 2018 addressed these challenges: while noting that the military educational system has improved, he acknowledged that work remains: the traditional mindset persists, and military professional education reform is still in the initial exploratory stage (China Military Net, September 14 2018).


The current reform effort in military education is focused on developing integrated joint capabilities, and a “system of systems” operations capability, in order to significantly boost the PLA’s warfighting capability. Improvements in military education focused on the development of joint talent are a critical element for the successful implementation of these twin capabilities. The PLA has identified numerous problems related to joint talent development that could cripple President Xi’s “Triad” reform plans if not adequately resolved. While the outline of reforms for developing joint operations talent in military educational institutions are provided in PLA publications, many details are not clear—particularly those regarding the extent, quality, and effectiveness of the reforms’ implementation.

The broader implications of the “Triad” PLA educational transformation are significant. Successful implementation and continuing refinement of reform efforts are both critical for the development of joint talents. Development of joint talents throughout the PLA at the strategic, campaign and tactical levels is a key requirement for the implementation of an integrated joint operations capability. The PLA appears to be attempting to address identified operational requirements and problems. However, by the PLA’s own admission, serious problems remain—including corruption and bureaucratic inertia. This inability to expediently implement required military educational and training reforms will extend the time required to implement an advanced joint operations capability. The leadership successfully overcame bureaucratic obstacles that delayed the creation of the joint theater commands; now the leadership needs to break the impediments to cultivating joint talent in order for PLA transformation to be successful.

A fully-developed integrated joint operations capability would make the PLA a dangerous opponent in any regional conflict—as well as in potential global conflicts, as China’s interests extend further abroad. Even the PLA has stated that the development period for a significant cohort of joint commanders and staff will be lengthy; however, incremental improvements in military education will gradually increase the PLA’s combat effectiveness as it builds toward its goal of becoming a world-class military force.

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 and “Russian Influence Campaigns against the West: From the Cold War to Putin.” Mr. McCauley writes primarily on PLA and Taiwan military affairs.

This report represents an updated, summary version of a paper prepared for the Annual People’s Liberation Army Conference sponsored by the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute in October 2018. A version of that paper will appear in a forthcoming volume published by the Strategic Studies Institute.


[1] Yao Jianing, “Senior Official Urges Deeper Military Graft Inspections,” Xinhua, 16 Jul 2014; General Political Department, 习近平关于国防和军队建设重要论述选编 (“Selection of Important Expositions of Xi Jinping on National Defense and Army Building”), Beijing: PLA Press, 2014, pp. 120 and 188; Ma Qingtao and Liu Huating (马清涛 刘华亭), “以习近平强军思想为引领大力培育高层次复合型军事人才” (“Vigorously Cultivate High-Level Inter-Disciplinary Military Talent under the Guidance of Xi Jinping’s Thought on Strengthening the Military”), 中国军事科学 (China Military Science), Issue 1, 2018, p. 36.

[2] General Political Department Editor, 习近平关于国防和军队建设重要论述选编 (“Selection of Important Expositions of Xi Jinping on National Defense and Army Building”), Beijing: PLA Press, 2014, pp. 119-123, 159-161, 182-194 and 224; Hu Limin (胡利民) et al, 军事人才联合教育论 (On the Joint Education of Military Personnel), Beijing: National Defense Industry Press, 2017, pp. 139-140 and 169.

[3] Wu Qingli (吴清丽), 基于信息系统的体系作战能力理论探索 (Exploration of Information Systems Based Operational Capability Theory), Beijing: Military Science Press, 2011, pp.  6-7.

[4] The PLA states that “unit training practice” has acquired a specialized meaning, although there is not a consistent definition. “Practice” in this context signifies that the training possesses a conscious transformative nature.