Xi’s Military Reform Plan: Accelerating Construction of a Strong PLA

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 23

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with senior PLA officers. (Credit: Xinhua)

Chinese President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping’s military reform plan, announced at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee in November 2013, will take form over the next several years (see China Brief, November 20, 2013). The reforms, which appear to be the most significant taken in at least three decades, address several major issues requiring resolution before the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can achieve significant modernization objectives. These include overcoming vested interests and reaching a consensus on modernization goals that have slowed progress in the past; providing high level direction to synchronize the diverse components of military modernization, particularly standardization for C4ISR; and optimizing the force structure to meet the requirements of modern warfare. [1]

While a general consensus on the way forward seems to have been reached within the Central Military Commission (CMC) and apparently the PLA in general, it also appears that some details have not been finalized. The general consensus on some of the difficult issues has likely been achieved by President Xi through a combination of promotions, the anti-corruption campaign within the PLA, as well as appealing to the collective interest and Party loyalty to build a strong modern military over preserving the primacy of the ground forces. Remaining decisions, such as the structure of joint commands, need to be resolved expeditiously if the reforms are to take place over the next few years. However, the PLA needs to carefully approach important issues with far reaching consequences—such as joint operations commands, changes in the military region (MR) system and force structure changes to limit the disruption and reduction in combat effectiveness—and mitigate risks during the implementation phase (Xinhua, August 11; Chinamil.com, March 16; China Military Online, February 28).

Reporting in the Chinese press and PLA sources provides a general outline and areas of emphasis in Xi’s reforms. The plan reinforces ongoing reform priorities and attempts to succeed in areas that have been thwarted in the past. Some of the highlights with potentially significant consequences include an accelerated pace to modernization; the creation of peacetime joint commands to jump start the move to an integrated joint operations capability; an apparent increased emphasis on PLA Navy (PLAN) and Second Artillery Force (SAF) modernization; addressing problems of morale, corruption, attracting and training quality personnel; and overcoming a pervasive peacetime mentality.

Military Reform Areas of Emphasis

Accelerate Modernization and Preparations for Military Struggle. The desire to accelerate military modernization has been highlighted by the PLA. This is in part a response to a complex security environment, as well as a perception that a quickening pace in the revolution in military affairs and modernization of advanced militaries in the world is threatening to leave the PLA further behind. The possibility remains for external conflicts and internal instability, including strategic containment and geopolitical competition, territorial disputes, ethnic and religious unrest as well as separatist and terrorist forces (Global Times, August 31; PLA Daily, August 31). [2] Preparation for military struggle is also a prominent theme, with preparation for combat a basic task for any armed force. For China, this is related to views on the potential for conflict, becoming more proactive strategically, particularly in regards to territorial disputes, the need to improve warfighting capabilities as well as meet new and expanding military requirements. Preparations include improving strategic planning and innovation, as well as crisis prevention, deterrence and limiting or controlling a crisis or conflict (Xinhua, March 15; China Military Online, November 21).

Joint Command and C4ISR. The creation of a modern and efficient joint command system is a top priority, as is the establishment of a force-wide command information system providing interoperability between the services in order to move toward an integrated joint operations capability. While there has been much discussion of joint command organization and functions in PLA academic circles, there appears to be a sense of urgency to resolve disagreements over structure and joint command processes. Reforms include optimizing the CMC joint headquarters structure, functions and strategic management. Theater joint operations commands are planned, with adjustments in the military region system that should at least limit the traditional dominance of the ground forces. It is not clear whether a flatter command structure will be part of the restructuring as has been advocated by PLA academics (Xinhua, November 15, 2013). [3]

Plans call for strengthening the command information system with accelerated modernization of information systems through better centralized management. While C4ISR has been a focus of past modernization efforts, the lack of integration has hampered joint operations training and development as the military regions and group armies were left to locally solve joint communications problems. The PLA has already begun to emphasize high-level direction, with the CMC becoming more involved in modernization details. The GSD established an Informationization Department in June 2011 and Military Training Department in December 2011 to provide greater supervision in these critical areas. The modernization program will continue to strengthen development of an integrated information infrastructure throughout the military to enable a system of systems operational capability (Xinhua, November 15, 2013; PLA Daily, December 23, 2011, “Commentary: PLA’s joint operation still faces problems”; Chinamil.com, July 1, 2011; Chinese Ministry of Defense, December 22, 2011).

Training. Reform efforts emphasize improvements in training, especially joint training, to approach actual combat conditions. The need to approach actual combat in training is in part to overcome the lack of PLA combat experience in modern warfare. The continued upgrades to large training bases to support joint training should help in this area. According to the PLA, additional reasons include the following: the need to achieve and maintain a high combat readiness in order to prepare for and win a potential conflict; focus on actual operational requirements to shorten the transition to wartime readiness levels in a crisis; providing rigorous and complex training to strengthen troops toughness and fighting spirit; eliminating a perceived peacetime mentality within the PLA; overcoming continuing problems of scripted exercises, indifference to realistic training and fear of accidents that limits training intensity; the standardization of evaluation methods to eliminate falsification of training results; and the conduct of specialized, non-war military training to support emergency responses. The PLA will need to revise and synchronize combat regulations, the training outline, and actual combat requirements to resolve conflicts in order to improve complex realistic training (Xinhua, November 15, 2013; Xinhua March 20). [4]

Cultivating Military Talents. The quality of officers and men is viewed by the leadership as inadequate, with additional resources needed to develop the specialized skills in core competencies to conduct modern joint operations and support the broad modernization effort. The personnel evaluation and selection process also requires improvements to correct significant problems, as evidenced by press reporting on PLA corruption cases related to promotions and conscription. The establishment of a standardized selection process based on qualifications is also seen as a means to attract and retain skilled personnel. President Xi’s reform program intends to further improve military educational institutes with increased funding, enhanced scientific and technological education as well as joint operations training. Problems include weak and out-of-date courses, instructors that are out of touch with modern operational requirements, lack of innovation, as well as fraud and corruption within the educational institutes, which is polluting the academic environment (China Military Online, July 16; China Military Online, December 30, 2013).

Equipment and Force Modernization. Reductions in a force that is too large and rebalancing the ratio of forces between the services and between branches could lead to increased modernization resources for PLAN and SAF forces. The PLAN, presumably including the PLAN Air Force (PLANAF), is viewed as supporting comprehensive national strength, and could well receive special emphasis under President Xi’s modernization program. Maritime rights, territorial issues economic interests—including the desire to reestablish a “Maritime Silk Road”—are among potential security or development issues that highlight a priority for accelerated naval modernization. Reported aircraft carrier construction plans would support a greater maritime presence further from China’s coast. The SAF is a key component of long-range joint firepower strikes that would be critical to any campaign, as well as providing nuclear deterrence. This is not to say the PLAAF is not an important focus of modernization with modern aircraft in development, only that the PLAN and SAF will receive greater emphasis under Xi’s reform plan (China Military Online January 9; Xinhua April 16, 2013; South China Morning Post October 22).

Some areas such as new type operational forces will increase, while other areas such as non-combat forces will decrease. The PLA press has described army aviation, special forces and electronic warfare units as new types of operational forces, while PLA academics have given space and network operations forces as examples. It appears the ground forces will complete the transition from its current mixed division and brigade structure to a brigade/battalion structure during a force reduction. Force reductions will also allow for a phasing out of multiple types of old equipment. This will support greater standardization within units, increase modernization levels and operational readiness, while reducing logistics requirements and other problems caused by multiple and aging equipment types. Logistics has also been highlighted, with an increase in mobile logistics forces to support joint operations advocated, evident in the Jinan MR’s special project in joint logistics over the last decade (Chinamil.com, December 10, 2013; China Military Online, November 17). [5]

Discipline, Loyalty and Corruption. Unhealthy tendencies, corruption and lax discipline within the military, considered serious by the leadership, are being addressed through campaigns targeting military loyalty to the Party, anti-corruption and adherence to laws and regulations as evidenced in the PLA press. The Party is also concerned about diverse and unhealthy concepts transmitted by social media and the Internet leading to ideological infection, issues not limited to the PLA but the population in general. Corruption is certainly a real problem in the PLA, but the additional areas of concern could indicate serious internal problems that would also affect warfighting capabilities (China Military Online, January 17; China Military Online, July 16; Xinhua, November 4; Xinhua, November 20, 2013).

High Stakes of Reform

The shape of Xi’s military reform plan should become evident over the next two years, as will the level of success in overcoming institutional impediments to some of the key areas. The reorganizations and reforms appear to be the most extensive in at least three decades, and will have a far-reaching impact on the direction and pace of military transformation efforts.

The level of consensus, particularly support from the ground forces, will be an important determinant in the level of success. The public announcement of the plan’s general outline would seem to imply consensus has been achieved, although continuing calls for loyalty and discipline in the PLA could indicate all are not in agreement. In particular, plans to create theater joint commands with a possible reduction in MRs, which has been blocked in the past, would represent a level of military control or at least influence by President Xi that his predecessors did not possess. This consensus was likely achieved by a combination of promotions, the threat of prosecution for corruption, calls for loyalty and discipline, as well as an appeal to the collective interests of the PLA and China over self-interest.

Success or failure of the reforms will have significant impacts on the region and on the PLA’s transformation into an information-era military. Success will accelerate the pace of transformation and implementation of an advanced joint operations capability, which has seen much discussion by PLA academics, but has failed to move forward as a result of a past blockage of the creation of joint commands, and poor joint operations education and training efforts. Operationalizing a modern joint operations doctrine will increase warfighting capabilities as the service units become integrated at the campaign and tactical levels, improve situational awareness as well as provide for greater agility, flexibility and initiative at lower echelons. Plans to increase the joint operations capabilities of the CMC headquarters could mean greater micromanagement of operations during a conflict. Success in the reforms with improved joint and precision operations capabilities could lead the leadership to believe they can control and limit risk in a short-duration military operation with limited objectives in a crisis over a territorial dispute.

Failure to implement the reforms would represent a major setback for President Xi and the stagnation of PLA modernization efforts. It would leave PLA academics endlessly discussing the way forward for reforms without implementation. For the PLA it would mean that it would continue to field new equipment, but without the system of systems operations integration of hardware and force groupings, and without the modern joint doctrine required to optimize employment of the modern weapons and equipment. The PLA would be forced to continue conducting coordinated joint operations based on following planned operations with limited flexibility. In modern warfare this will greatly restrict the PLA’s agility and ability to respond rapidly to changing battlefield situations. This would probably not adversely affect short, low-intensity operations over territorial disputes with more backward militaries. However, in a potential higher intensity and longer duration conflict with Japan’s modern military, possibly backed up by the U.S. military, the PLA could rapidly lose the initiative as its pre-war operational plans are overtaken by events, and with lower-echelon commanders ill prepared to use initiative within the context of operational objectives.

Jump Starting Military Reform

Some past reform areas appear to require renewed emphasis, such as reform of military educational institutes. Other areas of the plan have been blocked in the past, as is the case with joint operations commands. Hardware, organizational and soft-factor changes are required to jump start the transformation process. Accelerated modernization is an important element, although the method to achieve a faster pace of modernization is unclear beyond force reductions to allow the withdrawal of aging equipment, which would also free up some modernization funds for more important areas. There are no indications of significant increases in the defense budget above what has been the norm, perhaps due to the example of overspending on defense contributing to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, although increased emphasis on PLAN and SAF modernization could lead to increases over time. Poor high-level direction has limited modernization progress and appears to be addressed. It appears the CMC provides greater supervision and oversight, with the General Staff Department (GSD) and other General Departments directing detailed implementation throughout the force. Supervision by the CMC and GSD will be critical to synchronize the broad and complex modernization, and ensure that efforts are implemented uniformly rather than leaving the details to lower echelons. This direction and decision making is required to overcome past standardization problems fielding an integrated command information system to enable joint operations development, and support creation of a joint command structure.

Optimizing the overly large force structure includes downsizing, adjustments of the ratios between the services and branches as well as increases in new types of operational forces. The PLAN appears poised to receive increased modernization resources under President Xi’s plan, as does the SAF. The PLAAF and a likely smaller ground force will continue modernization.

Significant reform objectives include soft factors that indicate potentially significant problems within the PLA. These include recruiting and retaining quality personnel, improving and updating military educational institutes, promoting complex and realistic field and simulation training as well as innovation in operational methods (operational art and tactics). Combating corruption and fraud, and changing a prevalent peacetime mentality within the force are important for morale and increasing combat readiness. It is unclear whether the emphasis on loyalty, discipline, morale, changing the peacetime mentality and ideological infection in the force is merely a precaution, worse casing by the leadership, or represent significant internal problems.

President Xi’s jump start and acceleration of PLA transformation efforts will need to be successful if the PLA is to achieve its goals of implementing a system of systems operational capability and integrated joint operations, both keys to the PLA’s future warfighting capability.


  1. C4ISR stands for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.
  2. Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, (Beijing: Information Office of the State Council, 2013); Transformation of Generating Mode of War Fighting Capability, (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2012). Contact author for additional sources used for this article.
  3. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) p. 166; Information System-Based System of Systems Operations Study, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2012) p. 244; Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions (Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011) pp. 196–197.
  4. Information System-based System of Systems Operational Capability Building in 100 Questions (Beijing: National Defense University Press, June 2011) pp. 218 and 230.
  5. Joint Operations Research, (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2013) pp. 165–166 and 289–290; Dong Zifeng, Transformation of Generating Mode of War Fighting Capability, (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2012) p. 27.