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Integrated Joint Operations by the PLA: An Assessment

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 11, 2011

    In recent years the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been undergoing a series of transformations at various levels in keeping with its changed military doctrine which emphasises upon fighting `local wars under conditions of informationalisation`. These transformations are occurring in organisation, manpower, equipment, training and doctrine. Very little has emerged about the methods of war fighting in an environment of changed structures consequent to the implementation of RMA. Some inputs have been culled out from various exercises conducted by the PLA and a few reports and writings in the recent past. Here, an attempt has been made to assess the progress on planning and conduct of Integrated Joint Operations (IJO) by the PLA.

    The change from Joint Operations (JO) to Integrated Joint Operations (IJO) came about in the post 2002 era when the PLA shifted the emphasis from local wars under hi-tech conditions to local wars under informationalised conditions.1 While JO laid emphasis on `joint ness` within the individual service with vertical linkages, the IJO looks at `joint ness` with other services and hence lays greater emphasis on horizontal linkages. In its unique military history since 1949, China has fought wars only on land – 1950 in the Korean Peninsula, 1962 across the Himalayas with India, 1969 at the Ussuri River with USSR and 1979 with Vietnam across the mountains in the South. All these wars had very little contribution from the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and negligible contribution from the PLA Navy (PLAN). As a result, the PLA held sway on all matters military. In fact, the early concept of` jointness meant that during joint exercises various forces conducted separate tasks in proximity of each other. That has since changed. The first indications of a serious attempt at Joint Operations came in 2004, when the CMC inducted the Chiefs of the PLAAF and PLAN as members of the CMC. Soon thereafter budgetary allocations saw a quantum leap in favour of the PLAAF and PLAN which presently receive about 29 per cent each as compared to only 19 per cent for the Army.

    The Concept

    The concept of IJO incorporates various types of units (ground, air, naval, missiles and logistics) and battlefield systems (Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Electronic warfare) into operations while treating each element equally in planning and execution.2

    Military Regions (MRs) double up as War Zones in war. While the MR Commander is normally replaced, the staff may be replaced or augmented for the campaign. The War Zone Campaign (WZC) may be commanded by a member of the CMC.3 The organisation is required to be tailored to suit a particular campaign, which may comprise a number of sub campaigns – air, counter-air, missile, electromagnetic and information warfare, etc., to name a few. The lead service commander becomes the sub-campaign commander under the War Zone Commander. Campaigns are all joint service operations with regular units, local units, militia and civil assets placed at the disposal of the War Zone Commander. According to Cortez Cooper’s testimony presented before the US China Economic and Security Review Commission, China’s existing MR structures are not capable of executing joint missions.4 The PLA is looking at developing a joint platform which can integrate all services seamlessly when executing a particular campaign but its organisation is still unclear.5 A WZC Commander is likely to be advised by the MR Commander(s), the MR Political Commissar, the MR AF Commander, MR PLAN Commander (where applicable), the MR Second Artillery Force (MR SAF) Commander and Deputy Commanders representing the General Staff Department, General Armament Department and the General Logistics Departments, besides the Commanders of the Group Armies placed under his command for the campaign.

    While the organisation tree for the conduct of IJO at the campaign level is not available in the open domain, the responsibility to frame and suggest structures was given to the Nanjing Army Command Academy in the aftermath of US operations in Iraq in 2003. The responsibility included preparation of a doctrine, modular groupings at each level, integrated logistics, joint training and exercises and a strategic project to develop talented personnel in information technology.6 The Jinan MAC was made responsible for establishing the `theatre joint training leading group` in 2009 as the test bed to conduct, monitor and evaluate the IJO concept. The first joint exercise held was the `Vanguard 2009` (Qianfeng 2009) in October 2009 in Henan Province. 7The main participants were the armoured brigade of the 20th Group Army, the 1st Army Aviation Regiment, an element of the 15th Airborne Corps, and aircraft from units in the Guangzhou and Jinan MR Air Forces.8 This exercise looked at joint operations at the brigade level in which a brigade commander was given resources from 11 different services at his disposal.

    A study of large scale exercises done by the PLA in 2009-10 provides some insights into the progress that the PLA has made in operationalising the IJO concept. The `Kuayue 2009`, a joint live firing exercise involving 50,000 troops, was conducted in 2009. It involved troops from four MRs - Shenyang, Lanzhou, Jinan and Guangzhou, integrated with the PLAAF. The aim was to test ground and Airborne Troops (15 Airborne Army- Strategic reserves) in carrying out an assault under electromagnetic conditions. The longest move was over 2400 kms and civilian aircraft and trains were requisitioned for the mobilisation for the exercise. In addition 90 per cent of the artillery and 50 per cent of the armour units participated. This exercise had four division size battle-groups from four different MRs,9 with support elements to test out different scenarios. The China Daily reported that the exercise intends to test `the PLA's capacity in command and decision-making, joint operations of land and air troops, operations in complicated electro-magnetic conditions, paratrooper assault operations, simulated battles, and comprehensive exercises by specialist units.`10 The participation of the Biedou satellite navigation and positioning system, new psychological warfare equipment, simulators and logistic elements called for a great deal of coordination at the War Zone level.

    It would be reasonable to conclude that the PLA has fine tuned plans for trans-regional mobilisation of troops and rehearsed integration of civilian resources in assisting the national effort. Since the exercise was held in an electromagnetic environment, the PLA appears to have worked through drills and procedures of overcoming a superior enemy possessing superior technology to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum. The use of the Beidou positioning and navigation system, like the GPS when integrated with fire control systems, improves accuracy and ensures concentration of firepower at the point of decision.

    Mission Action 2010 was an exercise that encompassed two distinct levels; the campaign level involving trans-regional mobilisation and regrouping of additional forces under MRs; and, the Divisional level in which specific tasks were given to a Division battle group under conditions of informationisation - active EM interference, cyber and satellite/UAV environment. The exercise was in three phases: Phase 1 called `Mission Action 2010A`, in which 188 Mechanised Infantry Brigade/27 Group Army based in Shanxi province moved from Zhurike Combined Arms Training Base (CATB) in Inner Mongolia to Taonan CATB in Shenyang MR; Phase 2 called `Mission Action 2010B’ in which 139 Mechanised Infantry Brigade/47 Group Army based at Weinan in Shaanxi province moved from Qingtongxia CATB in Lanzhou MR to Xichang CATB in Chengdu MR; and, Phase 3 called `Mission Action 2010C ` in which 149 Mountain Infantry Division/13 Group Army based at Leshan in Sichuan province moved from Chengdu MR to Qingtongxia CATB in Lanzhou MR. 100 percent equipment was fielded in this exercise.

    The aim of the exercise was to validate the capability of these Divisions to execute trans-regional moves and fight in alien conditions besides confirming the ability of the troops to deal with humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) in any part of the country. The drill also aimed at testing the new road, rail and air infrastructure constructed by China in recent years and validated their capacity to support such large-scale mobilisation.11

    This exercise too confirms coordination of trans-regional mobilisation by road and rail. The formations exercised seem to be earmarked as Rapid Reaction Forces (RRFs) that are specifically tasked to be prepared to respond first to a crisis. However, little is known about the joint planning, joint logistics and interoperability issues that are vital for successful joint operations.

    Two other exercises in Chengdu Military Region and Lanzhou Military Region in October 2011 were held at the Group Army level to practice a Division size force in a joint environment integrating representatives from PLAAF and PLA SAF along with their combat units on the Tibetan plateau and Tenggar desert respectively. The focus was on networked communications, information technology and firepower. These exercises displayed a fair idea of `jointness` at the Divisional level.


    From the inputs available it appears that the PLA has made fair progress in the planning and conduct of IJO at brigade and divisional levels. However, certain key elements of successful conduct of a joint campaign require stitching up at the higher level. Greater clarity is required on key issues of centralised command; the change of command from the MR commander, who is in location, to a WZC commander who descends from outside the theatre of operations; the changeover of a peacetime MR HQs to a WZ HQs; and, the integration of various services at the War Zone level. The need for equality of all the services, a key ingredient of joint operations, does not appear to have been fully implemented. PLAAF and PLAN Commanders continue to remain at the Deputy level at the War Zone HQs and under the War Zone Commander, who is invariably from the ground forces. More importantly, there is little confirmation of integration of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets at the War Zone HQs level. ISR assets are the key to decision making at the War Zone level.

    Future Challenges for the PLA

    • The PLA is still in a preliminary joint training stage. It was only in October 2011 that a Maritime Joint Defence Combat drill was organised by the North China fleet of the Jinan Theatre. This drill was a culmination of the three years of experimental joint training task that was assigned to Jinan MAC by the CMC. Since 300 officers attended the drill and no troops participated, it would be reasonable to assume that the PLA is still grappling with the structures and doctrinal aspects of the conduct of IJO.12 The actual validation of this concept with troops will require time.
    • There is no historical experience in joint campaigns in the PLA. This is a major barrier to `jointness`. Commanders are ignorant of the capabilities of other services and the technical specifications of equipment. While concerted attempts are being made to give exposure to Commanders at all levels in academies and schools of instruction, actual integration will still take time.13
    • IJO calls for a high degree of information technology knowledge and technical skills of the staff at all levels. The entry level skills of the PLA are very low which has necessitated the PLA to embark on a talent search and training of special talented officers and NCOs who have IT skills. This project is underway and requires time for fructification.
    • Interoperability in systems is vital in a joint service environment. Reliable and secure ship-shore, ship-air or air-shore communications and data links are yet to be verified.14
    • 1. Richard D. Fisher Jr, China`s Military Transformation, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, 2010, p. 70.
    • 2. Dennis J Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, Routledge, 2006, p. 150.
    • 3. Ibid, p. 98. Also see, James C. Mulvenon and Richard H. Yang, The People's Liberation Army in the Information Age, Center for Asia-Pacific Policy (RAND, 1999).
    • 4. See Cortez A. Cooper’s testimony “Joint Anti-Access Operations: China’s “System-of-Systems” Approach,” CT-356, presented before the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission on January 27, 2011, pg 7-8. It reads: `China’s peacetime Military Region structure does not reflect the command and control requirements for anti-access mission sets described in joint firepower and anti-air raid doctrine. These regional commands could, however, transition to a joint theater or war zone headquarters in wartime; but augmentation of air force, navy and Second Artillery missile forces with these ground force-centric structures during a crisis poses significant command and coordination challenges. Service-specific and perhaps even joint formations at the operational level (a Corps, fleet or numbered air force in US parlance) might operate under coordinated joint command fashioned from the augmented Military Region construct, or might operate under direct control of senior officers in Beijing.
    • 5. Ibid. `It is difficult to identify from available sources the components of this integrated command platform, and to determine the extent to which each of the various battlefield operating systems is integrated into a compatible network. The Chinese have obviously built on US concepts of “net centric warfare,” but appear to aim at an even more ambitious goal in terms of the comprehensive nature of the platform. Media reports and doctrinal writings portray something akin to the combined capabilities of the US Global Command and Control and Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Systems. The basis for this might be found in descriptions of the Qu Dian battle management system reportedly being developed since the late 1990s to provide joint C4ISR and target acquisition capabilities, although recent articles do not specifically mention this when referring to an integrated platform`. For` Qu Dian ` battle management system, see Larry M. Wortzel, “PLA Command, Control and Targeting,” in Roy Kamphausen and Andrew Scobell, ed., Right-Sizing the People’s Liberation Army: Exploring the Contours of China’s Military, Carlisle PA: Strategic Studies Institute, September 2007, pp. 212-20.
    • 6. Blasko, op. cit.
    • 7. Xinhua, October 14, 2009. The report said that `During the joint actual-troop exercise, such 6 major combat groups as information combat group, air combat group, army aviation combat group, special operation group, campaign artillery group and air defense group of the joint large campaign formation cooperated closely with each other and mainly exercised 4 subjects, namely, information warfare, joint fire strike, joint attack and sealed annihilation and area control. According to the introduction of Feng Zhaoju, director of the exercise and deputy commander of the Jinan Military Area Command, the exercise involved the Army and the Air Force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), 16 troop units of 11 arms of the PLA, 50-odd types of equipment and nearly 10,000 servicemen. It is an actual-troop exercise of joint large campaign formation organized by the PLA with more participating arms, complete combat elements and more equipment.`
    • 8. “PLA Exercises March Toward Trans-Regional Joint Training,” China Brief, Vol. 9, Issue 22, November 4, 2009.
    • 9. The participating Divisions were 116 Mechanised Infantry Division/39 Group Army/Shenyang MR, 162 Motorised Infantry Division/54 Group Army/Jinan MR, 123 Mechanised Infantry Division/41 Group Army/Guangzhou MR and 61 Mechanised Infantry Division/21 Group Army/Lanzhou MR. See,
    • 10. `China to hold massive military drill in second half of 2009`, available at, 2009-05-05.
    • 11. B Raman, `Chinese Military Exercises during 2010--an Update,` available at
    • 12. PLA Daily, October 29, 2011.
    • 13. PLA Daily, August 16, 2011.
    • 14. James C. Bussert, “Chinese Warships Struggle to Meet New Command, Control And Communications Needs,” Signal Online Magazine, February 2009. It reads `China may be building a navy that features some world-class technologies aboard new ships, but its large numbers and variety of naval and air weapons still are operated in isolated methods because of the lack of effective command, control and communications and datalinks. Of 494 Chinese navy ships, the only combatant warships with credible Level III command, control and communications are four imported Russian Sovremennyi guided missile destroyers, 11 new construction guided missile destroyers, four 054A guided missile frigates, two upgraded Luda-class destroyers and 12 submarines, including nuclear strategic ballistic missile submarines.`