Issue 11, June 20, 2023 PDF Version
Welcome to the June 2023 edition of PLA UPDATE, CNA's newsletter on the internal and external affairs of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). This issue begins with a look at PLA views on professionalizing and modernizing the force's personnel, doctrine, and capabilities. We review a senior officer's discussion of challenges and objectives related to transforming the PLA into a "world-class military" by 2049, the official PLA newspaper's call for a cultural shift that embraces devolution of authority in fast-paced future conflict, and a forum on various applications of big data for future operations defined by artificial intelligence and autonomy. The issue concludes with two recent real-world exercises and training: the groundbreaking China‒Laos Friendship Shield exercise and a round of simulated mine countermeasures training for PLA Navy (PLAN) divers.
SENIOR LEADERSHIP GUIDANCE
AMS Leader Discusses PLA's "World-Class Military" Goal
A department head of the PLA's top research institution penned an article outlining progress, challenges, and outstanding tasks related to achieving force modernization objectives by mid-century. On May 1, an article titled "Fully Grasp the Strategic Arrangements for Accelerating the Building of the People's Army into a World-Class Military" was published in Qiushi, the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) leading theoretical journal. The article was authored by Air Force Major General Shen Zhihua, director of the Political Work Department at the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), the PLA's premier institution for the study and development of strategy, operations, and tactics. This article was the latest in a body of high-profile work by Shen on PLA modernization and transformation. It also follows a series of articles by PLA leaders and experts that have been incrementally fleshing out the meaning of the "world-class military" goal since it was set by Xi Jinping at the CCP's 19th National Congress in October 2017.
Shen began his article by contending that the PLA has made important progress toward becoming a world-class military since November 2012, when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the CCP and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Shen argued that Party leadership over the PLA has been strengthened, the PLA's focus on readiness and warfighting has been renewed, and important military reforms and modernization initiatives have been advanced.
Shen also identified a raft of challenges that the PLA faces as it seeks to achieve its modernization objectives over the next two and a half decades. Addressing the security environment, Shen warned that instability and uncertainty in the international situation were rising and that the "real danger of war" was increasing pressure on the PLA to be capable of performing its missions. He pointed out institutional obstacles that were slowing PLA modernization, including insufficient innovation in the domestic defense industrial base, unsatisfactory technological literacy among officers and enlisted, and persistent corruption in lower level units.
The conclusion of Shen's article put forward a lengthy list of tasks that the PLA must carry out to achieve the world-class military goal by mid-century. These tasks include the following:
- Innovating military strategic guidance, including formulating core concepts to guide the implementation of planning, acquisitions, and resource allocation
- Developing strategy and tactics for "people's war," a body of strategic thought originating under Mao Zedong that emphasizes widespread popular support and participation in PLA operations
- Accelerating the development of forces for "unmanned intelligent operations"
- Building a strong "system of strategic deterrence forces"
Like other PLA leaders before him, Shen did not elaborate on how the future capabilities of the PLA as a world-class military would compare to the US or other advanced militaries. Shen said that the goal implies that the PLA will have power "commensurate" with China's status as a powerful country, be capable of effectively safeguarding national security, and have strong influence internationally. People's Republic of China (PRC) leaders view the PLA's achievement of the goal as imperative to realizing the overarching strategy of rejuvenating the country into a "great modern socialist country."
PLA Daily Calls For Developing Culture of Mission Command
The official newspaper of the PLA has argued that the devolution of command authority for decentralized operations will be key to victory in future warfare. On May 25, the PLA Daily published an article titled "Attach Importance to the 'Soft Power' Behind Mission Command." The article began by proposing a definition of mission command and contrasting it with traditional notions of command and control. A traditional style of command, the article stated, consists of a superior officer assigning a subordinate both a task and detailed instructions for completing the task. Mission command, in contrast, entails only that a superior give a "clear task" to a subordinate, who is entrusted to independently organize and command forces to accomplish the task. This definition is similar to descriptions of mission command in US military doctrinal publications.
The PLA Daily article argued that the PLA's ability to employ mission command is especially relevant in an era of increasingly complex and fast-paced warfare. It pointed out that elements of modern warfare including "dispersed deployments," "high operational tempos," and "numerous uncertainties" could make it difficult or impossible for senior commanders to maintain constant direct control over their subordinates. Under such conditions, the article stated, subordinate commanders must be able to carry out tasks according to their superiors' intent and actual battlefield conditions.
The article contended that to develop the capability for executing mission command, one must develop several "soft factors" during peacetime, including the following:
- Mutual trust.The article stated that for mission command to work, superiors and subordinates must have mutual trust in each other's capability and judgment. Such trust is not earned overnight, but rather through "repeated exchanges and butting heads" over the course of completing "major tasks" and joint exercises and training.
- Common understanding. The article noted the importance of sharing a common language and set of experiences that facilitate smooth communication, shared understanding of operational issues, and the fulfillment of a superior's intent. Getting to a common understanding requires standardized systems for education and training that "homogenize" troops' ways of thinking.
- Changes in command culture. The article claimed that certain countries' militaries place more emphasis on command and control, while others put more weight on mission command. To achieve a shift to a mission command culture, officers at all levels must be "guided" toward a common understanding of mission command principles, superiors must "dare to delegate authority," and subordinates must "bravely take on responsibility."
Implicit throughout the PLA Daily article is the notion that the PLA's command culture is overly committed to command and control and that it must embrace mission command to be successful in future conflicts. This contention is clearer in an August 2022 article by the same newspaper titled "Amid Tradition, Innovate Mission Command." According to this article, even though elements of mission command are discernable throughout the PLA's 20th-century warfighting experience, the command culture tends to emphasize central control over "sensitive issues that concerned the overall situation," such as the "key axes, times, and stages of campaigns." The article argued that the PLA must abandon "inflexible limitations on authorities" such that when a superior has limited ability to exercise timely control under battlefield conditions, the superior is able to quickly grant subordinates partial or complete control over operational actions.
Mission command may be especially relevant to the PLA Army following reforms in 2017 that made combined arms battalions the "basic combat unit" for independent operations. Under the PLA's previous Soviet-influenced organizational structure, operational planning and staff work for PLA Army battalions were conducted at the headquarters of their parent regiments. Combined arms battalions are now responsible for planning and executing their own operations. The fact that these battalions have comparatively small staffs, however, raises questions about unit leaders' ability to exercise sustained command and control over long-term, high-intensity operations.
MAJOR CONFERENCES AND EVENTS
AMS Hosts Forum on Military Applications of Big Data
The PLA convened military and civilian experts to discuss ways of leveraging big data for "intelligentized" future warfare. On May 18 and 19, the 4th Military Big Data Forum was held in Beijing. The event was hosted by AMS' Military Science Information Research Center in partnership with the PLA National University of Defense Technology and two civilian universities with close ties to the domestic defense industry. This iteration of the forum (the fourth since its inception in 2018) drew the participation of more than 400 domestic military and civilian researchers, including "well-known experts and scholars in the field of big data."
The theme of the forum was "Data Wins: Comprehensive Management and Integrated Application of Military Big Data." The event's five breakout sessions focused on topics including "cross-domain data governance" and "big data applications in training management." Participants discussed associated technologies, existing difficulties, and trends in the development of big data applications for the PLA's use in future warfare.
Speaking to PRC state television on the sidelines of the forum, Bai Xiaoying, deputy director of AMS' Military Science Information Research Center, claimed that the PLA's development of big data capabilities has "entered the fast lane" in recent years. Bai said that multi-source data fusion would give rise to "large numbers of new-type intelligent applications" that would energize and increase the efficiency of future warfare capabilities centered on artificial intelligence and autonomy.
MILITARY DIPLOMACY & OVERSEAS ACTIVITIES
China, Laos Conclude Bilateral Ground Force Exercise
The PLA wrapped up a groundbreaking exercise with Laos that likely sought to communicate the benefits of the two countries' overall relationship to Lao leaders. From May 9 to 28, ground force troops of the PLA Army and the Lao People's Armed Forces (LPAF) conducted exercise Friendship Shield at the Kommadam Academy in Vientiane Province, Laos. According to a PRC Defense Ministry spokesperson, this was the two countries' first bilateral exercise to focus on "real combat subjects." Related subjects included "fire assault, assault penetration, joint occupation of strongholds, and division and encirclement."
Friendship Shield 2023 was carried out under the scenario of PRC and Lao forces launching combined attacks against "transnational armed criminal groups based in jungle mountains." The PLA sent over 200 personnel to the exercise from a combined arms brigade of the 75th Group Army, which is headquartered in Kunming, Yunnan Province, near the China‒Laos border. The PLA Army personnel took with them hardware that included assault vehicles, ordnance, and equipment for mine clearing, explosive ordnance disposal, and epidemic prevention.
Similar to its coverage of the China‒Cambodia exercise Golden Dragon held a month earlier, PRC media reporting on Friendship Shield highlighted drills with "mixed groupings" of personnel, professional exchanges, and donations of humanitarian aid as signs of unity among PLA and LPAF forces. As another similarity, PRC state television media highlighted the importance of on-the-ground translation staff. A PLA Army translator interviewed on the program Military Report said the training "dealt with a lot of professional military terminology," and that it was important to "make every word precise and easy to understand" to enable "in-depth communication and training."
Friendship Shield 2023 took place at a time when the benefits of Vientiane's broader cooperation with Beijing have been increasingly called into question. China is Laos's largest creditor, accounting for nearly half the country's foreign debt, and the exact terms of loans under China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are obscure and possibly predatory. A PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson asserted on May 25 that the China‒Laos Railway, the flagship BRI project in the Southeast Asian country, has provided employment to thousands of Laotians and boosted Lao exports to China. The PRC's portrayal of its bilateral exercise with Laos seems tailored to help convince Vientiane that its partnership with Beijing is a win-win endeavor.
Naval Divers Simulate Mine Disposal and Recovery
PLAN divers conducted simulated mine countermeasures (MCM) training aimed at neutralizing mines at depths of at least 20 meters. On May 10, China Military Video Net, an official online repository of PLA video content, uploaded a video with highlights from a recent training exercise by PLAN "mine countermeasure frogmen," or naval divers. The divers, part of a unit under an unspecified PLAN minesweeper squadron, were shown conducting drills in an indoor cylindrical pool. The drills appeared to include naval divers recovering simulated bomblets that had been placed on the seabed to neutralize naval mines and using buoyancy devices to bring practice mine shapes up to the surface.
According to a reporter appearing in the video, the PLAN's naval divers must be capable of conducting MCM tasks at depths of at least 20 meters (the apparent depth of the cylindrical pool in which they were training). Speaking to China Military Video Net, Lieutenant Commander Xu Xiaoxing, deputy commander of the naval diver unit, said that the training had strengthened junior divers' techniques and emergency-handling abilities and that it had laid a strong foundation for follow-on training at sea.
Writings by PRC military and civilian subject matter experts argue that the PLAN requires strong MCM capability for operations both inside and outside the First Island Chain. At the same time, related writings identify existing PLAN MCM capabilities as inadequate for responding to potential naval mine blockades, which, if not dealt with, could limit PLAN maneuvers and pressure the PRC economy. PLAN investments in its naval diver program offer one indication of its efforts to improve MCM capability.