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China's Revolution in Doctrinal Affairs

Emerging Trends in the Operational Art of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army
James MulvenonDavid M. Finkelstein
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The decade of the 1990s was a period of tremendous change for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). On nearly every front, this massive defense establishment was engaged in a myriad of reforms aimed at making it a more professional force in a corporate and institutional sense as well as a more operationally capable force. These changes affected every facet of the PLA—force structure, equipment, personnel reform, and yet another rectification of the defense research and development establishment, to name just a few.

Of particular significance, the 1990s was also a decade of tremendous doctrinal ferment. Having just spent the decade of the 1980s refining its approaches to combined arms operations, the PLA, throughout the 1990s, found itself impelled by observing external military events to rethink its own approaches to the operational art and the prosecution of campaign-level operations.

In particular, the performance (both successful and otherwise) of U.S. military forces and coalition partners throughout the 1990s, and the challenges faced by various developing militaries in the face of high-technology warfare helped to crystallize and refine the PLA’s conceptualization of what it terms “Local Wars Under Modern Hightech Conditions” (and with the publication of its December 2004 defense white paper, what they now refer to as “Local Wars Under Modern Informationalized Conditions.”) So too did the so-called “Revolution in Military Affairs,” much written about in the West and subsequently in China, also give PLA operations professionals and theorists cause for pause and self-reassessments of its external security situation provided added impetus to the need for doctrinal change. China’s perception of it own changing security landscape during this period was highlighted by the need to enhance its ability to deter Taiwan’s drift away from the mainland. It was also influenced by an increasing distrust of U.S. intentions toward China, concerns about India’s ambitions as a rising regional power, increasing uncertainty over Japan’s evolving role in regional security and military affairs, as well as unresolved competing claims for maritime resources in the South China Sea with various Southeast Asian nations. All of these concerns and uncertainties underscored the need for a reexamination of PLA warfighting concepts in an age of high speed, high lethality, and high technology warfare.

Driven by these aforementioned capabilities-based and contingency-based requirements and assessments, the PLA set about to adjust its approaches to the conduct of operations. In 1999, after nearly a decade of study, research, and presumably experimentation in the field, a new and apparently large corpus of officially promulgated doctrinal guidance was issued under the collective title of “The New Generation Operations Regulations” (xin yidai zuozhan tiaoling, 《新一代作战条令》). As a result, it appears that the PLA intends to change how it thinks about the conduct of campaign-level operations and adjust other supporting activities such as field training regimens, the curricula at institutions of professional military education, force structure organization, and personnel requirements.

In recognition of the ongoing “revolution in Chinese doctrinal affairs,” a two-day conference on the PLA’s changing approaches to the operational art was co-hosted by The CNA Corporation and The RAND Corporation in December 2002. The timing was right for a conference focused exclusively on changes in PLA doctrine on two accounts.

First, by the year 2000, the potential significance of what had transpired doctrinally in the PLA was becoming evident to serious students of Chinese military affairs. Second, for most of the previous decade the PLA itself had generated a tremendous amount of professional literature on the subject, thus providing a more than adequate amount of data to justify serious explorations of the subject. The chapters that follow are the results of the conference.

There is still much that is not understood about the PLA’s ongoing doctrinal paradigm shift. However, as a body of scholarship, the papers in this volume offer a rich source of insight into the initial outlines of the PLA’s changing approaches to the conduct of operations. All of the authors used a body of professional materials published by the PLA in the original Chinese that represent some (but clearly not all) of the key writings to come out of this period of doctrinal reexamination. The papers likely represent the most current thinking on the PLA’s changing operational doctrine as can be found anywhere to this point in the English language.

What is unique about this volume is that it focuses on PLA doctrine at the operational-level of warfare—the very level of conflict at which the PLA itself has put its own emphasis in its new doctrinal literature. It is this level of warfare—the realm of campaigns—that provides the operational linkage between the strategic objectives of a conflict (the desired political-military end state) and the battles and engagements that define the tactical level of combat. It is at this level of conflict at which the operational art is practiced, at which campaign design is paramount, and at which the highest order of generalship is required to take carefully crafted and complex operations plans from the drawing boards to the various battle space dimensions and into contact with the enemy. 

Of special note, we were especially fortunate, and honored, to have as our conference’s keynote speaker General Donn A. Starry (U.S. Army, Retired), former Commanding General of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and one of the U.S. Army’s most prominent and influential doctrinal experts. As one of the “Founding Fathers” of AirLand Battle doctrine, and the driving force behind the Army’s watershed 1982 Field Manual, Operations (FM 100-5), General Starry provided much appreciated insight into the real world issues associated with what it takes to change a military’s doctrine as well as thoughtful commentary on the philosophical and intellectual aspects of thinking through such a complex endeavor.

It is our hope that the readers of this volume will come away with a greater appreciation for the sea changes that are underway in PLA operational thinking, an appreciation for PLA military science researchers and operations specialists as professionals in their own right, and an appreciation for the art of the possible in the field of Chinese military studies in the first years of the 21st Century.

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  • Pages: 399
  • Document Number:
  • Publication Date: 9/21/2005
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