TAIPEI — China has greatly increased the realism of its Army training, attempting to improve readiness and interoperability, and unearth operational weaknesses.
These trends demonstrate the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rising self-confidence in dealing with a variety of scenarios beyond its traditional focus of a conflict with Taiwan, analysts said.
Since 2006, the PLA has increased the number of trans-regional exercises, particularly units moving from one military region (MR) to another for training, said Roy Kamphausen, senior vice president for research at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
China has seven military regions, but is expected to reduce that number to five in the near future.
While rail still serves as the predominant means of moving troops, more trans-regional exercises suggests higher priority is being placed on road mobility, Kamphausen said.
The PLA has made three key improvements in land warfare exercises, said Li Xiaobing, author of the book “A History of the Modern Chinese Army.”
First, the PLA has moved the exercises out of their training fields like the one in the Beijing region and into actual battlegrounds, including some remote, frontier areas like those in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Second, the exercises have become more practical in terms of real war conditions, such as command, communication and long-distance logistics.
“They even traveled long distance to Russia for a joint land exercise,” he said.
Third, the blue army or enemy force is now better prepared and stronger than the red army or PLA.
“The red army has to fight harder and smarter rather than expecting a guaranteed victory,” Li said. Li once served in the PLA and is now a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.
To keep things interesting, units deploy in scenarios where China is already under attack and their movements to the training areas are monitored by enemy intelligence and reconnaissance and are subject to attack by long-range air precision strike, including chemical and biological, and interdiction by special operations forces, said Dennis Blasko, author of the book “The Chinese Army Today.”
Often, last minute changes are given to units just before they deploy or while they are en route, he said. After arriving at their destination, they engage a blue army that simulates advanced enemies more effectively than in the past. Exercises include use of laser designators and umpires.
The PLA's exercise regime is now reaping the benefits of nearly two decades of investment in "informationalization" and "mechanization," said Richard Fisher, a senior fellow on Asian military affairs with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“Investments in new command/control/communication and information [C3I] combined with investments in a third generation of tracked and wheeled armor, plus Army aviation, have allowed for a fuller exploitation of the building of military region-level combined exercises, new tank and armor training centers, and the current trend of moving from MR to trans-MR exercises,” Fisher said.
These C3I advances have already flattened command chains and allowed consolidation of MRs to enable more varied combination of units for real and virtual exercises, he said.
Blasko said there is more emphasis on the use of complex electromagnetic environments, including electronic warfare and cyberwarfare, than in the past, which has allowed them to discover shortcomings in the training of commanders in joint and combined arms operations.
Li said weaknesses of the recent land exercises remind people of the institutional problems of the PLA.
“Politics still has a role in the exercises, including site selection, commander appointments and battle designs,” he said. Problems include economic issues: “Some units were asked to use old weapons before their retirement and ammunition before the expiration dates.”
Exercises also focused on forming modular, combined arms battalions, where standard infantry armored battalions temporarily are reinforced by artillery, engineers, air defense and special operations forces, These exercises discovered that battalion headquarters has not assigned enough personnel to control these operations, so they are experimenting with how many officers and noncommissioned officers to assign to a battalion staff, Blasko said.
“This problem is because under the old Soviet organizational system, regiment headquarters did all the planning and gave very specific orders to battalions; now, under brigades, there is no intermediate regimental headquarters between brigade headquarters and the infantry and armored battalions,” Blasko said.
“They are also attempting to improve techniques to conduct what we call ‘close air support,’ provided by Air Force planes or Army Aviation helicopters.”
Another problem is the integration of new weapons and equipment, such as UAVs. Not all units receive advanced equipment at the same time and there is substantial variation in the type of equipment among units, which naturally means capabilities vary from unit to unit, Blasko said.
When new equipment is introduced, units have to adjust their operational methods and techniques to take advantage of the new capabilities, Blasko said.
“So they are constantly discovering problems in training, which is one of their main objectives in any exercise. They then conduct remedial training that year or focus on those problems in the next training season,” he said.