The Buzz

China's Military Is Becoming More Powerful by the Day (But Suffers from One Big Problem)

The People’s Liberation Army has not officially released a new generation of operational regulations (作战条令)—which are believed to be roughly equivalent to doctrine—since its fourth generation of them in 1999. The protracted process for their revision has apparently become a “bottleneck” for the PLA’s advances in joint operations and training. Evidently, its attempts to update these doctrinal documents in response to new strategic challenges have lagged behind its intended progression towards jointness, while failing to keep pace with changes in the form of warfare. There may be several factors that have delayed the revision process, including interservice rivalry or bureaucratic and cultural impediments to change. These dynamics have plagued attempts to advance PLA reforms in the past, yet the historic reform agenda that is ongoing has sought to overcome such obstacles. At this point, the fifth-generation operational regulations do appear to be forthcoming within the foreseeable future, given multiple indications of extensive, ongoing revision and evaluation. However, the timing remains uncertain. Since operational regulations are considering integral in guiding the PLA’s approach to training and actual combat activities, the completion of the revision and full release of this fifth generation could indicate the PLA has overcome prior challenges to achieve substantive doctrinal progress that could enable future advances, including perhaps in space and cyber warfare.

The PLA’s operational regulations serve as guidance at the campaign (战役) and tactical (战术) levels of warfare, based on underlying campaign guidelines (战役纲要) and combat regulations (战斗条令). Although the PLA’s operational regulations have received relatively limited analytical attention, these have been integral elements of the PLA’s approach to combat throughout its history. The formulation of the PLA’s original combat regulations, which were influenced by the translation of Soviet doctrine, dates back to around 1958, and this first generation was finalized in 1964. The second and third generations were issued in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. In 1999, the new, fourth generation of operational regulations notably included the PLA’s inaugural Joint Campaign Guidelines (联合战役纲要), which addressed joint blockade and island-landing operations, as well as joint anti-air raid operations and campaign guidelines for each service. Typically, the formulation of a new generation operational regulations has been prompted by a prior change in the PLA’s military strategic guidelines (军事战略方针). For instance, the 1999 revision seems to have occurred in reaction to the issuance of the 1993 military strategic guideline of “winning local wars under modern, high-technology conditions.” Since 1993, the PLA’s military strategic guidelines have been changed or adjusted twice: to “winning local wars under informatized conditions” in 2004, and then to “winning informatized local wars” as of 2015. Puzzlingly, despite these significant strategic-level changes, the anticipated fifth generation of operational regulations does not appear to have been formally issued.