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

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

Although the PLA’s operational regulations may remain opaque, a new “revolution in doctrinal affairs” appears to have been gradually occurring.

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.

Since the early 2000s, the PLA has been engaged in an extensive process of revision of its fourth-generation operational regulations. Although the actual contents of the PLA’s operational regulations have never been released, an understanding of the underlying process and those involved is nonetheless informative. The Academy of Military Science Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department (作战理论和条令研究部) has traditionally played a leading role in this process. For instance, Maj. Gen. Ren Liansheng (任连生), who served as its director between 2006 and 2010; Maj. Gen. He Lei (何雷), who was director during 2010 and 2011; and Maj. Gen. Zhang Shiping (张世平), director starting in 2011, may each have served as managing deputy director of Office of the All-Military Committee for Editing Operational Regulations (全军编审作战条令委员会办公室) during his tenure, with researchers affiliated with the department also as members. The apparent centrality of the Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department to the formulation of the PLA’s doctrine renders the writings of its leadership and researchers of particular importance to those seeking to understand the evolution of the PLA’s doctrinal approach to warfare. For instance, its series of lectures (教程) released in 2012—including “Lectures on the Science of Joint Campaigns” (联合战役学教程) and “Lectures on Joint Campaign Command” (联合战役指挥教程)—may be closely linked to the revision of the operational regulations themselves.

The protracted, uncertain trajectory of the revision process could indicate underlying impediments and challenges in coordination that have undermined the PLA’s ability to advance the formulation of updated operational regulations. The initial revision process seems to date back to the early 2000s. As of March 2008, the fifth generation of operational regulations was reportedly complete, pending only approval from the Central Military Commission. However, their official release was never announced and seemingly did not occur, which might have indicated a lack of consensus or judgment that further changes were necessary at the commission level. Potentially, the PLA decided to release new campaign guidelines and combat regulations on a rolling basis instead. In subsequent years, there have been continued indicators in official PLA media that the revision process has not been fully or satisfactorily completed, such as calls for progression beyond theoretical outcomes towards operational regulations. The revision seemingly remains ongoing to this day.

Within the past several years, substantive progression towards the finalization of fifth-generation operational regulations appears to have occurred, with high-level prioritization of the process. In the summer of 2014, the former General Staff Department organized an “all-military research and discussion activity” that was intended as preparation for the revision of operational regulations. The event focused on the innovation and development of operational theories, as well as the “resolution of important operational difficulties and problems.” In particular, the discussion addressed “the mechanism for victory in informationized warfare, fundamental problems in joint operations, and models for operations and tactics.” This joint evaluation of the results of studies undertaken in support of the revision process was reportedly intended to “avoid tactical innovation ‘behind closed doors.’” Perhaps, this consultative process and discussion might have been intended to make the revision more inclusive of stakeholders throughout the PLA and to build a broader consensus on issues that might have been complex or contentious in earlier stages of revision. In early 2015, the Operational Theories and Regulations Research Department’s new book, Introduction to Operational Regulations (作战条令概论), which was described as a “cornerstone” for the revision process, underwent expert appraisal. The “verification” of the operational regulations has also involved “operations experimentation” (作战实验), a new discipline that is receiving increased attention in the PLA. Reflecting the high-level importance of the issue, Xi Jinping himself mentioned the importance of “paying close attention to the construction of a new generation of joint operational regulations, joint operations command regulations, etc.” during his summer 2016 visit to the PLA’s new Joint Operations Command Center. However, there has yet to be an official announcement about the status of this forthcoming generation of operational regulations.

Despite such indications of prioritization and progress, the continued failure of the PLA’s operational regulations to keep pace with evolving strategic and operational challenges has evidently remained an obstacle. In the spring of 2016, one Academy of Military Science scholar articulated concern that the PLA’s construction of operational regulations was “rather lagging behind” relative to the ongoing revolution in military affairs. Indeed, multiple high-level PLA officers, including the commander of the PLA Army, Li Zuocheng (李作成); commander of the Eastern Theater Command, Liu Yuejun (刘粤军); and deputy chief of staff of the Joint Staff Department, Wang Jianping (王建平)—all highlighted issues arising from this “lagging” of operational regulations and the criticality of revising the new generation of them in a timely manner. In early 2017, a PLA academic from the Shijiazhuang Army Academy emphasized, “current operational regulations and training outlines (大纲) lag behind the evolution of the form of warfare, changes in combat methods, and styles, already becoming a bottleneck for updating of the contents of military training.” He called for the establishment of a “dynamic updating mechanism” for operational regulations and training outlines, to enable their evolution at the forefront of the new military revolution. Recently, in commentary in PLA Daily, a researcher with the Central Military Commission Joint Operations Command Center called for the “strengthening of the construction of joint operational regulations and ordinances and of a system for laws and regulation; the revision and issuance of joint operations command regulations and ordinances, joint campaign guidelines, joint training regulations, joint training materials, etc.” For the PLA, joint operational regulations are considered critical to advances in training and combat capabilities.

Although the PLA’s operational regulations may remain opaque, a new “revolution in doctrinal affairs” appears to have been gradually occurring, as the PLA prepares to confront the challenges of future warfare. The apparent lengthiness of the revision process—and unexpected, unprecedented delay in the issuance of fifth-generation operational regulations—could indicate substantive impediments to progress that are only just starting to be overcome, under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Within the foreseeable future, the new generation of operational regulations will likely include revised campaign guidelines for each of PLA’s services—the Army, Navy, Air Force and Rocket Force—as well as the new Strategic Support Force, along with force-wide guidelines for joint operations and joint operations command. To date, the PLA seemingly does not have official campaign guidelines that address operations in the space and cyber domains. Potentially, this fifth generation will establish the PLA’s first operational regulations for space and cyber operations, which are considered critical strategic frontiers for the PLA that are integral to joint operations. Indeed, Maj. Gen. An Weiping (安卫平), deputy chief of staff of the Northern Theater Command, recently called for the introduction of “military cyberspace operations regulations and statutes.” The contents of this fifth generation of operational regulations, while not publically released, will presumably take into account recent changes to the PLA’s military strategic guidelines, reflecting its evolving missions and advancing capabilities. Looking forward, their release could be officially announced as a critical component of the PLA’s new stage of “below the neck” (脖子以下) reforms, which seek to enact deeper changes than the initial “above the neck” (脖子以上) stage of high-level, organizational changes.

Elsa Kania is an analyst focused on the PLA’s strategic thinking on and advances in emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum technologies. Elsa is also in the process of cofounding a startup research venture.

Image: Sailors from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Navy) during a U.S.-China counter piracy exercise. Flickr/U.S. Naval Forces Central Command