In the past decade, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has added significant new capabilities to its order of battle. The average PLAN surface combatant is now a capable, multi-mission platform. The PLAN submarine force is increasingly composed of modern conventional and nuclear units, many employing long-range antiship cruise missiles. The aircraft carrier Liaoning continues steady work as China learns the art and science of naval aviation.
Hardware, however, defines the limits of what is technically possible for a navy. Effectiveness in combat rests on proficiency in employing the tools at hand, and the PLAN understands that fact. The past ten years have seen a major improvement in the scope and complexity of PLAN training that has paralleled the expansion in its missions, operations, and capabilities. This substantial training program is intended to ensure that the PLAN’s expanding arsenal of high-technology weapons can be employed to carry out the missions the PLAN has been given by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Central to these are high-end naval combat tasks—the fundamentals of fleet action against a foreign navy intervening against People’s Republic of China (PRC) interests. While no training is a perfect facsimile of combat, the PLAN’s proficiency is increasing through this deliberate investment in more advanced and realistic training.
The depth and sophistication of public analysis of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has grown in recent years, reflecting a need to understand the PLA’s modernization and ability to intervene in an increasing range of potential friction points. PLA training has been a part of these studies, but most works have involved changes in the senior-level structures that administer training and on PLA efforts to train for joint warfare. PLA leadereship has concentrated on making training more effective and more “joint,” and the PLAN has benefited from changes in these areas.1 However, while these issues are essential, they do not speak to the basic question of how the PLAN trains itself.
Guidance from the Top: Realism Matters
In China, “army building”—the modernization and effectiveness of the PLA—is an issue that involves the most senior levels of the party leadership. Early in his tenure, General Secretary Xi Jinping has made it clear that achieving the “China Dream” that defines his legacy includes the “dream of having a strong army.”2 Achieving a strong military is a national-level priority. Senior leaders convey their emphasis on it in the high-level party documents that outline the PLA’s missions, its broad goals for modernization, and priorities for investment, placing a heavy emphasis on achieving “informatization” and jointness. To support these efforts, in 2011 the PLA General Staff Department formed a Military Training Department. The reorganized department received a renewed and expanded mandate to guide Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery training.3
The series of documents known as the “Outline on Military Training and Evaluation” (OMTE) provide the most direct guidance to PLA training. The senior-level OMTE is issued by the General Staff Department (GSD). It can be inferred from public discussions that an OMTE exists for each level of the PLA, from PLA-wide to the individual service down to the unit level.4
The OMTE appears to be the basis for determining a unit’s training tasks across all phases of readiness. Officers are expected to be conversant in its requirements and are examined on them regularly. In 2014, the PLAN Submarine Academy shifted from using a series of in-house documents as their training texts to employing only the submarine service OMTE as the basis of training. At the same time, academy examinations began to be prepared by examiners from fleet units rather than academy staff, with the academy training staff not knowing the content of the examinations prior to their administration.5 One of the tasks associated with commissioning any new class of warship into the PLAN is the development of an OMTE for the new platform.
It is worth noting that some dated sources indicate the PLAN follows a training cycle based on the annual influx of new draftees into the fleet. For much of the PLAN’s history, autumn brought with it a training reset, as new recruits arrived and were taught basic seamanship skills on board their assigned vessels. As this cadre grew in knowledge and experience, the units could move on to more complex evolutions, culminating in maximum readiness just before one draft group was discharged and a new draft class arrived. In recent years, the PLAN has made recruiting a more highly educated enlisted force—including college graduates—a priority. At the same time, the percentage of draftees on PLAN afloat units has dropped, replaced by a growing number of enlisted personnel under long-term contracts. This shift has freed the PLAN from the annual training cycle and allowed for a shift to a more consistent level of readiness throughout the year.6
In order to join fleet operations, new-construction units and units leaving a major repair period are required to be trained and passed by their respective fleets’ Vessel Training Center (VTC). These units were established in the mid-1980s. Prior to the early 2000s, their training courses consisted of a year-long curriculum that commenced only once per year. The current construct allows units to begin at any point, completing a tailored syllabus that fulfills the tasks required by their specific OMTEs.7 The mandate of the VTCs appears broad. They employ simulators, and some of the certifications appear to resemble combat team-trainers with multiple units participating and being evaluated simultaneously. In other cases, the VTC provides at-sea training using embarked teams.
To support introducing the first Jiangdao-class (Type 056) corvette, the Bengbu, into service, the East Sea Fleet VTC organized a team of experts from active PLAN units and industry to develop the class training plan and to guide the ship through it. Notably, the VTC enlisted three captains with experience in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to mentor the crew. In the process, the VTC developed an OMTE for the class of more than 1,000 pages. The entire process from the Bengbu’s commissioning to completion of training took seven months.8
At all levels of the PLA, training is “party work.” While many U.S. observers assume the Communist Party structure restricts its efforts to political education and ensuring loyalty, the party apparatus routinely manages what it sees as the most critical operational elements of the PLA. From the highest levels of the PLAN to the individual unit, the details of the training plan are reviewed and approved by that command’s party committee. It is likely that the OMTE serves as the basic reference for formulating this training plan.
Despite a higher-level guidance, there is clearly a place for unit-level initiative. One PLAN air-defense unit being held up as an example indicated that part of such units’ success lay in adding training topics to their plan beyond those already required by higher headquarters. When units are criticized, it is typically for their training not following closely enough the demands of actual combat. The Jiangkai II–class (Type 054A) frigate Liuzhou was criticized for failing a combat-readiness inspection because the crew had not drilled with live ammunition. When tested with live rounds, the additional steps involved in handling the potentially hazardous ordnance caused the ship to exceed the time standard for the drill. Meanwhile, units that compound the difficulty of their training are praised publicly. During one training event, the Luyang II–class (Type 052C) destroyer Haikou shifted from radar to optical guidance while engaging a floating target with surface guns, increasing the difficulty of the evolution. What is more significant is that the ship reportedly did this during a recent Sino-Russian exercise, implying the unit commander was more concerned with training value than the potential of not performing well under the eyes of a foreign navy.10
Once approved, implementation of the plan is the responsibility of the unit. For units in active service, the flotilla appears to fulfill the key role of training administration and oversight. In some cases, this oversight appears to be pervasive and invasive by U.S. standards.
There are, however, signs that this tradition of close oversight is shifting. Within the PLAN submarine force, units have been praised for “making voyages in accordance with authorized strength”—a euphemism for conducting significant operations without additional senior-level personnel on board. The submarine force noted that the routine presence of senior-level leaders had eroded the authority of the commanding officers, creating a culture where “the captain functioned as a duty officer, and the duty officer became a messenger.” Reversing this trend required specific additional training for commanders and executive officers, including in-port drills and scenario trainers that “forced individual ship commanders to act spontaneously and . . . independently.” Notably, this change did not involve a change to regulations, but a change to command culture. Both the identification of the problem and the efforts to solve it were led by the unit’s party committee.11
Distant-Seas Training and Exercises
These are two related aspects of the PLAN’s overall training improvement. Distant-seas training, meaning training operations conducted beyond the First Island Chain, can be part of an exercise but are more commonly group-sailing evolutions intended to showcase capability and develop proficiency in operations at distance from the Chinese mainland.
The PLAN notes that distant-seas training began in 2008 and has become a regular part of the PLAN’s training plan.12 At the 2015 PLAN Party “Grassroots Meeting,” the PLAN reported that 90 ships in 21 groups have operated “in far seas”—generally meaning beyond the First Island Chain—during the previous three years.13 While December 2008 also saw the first PLAN task force depart for counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, this move toward more distant training preceded the deployment and was not directly related to the new mission but rather the implementation of distant-seas defense tasks across the PLAN.
Large-scale training involving multiple fleets or “campaign-level” training is supervised by the PLAN Headquarters Training Department. As part of the PLAN’s efforts to build regional acceptance of its growing naval presence, the Headquarters Department consistently emphasizes that these major operations are routine and conducted “in accordance with the annual training plan” and “directed against no nation.”
During summer 2015, the PLAN conducted several major exercises that received extensive coverage in both official and unofficial media outlets. From these articles, we can see a number of common characteristics increasingly shared by major PLAN exercises regardless of their distance from the mainland.
Multiple Fleets. PLAN exercises now incorporate units from all three operational PLAN fleets. In some cases, one fleet will act as the opposing force for another, while in other cases the various fleets integrate as part of a single force. Either way, this routine movement of units among fleets implies an increasing level of standardization and interoperability.
Integration of Multiple Warfare Elements. The PLAN officially includes five warfare communities—surface, submarine, air, coastal defense (i.e., coastal defense cruise-missile units), and marine corps—which participate in all major exercises. Beyond PLAN forces, there is an increasing joint element in these events. It is unclear if these are designated officially as “joint” exercises or if, as appears more likely, joint elements are increasingly being integrated into what are primarily naval and navy-led exercises. Integration of PLA Air Force (PLAAF) units appears to be most common, but elements of the various military regions, likely army, are also mentioned. At least one South Sea Fleet exercise in summer 2015 included integration of several Second Artillery (since renamed “PLA Rocket Force”) missile battalions.14
Live “Blue” (Opposing) Force. In 2013, PLA ground forces in the Beijing Military District created a dedicated “blue force” that functions as an opposition force in training. In the PLA, opposing forces are referred to as “blue” while friendly forces are “red” in a direct reversal of U.S. convention. Similar blue units appear to exist in the PLAAF, and the PLAN Air Force (PLANAF) has also developed dedicated opposition forces for tactical training.15 In exercises at sea, a group of ships is commonly designated to act as the opposing force for the period of the exercise, rather than a permanently dedicated group.
“Back-to-Back” Confrontation. In Chinese parlance, a “back-to-back” exercise begins with neither the red nor blue forces knowing the exact composition or disposition of the adversary. Almost every major PLAN exercise or training event in recent years has been touted as a “back-to-back” evolution, implying a significant increase in complexity and a growing emphasis on the unit commander’s ability to respond dynamically to sudden and uncertain situations.
Integration of Electromagnetic Warfare (EMW). The PLA has placed an enormous emphasis on training for operations in a “Complex Electromagnetic Environment.” Accounts of PLAN exercises not only speak in generalities about electromagnetic warfare, but specific challenges that Red encountered. In these accounts, communications fail and radars are jammed at key moments. The praiseworthy Red force responds and overcomes these attacks, or at the least, emerges more capable of surmounting them in the future. Joint units are used to support this training, as the South Sea Fleet noted integrating Guangzhou Military Region-subordinate electronic countermeasure units into its training in 2015.16
Not all PLAN exercises include a live-fire phase. However, live-fire evolutions routinely receive extensive press coverage, including photos. The PLAN does not publish specific numbers of ammunition expended in training (and, in fairness, neither does the U.S. Navy), but reporting from the 2015 PLAN Party “Grassroots Meeting” cited “hundreds” of missiles fired in a three-year period.17 Generally when these launches appear in the press, they are characterized as training events rather than developmental testing, and it is doubtful that developmental events would be disclosed to the public in the same way. The impression across these sources is that the PLAN is putting a large number of weapons down-range. While the number of weapons fired is not an absolute indicator of proficiency (the Soviet Navy, for example, was noted for its large-scale live-fire exercises), it is an indicator both of the resources available for training and PLAN confidence in the fundamentals of weapon employment.
Another factor in training realism is willingness to accept risk during training. For example, a North Sea Fleet minesweeping unit was cited for exercising setting and sweeping live mines, accepting increased risk for added realism.18 In other cases, the lack of information provided to the participants in “back-to-back” exercises suggests that few firmly defined safety parameters are set. It is notable that where official PLAN media sources mention risk in training, it is always commending a commander who deliberately chose to increase the risk associated with a training event. In some cases, these commanders are praised for violating the parameters of an exercise to seize victory. The clear impression is that the PLAN is more willing to accept risk in its training evolutions than its U.S. counterparts. This mindset builds realism but will likely carry a cost in both equipment and personnel.
Significant training events include efforts to collect data and lessons learned. In one recent major North Sea Fleet exercise, a 28-person assessment team provided adjudication of engagements, supported by more than 100 people gathering observations.19 At least some flotilla-level units are developing their own lessons-learned database. One destroyer flotilla notably collected more than 300,000 elements of information based on 11 distant-sea training operations that had been applied to specific combat tasks.20 The PLAN’s counter-piracy operations are similarly exploited as a source of real-world experience and training topics.21
Challenges to Improvement
Despite earnest efforts at improvement, the PLAN has identified a number of challenges that limit training effectiveness. In the present PLAN training environment, units and leaders are praised for candid disclosure of combat-readiness shortfalls. Not surprisingly, some have engaged in what the official media calls “problem contests,” listing deficiencies without attention to root causes or real intent to fix the issue. In some cases, “the problems shown off today were rather similar to the problems shown off yesterday.” Doing the hard work of addressing shortcomings in combat capability is ultimately “a test of the resolve and will of the Party Committee leaders” of the unit.22
In some cases, new weapons are being introduced to the field before tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) have been fully developed. One PLAAF unit that received the first of a new type of command-and-control aircraft was praised for effectively developing the TTPs for the platform, literally “on the fly.” While this gap between hardware and TTPs is significant, what is important is that units are being praised for stepping into this gap and developing their own procedures for employing their new systems and training themselves in their use.
Finally, the scope of the change required to fully exploit new high-technology weapons is daunting for some. TTPs can change a certain amount, but changing command culture is more difficult. One new ship was noted as conducting air-defense evolutions using the traditional communications techniques familiar to its leaders, despite being equipped with a modern command-and-control system. The leadership was severely criticized by their flotilla, which noted that the “body” of the leaders had moved to informatization, but their minds remained in the mechanized world.23 Similarly, the PLAAF unit that was praised for developing TTPs for its new command-and-control aircraft had to undergo a difficult transition from focusing unit training on pilots to concentrating training on the sensor operators who provide the aircraft’s capabilities to the fleet.
How well the PLAN has managed this challenging transition will never be fully known outside of combat. Routine operation, however, offers an indicator. During 2015, the PLAN supported operations to enforce PRC maritime claims throughout the First Island Chain, sustained continuous counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, evacuated hundreds of citizens from danger in Yemen, and concluded one counter-piracy deployment with an around-the-world cruise. These and other less headline-grabbing successes are underpinned by an institutional emphasis on training for high-end naval warfare. Indeed, there is a strong argument that success in this mission is the PLAN’s primary and defining priority. In private moments, PLAN officers often describe their force as a “young navy.” It is one, however, that knows it has much to learn and is devoting diligent attention to its lessons.
1. Wanda Ayuso and Lonnie Henley, “Aspiring to Jointness: PLA Training, Exercises, and Doctrine, 2008–2012,” in Roy Kamphausen et al., Learning By Doing: The PLA Trains at Home and Abroad (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2012), 171–200.
2. Xi Jinping quoted in Wang Hongshan and Liu Shengdong, “Xi Jinping during his Inspection of Guangzhou Military Theater, the Need to Uphold the Unity of Making our Country Prosperous,” Xinhua, 12 December 2012, 1.
3. Guo Yuandan, “PLA Sets Up Four New Departments in One Month,” Fazhi Wanbao [Legal Mirror], 22 December 2011, 1.
4. China’s Navy. Office of Naval Intelligence, 2007, 28 and 87.
5. “The Drill Ground is the Battlefield, Thrilling and Awful Scenarios may arise anytime,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 18 January 2015, 7.
6. Kenneth Allen and Morgan Clemens, The Recruitment, Education, and Training of PLA Navy Personnel, China Maritime Studies no. 12 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College Press, 2014), 15–22.
7. Xu Sen, “Building a Modern Naval Battlefield: Overview of the Naval Vessel Training Center,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 15 September 1999, 6. Liang Qingcai and Liu Xingan, “Training Capacity of a Naval Vessel Training Center Quadrupled in Three Years,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 24 June 2004, 1.
8. Yan Jaingzhou et al., “Lead Ship Brilliantly Draws its Sword,” Renmin Haijun [People’s Navy], 9 June 2014, 4.
9. Chen Guoquan, Zhang Jinxi et al., “Change of Role in Pursuit of Path to Victory.” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 13 August 2015, 5.
10. Gao Yi and Hou Rong, “Sharpening Soldiers in an Ocean and Leaving Prints When Stepping on Sea,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 24 January 2015, 5.
11. Wang Tianyi and Li Tao, “Making voyages in accordance with authorized strength to let ship Captains ‘fly solo’,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 21 September 2015, 4.
12. Hai Tao, “China’s Navy should create a ‘Pacific Fleet’” Guoji Xianqu Daobao [International Herald Tribune], 5 December 2011, 1.
13. Wu Dengfeng and Chen Guoquan, “Party Committee cares about Soldiers, Soldiers care about Combat Strength,” Xinhua, 21 September 2015.
14. Xu Yeqing, Xiao Yong et al., “In Joint Operations, Forging an Iron Fist for Victory in the Sea and Sky,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 29 July 2015, 5; Zhang Yichi, Guo Yuandan et al., “What was the Second Artillery doing in exercises in the South China Sea?” Huanqiu Shibao [Global Times], 30 July 2015, 1.
15. Wang Tianyi, Fang Lihua, et al., “East Sea Fleet Aviation ‘Mighty Eagle Regiment of Naval Aviation’,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 23 July 2015, 7.
16. Xu Yeqing and Wu Dengfeng, “PLAN holds live force-on-force exercise in Sea and Air Zone in the South China Sea, Zhougguo Jun Wang [China Army Net], 28 July 2015, 1.
17. Wu and Chen, “Party Committee cares about Soldiers, Soldiers care about Combat Strength.”
18. Zhou Jingyi, et al., “Making a Path to Victory on the Maritime Battlefield,” Renmin Haijun [People’s Navy], 14 August 2015, 1.
19. Wang Qinghou, et al., “Testing the Shield of Joint Defense with the Spear of Live Forces,” Renmin Haijun [People’s Navy], 30 September 2015, 1.
20. Qian Xiaohu and Ji Bin, “Tens of thousands of Data Records of Distant Seas Training—Certain Destroyer Flotilla Build Training Database,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 28 August 2015, 4.
21. Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange. No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, China Maritime Studies no. 10 (Newport, RI: U.S. Naval War College Press, 2013), 142–48.
22. Zhou Meng, “Establishing Problem-oriented Guidance and Strictly Guarding against ‘Problem Contests’,” Jiefangjun Bao [PLA Daily], 27 February 2015, 1.
23. Gao and Hou, “Sharpening Soldiers in an Ocean and Leaving Prints When Stepping on Sea.”
Captain Rielage serves as Director for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. He has served as 3rd Fleet N2, 7th Fleet Deputy N2, Senior Intelligence Officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence, and Director of the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group.