On the Developing ‘Joint Warfare Structure’ of the PLA


With the military modernization process marching on over recent years, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has achieved a great leap forward in the use of Electronic Warfare (EW), heading toward digitalization, synthesis, generalization and more effective anti-electromagnetic interference (EMI) capabilities. Now the PLA can effectively and accurately complete some electronic missions by successfully controlling the electromagnetic spectrum. Impressed by the joint warfare and accurate attack capabilities of the US armed forces, leaders and planners in the PLA have learned much from the first Gulf War in 1991 and the second war in 2003 that an effective Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) system is the key to grasping ‘electromagnetic power.’ This is worthy of much attention.

An efficient C4ISR system, in PLA planners’ minds, is the crucial factor to US armed forces’ rapid victory. Therefore, after the 2003 US-Iraq war, the PLA became determined to improve the C4ISR system, which is expected to be incorporated into the broader military strategy, with a view to the total elevation of joint warfare capabilities in the future.

Lessons Learned from the US
From the PLA’s viewpoint, the key characteristics in the US, successful joint warfare are:

  • Simplification of command process with sound regulations and stipulations. To manage a joint warfare mission under hi-tech conditions, coordination between task force commands and service commands is much needed for reducing errors and misperceptions in wartime. A clear command chain is the key to a successful mission.


  • Separation of military command and administration and a more synthesized command structure. To ensure an efficient command during wartime, the US armed forces have separated the command and administration in the operation. The US command structure is formed by Department of Defense (DoD), Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Staff, overseas headquarters and united services commands to conduct command missions. Administration of troops is the responsibility of service headquarters for respective management, equipments, education and training.


  • Emphasis on automatic command systems, combining personnel and means in the optimal way. First, PLA has learned to develop a broader warfare command system for the strategic level, making it effective up-to-down at every command level. Second, the development of a theater-level joint warfare command system has been awarded much attention, with which as a basic goal the PLA intends to combine modernized command ways and methods with commanders of all levels. Third is the development of tactical command automatic system as an important direction.


  • Variant chains of command and a fit-all coordinating structure. To keep the command and control process secure and reliable from possible interruption in a joint battle or war, a variety of command organizations and methods are designed to ensure the combat communication safety, undoubtedly offering a greater protection for command operation in actions.


  • Emphasis on joint warfare training and the elevation of command and staff personnel qualities. PLA planners focus on the joint warfare training by US armed forces for the command and staff personnel, especially on the efforts of offering JW courses, holding routine JW seminars and the reinforcement of JW exercises.


Toward a modernized C4ISR system
Information shows that the PLA has now been reviewing existing problems on the road to the complete informationalization of its military communication. The conclusion indicates that the lack of a C4ISR systematic framework has caused difficulties in the coordination between operational, system and technological units of different services. The solution is to adopt the ‘Modular design of systematic structure’ and the developing of ‘network strategy’ actively on the basis of ‘Joint Tactical Radio System
’ used in the US armed forces. It has been found that pertinent units of PLA have imported Russian-made mobile command posts and designed some new type satellite communication vehicles and mobile communication vehicles in the last year. This is the preliminary step toward complete integration and standardization of datalinks of services and services arms. PLA authorities hope to eventually develop a mature JW system capable of instant field and theatre communications on this basis. However, owing to the large number of troops and other problems to be faced on the road, whether PLA units can achieve the goal of complete communication integration still needs more observation.

Problems Faced in Cultivating JW Capabilities
Winning a ‘local war under high-tech conditions’ has been the guiding principle of PLA doctrines and training. However, in the process of JW capability development, many problems, still need to be solved:

  • Lack of a JW command system and a structural plan of troop deployment.
  • Lack of pertinent interservice JW trainings, drills and exercises.
  • Being relatively insufficient in aerial supply capabilities.
  • Few blue-water navy vessels and submarines can be deployed.
  • Primitive information warfare capability.
  • Apparent gaps of learning and acquisition of advanced military technologies and equipments between services.

To achieve strategic shock, surprise and cheating the possible future warfare, PLA would exploit existing equipments in two ways. The first is to take the informational initiative by grasping the electromagnetic power, deploying Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and EW systems in electronic counter-measure (ECM) troops. The second one is the strict control of the EM spectrum with multiple electronic surveillance and reconnaissance measures, flexible unit communication tactics and options and to reduce possible damage caused by enemy’s counter-measures.

But the PLA has been facing structural bottlenecks in the re-engineering process. The first one is financial difficulty regarding the downsizing of troops, reducing personnel costs and the use of those freed resources on elevating warfare capabilities. The second one is regarding technological problems in the process of R&D of advanced equipments such as laser-guided bombs, EW countermeasures, platform and operation systems for information warfare, anti-satellite weapons, satellite image intelligence, high speed communications and other new equipments. In recent years, while actively attracting international tech corporations into the China market, the PRC government has especially focused on the Russian Federation and Israel for advanced technologies by direct acquisition. Electronic equipment has been designed for military-civilian dual use, while the generalization of industrial standards and modulations are also on the way. Gaps in military technology between the PLA and its foreign counterparts are being narrowed quickly, which implies that the potential emergence of a more advanced C4ISR system is not impossible and the Chinese ambition to catch up with western counterparts is something that should not be neglected.

Elevation of EW Capabilities as Priority Number One
In the PLA’s analysis and scenarios of future local wars and conflicts, the team who initially deploy EW countermeasures successfully would attain the best timing and vantage point, and would eventually win the war. Guided by this rationale, the PLA has put the elevation of EW capabilities as the top priority in war preparation in recent years. The tactical goal is to control the enemy’s weapon systems, EW equipment and communication network, thereby immobilizing their units and negating their position. The deployment of long-range warning radar and introduction of airborne early warning and control aircrafts would expectedly enhance the PLAAF’s capabilities for reconnaissance of the enemy’s radar detection and surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. It is expected that the PLAAF would finally be able to position enemy forces and gather information on enemy equipment specifications, troop deployments and military activities on the battlefield by tracking their electromagnetic waves, signals and transmission. The final goal is to paralyze the enemy’s C4ISR system. According to some sources, the PLA has acquired the indigenous R&D capability of a C4ISR system, which is designed to be able to accommodate different enemy weapon systems and different operational modes. The progress is beyond the expectations of foreign military counterparts and experts. And the new system, if successfully developed and deployed, undoubtedly would pose a greater threat to PLA’s future enemy.

In the last decade, military/civilian co-operation and the purchase of new weapon technology and equipment has contributed much to the progress of PLA C4ISR systems. A great leap in the last two years in communication has shown a movement towards a united command warfare. New copyrighted software and hardware have been designed and manufactured to harmonize different specifications of radio equipments whether self-made or imported. Now preliminary mutual communication between services has materialized. The next step will be the development of a totally interservice instant transmission in any war and the final establishment of a modern JW organization and structure.

A mature JW structure will be the pivot in the future PLA military development plan that combines the ground forces, air force, navy, space force and EW force to be a ‘5-dimensional’ integrated new-type armed forces. Now with the R&D of second-generation nuclear weapons, military downsizing and organization of information and EW units rapidly progressing, the completion of a modern JW organization and structure will be the most important, if not the last, piece of the puzzle for the PLA.

Ching-lin Chiou

The author is Assistant Research Fellow, Prospect Foundation, Taipei, Taiwan



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