Military & Aerospace

Chinese Military Strategy: War Zone Campaign Concept
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Issue Book Excerpt: Modernization of Chinese PLA | Date : 07 Nov , 2015

The end of the Cold War, denied the PLA the opportunity to fight a protracted, manpower-based total war with deep depth as prospects of foreign invasion on China had reduced. On the other hand, local, limited wars involving national unification and disputes over maritime and land territories were more likely to take place. All these had somewhat reduced the relevance of the PLA’s old comparative advantage in space, manpower and time to PLA’s war planning. Also, the two-decade-long defense modernization had produced some “pockets of technological excellence” within a generally backward PLA.

The traditional PLA MR was a land force, geographic and regional political-based concept while the WZC is an operational-based doctrine and involves all services of the PLA. The WZC, simplified, is the doctrine for conducting a limited war under high-tech conditions. It started with the realization by the PLA planners of their comparative technological inferiority compared to their potential adversaries. The goal of WZC is to use PLA’s selective “Pockets of Excellence” to offset the adversaries’ technological edge.” 1

A WZC is a joint service campaign where each service conducts relatively independent sub-campaigns. Since a war zone usually has one strategic direction, several campaign fronts, and multidimensional space, sub-campaigns may include electronic warfare operations, conventional strategic and campaign missile operations, air operations, sea operations, and front army or Combined Arms Group Army (CAGA) operations. The peacetime military area becomes a war zone during the war time . . . and has jurisdiction over the ground, navy, and air forces within it.” Generally speaking, a WZC “is the total sum of several service-based sub-campaigns, while a CAGA-level campaign is the total sum of ground battles.”2

Finally, a WZC is conducted by the unified, joint service command at the war zone level under the guidance of the national supreme command. The joint service campaign may provide the conditions for the PLA to “use its strength against enemy’s weakness,” and avoid matching PLA’s weakness with the enemy’s strength. It, for instance, may lead to situations where PLA can use air power to strike enemy ground and naval targets, use ground forces to deal with enemy air and naval operations, use navy to fight enemy ground forces, and use combat forces to strike enemy non-combat aspects such as C4I systems and logistics. If it is inevitable to fight a service-matching war of symmetry with the enemy, it is still necessary that in comparative capabilities PLA constitutes superiority at the sub-campaign and battle levels. This articulation of the WZC illustrates conditions that may increase the chances for the PLA to achieve a measure of local and temporary superiority.3

The major characteristic of the WZC doctrine is what is referred to as Trans-Regional Support Operations (TRSO), which involves deployment and employment of Pockets of Excellence from other MRs into a possible conflict zone. The TRSO focus on the raising and garrisoning of the Rapid Reaction Units (RRUs) and a special force named “Resolving Emergency Mobile Combat Forces” (REMCF) — estimated to be a 300,000-man force established in 1998 and directly controlled by CMC4 — in the rear areas, while deploying fewer, along the borders, as a means of reducing tensions in the forward areas.

The mobile nature of the RRUs and their effectiveness would constitute an indirect forward presence and thus contribute to the creation of local and temporary superiority in psychological terms. This in itself, it is presumed, would deter provocation and hence prevent any situation from escalating into a conflict.

WZC is likely to manifest in the following four phases, evidently a cosmetic modification of strategic principles enumerated earlier in this chapter.

External Calm and Internal Intensity (ECII):

This phase would be aimed at shaping of the environment to have a just cause for military build-up. Complementary unrestricted warfare and diplomatic assertiveness would be other dimensions of this phase.

Elite Forces and Sharp Arms (EFSA) (Jingbing Liqi):

After many years of army building, PLA has acquired a certain number of high-tech elite forces and sharp arms, and they are capable of competing with a powerful enemy. In order to achieve local and temporary superiority, the PLA articulates several major concepts associated with deployment, coordination and command.

  • Deployment (bushu). Several major principles on deployment have been formulated that may contribute to local and temporary superiority. The selection of forces and arms to be based on unified and comprehensive planning, to constitute “comprehensive strike effects”. The old practice of “using single service, one type of arms to strike all types of targets” may be replaced by “selecting different types of arms to strike different types of targets.”5 The objective is the optimal use of forces and arms so that “sufficient munitions, arms, and forces are used to destroy selected targets in the shortest possible time.” Moreover, instead of the old practice of concentrating forces and arms in a point area, the new principle requires “dispersed deployment” of forces and arms to deny the enemy a clear “window of vulnerability” that may trigger an effective pre-emptive strike. This dispersion, on the other hand, is accompanied by concentration of effects. This means that the destructive effects of these forces and arms may be concentrated on primary direction, right timing, major targets and key nodes. Once objectives are realized, both forces and arms may swiftly change position through high mobility. The purpose, again, is to constitute local and temporary superiority based on minimizing casualties caused by enemy strikes and swiftly destroying enemy targets.
  • Coordination (xietong). The EFSA are largely associated with the technology-intensive services such as the navy, air force and the second artillery. Unlike CAGA-level campaigns, where coordination has always favoured ground forces, the new principle requires coordination to be centred around whichever service conducts the separate sub-campaigns. “For ground operations, the ground forces commander coordinates and controls air force elements, paratroopers, and navy marines that participate in such operations. For naval operations, the naval fleet or base commander coordinates and controls all the elements”. This should “lead to a heightened sense of responsibility and initiatives by service commanding officers.” This in turn may reduce inter-service friction, which again may contribute to local and temporary superiority.
  • Command (zhihui). Using the existing MAC command department as the foundation, the joint command may consist of intelligence, decision control, communications and electronic warfare, and fire control and coordination components. Also, rather than the ground force domination as in the old MR headquarters, this command may be truly joint, with a higher proportion of both commanding and staff officers from non-ground force services. It is even possible that “the joint forces commander and chief of staff come from services other than the ground forces.” Besides command structure, the degree of (de)centralization of command is another central issue that is intensively scrutinized. In joint operations, expansion of the battle space, the new equal relationship among services, and the increasing technical complexity in both arms and specialization of personnel may cause centrifugal tendencies. This in turn requires a stronger measure of centralized command to organize and channel the otherwise disparate elements, energy and attention to the campaign goal. Also, unified control is necessary to optimally manage and use intelligence, diverse weapon platforms, electronic warfare capabilities, and radio frequencies.

Gaining Initiative by Striking First (GISF) (Xianji Zhidi):

A new principle of Gaining Initiative by Striking First (GISF) has been introduced for several reasons. The increasing precision and lethality of high-tech weapons of modern war means unprecedented destructiveness. Rather than gaining initiative, the side that “strikes only after the enemy has struck” may lose momentum and face the prospect of decisive defeat. For similar reasons, the premise of a clear line between offence and defense which underlies the notion of first and second strike may become less relevant, since opposing sides on the modern battlefield shift and disperse their forces frequently to reduce casualties and create opportunities for pre-emption, the basic conditions leading to local and temporary initiative and superiority. For this the key issues are the element of surprise, and initiation and initial battle of the campaign.

Element of Surprise. The basic conditions of surprise are transparency of enemy intentions and capabilities to the PLA on the one hand, and successful concealment of the PLA’s intentions and capabilities from the enemy on the other. “Blending the real and the substantial with false and illusory” means first of all mixing the real and substantial forces and arms with false and illusory ones. Second, since China’s land and maritime borders are wide in direction and complex in geography, and they have numerous islands, harbours, towns and cities, and well developed infrastructure in some regions, they also provide the conditions for meshing forces and arms with civilian facilities. Both may increase the difficulty for the enemy to differentiate the real from the false. These measures may also include electronic interference or jamming to disrupt enemy surveillance, electronic flanking movements, deception (through transforming a multi-fighter formation into an electronic signature of one civilian plane, or one electronic warfare plane into a large attacking formation) to mislead the enemy and electronic silence during campaign initiation.

Initiation and Initial Battle. According to PLA planners, the “window of opportunity,” or the optimal timing for a first strike, is the brief period between the failure of political and diplomatic initiatives at the strategic level and the constitution of enemy comprehensive strike capabilities through completed deployment. “In the circumstance of enemy loss at the strategic level campaign commanders should grasp the favourable opportunity when the enemy’s campaign deployment is still incomplete, launch a pre-emptive offensive within the scope permitted by the strategic objective, throw enemy campaign deployment into confusion, and force the enemy to fight us under the conditions of insufficient preparation and unfavourable posture.”6 Once the campaign is initiated, the outcome of the first battle is deemed crucial in determining whether local initiative is realized. Therefore, it is necessary to “throw a powerful and superior initial strike force into the initial battle.” For the air force, for instance, “as high as 80 percent of the campaign air force should be used in the initial battle in coordination with surface-surface missiles, ship artillery, ground force aviation, electronic warfare, and special operations capabilities.”

Fighting a Quick Battle to Force a Quick Resolution (QBQR)
(Suzhan Sujue):

While GISF is associated with the beginning of the campaign, “quick battle and quick resolution” (QBQR) deals with its prosecution and conclusion. Following are prerequisites for achieving QBQR:

  • Mobility. The central objective of PLA mobility is reducing one’s own losses and creating local and temporary momentum through pre-emption at unexpected times, places and directions and with unexpected intensity and styles. Therefore, continuous, dynamic offensives through high mobility are now deemed absolutely necessary.
  • Offensive Operations. Surprise attack (SA) is the central mode of PLA offensive. There are three types of SA — firepower SA, ambush SA and mobile SA. Firepower SA is based on the concentrated effect of conventional strategic, campaign, or tactical missiles; bombers or attack aircraft; and campaign or tactical artillery. It can also be solely based on missile or air firepower. The purpose of ambush SA, however, is to deal with mobile enemy forces. Unlike a firepower SA or ambush SA, the purpose of a mobile SA is to fight “temporarily stationed enemy forces or a hastily constituted enemy defense.” In continuous assault, PLA forces may launch a multi-direction, multi-echelon, continuous assault on key enemy positions at both the front and in the depth of enemy deployment. Deep strike is directed mainly against fortified enemy defenses. The focus of PLA’s deep strike, however, is on decomposing enemy defense, restricting enemy mobility in firepower support, forces, and electronic capabilities, weakening and sabotaging enemy comprehensive defense capabilities, and creating conditions for annihilating enemy forces separately.” Deep strike forces may be composed of a carefully selected armour-based assault component, a raid and sabotage component, and sometimes an airborne and heliborne component. Vertical strike may also be applied in both continuous assault and deep strike.
  • Information Offensive. Several methods have been proposed for an information offensive. On the soft side, if enemy communications are immune to monitoring, various types of electronic interference may be applied to disrupt transmissions. Similarly, “special computer reconnaissance equipment” may be used to collect “weak electromagnetic signals from enemy operating computers” that may be translated into legible information. Otherwise, the method of “touching the vital point” may be applied. For example, “computer virus assault” to damage the software of enemy computers, hacking into an enemy computer network to acquire vital information, or to replace real information with disinformation. Moreover, microwave “bombs” (electronic magnetic pulse) may be used to burn the circuits and other vital parts of enemy computers. Finally, power supplies may be sabotaged to paralyze enemy C4I.7 For hard kill, employing missiles, attack planes, ground/ship artillery, laser and kinetic energy weapons, and special forces to conduct precision strikes against enemy C4I is envisaged.

It appears that the PLA has adopted a more forward-deployment-based, offensive posture. Such a deduction may need to be qualified in two major ways. First, by adopting a military mission-focused offensive doctrine, such discourse may serve a domestic political purpose: to call for reducing the PLA’s non-military departments and functions, such as intervention in politics and business, and demand more military budget from the civilian leadership. Second, in spite of all measures to increase the enemy’s transparency to the PLA and to reduce the PLA’s visibility to the enemy, successfully concealing a WZC-sized force for a pre-emptive strike that may catch the enemy by surprise is an immensely difficult deed to accomplish. Finally, quick battle and quick resolution in PLA’s favor may not be easy to achieve in border wars over disputed territories.8

Evolution of PLA’s Military Doctrine

Before 1979, the PLA focused on a protracted, “early, total and nuclear war,” which was based on the premise of a Soviet invasion of China. The PLA would compensate for its technological inferiority with its abundant space, manpower, and time by “luring the enemy in deep” and staying mobile.9

From 1979 to 1985, the PLA remained alert to major total war with the Soviets, but the PLA sought to defeat the adversary close to the border and adopted the positional defense of cities combined with mobile warfare. This conflict would be less protracted.

By 1985, PLA strategists had made the judgment that local, limited wars triggered by disputes over maritime and land territories were more likely than a massive foreign invasion and conquest of China. Therefore, the PLA adopted several new strategic principles, such as “victory through elite troops,” “gaining initiative by striking first,” “victory over inferiority through superiority,” and “fighting a quick battle to force a quick resolution.”

It is believed that the 1991 Gulf War and the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis convinced PLA strategists that a more likely war scenario for the PLA would be a medium-sized local war, comparable to a PLA (WZC). As a result, PLA strategists added a new concept to the post-1985 strategic principles — “joint operations” (lianhe zuozham), which emphasizes both “equality” and “partnership” among the four services (ground, naval, air and missile) while each service conducts relatively independent sub-campaigns. Due to the lack of effective lateral linkages and channels for communication and information transmission, joint operations is a level-limited, depth-limited, time-limited, unit-effected, and plan-based cooperation among the four services.

In order to narrow the technological gap between the PLA and more advanced militaries, PLA strategists in late 2002 redefined PLA’s transformation as a dual-task involving mechanization and informationization. They articulated and advanced another new concept — “integrated joint operations” (IJO, or yitihua lianhe zuozhan), which emphasizes all-level, all-depth, all-time, system-effected, and action-based integration among operating units [land, sea, air, space, and electronic warfare (EW)] and essential operational elements (information, surveillance and reconnaissance, C4 (command, control, communications and computer), K(kill), and integrated logistics) with an interconnected information network.10

In the China Defense Paper of 2010, PLA emphasizes building of joint operation system as a focal point of its modernization and intends achieving the same through intensified research into operational theories, strengthening combat forces, improving operational command system and by enhancing integrated support system linking strategic, operational and tactical levels.


1. Andy Chan, “PLA War Zone Campaign Doctrine: V 2.0” February 10, 2001,;, p. 1.

2. Senior Colonel Huang Bin, “Shenhua zhanqu zhanyi yanjiu de jidian sikao” (Several Reflections on Deepening Research on War Zone Campaign), in Research on the Theory of Campaign, NDU Scientific Research Department, p. 43.

3. Nan Li, “The PLA’s Evolving Campaign Doctrine and Strategies”, RAND Paper accessed from the internet at on May  21, 2011.

4. Andrew N.D. Yang and Col Milton Wen Chung Lio (ret.); “PLA Rapid Reaction Forces: Concept, Training and Preliminary Assessment,”; p. 48.

5. Yang Yi, “Gaojishu tiaojianxia zuozhan fangshi, fangfa yanjiu yu sika” (Research and Reflection on the Styles and Methods of Operations under High-tech Conditions), Beijing: Military Sciences Press, 1997, pp. 97-98.

6. Wang Wei, “Several Questions,” p. 60. See also Major General Zhang Erwang, “Lianhe zhanyi zhong changgui daodan budui zuozhan yunyong de jige wenti” (Several Questions on the Use of Conventional Missile Forces in Joint Campaign), Colonel Wang Xiaodong et al., “Daodan budui zhai jingong zhanyi zhong de yunyong wenti” (The Question of Using missile forces in Offensive Campaign), both in NDU Scientific Research Department, Research on the Theory of Campaign, pp. 228-234.

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7. Senior Colonel Wang Jun et al., “Xinxizhan zhanyi qianjian” (An Elementary Perspective on Information Warfare Campaign), in NDU Scientific Research Department, Research on the Theory of Campaign, p. 455; Major General Jia Fukun, “Xinxizhan—weilai zhanzheng de zhongyao zuozhan fangshi” (Information Warfare—An Important Operational Style of Future War), in NDU Scientific Research Department, Research on the Theory of Campaign, p. 443.

8. Nan Li, n. 73.

9. Nan Li, “China’s Evolving Military Doctrine,” Issues and Insight, Vol 6 — No20 Honolulu, Hawaii December 2006, Pacific Forum CSIS.

10. David A. Deptula, Lt General USAF (Retd), “China’s Active Defense Strategy and Its Regional Impact” Hearing Statement to US-China Economic and Security Review Commission on January 27, 2011.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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One thought on “Chinese Military Strategy: War Zone Campaign Concept

  1. This is an outstanding review of the (near) Clausewitzian foundation that animates the PLA. It is however, an archaic foundation from which to access true modernization. Having an overt reliance of positivist myopic lines of thought confined around ‘mass’ cannot help China’s dominant political class find its footing in contemporary conflicts. Perhaps the Pakistani’s, the only Muslim, nearly asiatic counterpart can teach the Han masters what the Confucian ethic lacked: the political humanism that strengthens C.O.I.N.

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