In an interesting piece in the PLA Daily, the PLA released a list of ‘Top 10 Military Exercises of the World in 2012’.1 The article does not specify the basis or merits of the selection nor does it state whether they are listed in order of their importance to the PLA. However, a careful scrutiny reveals that the listing does follow a sequence and that the exercises are probably listed in order of importance. For instance, the listing is generally in an order of proximity to the Chinese mainland – the nearest being listed first (Yellow Sea) and the farthest being listed 10th (Mediterranean Sea). It is also reasonable to assume that exercises concerning regional groupings are at a higher priority than say NATO or other extra-regional groupings. Thus, the trilateral exercise between US-Japan-South Korea held in the seas south of the Korean Peninsula are pegged at the third slot while another joint exercise on ‘Torpedo counter Measures’ in which 25 countries participated in the Persian Gulf is listed sixth.
An analysis of these exercises reveals some interesting insights into the PLA thinking, its priorities, areas of interest and countries of concern.
Areas of Concern: In order of priority these are the Yellow sea, Sea of Japan, Persian Gulf, Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. Since no exercises were held in sensitive areas of the South China Sea or East China Sea, it would be prudent to assume that they are of the highest concern. It is interesting to note that China has taken no cognisance of exercises in the vicinity of the Malacca Straits, Bay of Bengal or Arabian Sea.
Countries of Concern: In order of priority, these are:
The top four exercises were all in the maritime domain. This clearly indicates the importance that the PLA is giving to the PLA Navy, its threat perception from the Sea and the need to devote a greater share of the modernisation budget to the PLAN and PLANAF (PLA Naval Air Force). This manifests in the huge investments in Carrier Strike battle groups, nuclear submarines, Landing Platform Docks, J-20 and J-31 Fifth generation aircraft and the Y-20 long range aircraft project for maritime surveillance.
Only one exercise listed is land based. This exercise held in Russia was the largest ever exercise of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces, with intent to demonstrate its deterrence capability. While its location is not clear, it would be prudent to note that despite the recent bonhomie there continues to be a credible threat perception to China from the North. The demonstration of Russia’s triad would have been noted by NATO and China alike.
China has also noted with concern the exercises held in the Persian Gulf. This is indicative of its interest to ensure energy security. China would be deeply affected by a blockage of the Straits of Hormuz and would be seeking to hedge its energy security strategy in such an event. Also of interest is the performance of some of the missile systems in the Iranian inventory which have been supplied by China over a period of time. The HY-2 (Silkworm), C-801 and C-802 anti-ship missiles, a large number of which are deployed overlooking the Straits of Hormuz, and the M-9 and M-11 series of ballistic missiles are of Chinese origin.2
China is wary of US-led alliances in its proximity. The US-Japan-South Korea trilateral exercise was observed with concern and the PLA noted the problems of coordination and command and control between the three countries. Even as Japan gets the second TPY-2 radar deployed on its mainland and Aegis class destroyers from the US as part of the extended defence programme, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff is all set to take over the Joint Forces Command from the US in 2015. Exercise ‘Key Resolve’, underway in South Korea, is the first being executed by the Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff on the Korean mainland.3
It is interesting to note that China is also keeping a close watch on the Arctic Ocean and the future trade routes that are likely to open in that region. The Arctic route will shorten the trade route from China to Europe by 6400 kms, besides avoiding the choke point of Malacca and piracy infested waters in the Indian Ocean. The Arctic also has almost 30 per cent of the world’s untapped gas and 13 percent of undiscovered oil besides vast quantities of minerals like gold, copper, etc.4
Among the many joint exercises that China has with militaries all over the world, it is important to note that it rates only its joint exercise with Russia as important. This could be an exception owing to the scale and enlarged scope of the exercise this year, the fifth in a series of similar exercises conducted under the aegis of the SCO charter.5
Land exercises have not caught the imagination of the PLA. This suggests that amphibious operations and maritime exercises remain on top of the agenda. By extension, the PLA appears to have a focus on maritime disputes in the near future. Exercise Corsica Lion, for example, has no correlation to the PLA but it appears keen to observe the drills and procedures adopted by the UK and France in practising amphibious landings, possibly on island territories, in the Mediterranean Sea.
The focus on the US Space Command exercise held in Nevada seems to suggest that the PLA also watches space and cyber security with interest. In Exercise Schriever-2012, NATO rehearsed its combat command coordination between aerospace and ground assets in support of expeditionary forces. With its own Beidou Navigation system in place and an ambitious space programme afoot, PLA is all ears on such exercises.
|Ser||Name of Ex||Participants||Location||Dates||Type of Ex||Importance|
|1||Jt Maritime Ex||China, Russia||Yellow Sea||22-27 Apr||Jt Maritime with live firing||Largest jt maritime Ex|
|2||Ex Pacific Rim 2012||22 countries (US, UK, France, Japan, India, Russia, South Korea)||Hawaii||29 Jun-03 Aug||Amphibious ops, missile firing, ASW, AD, anti-piracy, SAR||Large scale annual ex. Shows allied coordinated capability|
|3||Jt Military ex||US-Japan-South Korea||Korean Straits||21-22 Jun||Maritime SAR and interception||First jt ex. Impact on region|
|4||Ex Keen Sword 13||US-Japan||Japan||5-16 Nov||Land, sea, air ops, base prot and SAR||11th in series. ‘Island capture’ cancelled|
|5||Strategic Nuclear Forces (SNF) Ex||Russia||Russia||19-20 Oct||Topol M, SLBM,ALCM fired, AD||Largest ever SNF Ex.|
|6||International Torpedo Counter Measures Ex||25 countries
(US, UK, France Saudi, UAE etc)
|Persian Gulf||16-27 Sep||Breaking Blockade of Straits of Hormuz||Largest ever in Middle East-warn Iran|
|7||Ex Great Prophet-7||Iran||Iran||2-4 Jul||Launch of missiles||Defend and show strike capacity|
|8||Arctic Military Ex||Russia||Arctic, Barents Sea||21 Sep||Jt ops, Force projection, maritime SAR||Protect Arctic SLOC|
|9||Ex Schriever-2012||10 countries (US, UK, Denmark, France, Australia, etc)||Nellis Air Force Base, US||19-26 Apr||Test & Coord US Space Comd ops||Cyber, Space and NCW coord|
|10||Ex Corsica Lion||UK, France||Mediterranean Sea||16 Oct||Amphibious, Maritime and air ops||European regional security|
Jt - Joint
Coord - Coordinate
Ex - Exercise
AD - Air Defence
SAR - Search and Rescue
Ops - Operations
NCW - Network Centric Warfare
Comd - Command
SLOC - Sea Lanes of Communication
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.