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PLA’s Top 10 Exercises in 2012: An Analysis

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 21, 2013

    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:

    • US – Five out of 10 exercises (all joint exercises).
    • Russia – Four out of 10 exercises (two independent exercises by Russia).
    • Japan – Three out of 10 exercises.
    • South Korea – Two out of 10 exercises.
    • Iran – one independent exercise.

    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.

    Lessons for India

    • The only international exercise that India has participated in and which figures in the list is Exercise Pacific Rim 2012. There is no mention of any other joint exercise in which India has been a participant.
    • China has regularly been conducting exercises in Tibet in 2012. At least four exercises concerning all the four services were observed in the TAR. Thus, while the maritime focus appears predominant, there is no reason to believe that internally the PLA is not giving adequate attention to its land borders.
    • China has shown no interest in the joint maritime exercises conducted by the Indian Navy in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. This suggests that the PLA Navy has yet to build capabilities to influence maritime operations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

    Details of Top 10 Exercises Listed by PLA Daily

    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

    Abbreviations Used
    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.