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Twin Purpose Military Exercises of the Chinese PLA in 2009

Prashant Kumar Singh is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 22, 2009

    The year 2009 has seen the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) undertake several significant military exercises, drills and war games, which have also involved military diplomacy. China’s focus on military exercises and diplomacy throughout the year has not failed to attract attention of the global strategic community, especially given the high frequency of these military exercises and drills. Chinese military exercises during the year included anti-terror, joint international and civil-military cooperation exercises. Some prominent examples include the anti-terror drill “Great Wall-6”, “Peace-Mission 2009”, “Stride-2009” and “Vanguard-2009”.

    “Great Wall-6” aimed at testing defence capabilities to thwart any possible terrorist attacks during the National Day celebrations held on October 1, 2009. This exercise was conducted in June in the provinces that surround Beijing. The Joint China-Russia “Peace-Mission 2009” was carried out with great fanfare in the Russian Far East and China’s Northeast Shenyang military command. This five-day exercise was conducted at the end of July, during which one Chinese fighter bomber crashed reportedly killing the two pilots onboard. The exercise was also aimed at augmenting anti-terrorist capabilities. Incidentally, the Russian and Chinese navies conducted a joint exercise in the Gulf of Aden in the middle of September.

    “Stride-2009”, held on August 11, 2009, was described as the largest ever military exercise of its kind in which 50,000 troops participated. It was designed to test the PLA’s rapid mobilization capabilities, with troops actually crossing a number of military regions stretching over thousands of kilometers. This exercise took two months to complete. Another exercise codenamed “Vanguard-2009” took place in East China’s Jinan theatre in the first half of October in which various components of the PLA, e.g., information combat group, air combat group, army aviation combat group and air defence group participated. Its purpose was to test the PLA’s ability to conduct large formation campaigns. Around the same time, those airborne troops, which did not participate in “Vanguard-2009”, carried out “Airborne Maneuver 2009”.

    The PLA undertook an exercise code-named “Iron Fist 2009” in Jinan Military Area Command in November. The peculiarity of this exercise was that it was carried out in a complicated electromagnetic environment posing critical challenges to the participating troops. The series included a Ground-Air Joint Intelligence-Reconnaissance exercise under information-based conditions, which took place 15 days ago in Changbai Mountains. “The First Theatre-level Joint Campaign Exercise”, “Victory 2009”, “Vanguard 2009 A”, “Firepower 2009” and “Sharpening Sword 2009” are some other important exercises that deserve mention.

    The details of these exercises are far from complete. Nevertheless, they highlight the vigour that China has exhibited in undertaking military exercises throughout the year. According to preliminary statistical evidence, China would have completed 18 military exercises by the end of 2009. The frequent military exercises have served two purposes. They have helped the PLA refine its military finesse and have also proved to be effective instruments in bringing about transparency.

    On the military plane, the PLA has tested its capabilities in real war scenarios as well as military operations other than war (MOOTW). In these exercises, the PLA has mainly focused on actual-war conditions and gone for testing troop-to-troop confrontation capabilities. Mobility, rapidity and preparedness have been some of the major concerns that the PLA has attempted to address in the course of high profile actual-war condition exercises and other routine and less profile exercises. Through “Stride-2009”, the PLA conducted an examination of the state of road and other transportation infrastructure to see whether they will be supportive or create hurdles during a real military exigency.

    Some of these exercises were designed to test the PLA’s capabilities to aid and assist the civil administration through MOOTW operations in times of natural calamities. The earthquake in Sichuan Province in 2008 taught some painful yet valuable lessons to the PLA. Reports have noted that it has simulated various seen and unforeseen scenarios in which it may have to aid and assist the civil administration. These scenarios range from the spread of swine flu to flood rescue operations. “Luhai 2009” was the only such MOOTW drill in which the military, police and civilian forces launched a military-police-civilian maritime search and rescue operation.

    In these exercises, China has found that it has yet to overcome the problem of command in joint operations, and that it needs to pay more attention to long-distance force projection capability and particularly strategic projection capability in the air. It also needs to readjust its combat training and fighting principles to adapt to rapidly evolving technology.

    On the diplomatic front, conducting joint military exercises and inviting foreign observers to these exercises can be construed as promoting transparency about Chinese military intentions. Certainly, such moves have been planned to convey the robustness of the Chinese military to friendly and not-so-friendly powers. However, these exercises have played a significant role in wooing friends. China has held joint exercises with Russia (“Peace Mission 2009”), its all weather friend Pakistan (“Peace 09”, a multinational exercise held in Pakistan), Mongolia (“Peacekeeping Mission 2009”: China’s first joint peacekeeping training with a foreign country), Gabon (“Peace Angel 2009”: the first of its kind of joint humanitarian medical rescue operation involving Chinese medical workers), Singapore (“Cooperation 2009”: first joint training programme of its kind for China). In addition, China threw open some of its exercises to foreign military officers and observers. “Victory 2009”, “Vanguard 2009A” and “Peace Mission 2009” were very well attended by foreign officers and other delegates as observers. Such initiatives combined with others like the launching of the website of the Ministry of National Defence are aimed at promoting trust in neighbouring countries.

    Finally, China seems to be working on the principle that regular military exercises have no substitutes when it comes to enhancing battle effectiveness. Therefore, it will be in the interest of regional peace and stability, if China continues to undertake confidence building exercises as well. Military openness and co-operation are effective measures in this direction.