Framework for PLA Operations

1-61. The PLA operational framework is the lens through which the PLA develops capabilities, plans and executes operations, develops doctrine, and revises military philosophy and strategy. The operational framework is complex and comprehensive, running the entire scope of military operations from national strategy down to small-unit tactics. There is no direct U.S. equivalent, though most of the general ideas are replicated in various ways in U.S. doctrine. The PLA operational framework consists of five levels, ranging from the purely philosophical to the prescriptive and practical. These levels are—

  • Military Thought.
  • Defense Theory and Defense Doctrine.
  • Strategic Principles and Operational Principles.
  • Campaigns.
  • Combat Tactics and Regulations.

Figure 1-4 illustrates the relationship between the different operational framework levels

Figure 1-4. PLA operational framework  

1-62. Military Thought represents the highest levels of PLA military thinking. It embodies China’s long history as a land of philosophers, and it contains those works held in the highest esteem by the PLA. The Art of War and People’s War are the two foundational documents and concepts for Military Thought, though there are many other works constantly being produced, debated, and revised. Military Thought provides the philosophical foundation for PLA operations, defines the culture and objectives of the PLA, and defines the PLA’s relationship with the CPC. U.S. equivalents are military concepts and strategic directives, such as the National Security Strategy and the Capstone Concept for Joint Operations

1-63. Defense Theory and Defense Doctrine represent the PLA’s strategic-level thinking. Defense Theory operationalizes the various principles laid out in Military Thought and other high-order documents. Defense Doctrine codifies the basic PLA approach to warfighting. Doctrine in this sense remains at the strategic level—the PLA does not appear to use the word “doctrine” to describe operational practices at operational or tactical levels of war. A U.S. equivalent to Defense Theory is the Air Force Future Operating Concept; an equivalent to Defense Doctrine is the U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations (formerly the Army Operating Concept). 

1-64. Strategic Principles and Operational Principles align roughly with what the U.S. DOD refers to as doctrine; in other words, a series of situation-based discussions that serve as a guide to actions. These principles are intended to standardize language and understanding throughout the PLA. One important difference between Western doctrine and Chinese Strategic and Operational Principles is the importance that the PLA places on the interactions and relationship between the military and society. Western militaries are generally apolitical and consider themselves separate entities from civilian society, whereas the PLA codifies its place in Chinese society in these principles. In practice, this establishes the role of the PLA in shaping Chinese society and politics, explains the relationship between militias and the areas they serve, and describes the role of political officers in PLA units. A U.S. equivalent to Strategic Principles is JP 3-0, while an equivalent to Operational Principles is ADP 3-0. 

1-65. Campaigns do not have a Western equivalent. A PLA campaign is a large-scale, operational-level effort that likely involves multiple services and a joint command, though it may also be conducted by units from a single service. Unlike Western theater-level operations that are generally objective-based, PLA campaigns are mission-based. PLA campaign types include—

  • Joint blockade.
  • Amphibious landing.
  • Antiair raid.
  • Mobile/maneuver warfare.
  • Mountain offensive.
  • Positional offensive.
  • Positional defensive.
  • Antiterrorism stability maintenance.
  • Maritime group to destroy the enemy.
  • Maritime interdiction.
  • Offensive against coral reefs.
  • Sea lane protection.
  • Naval base defense.
  • Air offensive.
  • Airborne.
  • Air defense.
  • Conventional missile attack. 

Each of these campaigns correlates to what U.S. forces would call a mission. In contrast, U.S. operations at this level tend to be largely based around an objective and a concept of operations. For example, the U.S.-led coalition operation, OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM, had the objective of deposing the Ba’athist government and installing a stable democracy in Iraq, with the concept of operations being to defeat the Iraqi military, secure civil stability, and transition to a new government. The PLA’s campaign approach suits its doctrine and philosophy well—it is more prescriptive, centralized, and narrow in scope, and consequently it requires less freedom of action from subordinates. It remains to be seen if this approach will be retained as the PLA moves toward more decentralized leadership and actions.

1-66. Combat Tactics and Regulations address unit-level activities and tactical-level doctrine. Tactics and Regulations provide the basis for campaign operations, ensuring that all PLA units have a shared understanding of basic maneuvers, actions, and responses. Regulations in this context are not laws and rules as they are for the U.S. military; instead, they are similar to battle drills or other basic military actions. This mirrors the old naming convention for U.S. Army doctrine, as predecessors to ADP 3-0 and FM 100-5 were titled Field Service Regulations, Operations until the mid-1960s. This naming convention may also reflect greater centralization and top-down leadership. This approach may change in a similar way to the campaign model as the PLA moves toward a decentralized approach to leadership.


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