Tactical System Warfare Methodology

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 4: Tactical System Warfare > Tactical System Warfare Methodology


4-31. Building the operational system is one of the primary outputs of the PLAA’s planning process. Commanders are given general guidelines on how to assemble the groups that comprise the operational system, and then they build the operational system to suit the mission and situation. Using the commander’s purpose, intended scheme of maneuver, and analysis of enemy forces and other battlefield conditions, groups are formed using the available force pool, weighting specific groups with the appropriate levels of firepower, mobility, and protection. In tactical ground operational systems, groups can be organized into five general categories: command groups, offensive groups, defensive groups, firepower strike groups, and support groups. Not all operational systems will have all groups; most will consist of command groups supported by one or more additional groups.

Note. PLA literature uses a very wide variety of names for these groups; its approach appears to be unstandardized and still somewhat in development. This list represents a cross-section of different group names and mission descriptions and is not exhaustive.

Table of Contents

  • Command Post Group
  • Command and Communication Group
  • Reconnaissance and Intelligence Group
  • Firepower Coordination Group
  • Electronic and Network Warfare Group
  • Battlefield Management Group
  • Political Work Group
  • Advance Group
  • Frontline Attack Group
  • Depth Attack Group
  • Thrust Maneuvering Group
  • Combat Reserve Group
  • Cover Group
  • Frontier Defense Group
  • Depth Defense Group
  • Combat Reserve Group
  • Firepower Strike Groups
  • Artillery Group
  • Air Firepower Strike Group
  • Antitank Group
  • Mobile Artillery Group
  • Air Defense Group
  • Combat Support Group
  • Rear Area Support Group
  • Psychological Warfare Group


 4-32. Command groups are the components of the operational system that enable leadership to control the system, make rapid and effective command decisions, inform subordinate commanders, and coordinate capabilities. They are built using a variety of different force pools—from command posts and staffs, to reconnaissance and intelligence units, to network support units. Some functions, such as engineer and chemical support, are prescribed in both the command group and a support group; it is unclear how the decision to place these units is made. The following paragraphs describe several of the most important command groups.

Command Post Group

4-33. The command post group establishes and operates the operational system’s command posts. It is also responsible for protecting command posts from direct assault and concealing them from enemy surveillance and targeting. In an operational system designed around a CA-BDE, the CA-BDE’s command post provides most of the manpower and equipment for the command post group.

Command and Communication Group

4-34. The command and communication group establishes the communications and network architecture necessary to support the operational system. The PLAA places a high priority on information systems that are adaptable and reliable, enabling them to operate in a variety of battlefield conditions or when under electromagnetic or network attack by enemy forces. Communications systems are automated wherever possible, enabling critical information to be rapidly distilled and then passed to the appropriate consumer. The PLAA prefers to use a top-down and centralized approach to its information systems, ensuring interoperability across disparate units. The command and communication group is also responsible for establishing and monitoring the control measures that control information systems within its combat area— functions such as assigning radio frequencies, deconflicting electronic emitters, and ensuring network security. Finally, the command and communication group is responsible for protection of the operational system’s network backbone. In an operational system designed around a CA-BDE, the CA-BDE’s communications company within the service support battalion likely forms the basis for the command and communication group.

Reconnaissance and Intelligence Group

4-35. The reconnaissance and intelligence group is comprised of reconnaissance forces and the operational system’s intelligence personnel, task-organized under a single group structure. This structure enables close integration of intelligence and reconnaissance, outlined in detail in chapter 6. The reconnaissance and intelligence group is responsible for developing the reconnaissance plan, conducting reconnaissance in support of the operational system, and disseminating relevant intelligence to all members of the operational system. In an operational system designed around a CA-BDE, the CA-BDE’s reconnaissance battalion and intelligence headquarters section form the core of the reconnaissance and intelligence group. 

Firepower Coordination Group

4-36. The firepower coordination group, also called the firepower coordination center, is responsible for integrating firepower capabilities of all types into a coherent, synchronized plan in support of the operational system. Firepower capabilities include, but are not limited to, tube and rocket artillery, ballistic and cruise missiles, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, network, electromagnetic, and information attack. The firepower coordination group is enabled by the firepower coordination system, an automated or semiautomated command and communication network that distributes targeting and system data across a variety of integrated firepower systems and seeks to streamline targeting and fire control. The firepower coordination group is closely linked with all of the firepower groups.

Electronic and Network Warfare Group

4-37. The electronic and network warfare group is comprised of electronic countermeasure forces, network warfare forces, and other associated personnel. Its missions include electronic reconnaissance, interference, sabotage, targeting, network defense, and cyber intrusions against vulnerable enemy networks.

Battlefield Management Group

4-38. The battlefield management group is responsible for managing personnel and administrative functions in support of the operational system. It consists of the personnel staff officer, supporting staff, and support teams.

Political Work Group

4-39. The political work group is responsible for political support to the operational system. This includes managing the political messaging of the commander, ensuring synergy of purpose for all troops in the operational system, conducting propaganda operations in support of friendly operations and against enemy operations, and supporting psychological warfare operations. The political work group is led by the political officer and manned by supporting staff.


 4-40. Offensive groups are the elements of the operational system that are responsible for fixing, assaulting, and annihilating enemy forces. Offensive groups are deployed in such a way as to ensure substantial numerical and firepower advantage over the enemy: PLAA guidelines suggest offensive groups seek a four-to-one advantage in maneuver forces, a five-to-one to seven-to-one advantage in artillery firepower, and three PLAA antitank systems for each anticipated enemy armor system. An offensive group deploys in a focused manner, establishing the depth and three-dimensional organization necessary to overwhelm the enemy when an assault commences. Offensive groups are integrated with firepower strike groups in order to achieve synchronization between maneuver and fires capabilities. Offensive tactics and techniques are discussed in greater detail in chapter 7.

Advance Group

4-41. The advance group is composed of troops that take advanced positions ahead of a primary attack, conducting a mission roughly similar to the advance guard. The group provides security for the main body, screens against enemy troops, conducts counterreconnaissance, occupies terrain favorable for the main body, and initiates contact with the enemy main body. After completing these tasks, the advance group typically assumes a security or reserve role.

Frontline Attack Group

4-42. The frontline attack group consists of those troops whose mission is to conduct the initial assault against a hardened enemy target, with the goal of achieving a breach or other small penetration. The frontline attack group includes infantry units, armor units, firepower units—likely in the form of mortars supported by artillery—and air defense, antitank, engineer, chemical weapons defense, and electronic countermeasure units. The group’s primary task is to break through and capture enemy first-line positions. The frontline attack group is typically subdivided into assault teams and firepower teams, and it seeks to support each assault team with a firepower team. The frontline attack group attempts to concentrate combat power on the narrowest possible front, then launch a well-supported attack. Armored units likely form the core of this main thrust, supported by infantry. Once the assault is successful, the frontline attack group transitions to a security-or vigilance-role, providing flank and rear security for the depth attack and thrust maneuvering groups as they commence their follow-on missions.

Depth Attack Group

4-43. The depth attack group (or in-depth attack group) consists of those troops that advance deep into the enemy position once the initial breach is achieved. The depth attack group likely consists of the best-available armored forces, supported by mechanized infantry, air defense, antitank, engineer, chemical weapon defense, and electronic countermeasure units. The tasks of the depth attack group include breaking into the depth of the enemy’s defense, seizing critical terrain or other targets deep in enemy territory, annihilating the enemy’s in-depth positions, and occupying positions favorable for defense against the enemy’s counterattack. The depth attack group is staged in order to ensure that the penetration does not lose momentum as forces tire, face challenging terrain, or meet enemy resistance.

Thrust Maneuvering Group

4-44. The thrust maneuvering group consists of those troops that exploit the advantages created by the depth attack group. The thrust maneuvering group may be a highly mobile armored force or an air assault force, enabled by light artillery, antitank, air defense, engineer, and EW units. The thrust maneuvering group continues the attack against enemy deep positions, targeting command nodes, supply areas, and key terrain. Its most important missions, however, are to cut off enemy retrograde routes—enabling the annihilation of enemy units—and to spoil or disrupt counterattacks as the enemy attempts to reinforce its units that are caught in the annihilation zone(s).

Combat Reserve Group

4-45. The combat reserve group consists of those troops that remain in the operational system’s rear area, with missions to reinforce the frontline attack group or depth attack group if necessary, spoil enemy counterattacks that threaten other offensive groups or the rear area, and deal with any other situations that may arise in the operational system’s combat area. The combat reserve group likely consists of either recently used armored units on a rest cycle or lighter mobile units that are able to respond rapidly to developing situations. The combat reserve group is augmented by antitank and engineer units.


4-46. Defensive groups are those groups charged with defending friendly forces, systems, or key terrain from enemy attack. Defensive groups conduct either a position-based or mobile defense, with the intent of blunting the enemy’s attack, attriting enemy forces, and enabling friendly counterattack and transition to the offense. Defensive groups are integrated with firepower strike groups in order to enhance their combat power and defeat superior enemy forces. Defensive tactics are discussed in greater detail in chapter 8.

Cover Group

4-47. The cover group is made of those troops assigned to a cover mission in support of the operational system’s main body. The group’s primary tasks are to conduct counterreconnaissance, defend stubbornly in the face of an enemy attack, screen the main body, and cover the main defensive line’s deployment and disposition. After the cover mission is complete, the cover group may withdraw to deeper areas and conduct vigilance or security operations, serve as the combat reserve group, or continue to operate as part of the main defensive line. If possible, a component of the cover group will attempt to remain behind the enemy’s main advance in order to conduct operations behind enemy lines. The cover group consists of reconnaissance or light armored units enabled by light artillery, antitank, antiair, and EW units. Additional information on the cover mission can be found in chapter 6.

Frontier Defense Group

4-48. The frontier defense group consists of those troops assigned to the main line of defense. Frontier defense groups are further divided into a main defensive direction group and secondary defensive direction groups, depending on the enemy’s predicted course of action. The main defensive direction group is weighted more heavily with numbers and firepower; secondary defensive direction groups are accordingly less powerful, proportional to the commander’s assessment of the enemy’s approach. The primary tasks of the frontier defense group are to hold the defensive line, blunt the enemy’s offensive attack, inflict heavy casualties upon the enemy, buy the commander decision space, and inform the commander about how best to commit reserves and counterattack forces. In a position-based defense, the frontier defense group is likely much larger, as a position-based defense requires the defender to hold a fortified position with minimal maneuver. The frontier defense group consists of infantry and armor, augmented by artillery, antitank, engineer, anti-chemical weapon, and electronic countermeasure units. It likely consists of a higher proportion of infantry compared to other defensive groups.

Depth Defense Group

4-49. The depth defense group consists of those troops assigned to defend deep areas of the defense. Its primary mission is to conduct counterattacks against enemy penetrations; reinforce weak areas of the frontier defense group’s lines; defeat aerial incursions into the rear defense area; and encircle, isolate, and assault any enemy forces operating in rear areas. The depth defense group must be mobile, and it likely contains a high proportion of armored and mechanized forces. In a mobile defensive operation, the depth defense group is the decisive component. Commitment of the depth defense group is the decisive point in a defensive battle. The depth defense group is augmented by artillery and antitank units.

Combat Reserve Group

4-50. The combat reserve group is composed of those troops that are retained in depth areas, with a mission to maintain security and reinforce the main defensive line, if necessary. The group may also conduct counterattacks against enemy penetrations. The combat reserve group likely consists of light, mobile troops or troops on a rest cycle following previous action.

Firepower Strike Groups 

4-51. Also called fire assault groups, these groups provide the bulk of the operational system’s firepower. Firepower strike groups include a variety of heavy weapons, such as artillery systems, mortar systems, air defense systems, and antitank systems, and they include electromagnetic attack and psychological attack systems. These disparate systems are integrated into the operational system by the firepower coordination group, and they can further be subdivided into firepower teams charged with supporting small subordinate elements of the operational system.

Artillery Group

4-52. The artillery group consists of the indirect fire elements of the firepower strike group. These include 122-mm and 155-mm tube artillery systems, light and heavy multiple launch rocket systems, and short-range ballistic missile systems. The PLAA’s firepower is seen as the backbone of its operations, and the artillery group provides most of the tactical-level firepower to the operational system commander. The artillery group is positioned in deep areas, and its primary missions are to—

  • Support scouting and security operations.
  • Disrupt or pre-empt advancing or unfolding (pre-attack positioning) enemy troops.
  • Support defensive groups.
  • Disrupt or defeat enemy flanking and encirclement attempts.
  • Disrupt enemy penetrations and counterattacks.
  • Suppress enemy artillery.
  • Strike at key targets, such as enemy command posts and supply areas.

Broadly speaking, fire support missions are conducted by tube artillery units, while annihilation, suppression, and counterfire missions are conducted by rocket artillery units. Missile units, if available, conduct precision deep strike missions. The artillery group is built around artillery battalions combined in such a way as to achieve a combined arms effect.

Air Firepower Strike Group 

4-53. The air firepower strike group (also called the aerial firepower assault team) consists of the operational system’s rotary-wing airframes that are capable of ground-attack operations. The PLAA employs its helicopters as airborne fighting vehicles, closely attaching them to ground units and seeking to maximize their unique capabilities against vulnerable parts of enemy formations. The air firepower strike group is employed in a variety of ways: as a highly mobile reserve, attacking enemy penetrations and supporting friendly counterattacks; as mobile artillery, targeting enemy artillery systems and other weapons that were not destroyed by the artillery group; as an antitank unit targeting enemy tanks and other armored vehicles; as a deep penetration force targeting enemy command, EW, and sustainment systems; as reconnaissance and surveillance platforms; and as security and vigilance platforms.

Antitank Group 

4-54. The antitank group consists of those troops specially equipped and tasked with targeting and destroying enemy armored vehicles. The antitank group consists of a combination of mounted antitank guided missile launchers, dismounted antitank guided missile teams, and antitank artillery—mainly in the form of assault guns. The antitank group is positioned near the main direction of attack or defense, and it is employed as a rapid, mobile reserve whenever enemy armored forces are encountered. If armored targets are not available, the antitank group can serve as one or more firepower teams, augmenting assault teams as they carry out their missions. The PLAA employs a high density of antitank weapons throughout its formations, and employment of antitank groups is a key planning consideration.

Mobile Artillery Group

4-55. The mobile artillery group is comprised of highly mobile artillery and mortar systems that provide direct, close-in fire support to offensive and defensive groups of all types. Missions for mobile artillery groups include suppressing or destroying enemy positions, delivering obscurants or illumination, conducting short-range counterfires, and disrupting enemy reinforcement or counterattack maneuvers. The mobile artillery group is viewed as vulnerable to counterfire and direct fire, and rapid movement is considered key to its survival. The mobile artillery group is likely built around either 82-mm or 120-mm rapid-fire mortars or mobile 122-mm self-propelled howitzers.

Air Defense Group

4-56. The air defense group is comprised of most of the operational system’s air defense weapons systems, plus associated sensors and command nodes. At the tactical level, this consists of short-range air defense (SHORAD) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), plus a variety of towed and self-propelled antiaircraft guns (SPAAGs). The air defense group’s primary mission is to deny the use of airspace over the battlefield by enemy aircraft through a mixture of deterrence and lethal engagements of in-range aircraft. The air defense group may also conduct air ambushes, intended to surprise and destroy enemy aircraft. Per Chinese doctrine, the group should be employed using a defense-in-depth approach, with deployments weighted according to the value of the assets defended.


4-57. Support groups are responsible for the operational system’s support and sustainment functions and rear area security functions. At the CA-BDE level, these are built primarily using the CA-BDE’s two support battalions: combat support and service support.

Combat Support Group 

4-58. The combat support group consists of a variety of combat support capabilities. At tactical echelons, most of this group is comprised of the CA-BDE’s combat support battalion. Capabilities include engineering, mobility, protection, anti-chemical weapons, and communications. Special emphasis is given to obstacles: there are discrete barrier set-up and removal teams. The combat support group also provides deception and camouflage support and smokescreen generation.

Rear Area Support Group

4-59. The rear area support group is comprised of most of the operational system’s supply and logistics capabilities. The rear area support group is divided into two subgroups: logistics support and equipment support. The logistics support group conducts the supply mission, while the equipment support group performs maintenance.

Psychological Warfare Group 

 4-60. The psychological warfare group is comprised of specially trained soldiers that provide support to frontline units. The group’s mission consists of three tasks: present a clear picture of the enemy’s psychological situation, conduct psychological attacks on the enemy in support of the operational system’s operations, and protect friendly troops from enemy psychological attack. The psychological warfare group also works carefully with the political group to build consensus and morale among friendly troops.


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