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China PLA Way of War - Active Defence & MDPW

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) doctrine is published in the Science of Military Strategy (SMS). The latest version of the SMS is that of 2013.

Active Defence is the much talked about military strategic concept. Given that the edition is pre Xi Jinping era it is not clear if the same continues to be the doctrinal tenet of the PLA. Given the more aggressive approach that has been adopted in recent years, there could be a change but in the absence of a document the SMS of 2013 needs to form the basis of study of the PLA military strategy.

In the SMS 2013 translation, “China’s military-strategic concept of active defense is to defend the nation’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity; it has always treated resisting invasion, protecting the fatherland, and protecting the people’s peaceful work as the basic tasks of the armed strengths, rather than these [tasks] being the launching of wars, arms races, and aggressive expansion”.

Importantly Active Defence is defensive in terms of strategy but,. “does not preclude pre-emptive strikes as regards campaigns and combats…”

As per the United States Department of Defence Report, Military and Security Development Involving the People’s Republic of China 2022 [The Report] outlines some of the principal strategy that is envisaged in conduct of military operations by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)

Active defence has been described as a concept ‘that adopts the principles of strategic defence in combination with offensive action at the operational and tactical levels.’

Thus just as in SMS 2013, important to note is that the term Active Defence does not limit to the PLA to purely defensive strategy nor to territorial defence.

The PRC’s 2019 defence white paper reaffirmed active defence as the basis for its military strategy.

Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe reiterated this principle of active defence in his speech at the Ninth Beijing Xiangshan Forum in 2019.

The strategy was first adopted by the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] in the 1930s and since its founding in 1949, it has served as the basis for the PRC’s military strategy, with required tailoring the specifications given the evolving challenges and circumstances over time.

As per the Report, the current PRC writings describe the tenets of active defence as follows:

· Adhere to a position of self-defence and stay with striking back. The PRC’s 2019 defence white paper describes this principle: "We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” Thus, entailing defensive counterattacks in response to an attack or pre-emptively striking an adversary that the PRC judges are preparing to attack.

· Combine strategic defence with operational and tactical offence. Influenced by Mao Zedong’s notion of using defence and offence, this aspect combines two approaches that first include offensive campaigns, operations, and tactical actions in support of strategic defence occurring rapidly and along “external lines.” While the second approach involves the use of strategic defence to weaken the enemy in order to secure victory.

· Taking the operational initiative. This aspect emphasizes the effective use of offensives at the operational and tactical levels, avoiding enemy strengths, and concentrating on building asymmetric advantages against enemy weaknesses to ‘change what is inferior into what is superior.’

· Strive for the best possibilities. A better peacetime military preparation stresses the importance of setting conditions in advance and suggests it is preferable to be prepared and not fight than to fight unprepared.

· The dialectical unity of restraining war and winning war. This aspect calls for the “effective restraint of warfare,” to avoid war first through sufficient military preparation and powerful conventional and strategic forces that act in concert with political and diplomatic efforts to “subdue the enemy’s forces without fighting.”

· Soldiers and the people are the sources of victory. ‘People’s war’ became the source of this aspect as it comprises subordinate military strategies linked with national mobilisation and participation in wartime as a whole-of-nation concept of warfare.

New Concept MDPW

In 2021, “Multi-Domain Precision Warfare (MDPW)” became the new core operational concept for PLA as per the Report.

As per the Report it is intended to leverage a C4ISR network, which essentially is known as the ‘network information system-of-systems that incorporates advances in big data and artificial intelligence, to rapidly identify key vulnerabilities in the U.S. operational system and then combine joint forces across domains to launch precision strikes against those vulnerabilities.’

As it suggests, it will develop additional subordinate operational concepts and use simulations, war games, and exercises to test, evaluate, and improve these future-oriented operational concepts. The report points out that the timing of the MDPW’s appearance with China’s updated doctrine and military strategic guidelines suggests that MDPW serves as a connection between them, likely amplifying themes and guidance in both while focusing on the contours of what the PLA must be able to do to win future wars as per the Report.

Destruction Warfare

‘Destruction warfare’ remains the principle guiding theory of PLA’s way of war, with an increasing view of confrontational warfare between opposing operational systems rather than annihilation between opposing mechanised military forces.

The PLA refers to systems destruction warfare as the next way of war as it transforms from mechanised warfare to informative and intelligence-based warfare.

In November 2020, the CMC announced that it had issued the “Chinese People's Liberation Army Joint Operations Outline (Trial).” As the report suggests, the Outline describes how the future combat style of the PLA will be integrated with joint operations under the unified command of a joint operations command system.

The PLA’s “operational regulations” were last updated in 1999 and PLA leaders and PLA-affiliated academics had pointed to the lack of updated doctrine, which is out of step with the 2015-era structural command and organizational reforms and an obstacle to advancing the next steps in building a unified joint PLA as per the Report.

The Report also pointed out that after the Outline was issued, PLA joint operations remain limited to a strategic level and are insufficient for victory in future wars because it heavily relies on the command authority of senior leaders or the use of administrative means to ensure compliance.

[Compiled from the Report by Harshita Singh Panwar].


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