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Learning from U.S. Joint Military Exercises

Oct 04 , 2016
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

Chinese armed forces are working to improve their combat effectiveness through more military exercises, including joint ones with foreign militaries. This week, the China-Russia “Joint Sea 2016” drill has arrested the world’s attention. However, for the People’s Liberation Army, more attention should be paid to US joint military exercises. Take the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) as an example: Every year it participates in hundreds of exercises and other engagement activities with foreign military forces , in marked contrast to 39 bilateral or multilateral military exercises involving the PLA within the four years from 2012 to 2015 . In addition to learning American good practices of organizing military exercises and operating procedures, the PLA should also learn to make use of joint exercises to conduct military deterrence and military diplomacy. Specifically, the USPACOM’s annual joint exercises have the following three characteristics. 

First, it continues to carry out large-scale military exercises with traditional Asia-Pacific allies such as South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia, in order to improve interoperability at both campaign and tactical levels, and enhance military deterrence. The most well-known exercises include Ulchi Freedom Guardian, Orient Shield, Balikatan, Cobra Gold and Pitch Black. Following US security priorities in the region, USPACOM has the most bilateral exercises with South Korea, including live-=fire training and computer-assisted command post exercise, and covering ground, air and maritime operations, as well as special operations, electronic warfare and cyber warfare. Their focus is rehearsing various operational plans in response to contingencies on the Korean Peninsula. Furthermore, some bilateral exercises have recently extended to the South China Sea. For instance, in the Ship Anti-Submarine Warfare Readiness Effectiveness Measuring (SHAREM) bilateral training exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMDSF), an MH-60R Seahawk was launched from the guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92) during transit of the South China Sea on Aug 24.

Second, it apparently has increased joint exercises with such partners as Singapore, India, Mongolia and Vietnam, in order to expand security cooperation and the U.S. network of “like-minded” allies and partners. Every year, USPACOM holds about 10 joint exercises with Singapore, focusing on maritime operations, like Harpoon, Merlion, Mercury, Citadel Pacific, etc.. With India, it has Malabar on surface/submarine/air operations, Flash Iroquois on special operations, and so on. With Mongolia, there is Balance Magic on disaster rescue and special operations. With Vietnam, it conducts Naval Engagement Activity (NEA).

Third, it keeps enlarging multilateral exercises and expanding traditional bilateral exercises into multilateral ones, in order to consolidate the US-led security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region and “cultivate principled security networks which reinforce the rules-based international order” . Each year, USPACOM engages in about 30 multilateral exercises. This year, 45 ships, five submarines, about 200 aircraft and 25,000 officers and men from 26 countries participated in the 25th RIMPAC, the largest one in history. In August 2016, organized and supported by the Task Force 73 and Destroyer Squadron 7 staffs, the 15th annual Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) gathered liaison officers from the United States, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Singapore and Thailand for the Maritime Operations Center (MOC) training. Bangladesh and Cambodia took part in the exercise for the first time. Coast guard personnel from the US, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, also participated in the exercise. It is noticeable that the five-day command post exercise designed scenarios covering information sharing and law enforcement in the South China Sea. The Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, the largest bilateral exercise between the US and South Korea, has already evolved into a multilateral event. Nine countries -- Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, the Philippines, New Zealand and the UK -- participated in 2016’s Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Similarly, the US-Philippines Balikatan and the US-Thailand Cobra Gold have also become multilateral.

The PLA might learn many things from these operations. By participating in the US-led joint exercises, it can get familiar with some American weapon systems and the tactics, techniques and procedures they employ, as well as ways and means of logistics support. By observing those exercises, it can learn how to collaborate with other militaries. The PLA should also initiate more joint exercises, especially on countering transnational threats and challenges, including natural disasters, terrorism and illegal trafficking. Not only can they hone military capabilities and elevate combat effectiveness, but they can also maintain military presence and expand China’s circle of friends. Besides, joint military exercises with foreign counterparts might help the PLA to demonstrate its combat power and readiness to counter foreign intervention, as well as its nature as peaceful armed forces to preserve regional security and stability and assume more global responsibilities. They might serve as an effective avenue to convey the PLA’s intent, and resolve and increase transparency.

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