The Wolves of Zhurihe: China’s OPFOR Comes of Age

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Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 4

February 20, 2015 02:10 PM Age: 1 day By: Gary Li

The PLA’s “Stride” exercise in 2014, with “Blue Force” helicopters and “Red Force” ground forces. (Credit: China Military Online)

Between May 31 and July 28, 2014, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began the annual large-scale exercise codenamed “Stride 2014.” The Stride exercises have been a regular occurrence, focusing largely on the rapid deployment of large field formations into unfamiliar territory and conducting confrontation drills. The 2014 version, however, was different in its scale, unit composition, intensity and the nature of the opponent the units faced. No fewer than seven of the PLA’s top brigades from seven different group armies (GA) were deployed to the Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia, under the Beijing Military Region. During the six confrontation exercises that followed, only one resulted in a victory for the visiting “Red Forces” (REDFOR), and at heavy cost. The drubbing received by the REDFOR actually reflects a new age in PLA training that is closely linked with the unit that taught them the lesson, China’s first dedicated opposing forces brigade (OPFOR). [1]

“Stride 2014” Exercises Participants and Results [2]

Exercise Segment Military Region (MR) Army Unit Result vs. OPFOR
A Nanjing 12th Group Army (GA), 2nd Armored Brigade Lost
B Guangzhou 41st GA, 122nd Mechanized Brigade Lost
C Jinan 20th GA, 58th Light Mechanized Brigade Lost
D Shenyang 16th GA, 68th Mechanized Brigade Win/Draw
E Chengdu 14th GA, 18th Armored Brigade Lost
F Lanzhou 47th GA, 55th Motorized Brigade Lost
n/a* Beijing 27th Group Army (GA), 7th Armored Brigade n/a

*Did not participate in “Stride 2014,” but was possibly used as a test unit before the main exercises

The visiting forces were under simulated attacks from the moment they arrived at their marshalling areas, and then placed under continued nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) as well as air attack throughout the exercises (Xinhua Net, June 24, 2014). The OPFOR possessed total dominance in the air and artillery arenas as well as tactical advantage due to advanced reconnaissance being denied to the visiting units. Most of the units lost 30–50 percent of their forces by the time they came into contact with the OPFOR, and some lost up to 70 percent by the time their exercise segment ended. Never before has the PLA been given such a test by such an opponent, and the Zhurihe experiment sent shockwaves throughout the officer corps.

The Birth of “Blue Force”

The Zhurihe Training Base in the Inner Mongolian desert has been an important training ground for China’s armored troops since 1957. However, it was only from 2007 that it evolved from a simple target range to a combined arms training center. This was a surprisingly long time coming as the PLA has been acutely aware of its backwardness since the 1991 Gulf War, after which the speed of military modernization increased drastically. Previous OPFOR units were largely on very short rotations and mimicked Soviet formations, which were the main land adversaries during the Cold War. Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, this remained largely unchanged until the 2000s. This transformation was given extra impetus since Chinese President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, when he decided to implement reforms within the PLA in order to achieve a fighting force that “can fight and win battles” (PLA Daily, February 21, 2013).

The mysterious “Blue Force”—as the PLA terms its OPFOR—is actually the 195th armoured brigade from the 13th GA (formerly the 1st Armored Division, 65th GA, one of the early pioneering units in “informatized warfare”). This unit appears to have been retrained during 2013 and activated in January 2014. By March 2014, the Central Military Commission (CMC) under President Xi issued the directive “Recommendations Concerning the Improvement to the Realism of Military Exercises” (Xinhua, March 20, 2014), and the 195th was to be the “grindstone.” “Stride 2014,” therefore, was personally approved by Xi according to the new “2014 to 2017 Trans-Regional Base Located Training Regulations” (Liao Wang Dong Fang, August 6, 2014).

Although the unit is equipped largely with obsolete equipment, such as Type 59 main battle tanks (MBT) and Type 63 armored personnel carriers (APC), its strengths are actually in its deep integration into combined arms. Also through the large-scale deployment of laser engagement systems similar to the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES) used by the U.S. military, the unit quite possibly simulated M1s and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. This is never implicitly acknowledged by official media but open source evidence seems to suggest that the unit sometimes utilizes doctrine similar to that of U.S. Brigade Combat Teams, meant the 195th proved to be a lethal opponent (China Military Net, June 16, 2014).

The 195th is commanded by Colonel Xia Minglong, who was the deputy chief of training for the Beijing MR until he was given command of the OPFOR brigade in January 2014 (Ministry of National Defense, February 4). According to media interviews, Xia was already aware that his new brigade would be taking on the best of the PLA later on in the year. The brigade only completed its reorganization in April 2014, only 20 days before the first “Red Force” arrived at Zhurihe. Pointedly, he described previous types of training as “overly formal, with little achieved… even though many commanders want to put training on a more realistic basis, there was little in their minds as to how this should be achieved—largely due to a lack of combat experience over many years” (Liao Wang Dong Fang, August 6, 2014).

Prior to the establishment of the OPFOR brigade, opposing forces were always made up of rotated units with little experience in the role. This is due to political as well as doctrinal issues. If an OPFOR unit defeats a high-profile visiting unit, then there is a chance that the senior generals of the latter will take offense, something that within a military such as the PLA—with its intricate web of patronage and personal allegiances—can prove disastrous to one’s career. Therefore, institutionally, there had been little incentive for OPFOR officers to try and defeat visiting forces (Sina Military, August 8, 2014).

The composition of the visiting “Red Forces” was also different in 2014, with the focus on “combined brigades,” namely brigades with several other service arms attached. In essence the PLA was testing the effectiveness of the ‘brigadization’ reforms conducted in the early 2000s, when divisions were streamlined into highly mobile mechanized brigades. The results from “Stride 2014” seem to suggest that there is much improvement yet to be made.

The nature of the exercises was very different from previous brigade-sized maneuvers. These ranged from the doctrinal—no more scripted confrontations, to the mundane—no more large red banners and flags on the vehicles. Everything was done to create “realistic real-war conditions” (PLA Daily, December 31, 2014). The most significant change, however, was in “allowing” the OPFOR to win. The role of previous, temporary OPFORs was to delay and obstruct the “Red Forces” but not to defeat them. Thus a Red brigade commander could previously issue commands that resulted in large losses without fearing defeat. However, the painful defeats inflicted on “Red Forces” in “Stride 2014” were not only highlighted as a major takeaway from the exercises, but also gleefully rammed home repeatedly by official PLA media coverage (Xinhua, June 22, 2014).

The Aftermath

The purpose of the “Stride 2014” exercises was significant. Strategically, they were designed to shake the PLA out of its sense of peacetime complacency and to face up to its primary responsibility of fighting and winning wars. Operationally, they removed the safety blanket of operating in familiar surroundings and forced the units to fight in locations not of their choosing against a foe that fought differently. Tactically, units discovered the difficulties of operating their equipment while under such constant attack and electronic interference, forcing officers at all levels to improvise their attacks. Politically, and arguably the most important objective, has been the removal of the risk aversion factor in the exercises. No recriminations against the OPFOR brigade were allowed, and reports of defeats were encouraged (PLA Daily, November 11, 2014).

One of the other key issues identified during the exercises was the proper usage of new equipment. Several of the formations that were defeated by the OPFOR possessed the most advanced hardware within the PLA, including Type 99 and Type 96 MBTs as well as Type 04 IFVs. Nearly all the formations possessed highly mobile, organic, mechanized or truck mounted artillery. In essence, they represented the fruits of two decades of hardware upgrades for the ground forces aimed at fighting a fully mechanized war. However, these did not save them from defeat. The only unit that scored a win/draw was equipped with the most advanced Type 99 MBTs, but it was a scratch battalion led by a captain (the higher ranking commanders all having been ‘killed’) that “won” the fight (Guancha, July 8, 2014).

The main organizer of “Stride 2014,” Senior Colonel Yang Baoyou, a professor at the Shijiazhuang Command College (the PLA equivalent of West Point), told Xinhua afterwards that the Zhurihe experiment was intended to expose the shortcomings of combat units at a fundamental level, some of which include “weak command abilities, inefficient collaboration between units, inability to utilize new equipment to their advantage,” among other issues. Yang points out that these are all largely due to a previous regime of “incomprehensive, low standard, and low objective training programs” (Modern Express, August 8, 2014). It is clear that the reason for the choice of units—one brigade from each military region—was so the lessons learnt can be taken back to their respective regions and that no one can say that they could have done better.

The Future of Zhurihe OPFOR

It was not only the regular army units that would be pitched against the 195th in 2014. Over the course of the year, no fewer than 20 exercises were held at Zhurihe, including the annual Shanghai Corporation Organization (SCO) “Peace Mission 2014” in August, and even a visit from one of the two PLA Marine Brigades (China Youth Daily, February 13, 2014). Traditionally based in the south, the brigade was thrown against the newly activated 195th in February 2014 and returned for a rematch in 2015 (Guangcha, February 5). It is evident that the PLA is keen to test all of its formations outside their comfort zones. According to the PLA Daily’s Weibo account on February 5, 2015, ten brigades from all seven MRs will descent upon Zhurihe to take on the OPFOR for the 2015 “Stride” exercise. The difference this year will be that each battle will be broken down into three rounds, perhaps to allow the “Red Forces” time to assess their shortfalls and attempt to overcome them.

The commander of the OPFOR is not complacent about his brigade’s achievements in 2014 either, and highlighted his concerns of two main bottlenecks for the brigade’s continued development, namely personnel retention and advanced equipment. In terms of the former, Colonel Xia stated that it is difficult to find the right officers, who are versed in “foreign combat doctrine,” and to retain them. In terms of the latter, despite simulating the latest in western MBTs, the OPFOR brigade’s aged Type 59s will require replacements in the future (Liao Wang Dong Fang, August 6, 2014).

It is highly unlikely that the PLA will let the OPFOR’s fighting qualities be eroded by the usual PLA issues of personnel retention and political backlashes. It is clear from “Stride 2014” that this formation has embodied everything that President Xi has called for under his tenure. However, this model will likely be permeated down to the MR level, and regional OPFORs will also be set up to train other local forces. Considering the size and distribution of the PLA, this localization of the “Zhurihe model” would go far in tempering the fighting qualities of the ground formations.

Yet, questions still remain on whether the new training regime, with all the emphasis on realism, reflects a broad enough spectrum for the kinds of threats the PLA might have to face in future. It is uncertain whether all future engagements will involve large-scale NBC strikes, for example; and the lack of counter-insurgency training is also glaring. The OPFOR has demonstrated at Zhurihe that the age of large-scale mechanized war might be coming to an end, but what is to replace it still remains to be answered amongst the planners of the PLA.

Notes

  1. OPFOR exercises are a common military practice around the world, including the United States. The REDFOR are the normal PLA units and the “Blue team” OPFOR are special units intended to act as enemy units for training purposes. For reference, the United States uses “Red Teams” as the enemy. The National Training Centre in Irwin, California, has been the home of the U.S. OPFOR since 1980, where units simulating a Soviet regiment were responsible for putting U.S. mechanized units through their paces during the Cold War. Nowadays, it also specializes in training units for counter-insurgency operations.
  2. The specific units of GAs were identified through open source research.

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