Cover: Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare

Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare

How the Chinese People's Liberation Army Seeks to Wage Modern Warfare

Published Feb 1, 2018

by Jeffrey Engstrom


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Research Questions

  1. What is the concept of systems confrontation and system destruction warfare in PLA writings?
  2. What is the template of the PLA's operational system?
  3. What are some examples of task-organized operation system of systems?

This report reflects an attempt to understand current thinking in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) regarding system of systems and systems warfare, as well as current methods of warfighting. It also serves as a guidebook to the already substantial number of systems and systems-related concepts that abound in PLA sources. By examining numerous Chinese-language materials, this report (1) explores how the PLA understands systems confrontation and comprehends prosecuting system destruction warfare, (2) identifies the components of the PLA's own operational system by looking at the various potential subsystem components and how they are connected, and (3) examines selected PLA operational systems identified in PLA literature and envisioned by the PLA to prosecute its campaigns, such as the firepower warfare operational system. This report should be of interest to military analysts and scholars of the PLA, policymakers, and anyone else who seeks insight into how the PLA conceptualizes and seeks to wage modern warfare.

Key Findings

System-of-Systems Thinking Drives How the PLA Understands and Seeks to Win Modern Warfare

  • Systems confrontation is recognized by the PLA to be the mode of warfare in the 21st century, as the PLA perceives militarized conflict to be a contest between opposing operational systems.
  • System destruction warfare constitutes the PLA's theory of victory.
  • PLA sees system of systems as the foundation by which to achieve integrated joint operations and "win informationized local wars."

System-of-Systems Thinking Pervades Virtually Every Aspect of the PLA's Approach to Training, Organizing, and Equipping for Modern Warfare over the Past Two Decades

  • New equipment and platforms are undoubtedly being considered based on how they fill gaps or improve the efficiency of envisioned operational systems.
  • The PLA is seeking to build a well-balanced operational system, including by not limited to developing and operationalizing command information systems throughout the chain of command while increasing the robustness of the military transmission network.
  • It is the success or failure of aspects such as these that will ultimately determine the efficacy and viability of the PLA's operational system.

Systems Thinking and Systems Concepts Appear to Be a Guiding Logic Behind Recent Organizational Changes

  • They seem to have provided a strong impetus to move from the former Military Region structure to the recently developed theater command structure.
  • The Strategic Support Force has been created to unify and improve the PLA's efforts in achieving dominance in the space, cyber, electromagnetic, and possibly psychological domains.


  • Understand how PLA thinking on systems confrontation and system destruction warfare evolves.
  • Track the evolution of the PLA's thinking about developing and generating operational systems.
  • Track if and how today's aspirations and thinking about systems within the PLA are turned into reality in future operational systems.

This research was sponsored by United States Pacific Command and conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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