What I Learned From the PLA’s Latest Strategy Textbook

By Joel Wuthnow


In August 2020, China’s National Defense University (NDU) released a revised version of its Science of Military Strategy (战略学, zhanlüe xue) (SMS), a core textbook for senior PLA officers on how wars should be planned and conducted at the strategic level. This article compares the 2020 version of this book with its last revision, in 2017, and finds that the former contains new details on wartime political work, “intelligentization” concepts, China’s military strategic guidelines, major war operations, joint logistics and the People’s Armed Police. It should be a go-to reference for those seeking to understand Chinese military thinking as it is currently explained to PLA officers themselves.

Over the last three decades, China’s two premier defense institutes—the Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) and NDU—have produced several editions of the Science of Military Strategy. AMS published new editions in 1987, 2001 and 2013. NDU published new editions in 1999 and 2015. In May 2017, NDU released a revision (修订, xiuding) to the 2015 edition, and then released another revision in August 2020.[1]

The postscript to the 2020 SMS explains that the recent revisions were necessary to “better adapt to the major trend in the form of warfare shifting from informationization (信息化, xinxi hua) to intelligentization (智能化, zhineng hua), elucidate the characteristics and rules of military struggle in the new era, reflect the newest results of national defense and army reforms, and promote innovation in our strategic theories” (p. 452).These volumes are best described as doctrinal teaching materials: previous editions have been included in the curricula at NDU, whose function is to train commanders at the senior colonel level and above.[2]

Although the books themselves are not “doctrine” per se, it is likely that the authors had access to—and based some of their judgements on—classified or otherwise non-public materials, including China’s formal military strategy, known as the “military strategic guidelines” (军事战略方针, junshi zhanlüe fangzhen). Reviewing changes in the SMS over time can thus reveal insights into new issues, perspectives, and developments that the leaders of China’s professional military education system believe need to be imparted to PLA officers.
Broad Similarities with the 2017 Revision

The 2020 SMS, like the 2015 edition and the 2017 update, was coordinated by a “drafting team” (通稿组, tong gao zu) led by NDU deputy commandant Lieutenant General Xiao Tianliang (肖天亮) and including NDU National Security College deputy director Major General Lou Yaoliang (楼耀亮), and professors Kang Wuchao (亢武超) and Cai Renzhao (蔡仁照) from the NDU Military Strategy Research Office. Each chapter was authored by one to three subject matter experts but coordinated by the drafting team. As a result, the entire work reads like a coherent whole rather than a series of loosely related essays.

The 2020 SMS is only ten pages longer than the 2017 SMS (452 versus 442 pages), and the overall structure is basically the same. The 2017 revision included 24 chapters while the 2020 SMS added a single chapter on joint logistics. Both were organized into three parts (see table of contents below). The first part consists of general abstractions on strategic theory, planning, evaluation, and related topics. The second part covers special topics on strategic warfare, including crisis management and prevention, deterrence, war control, and operational guidance; it also includes chapters on military operations other than war and overseas operations. The third focuses on force development for each of the traditional services (army, navy, air force and rocket force), as well as space and cyber forces, the People’s Armed Police (PAP) and reserve forces.

Table: SMS Chapter Lineup (2017 and 2020)

绪论 (Introduction)

上编 (Part One)
1 战略概论 (Strategic Theory)
2 战略判断 (Strategic Judgements)
3 战略决策 (Strategic Decisions)
4 战略规划 (Strategic Plans)
5 战略实施 (Strategy Implementation)
6 战略评估 (Strategy Evaluation)

中编 (Part Two)
7 军事危机的预防与处理 (Preventing and Managing Military Crises)
8 战略威慑 (Strategic Deterrence)
9 新型领域军事斗争 (Military Struggle in New Domains)
10 战争筹划 (War Planning)
11 战争行动 (War Operations)
12 战局控制 (War Control)
13 作战指导 (Operational Guidance)
14 非战争军事行动 (MOOTW)
15 军事力量的海外运用 (Use of Military Forces Overseas)

下编 (Part Three)
16 军事力量建设与发展的战略指导 (Strategic Guidance for Military Force Construction and Development)
17 陆军建设与发展 (Army Construction and Development)
18 海军建设与发展 (Navy Construction and Development)
19 空军建设与发展 (Air Force Construction and Development)
20 火箭军建设与发展 (Rocket Force Construction and Development)
21 军事航天力量建设与发展 (Space Force Construction and Development)
22 网络空间力量建设与发展 (Cyber Force Construction and Development)
23 (2020) 联勤保障力量建设与发展 (Joint Logistic Support Forces Construction and Development)
23 (2017) / 24 (2020) 武警部队建设与发展 (PAP Construction and Development)
24 (2017) / 25 (2020) 后备力量建设与发展 (Reserve Force Construction and Development)

后记 (Postscript)

Source: Science of Military Strategy 2017, 2020.

Key Changes in the 2020 Revision

A New Emphasis on Wartime Political Work

One of the most interesting updates is the addition of a section on wartime political work in Chapter 10, on war planning (战争筹划, zhanzheng chouhua). Other parts of the chapter are written in an abstract style that could apply to any military, but this section starts with the clear statement that “wartime political work” consists of the “thought work” (思想工作, sixiang gongzuo) and “organizational work” (组织工作, zuzhi gongzuo) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in “carrying out our military’s operations” (p. 212).

The section identifies the main features of wartime political work to include “unifying the thinking of war participants,” “guaranteeing robust party organizations,” “stimulating combat spirit,” “strengthening military propaganda and news control” and “breaking enemy resolve.” This is followed by a discussion of how to formulate political work plans and requirements, including the need to explore a “new model” of “political work plus information and network operations,” involving the more active use of social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo (p. 216).

Adding this section is consistent with CCP General Secretary and Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Xi Jinping’s emphasis on improving party control over the military,[3] but according to the 2020 SMS, the changing character of warfare itself influenced this discussion. For instance, the authors suggest that enemy activities along the “hidden front” (隐蔽战线, yinbi zhanxian), including psychological warfare and “inciting defections” (策反, cefan), have become “increasingly intense” under conditions of “informationized and intelligentized” wars. Maintaining the party’s grip on information in the PLA during wartime, as well as its ability to influence foreign perceptions, is thus a top priority.

An Increased Focus on Intelligentization

“Intelligentization” broadly refers to a new phase of military modernization defined by the battlefield introduction of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, biotechnology, hypersonics, unmanned autonomous systems and big data analysis.[4] PLA analysts have studied these issues for many years but only just begun to address them in authoritative doctrinal teaching materials.

The 2020 revision expands on references to intelligentization in the 2017 SMS. Chapter 10 has a new section on the characteristics of “informationized local wars” that describes a “rapid development of military intelligentization” and notes that “intelligentized features of informationized local wars are becoming steadily more apparent” (p.185). Most of the service chapters in part three now also feature intelligentizaton as a requirement for capabilities development. For instance, Chapter 18 on the navy has a rewritten section on equipment modernization. Whereas the text in the 2017 SMS focused on mechanized and informationized systems, the 2020 revision references the need for progress in naval R&D for a new array of “intelligentized equipment” (p. 367).

New Insight into the Military Strategic Guidelines

Military strategic guidelines function as China’s military strategy, informing force development, planning, and disposition.[5] The guidelines themselves are periodically updated by the Central Military Commission but have not been made public in recent years. The 2020 SMS postscript confirmed that a key development spurring the revision was the “setting of the military strategic guidelines for the new era” (制定了新时代军事战略方针, zhidingle xin shidai junshi zhanlüe fangzhen). This appears to refer to an update to the guidelines made sometime after the 19th Party Congress was held in October 2017 (p. 3).[6]

One of the key judgements underpinning the guidelines is the “basic operational form” (基本作战形式, jiben zuozhan xingshi), which can be thought of as the dominant features of modern warfighting that may require the PLA to adapt or innovate. In the 2020 revision, Chapter 13 on operational guidance (作战指导, zuozhan zhidao) makes the new statement that this has shifted from “integrated joint operations” (一体化联合作战, yiti hua lianhe zuozhan) to “multi-domain integrated joint operations” (多域一体化联合作战, duo yu yiti hua lianhe zuozhan) (p. 264-7). The latter refers to an “advanced stage” of joint operations consisting of a high level of operational coordination across domains, including land, sea, air, space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum, and also the cognitive domain (智, zhi).[7]

The 2020 revision also adds new detail on how military strategic guidelines—as with most of the content in part one, stated abstractly and without specific reference to the PLA—should be formulated. Chapter 3 on strategic decision-making (战略决策, zhanlüe juece) adds that, in addition to six criteria mentioned in the 2017 revision, the guidelines should also consider the “strategic layout” (战略布局, zhanlüe buju) including disposition of forces and resources; for instance, ensuring a proper balance of resources between the “main strategic direction” (主要战略方向, zhuyao zhanlüe fangxiang)—referring to the primary warfighting theater—and “other regions and strategic directions” (其他地区和战略方向, qita diqu he zhanlüe fangxiang) (p. 61).[8]

A New Focus on Strategic Reconnaissance and Maritime Operations

Chapter 11 discusses the characteristics and requirements for a series of major types of war operations (战争行动, zhanzheng xingdong). The 2020 revision adds two more operations to the 2017 revision’s eight. One new requirement is “strategic reconnaissance and strategic early warning” (战略侦察与战略预警, zhanlüe zhencha yu zhanlüe yujing) (p. 217-9). The section, which is presented first in the chapter, describes these operations as a “cornerstone of national security” and an “important constituent part of military struggle” consisting of intelligence collection, processing, and distribution (based on various platforms) to inform strategic decisions.

The second new section discusses “maritime maneuver operations” (海上机动作战, haishang jidong zuozhan), describing joint operations that aim to achieve control over “important sea areas” and “important maritime passages” (p. 233-4). The text does not cite specific locations but notes that one key characteristic of these operations is “a rather long distance from one’s home territory, with large difficulties in operational support,” suggesting preparing for combat-oriented operations in seas farther from China’s coasts and well-defended supply lines. The PLA Navy has been building a more capable blue-water force for years, but the emphasis on fighting jointly signals that combat operations in the “far seas” will be a team effort—and not the province of a single service.[9]

New Content on Joint Logistics and the PAP

Structural military reforms adopted under Xi influenced both the 2017 and 2020 revisions. The Joint Logistic Support Force was established in September 2016, too late to be included in the 2017 revision, and is the subject of the single new chapter in the 2020 SMS.[10] As with other chapters in the third part of the book, the chapter reviews key developments, which in the case of logistics includes precision delivery; consolidation of forces and resources and military-civilian fusion; requirements, which covers supply, medical services, transportation and military infrastructure construction; and “unmanned and intelligentized support capabilities” (无人智能化保障能力, wu ren zhineng hua baozhang nengli). It finally discusses how to improve various “systems” in the joint logistics force, including war reserves, command and control and training.

Apart from this, the most extensive changes in part three were made to Chapter 24 on the PAP. Structural reforms to the PAP came relatively late and also were not included in the 2017 revision.[11] The chapter was thoroughly revised in the 2020 SMS to account for new developments—one notable addition was a section on “maritime rights protection capabilities” (海上维权执法能力, haishang weiquan zhifa nengli) that alludes to the role of the China Coast Guard, which was subsumed under the PAP in 2018 (p. 430; War on the Rocks, April 4, 2018). The text makes the interesting point that the coast guard should have capabilities for “effectively protecting rights in the far seas and highly effectively enforcing laws in the near seas” (远海有效维权, 近海高效执法, yuanhai youxiao weiquan, jinhai gaoxiao zhifa), possibly signaling a future role for China’s coast guard beyond the first island chain. The new joint logistics and revised PAP chapters will be of interest to specialists seeking a better understanding of these evolving forces.


The 2020 SMS is not a fundamental rethinking of China’s military strategy but provides new insights in all three of its main parts. When translated and widely available, it should be the standard reference for foreign scholars looking to better understand Chinese thinking at the strategic level of warfare. It is also worth considering how the PLA will close the gap between frequently updated teaching materials on military strategy and core texts at the campaign and tactical levels that are now quite old. The Central Military Commission’s issuance of a new outline for joint operations in November 2020 (PRC Ministry of Defense, November 26, 2020), for instance, could prompt NDU to revise its Science of Campaigns (战役学, zhanyi xue), which has been an often-cited resource for PLA watchers but whose last edition dates from 2006.

The author thanks M. Taylor Fravel, Frank Hoffman, and Phillip C. Saunders for helpful comments on this piece.