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Russian military personnel conduct training for the joint drill last week. The five-day exercise began in China’s Ningxia Hui region on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

China-Russia military exercise tests PLA weapons, troop modernisation

  • Zapad/Interaction 2021 drill in the Gobi Desert will include new combat tactics and latest aircraft, drones and armoured vehicles
  • Chinese analyst says one aim of the war games is to deter extremist and terrorist forces in Central Asia
This week’s Sino-Russian joint military exercise in northwest China is putting the PLA’s latest combat tactics to the test as well as many of its newest weapons, which are being used by the Russians for the first time.
More than 10,000 troops have been deployed to the Ningxia Hui autonomous region for the five-day exercise, which started on Monday.

Liu Xiaowu, commander-in-chief of the Chinese troops, told state broadcaster CCTV on Monday that the exercise would include innovative combat tactics like emergency troop and heavy weapon drops, long-range strikes by J-16 fighter bombers, and the use of drones.

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Liu, who is also deputy commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command, said 81 per cent of weapons being used in the drill were “brand new”.

“That includes the J-20 [stealth fighter jet], KJ-500 [airborne early-warning and control aircraft] and J-16, while surveillance and combat drones and new armoured vehicles will also [be involved],” he said.

Liu said the war games would include some 200 aircraft sorties, and there were 200 armoured vehicles and 100 artillery launch systems involved.

The joint Zapad/Interaction 2021 drill is being staged in the Gobi Desert at the Qingtongxia Joint Tactical Training Base in Ningxia. It is the first Zapad/Interaction and the first joint military operation China has hosted since the pandemic began.

“For the Russian military, it’s also their first time to use so many new Chinese weapons in a large-scale exercise. That will definitely help improve their joint operations and real combat capabilities with their PLA counterparts,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing.

“The high-profile deployment of new-generation J-20 and Y-20 aircraft and other sophisticated weapons, and the scale of the joint exercise, also aims to deter extremist and terrorist forces in Central Asia,” Zhou said. “It’s a warning not to cross Chinese borders.”

Han Lin, a senior officer with the joint staff department of the Central Military Commission, also told CCTV that the PLA and Russian military would test out new combat tactics and weapons in the drill, including saturated firepower attacks, and surprise airborne and swarming drone assaults.

Precision strikes would not only focus on weapons but, using digital technology, would also cover a single “pawn’s” operation in ground force combat, commander-in-chief Liu said.

“[We] have created a joint counterterrorism mechanism covering four networks: battlefield information, intelligence, commanding and logistics, that will bring every aircraft, cannon, armoured vehicle and even single pawns together,” Liu said.

Given that the Russian military had more real combat experience than the PLA, Chinese troop training and modernisation over recent decades would be tested by new combat concepts in counterterrorism, said Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.

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“A system to link up command, battlefield information, intelligence and logistics was inspired by vertical command in modern combat concepts in the United States and other Western countries,” Lu said, adding that Russia’s military was the only global power willing to take part in joint exercises and training with the PLA.

Lu said the drill with the Russian military would aid the PLA to develop its own training, including potentially for the Blue Army units at the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base in Inner Mongolia.

The Blue Army, which has specifically learned from the US military, aims to get its soldiers used to fighting more skilful and better equipped foes. PLA troops from the country’s five theatre commands have taken turns to fight with hypothetical rivals in regular training with the Blue Army.