2014-10-08 By Richard Weitz
From August 24-29, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held “Peace Mission 2014” at China’s Zhurihe Training Base, in Inner Mongolia in North China.
This is China’s base for engaging in large-scale exercises with foreign armies on its soil.
Peace Mission 2014 was the largest military exercise conducted by the SCO, with five of the six member countries participating (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan but not Uzbekistan).
The drills saw tanks, warplanes, and precision missions being used against a terrorist group that had thousands of fighters as well as its own light aircraft and ground equipment. The SCO forces used drones, airborne early warning aircraft, air-defense missiles, tanks, armored vehicles, ground and air forces, and special operations units.
A total of about 70 aircraft were dispatched for the drill, including fighter planes, early warning aircraft, and armed helicopters and drones.
In justifying the exercises, Chinese writers pointed to the growing threat that terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries would spill-over into Central Asia and argued that “joint military drills and other moves taken by SCO members for defense and security cooperation will send a strong deterrent signal to the ‘three forces’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism in the region.”
Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said that, “The success of the joint drill demonstrated…their resolution to fight against the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”
The combined forces also displayed new skills.
The drill consisted of ground and aerial reconnaissance, joint precision strikes, integrated air-ground assaults on fortified position, joint hostage rescue and urban assault missions, and extensive information-sharing.
According to Liu Zhenli, Commander of China’s 38th Army, “The level of collaboration this time is much higher than in previous joint military exercises. We have established a joint commanding center, and another affiliated commanding center for five armies and air forces. An information sharing mechanism has also be set up among five parties for reconnaissance. Joint actions have also been carried out, especially in terms of hostage rescue.”
The exercise scenario involved an international terrorist organization supporting a separatist movement in a country and, engaging in terrorist attacks, and plotting coups and regime change.
More specifically, the scenario hypothesized that a city in an unnamed Eurasian country (implicitly a SCO member) becomes a hub of political instability and terrorist activity, and its government calls on the SCO to intervene to resolve the issues.
The fictitious separatist organization has more than 2,000 fighters armed with tanks, missiles and even light aircraft.
The exercise’s three phases included troop deployments, battle planning, and simulated combat.
Before the live drills, the multinational forces moved to the Zhurihe base, conducted some planning meetings, and held an opening ceremony in which the deputy chiefs of the general staff from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and deputy commander of Russia’s eastern military command participated. The first stage of the exercise involved the SCO forces using electronic warfare measures against the adversary’s communication systems.
Then Russian and Chinese planes, helicopters, and drones carried out air strikes against the “terrorists.” The SCO forces then employed high-precision artillery attacks that destroyed the terrorists’ command centers.
Finally, SCO ground forces with combined air support liberated the terrorist-occupied zones and freed their hostages.
China provided the most troops by far, around 5,000 personnel and 440 combat systems from the 38th Combined Corps and the air force under the PLA’s Beijing Military Area Command (MAC) as well as forces directly under the PLA general headquarters/departments, including aerospace reconnaissance, mapping, hydro-meteorological and mobile logistics support detachments providing “strategic and operational support.”
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) CH-4 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) made its first appearance at a SCO drill.
The CH-4 (Cai Hong 4 or Rainbow 4), which resembles the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, shot several targets during the live fire drills.
One PLA official said that the drones’ ability to monitor, identify and destroy ground targets in real time made it an important tool in fighting terrorists. PRC authorities claim that Uighur insurgents fighting Beijing’s rule in the vast northwestern region of Xinjiang have used illicit border crossings and desert encampments that could be monitored by air. Chinese aerospace firms have developed dozens of drones and the PLA is eager to take advantage of these unmanned systems.
The Chinese also contributed some of their most sophisticated manned aircraft such as the J-10 and J-11 fighter jets, its JH-7 fighter bombers, and its KJ-2000 airborne early warning and control aircraft.
Also debuting in the SCO exercises were the WZ-10 and WZ-19 attack helicopters used by the PLAAF and the Ground Force Air Force.
The larger Z-10 “Fierce Thunderbolt” is designed primarily for anti-tank missions but has some air-to-air capability; the smaller Z-19 “Black Whirlwind” is an upgraded version of the Z-9 attack helicopter, which is also manufactured by the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group. During the drills, the helicopters practiced reconnaissance and rocket barrages.
In addition, three IL-76 transport aircraft from an aviation regiment of the Guangzhou MAC air dropped people and equipment during the drills. The PLA Army’s most modern Main Battle Tank, the Type 99, a variant of the former Soviet T-72, also took part in the exercises.
Almost 1,000 Russian troops participated in Peace Mission 2014, travelling by rail from Russia’s Eastern Military District.
The main units were the 36th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade and an aviation group from the 3rd Air Force and Air Defense Command. Russia also contributed 60 armored vehicles, including 40 BMP-2 infantry combat vehicles capable of operating under water, 13 T-72 main battle tanks, more than 20 missile and artillery systems (including the SAU 2S3M self-propelled guns and BM-21 multiple-launch rocket systems), more than 60 other military vehicles, eight Mi-8 AMTSh helicopter gunships, four Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes, and two IL-76 military transport planes.
The Russian media reported that the artillery systems used Krasnopol semi-automatic laser-guided explosive projectiles during their drills.
Unlike in Peace Mission 2013, the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan each sent hundreds of elite soldiers.
Kyrgyzstan deployed about 500 members of its special forces units along with a few dozen combat vehicles including eight tanks. On this occasion, Kazakhstan, which often sends the largest Central Asian contingent, provided only about 300 elite airborne troops.
Furthermore, some 200 rapid reaction troops came from Tajikistan. Although Uzbekistan is an SCO member, the country normally does not send troops to participate in its exercises. The observers included representatives from the SCO Secretariat, the SCO regional anti-terrorism organizations, the five SCO observer states, the three dialogue partners and military attaches from more than 60 countries.
The day before the exercise ended, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the SCO chiefs of staff, then meeting in Beijing, and praised the exercises for “having made positive contributions to regional security and stability.”
In addition to China’s large troop contribution, Wang Ning, chief director of the Joint Directing Department of the exercise and deputy chief of general staff of the PLA, boasted at the start of the drills that the SCO “exercise will be conducted in China throughout the process for the first time” and occur simultaneously with a meeting of the PLA chiefs of general staff and a military music festival.
The Russia-China defense partnership looks likely to continue for at least the next few years.
The new Chinese leadership seems eager to cultivate defense ties with Russia. During Xi’s March 2013 Moscow visit, when he became the first Chinese president to visit the Russian Armed Forces Operational Command Center, Xi said that, “My visit to the Russian Defense Ministry is intended to confirm that military, political and strategic relations between the two countries will strengthen as will cooperation between the Armed Forces of China and Russia.”
At the time, PRC Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan told his Russian counterpart, General Sergei Shoigu, that “China is ready to work with Russia to tap that potential and expand the scope of bilateral defense co-operation, so as to lift it to a new level.”
At the beginning of Peace Mission 2014, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia, said that, “Russia is ready to make joint efforts with China to lift the relationship to a new high.”
After the drills, Liu Zhenli, Commander of China’s 38th Army, said that further SCO military cooperation should seek an expanded “exchange of ideas on tactical thoughts, joint command, and fighting methods of anti-terror operations.”
NATO’s decision to suspend military cooperation and contacts with Russia following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea is leading Moscow to place more emphasis on strengthening security cooperation with Beijing.
Editor’s Note: China’s support for Russian actions in Ukraine are also important in shaping a venue for increased cooperation. And the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan leaves in play the future of the Central Asian states and their security approaches as well.