Leadership: Chinese Generals Get Really Real


October 27, 2015: Since 2001 China (along with South Korea and Russia) have followed the American example by building an instrumented combat training range for its ground forces. Part of this involves forming a combat unit to play the "enemy" (opposing force or OPFOR) in these battalion and brigade sized training exercises. Each country found, as did the Americans, that this OPFOR brigade or battalion becomes the most formidable combat unit in the country. That's because the OPFOR unit gets more combat practice than any other outfit.

Since 2012 China has applied the lessons learned with this type of training to make larger scale exercises more realistic. Thus China is now holding training exercises where brigades are ordered, on short notice, to move over a thousand kilometers and then deploy against a foe that they have sketchy information on. In other words, commanders and support units are being forced to improvise and show that they can perform in very realistic situations. This is expensive, and the results are sometimes embarrassing, but the Chinese are convinced, especially by the pioneering American experience in this area, that this is the way to go.

China has copied a lot of useful techniques along the way to this kind of training. In some countries, belonging to the training center OPFOR unit is a great honor and only the most competent applicants are allowed in. This is the case where the South Korean Jeongal Daedae (OPFOR battalion) is very much an elite unit and troops who want to make a career of the army, or simply have something to brag about, hustle to qualify for the unit. Even after being accepted, candidates must pass a brutal three week training/screening period. Thus the South Korean OPFOR unit is probably the most formidable of all OPFOR units, which is what members of the Jeongal Daedae like to think. China has been allowed to observe Jeongal Daedae up close and came away impressed. There is now believed to be a Chinese equivalent that uses many of the same techniques found in South Korea.  

This is all based on a breakthrough training system developed by the U.S. Army in the early 1980s. This began when the National Training Center (NTC), a 147,000 hectare (359,000 acre) facility in the Mohave Desert at Fort Irwin, California was established in 1982. There the United States Army revolutionized the training of ground combat troops with the development of MILES (laser tag) equipment for infantry and armored vehicles and the use of MILES in a large, "wired" (to record all activities), combat training area. Other countries soon realized the importance of these innovations and a few built their own NTC clones. NTC type training centers are usually built to enable a combat battalion or brigade to go through several weeks of very realistic combat exercises.

Other countries joined the NTC even earlier, Israel has been using and expanding its own NTC since the 1990s. This is their 39,000 hectare (98,000 acre) Tactical Training Center (TTC) at Ze'elim in the Negev desert. In addition to wide open areas for the training of armor, infantry, and artillery units there are several villages and urban areas wired for training troops to fight in close quarters. Israel later developed a portable version of this technology and many other innovations as well.

In 2012 China opened its own version and this was a big deal. It meant the Chinese were really serious about training their ground combat troops to the highest standards. This kind of training is serious stuff, in part because it's expensive to use an NTC. Not just the fuel and other supplies the troops will use but the expense of a staff to run the NTC and perform as OPFOR (opposing force). American intelligence officers track which units go through the Chinese NTC and mark them as likely to be much more effective in combat. Russia opened its own NTC four years ago. Most major Western military powers have also adopted the NTC approach to combat training.

Ft. Irwin itself has been expanded. Since the 1980s, the United States has established many similar training centers, all using lots of electronics to assist the trainees in having a realistic experience while also enabling them to see their mistakes and learn from them.

Israeli and American manufacturers have individually, or through collaboration, developed new features for NTC type facilities. These include portable equipment that can allow any area to be wired to provide the same effect (constant monitoring, and recording, of everything everyone does). There are also VPUs (Vehicle Player Units) that make Hummers appear as armored vehicles (tanks, infantry vehicles, or artillery) to the monitoring system and save a lot of money (by not using the real thing). There is also a system that releases different colored smoke when a vehicle is hit, indicating if it is damaged or destroyed. Helicopters and warplanes, for example, are being wired to operate as part of NTC exercises.

NTC type training is not only very close to the experience troops get in actual combat, but it also stresses commanders the same way actual combat does. This enables commanders to test themselves, and their subordinate commanders, before they get into a real fight. You can also use NTC type facilities to experiment with new tactics, in addition to keeping troops well trained in whatever the current tactics are. This includes counter-terror operations as well as the kind of novel combat tactics that might be encountered in the future. One of the critical aspects of this type of training is the playback. Instructors can edit the electronic record of who did what when and show commanders and troops where they made mistakes. This feedback makes the troops much more effective in the future.  China is using all this to train commanders who can fight battles no other Chinese commanders have had to deal with. While the basic problems of command in the battle are the same all the new technology adds elements that require realistic practice to master.





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