The Zhurihe training base, China's most premiere training site, has undergone significant infrastructure developments since the mid-to-late 2010s. Such developments include the expansion of rail depots, logistics areas, urban training areas, and construction of an energy farm. These developments and the extensive maneuver space suggest an improved ability to conduct and support realistic training exercises.
The 195th Mechanized Infantry Brigade is the permanent blue force at Zhurihe. Precedent and available information suggest that approximately 10 brigades total, spanning across China's five theater commands, could cycle through the base each year.
The infrastructure developments at the Zhurihe training center took place in five distinct areas. Over the course of a 16-month time frame, from March 9, 2020 to November 1, 2021, an energy farm was built to the north of the main base, housing for the blue force increased, a rail depot expanded significantly, an urban training center more than doubled in size, and a mock runway to the south of the training area increased in size. These observed infrastructure changes reflect the PLA's commitment to expand the size and sophistication of its premiere joint training base.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has increased its focus on joint operations since the mid-2010s. There is sufficient literature stating the PLA's desired shift to joint operations, but assessments of successful implementation are in shorter supply. This study is intended to shed light on this topic by analyzing the growth of PLA Army (PLAA) capabilities at the Zhurihe joint training center. The development of warfighting infrastructure from March 2020 to November 2021 highlights that PLAA capacity to conduct realistic training has increased. The last major imagery-based report on Zhurihe analyzed construction activity up to April 2020. Our analysis shows increased and continued construction well toward the end of November 2021.
The fact that the PLA has shifted focus to joint operations is relatively clear from literature reviews, but evidence of this shift in practice is more scarce. The U.S.'s Infantry Magazine reports that over the last decade the PLAA has started transitioning its main fighting force into high-mobility (HIMOB) combined-arms (CA) battalions. This new construct, which is intended to replace older, heavy-mechanized units, can enable more streamlined tactical and operational decisions on the battlefield for PLAA forces. However, the PLAA lacks combat experience despite its force modernization. Since its modernization process began in the early 2010s, the PLAA has not tested its new capabilities in armed conflict. Thus, training evaluations serve as a proxy to measure impact.
Infrastructure Developments at Zhurihe: The PLA has increased emphasis on joint operational training centers hosting realistic exercises. The Zhurihe base, located in Inner Mongolia, is China's primary joint training center. A permanent opposing force (OPFOR), or “blue force,” is stationed at Zhurihe. Other PLAA units cycle through the base, serving as the “red force” that attempts to defeat the permanently stationed blue force. The ability to sustain increased red force elements at the training center indicates that the PLAA is able to hone its skills when it comes to the new HIMOB CA concept. This concept is centered on the idea that HIMOB CA battalions are light and have streamlined command and control. Having an increased number of red force soldiers at the base during each training cycle helps the PLAA refine its command and control of these units.
Methods: Infrastructure development at the Zhurihe training center is an indication of an enhanced ability to conduct realistic joint training. The ability to house a larger number of blue forces permanently stationed at the base suggests an ability to house more red forces that are rotating through the base to conduct training. The focus of our analysis is on the infrastructure development at the base between March 2020 to November 2021. This timeframe is recent enough to determine whether the ability to house blue force units is currently increasing, and thus whether a corresponding ability to house red forces for training is also increasing. Imagery analysis from March 2020 (shown in Figure 1) to November 2021 (shown in Figure 2) shows infrastructure expansion in several areas. One assumption employed in this methodology is that housing developments for the resident blue force would correspond to an increased capability to house red forces for training exercises.
Results: Infrastructure added from March 2020 to November 2021 includes features like railways, ammo depots, helicopter landing zones, and an energy farm. The imagery analysis from March 2020 to November 2021 shows infrastructure expansion for the resident blue force, thus an assumption can be made in favor of enhanced ability to house an increased number of red forces as well. An overarching view of key areas of change between March 2020 and November 2021 is provided in Figure 3.
The type of training that the PLAA seeks to employ through its new HIMOB CA structure requires the use of streamlined communications systems for command and control, along with light-to-medium fighting vehicles. The added infrastructure in the specified time window is consistent with this fighting style that the PLAA seeks to train for and employ. The PLAA has also committed to making the training center more independent and resilient. For example, Figure 4 shows the development of solar and wind farms that can be used to power communications equipment. The shift to renewable energy, as shown by the solar farm, and the new wind farm further to the north, demonstrates the PLAA's commitment to this goal.
Another key area of change is the increase in ammo storage facilities. Figure 5 shows an ammo depot to the northwest of the main training center. The new developments surround the preexisting, smaller depot from the March 2020 image.
A major area of interest was the development of blue force housing facilities in the central training area. Figure 6 shows specific buildings that were added to our timeline of interest. Increased numbers of blue forces at the base suggest a correlation with an increased number of red forces that can cycle through and conduct realistic training exercises.
The expansion of railroad facilities also took place between March 2020 and November 2021, as shown in Figure 7. The expansion of the rail system into the Zhurihe training center is vital for bringing units in for training.
Finally, Figure 8 shows the development of an urban training area. Given its size, the expansion of the urban training center is an important piece in the shift to joint operations by the PLAA. The urban areas show the willingness to train in new environments which challenge the older, division-sized and heavier training concepts taught by the PLAA.
Conclusions: An estimate of the PLA's joint operational capability through this training center impact study sheds light on the likelihood of China's success in a military conflict. Existing open-source literature makes it clear that the PLA has been modernizing its fighting style and structure since the mid-2010s. That modernization is centered around the concept of the HIMOB CA battalion, which uses streamlined communications capabilities and light-to-medium fighting vehicles. In this study, efforts were made to estimate the progress of PLAA modernization using imagery analysis of the PLA's largest joint training center. Imagery analysis of the base from March 2020 to November 2021 shows several infrastructure developments which make clear that the permanently resident blue force is increasing its operational capacity, which implies that the rotating red forces are increasing their capabilities, as well. The type of infrastructure added to the base helps to achieve the more modernized, streamlined fighting style the PLAA seeks to employ through its HIMOB CA battalion concept. This is an important takeaway for U.S. military commanders. In the case of the PLAA, imagery analysis supplements literature reviews that report the continual refinement of Chinese joint forces at training centers like Zhurihe.
Nov. 1, 2021
Infrastructure Expansion at Zhurihe Training Center
By November 1, 2021, the PLA made five significant changes to the infrastructure in and around the Zhurihe training center.
These changes included constructing a new solar and wind farm to the north, tripling the size of the ammunition depot, expanding the blue force housing, adding three rail lines to the rail depot, and almost doubling the size of the urban training center. All of these developments to the infrastructure at Zhurihe reflect the commitment of the PLA to conduct realistic training.
copyright Maxar 2021
Zhurihe Training Center Prior to Infrastructure Expansion
On March 9, 2020, the Zhurihe training center was already the largest training center for the PLA.
Over the course of 16 months from March 2020, they continued to expand and enhance the infrastructure required to conduct realistic training.
copyright Maxar 2020
Continued analysis of the Zhurihe Training Base is vital in assessing the operational goals and capacity of the PLA. Monitoring the activity at Zhurihe will help inform decision-makers and improve overall DoD threat-casting abilities.
Things To Watch
Does imagery of the three other PLA joint bases follow this trend of improved infrastructure?
How does the geospatial assessment of Zhurihe compare to an assessment of the National Training Center?