Peace Mission 2009 ran from July 22 to 26 in Jilin, China. The five-day counterterrorist exercise consisted mainly of Chinese and Russian troops, though other SCO members sent small force contingents. The scenario involved terrorists trying to establish an independent regime at “Kunshan Township.” In doing so, they took hostages and went around the town looting and killing. More than 100 tanks and 60 aircraft were involved in the final phase of the exercise, attacking the terrorist headquarters and communication centers. An organized threat with headquarters and communication centers seems hard to imagine given the level of organization thus far evidenced by the acts of terror (as claimed by Chinese official media) in Xinjiang over the past several years.
Peace Mission 2010 was a joint antiterrorist simulation conducted in Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl region in September against a terrorist group in an urban setting. A total of 5,000 troops took part, dispatched from Kazakhstan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. Assets involved included more than 1,600 armed vehicles, 100 artillery pieces, and 50 combat aircraft and helicopters. Peace Mission 2010 was unique in its focus on interoperability among participating units and more realistic conditions. The final phase occurred on September 24 when combined SCO member forces launched their assault on 1,500 “insurgents” with defense ministers of SCO member states observing. While Peace Mission 2010 was not the largest SCO antiterrorism exercise, it was the largest Sino-Russian joint exercise conducted outside either country up to that time.
The SCO staged Peace Mission 2012 from June 8-14, 2012 in northern Tajikistan. This mission continued the trend away from large-scale exercises toward a smaller model more suitable for antiterrorist activities. China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan contributed military and security forces to the drill. There was an emphasis on heavy ground forces, such as army aviation, armor and artillery units. Uzbekistan again refused to join. Some speculate the refusal was not merely the usual objection to the exercise design, but also economic and political disputes with Tajikistan. Tashkent also refused to allow Kazakhstan to send troops through Uzbek territory to reach Tajikistan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The official goal of Peace Mission 2012 was, according to the PLA Daily, the “preparation and implementation of joint anti-terror operations under mountainous terrain conditions.” Mountainous terrain is characteristic in both Xinjiang and Tibet. This was the smallest Peace Mission in the series, comprising only 2,000 personnel – with the PLA contributing 369 and Russia 350 personnel. The PLA ground forces traveled overland from Atushi through Kyrgyzstan while a PLA aviation group flew from Kashi in Xinjiang.
Russia hosted Peace Mission 2013 at the Chebarkul military training area in the Ural mountains. The joint military exercise lasted from July 27 to August 15 and only included Chinese and Russian forces. The non-attendance of other SCO members has not occurred since Peace Mission 2005. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan conducted their own joint military exercise in Kazakhstan earlier this summer, with China, Russia and Uzbekistan sending observers. Peace Mission 2013 occurred in the wake of the largest Sino-Russian joint military exercise in their bilateral history, which was primarily a navy exercise and took place outside the SCO framework. Peace Mission 2013 involved 1,500 personnel, 600 of whom were Chinese. The Chinese forces had to travel over 4,000 kilometers, with troops and armored vehicles transported by railway and aircraft making a number of refueling landings. Accompanying Chinese troops were tanks, light reconnaissance vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, self-propelled guns, JH-7A “Flying Leopard” fighter-bombers, gunships and Mi-171 transport helicopters. The official scenario, as expected, was an antiterrorist scenario.
Counterterrorism or Benefits for PLA Conventional War-Fighting?
The SCO antiterrorism exercises are invaluable avenues for the PLA to learn from Russian experience with counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in Chechnya and with limited war in Georgia. But this seems to be a secondary purpose behind the Peace Missions. The Peace Missions are marked by artillery fire, large assaults, air power and heavy equipment. Using such tactics in the episodes of unrest seen in Xinjiang would result in high collateral damage and be completely disproportionate relative to the small numbers of Uyghur “terrorists” involved in past attacks. Rather, the Peace Missions offer the PLA opportunities to improve the proficiency of its forces in a variety of conventional tactical maneuvers, to conduct military diplomacy, and to publicly demonstrate its capabilities.