China and Russia Demonstrate Unprecedented Interoperability With First Ever Joint Command & Control System in Zapad 2021 Drills

China and Russia demonstrated unprecedented levels of interoperability in the five-day Zapad 2021 military exercises, which concluded on August 13 and for the first time saw forces from both countries used a joint command and control system. During the exercises, Russian troops were integrated into larger Chinese formations and carried out operations planned by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). 

Russian units also for the first time used armored assault vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and other significant battle equipment provided by the PLA. 

The forces involved came from both the PLA’s Western Theatre Command and Russia’s Eastern Military District, with 10,000 personal taking part in the exercises. 

The two sides demonstrated unprecedented levels of coherence, with an associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Artyom Lukin, observing regarding their purpose: “it is getting clear that Russia-China military drills are not just symbolic shows of camaraderie, but are increasingly aimed at enhancing battlefield interoperability.” The ability of the two militaries to work together has improved considerably since their first joint exercises in 2005. 

Interoperability is key to allowing two militaries to operate effectively together against a common adversary, with the Western Bloc led by the United States and likely aided by Japan thought to be the primary threat perceived by Beijing and Moscow.

 Lack of interoperability has been a key challenge facing Western adversaries, many of whom are ideologically at odds and use hardware that was not developed with joint operations in mind. This has improved significantly with Russia, North Korea, Iran, and the Iranian and Korean-backed militia Hezbollah all fighting on the same battlefields in Syria in support of Damascus and against NATO-backed militants, giving Russia significant experience in coalition warfare. Russia has also frequently conducted joint exercises with Soviet successor states, and in particular with Belarus, with levels of interoperability thought to rival NATO. 

China’s lack of experience in the field, however, can potentially be largely overcome by drills emphasizing joint operations with Russian and other non-Western forces. The importance of Zapad 2021 for China was signified by the PLA’s deployment of its J-20 stealth fighters to the exercises, which marked the first time these elite high-performance jets were known to have operated alongside foreign forces. 

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