Lu Donghua carefully lifted the QW-2 antiaircraft missile launcher to his shoulder, drew a breath, and then pulled the trigger. Within seconds, he was watching his target "blossom like a flower" in the sky.
"Just imagine if that target was an attack helicopter sent by the enemy in a real battle," the 26-year-old private with the People's Liberation Army Ground Force said shortly after jumping down from atop a 92A infantry fighting vehicle.
The target was in fact a large circular board about 1.5 kilometers away in the Gobi Desert that had been raised 13 meters above the ground to simulate a helicopter strike.
Four days earlier, on Aug 1, Lu had also shredded a moving target in an antimissile exercise to begin his air-defense unit's campaign at the International Army Games 2017 in Korla, a city in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
The games, known as the Military Olympics, were initiated by Russia in 2014. This year, for the first time, China hosted four sections: Suvorov Attack, Clear Sky, Safe Environment and Gunsmith Master.
Militaries from 10 countries competed under the blazing desert sun from July 31 until Saturday. According to the official results released over the weekend, teams from the PLA Ground Force won 11 contests over the four sections.
Colonel Tan Yingshuai, a spokesman for the PLA Ground Force, said he believes any military that can claim victory in the International Army Games is also likely to succeed on a real battlefield.
Like many soldiers who took part, Lu put the success down to China's unprecedented military reform, which has focused largely on improving combat training for the armed forces.
The Central Military Commission unveiled an overall reform plan in July 2015, which was quickly followed by a decision to cut 300,000 troops as well as revamp the command system. The commission, headed by President Xi Jinping, pledged to establish a leaner and more efficient chain of command, reduce the number of noncombatant personnel and departments, and build the PLA into a mighty force capable of winning a modern war.
While the Ground Force may face the hardest task in meeting the troop reduction target, the reform is a historic opportunity, according to Major General Zhang Mingcai, deputy chief of staff for the Ground Force.
"The reform has forced us to be reborn and pushed forward the restructuring process," said Zhang, who was on the judging panel in Korla. "It has greatly helped optimize troop structure and improve weaponry development. Plus, actual combat training has been significantly boosted."
Lu said he has seen obvious changes in training since the reform began. "We now focus on taking down moving targets with live ammunition instead of practicing on fixed targets, as it's a vital skill in actual combat," the gunner said.
Senior Colonel Yang Yong, the Chinese team leader for the Clear Sky event, which tested a military's air defenses, said the window for destroying an airborne missile－or "making it blossom", as gunners say－is between four and six seconds.
"Tough, strict and realistic combat training is the key to winning battles," he said, adding that during air-defense events, teams had to move quickly after firing at each target, which is necessary in a real combat situation to avoid being spotted by the enemy.
No room for error
The Suvorov Attack relay race, one of the most popular events, requires crews to drive infantry fighting vehicles, or IFVs, through obstacle courses featuring mines, fires, waterfilled ditches and antitank trenches, to test their maneuvering skills.
Team members also need to take part in three shooting sessions, which involve quickly loading ammunition onto their vehicles. In this area, the Chinese military greatly impressed their foreign competitors.
"Our routine combat training requires us to be accurate and fast. We just did what we normally do in training," said Private Wang Kunlong, 30, commander of a Chinese-made 86A IFV crew.
The Russian team used its domestically built BMP-2 for the contest, which is seen as superior to China's 86A. "But we made up for it with our driving and shooting skills," said Wang, who has been training with driver Lu Bo and gunner Bao Hongjun for two years. "We're a team, so we can have tacit cooperation in any situation," he added.
Despite the fact it weighs 13.6 metric tons, Lu Bo steered the crew's 86A through the obstacle course like it was a family car cruising on a city street. This, he said, is due to the fact he treats the vehicle like his baby.
An obsessive grease monkey, the 29-year-old said he learned about the importance of keeping a vehicle in top condition the hard way in the 2015 International Army Games, when his IFV almost hit a concrete block after the engine suddenly stalled because it had not been maintained properly.
"There's no room for errors like that in actual combat," said Lu Bo, who was named best driver in the Suvorov Attack section this year.
Major General Xu Youze, who headed the judging panel for the Suvorov Attack section, added: "The Ground Force encourages soldiers to be creative and find the combat methods that suit them best. If two IFVs meet in actual combat, only the one that can launch an attack first will survive. So being the fastest is what we train for."
Speed is also critical in the Gunsmith Master section, which tests a military's ability in installing and repairing various weapons in battlefield conditions.
Maintenance is key to winning battles, according to Tian Fuping, deputy chief of staff for the Xinjiang Military Region. He added, "Our combat training in recent years has not only required our maintenance crews to be gunsmith masters, but also to be fighters first."
And it wasn't just the soldiers who were put through their paces in Korla－China's weaponry was also put to the test. Except for the BMP-2 IFV, all the hardware used in the competition was provided by China.
"The competition saw the weaponry used in extreme conditions. We will collect data on any problems and pass it on to manufacturers to further develop Chinese weaponry," Major General Zhang said.
After completing their final Clear Sky mission on Wednesday, Lu Donghua and his team highlighted another important skill for soldiers: endurance. Once back at base, all three got out of their IFV and instantly began to vomit.
"The temperature in the vehicle was over 50 C, so it was really uncomfortable. We just had to deal with it because there is no comfort in combat," Lu Donghua added.
‘Exorcists' protect against hidden dangers
Unlike most soldiers, Zhang Lidong is trained to fight an invisible enemy.
"Our job is to remove the demon that normal people cannot see," the 25-year-old private said of his unit, which is trained to deal with chemical, biological and nuclear threats that could cause mass casualties. "That's why we call ourselves 'The Exorcists'," he added.
Zhang, whose antichemical warfare regiment is based in Beijing, commanded the two Chinese crews that competed in this month's International Army Games in the desert near Korla, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
His team took part in the Safe Environment event between Aug 2 and 8, which saw each three-member crew drive a Chinese-made Warrior military SUV through an obstacle course while carrying out set tasks, including shooting targets, identifying toxic substances and detecting radioactive sources. All the soldiers wore protective gear and gas masks.
"We always train in the gear, so it isn't a burden in actual combat," Zhang said, although he conceded that the simulated scenarios were still very different to the real thing.
Zhang took part in the same event at the 2015 International Army Games in Russia. When he returned to China on Aug 13, he was sent directly to Tianjin, which had just been rocked by a massive blast caused by hazardous materials stored in a warehouse.
The late-night explosion started a blaze that burned for days, with eight secondary blasts reported on Aug 15. The final death toll was 173, according to official data.
"Although we carried out the same procedure (as at the army games) to identify chemicals at the scene in Tianjin, I was shocked by what I saw," Zhang recalled. "Everything was gray and lifeless. We also had the task of searching for bodies."
Colonel Ma Guojie, commander of the anti-chemical warfare regiment, said to ensure his soldiers are combat-ready, they are trained in units rather than as individuals.
"They need to be a strong fighting force first and foremost. Our goal is to create an anti-chemical warfare force that has outstanding technical and military skills," he said.
China established a new anti-chemical warfare regiment in Xinjiang this year.
Specialist soldiers need to be accurate when identifying dangers "because we don't get a second chance", said Private Gao Pan, 24, the driver on Zhang's team. He said crews also need to constantly upgrade their knowledge on toxic substances and antidotes to cope with the ever-changing combat environments.
"There is no time to think about death during a mission. We're always laser-focused on the procedure," Gao said.
Guo Zaizhu and Rao Jun contributed to this story.