China’s military leaders share a potential weakness that has undermined their Russian counterparts in Ukraine and could hamper their ability to wage a similar war, according to a new report from the US National Defense University.
The report identifies a lack of cross-training as a possible Achilles heel in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but analysts are wary of underestimating China’s capabilities and caution against making comparisons with Russia.
The report investigated the background of more than 300 top PLA officers across its five branches – army, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force – in the six years leading up to 2021.
It found that, in each of the branches, the leaders only had operational experience in the branch in which they started their careers.
In other words, PLA soldiers remain soldiers, sailors remain sailors, airmen remain airmen. They rarely venture outside these silos, the report says, noting a sharp contrast to the US military, where cross-training has been a legal requirement since 1986.
The 73-page report reveals that this “rigidity could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts”, particularly in conflicts that require joint action, and suggests that PLA forces would be hit by the same kind of problems that have plagued their Russian counterparts. in Ukraine, “where the overall cohesion of forces has been reduced”.
Chinese army and naval units conduct a live fire exercise in Zhangzhou City, China, Aug 24, 2022.
Since the start of the Russian invasion of its neighbor seven months ago, gaps in the Russian military structure have become evident to outside observers.
In the recent defeat of Russian forces due to a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Moscow’s ground forces had no air cover, analysts say, but early in the war logistical problems took a toll on Russia’s ability to resupply its forces – its trucks did not they had tires suitable for the terrain and they broke down due to lack of maintenance.
According to the report’s author, Joel Wuthnow, senior PLA leaders may face similar problems due to their lack of training.
“Operational commanders, for example, rarely have experience in logistics,” says the report by Wuthnow, a senior researcher at the University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.
“Operational commanders who have never needed to gain a high level of knowledge of logistics or maintenance may not use these forces to the best of their ability, paralleling another Russian failure in 2022.”
A PLA Army brigade under the Eastern Theater Command, along with an army navy, air force, and aviation department, organize a combat exercise in Zhangzhou, China, Sep 2, 2022.
In a comparison with four-star commanders in 2021 — such as the chairman of the general staff or the Chief of the Indo-Pacific Command of the United States or leaders of the Central Military Commission or theater commands in China — all 40 U.S. officers had experience of joint service compared to 77% of its 31 Chinese counterparts, the report found.
He also noted another key difference: in the US, nearly all four-star commanders had operational experience. In China, nearly half were “professional political commissars.”
Don’t underestimate the ELP
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, said the new report “is the best assessment of China’s current situation.”
But he cautioned against using it as a prediction of how the PLA might fare in a Ukraine-like war, as it had many other advantages over the Russian military.
China better trains new recruits and is no longer dependent on conscripts, he said, while the Russian army “relies on seven-month recruits for 80-85% of its enlisted personnel.”
And unlike Russia, China has a professional corps of sergeants and corporals, he added.
Schuster, who now teaches at Hawaii Pacific University, estimated that China is about four or five years behind the US in terms of joint operations capability, but warned that recent exercises “suggest they are catching up.”
He cited recent Chinese operations such as those in Taiwan, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in early August, as proof of that.
“The unspoken implication of the study that the PLA may not be able to carry out effective joint operations is misplaced,” Schuster said.
The report by Wuthnow, who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, also found demographic differences between Chinese and American leaders.
“Senior (Chinese) officers were homogeneous in terms of age, education, gender and ethnicity,” the report said.
As for four-star officers, Chinese officers were older, on average, than their American counterparts (64 vs. 60) and had more years in the army (46 vs. 40).
“The US leadership was also more diverse, with two women and three African Americans, compared to a homogeneous PLA leadership (all male and 99% Han Chinese),” the report says.
And one final difference: 58% of American officers served in a foreign country, while none of the Chinese officers had experience abroad.
The Xi factor
The report also noted that Chinese leader Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on the PLA leadership since taking control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013.
Through his role as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xi has been personally involved in the selection of senior officers, the report said.
“All PLA officials are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must possess sufficient political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his agenda,” the report said, noting that Xi deploys top officials across China to prevent them from developing ” of support” that could one day threaten its leadership.
But he also noted that Xi has been careful to reward senior officers’ loyalty and patience.
As senior officers reach the retirement age according to their rank – with 68 years for those in the Central Military Commission – their successors will bring more experience to the modern battlefield, including the latest technologies, the report says. .
But the silos, reinforced by tradition and organizational culture, are expected to remain, the report said.