Chinese and Russian militaries share a potential weakness, new US report finds

The report identifies a lack of cross-training as the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Achilles’ heel, but analysts remain wary of underestimating China’s capabilities and caution against comparisons with Russia.

The report delved into the background of the PLA’s five services — army, navy, air force, missile force and strategic support force — in the six years to 2021. service chiefs were unlikely to have operational experience in any branch other than when they started their careers.

In other words, PLA soldiers remain soldiers, sailors remain sailors, airmen remain airmen. They rarely venture outside of these silos, the report said, a stark contrast to the US military, where cross-training has been a legal requirement since 1986.

The 73-page report warned that “such rigidity … could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts,” especially conflicts requiring a high level of joint service action, and suggested that PLA forces would be mixed with the same type. The problems that have put the Russian members in doubt in Ukraine, “where the general cohesion of the forces was low”.

Since Russia began its invasion of its neighbor seven months ago, the shortcomings of Russia’s military structure have become clear to outside observers.

As Russian forces have recently lost ground to a counteroffensive in Ukraine, Moscow’s ground forces lacked air cover, analysts say. Early in the war, logistical problems played havoc with Russia’s ability to supply its own forces; it kept breaking down due to lack of maintenance.

According to Joel Wuthnow, the author of the report, senior PLA leaders may face similar problems due to a lack of cross-training.

“Operational commanders, for example, rarely have career-expanding experience in logistics, and vice versa,” said the report by Wuthnow, a senior researcher at the university’s Center for the Study of China Military Affairs.

“Operational commanders who have not been able to achieve a high level of understanding of logistics or maintenance may be able to use these forces perfectly, leading to another Russian defeat in 2022.”

A PLA Army brigade under the Eastern Theater Command, along with an army, air force and army aviation department, stage a red and blue troop battle in Zhangzhou, China, on September 2, 2022.

In the comparison of four-star commanders in 2021 — such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command or the head of the Central Military Commission or theater commands in China –. 40 US officers had joint service experience compared to 77% of their 31 Chinese counterparts, the report found.

He also noted another key difference: In the US, almost all four-star commanders had operational experience. In China, nearly half were “professional political commissars.”

Don’t underestimate the PLA

Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, said the new report “is the best assessment of where it is and where it is going that I have seen.”

But he cautioned against using it as a predictor of how the PLA might fare in a war like Ukraine, because it had many other advantages over the Russian military.

China provides better training for new recruits and no longer relies on conscription, he said, while Russia’s military “relies on seven-month conscripts for 80-85% of its personnel.”

And, unlike Russia, China has a professional officer corps, he added.

Schuster, who now teaches at Hawaii Pacific University, said China is about four to five years behind the US in terms of joint operational capabilities, but recent exercises “suggest they are catching up.”

Recent Chinese operations such as those around Taiwan were cited by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after visiting the island in early August as evidence of this.
Analysis: The 'new normal' across the Taiwan Strait as China's threat looms ever closer

“The unstated implication of the study, that the PLA may not be able to conduct effective joint operations, is wrong,” Schuster said.

Wuthnow, who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, also found demographic differences between Chinese and US leaders.

“Chinese officers were homogeneous in terms of age, education, gender and ethnicity,” the report said.

Among the four-star ranks, Chinese officers were on average older than their American counterparts (64 vs. 60) and had more years in the military (46 vs. 40).

“The US leadership was also more diverse, with two women and three African-Americans, compared to a homogenous PLA leadership (all male and 99% Han Chinese),” the report said.

And one last notable difference: 58% of US officers had served in a foreign country, while none of the Chinese officers had any overseas experience.

Newly recruited officers receive military training at Shizhong District People's Court in Zaozhuang, China, on September 3, 2022.

the xi factor

The report also noted how Chinese leader Xi Jinping has tightened the leadership of the PLA 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.

“All PLA officers are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must have enough political sense to show loyalty to Xi and his agenda,” he said, noting that Xi rotates senior officers geographically across China. one day threaten his leadership.

But he also noted that Xi has been careful to reward loyalty and patience in his senior officer corps.

“Xi Jinping has not surpassed a generation who waited for his turn to promote the knowledge of modern conflict among young Turks,” he said.

As older officers reach their grade retirement age – 68 for those on the Central Military Commission – their successors will bring more experience of the modern battlefield, including the latest technology, the report said.

But the silos, strengthened by tradition and organizational culture, will last, he said.