The report identifies a lack of cross-training as a potential Achilles heel within the People’s Liberation Army, but analysts remain wary of underestimating China’s capabilities and caution against comparisons with Russia.
The report looked at the backgrounds of more than 300 PLA senior officers across its five services—army, navy, air force, missile force, and strategic support force—in the six years leading up to 2021. It found that in each service commanders were unlikely to have operational experience in any A branch other than the one in which they started their career.
In other words, PLA soldiers remain soldiers, sailors remain sailors, and pilots remain pilots. They rarely venture outside those silos, the report said, pointing to a sharp contrast to the US military, where cross-training has been a legal requirement since 1986.
The 73-page report went on to say that this “solidity … could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts,” particularly in conflicts that require high levels of joint service action, and notes that PLA forces will be bogged down by the same type Of the problems that bothered their Russian counterparts in Ukraine, “where the general cohesion of the troops was low.”
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of its neighbor seven months ago, the shortcomings of the Russian military structure have become apparent to outside observers.
According to report author Joel Wuthno, senior PLA commanders may face similar problems due to their lack of cross-training.
“Operational leaders, for example, rarely have experience expanding a career path in logistics, and vice versa,” said Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the university’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.
“Operational commanders who have never needed to gain a high level of understanding of logistics or maintenance may fail to make optimal use of these forces, paralleling another Russian failure in 2022.”
Comparing four-star commanders in 2021 — such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, the leaders of the Central Military Commission, or theater commands in China – all of the 40 US officers have experience in joint service, the report found. Compared to 77% of their 31 Chinese counterparts.
He also noted another key difference: In the United States, nearly all four-star leaders had work experience. In China, nearly half of them were “professional political commissars”.
Don’t underestimate the People’s Liberation Army
The new report “is the best assessment I’ve seen of what China is up to and what’s going,” said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.
But he cautioned against using it as a predictor of how the PLA would conduct a Ukraine-like war as it has many other advantages over the Russian military.
He said China provides better training for new recruits and no longer depends on conscripts, while the Russian military “relies on conscripts for seven months for 80-85% of conscripts.”
He added that unlike Russia, China has professional non-commissioned officers.
Schuster, who now teaches at Hawaii Pacific University, estimated that China is about four or five years behind the United States in terms of joint operations capabilities – but cautioned that recent exercises “indicate that they are catching up.”
“The study’s unspoken suggestion that the PLA may be unable to conduct effective joint operations is misplaced,” Schuster said.
The report by Wuthnow, who is also an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington, also found demographic differences between Chinese and American leaders.
The report stated that “the (Chinese) senior officers were homogeneous in terms of age, education, gender and ethnicity.”
Among the four-star ranks, Chinese officers were, on average, older than their American counterparts (64 versus 60) and had more years in the military (46 versus 40).
The report stated that “the US leadership was also more diverse, with two women and three African Americans, compared to a homogeneous leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (all men and 99% Han Chinese)”.
And there is one last stark difference: 58% of American officers served in a foreign country while none of the Chinese officers had experience abroad.
The report also noted how Chinese leader Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army since taking control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013.
She added that in his role as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xi personally participated in the selection of senior officers.
“All PLA officers are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must have enough political acumen to show loyalty to Xi and his agenda,” the statement said, noting that Xi is rotating between senior officers geographically within China to prevent them from developing “nepotism networks” that He might one day threaten his leadership.
But it also indicated that Xi was eager to reward loyalty and patience in the senior officer corps.
“Xi Jinping has not bypassed a generation of people who have waited their turn to promote young Turks more familiar with modern conflict,” the statement said.
As these older officers reach retirement age from their ranks — 68 for those in the CMC — their successors will bring more experience to the modern battlefield, including the latest technology, the report said.
But the silos, reinforced by tradition and organizational culture, are expected to remain.