Chinese and Russian armies share potential weakness, says new US report

Seoul, South Korea

Chinese military leaders share a potential weakness that has undermined their Russian counterparts in Ukraine and could hamper their ability to fight 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 within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), but analysts remain cautious about underestimating China’s capabilities and warn against comparisons with Russia.

The report looked at the backgrounds of more than 300 of the PLA’s top officers across its five services – army, navy, air force, rocket force and strategic support force – over the past six years. 2021. He found that in every department heads were unlikely to have operational experience in a branch other than the one in which they started their career.

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

The 73-page report goes on to say that this “rigidity…could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts,” particularly in conflicts requiring high levels of joint action, and suggests that U.S. forces The PLA would be bogged down in the same kind of problems that plagued their Russian counterparts in Ukraine, “where the overall cohesion of forces was weak”.

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

During the recent rout of Russian forces by a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Moscow’s ground forces lacked air cover, analysts say, while early in the war logistical problems hampered Russia’s ability to resupply his forces – his trucks lacked tires suitable for the terrain and broke down from lack of maintenance.

According to the report’s author, Joel Wuthnow, top PLA leaders could face similar problems due to their lack of cross-training.

“Operational commanders, for example, rarely have experience expanding their careers into logistics, and vice versa,” said the report by Wuthnow, a senior fellow at the university’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.

“Operational commanders who have never needed to acquire a high level of logistics or maintenance understanding may not be using these forces optimally, alongside another Russian failure in 2022.”

A PLA army brigade under the command of the eastern theater, together with a department of the navy, air force and army aviation, organizes a red combat exercise and blue for troops in Zhangzhou, China on September 2, 2022.

In a comparison of four-star rank commanders in 2021 – such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Chief of Indo-Pacific Command in the United States or leaders of the Central Military Commission or Theater Commands in China – all 40 US officers had common service experience compared to 77% of their 31 Chinese counterparts, according to the report.

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

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

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

China gives new recruits better training and no longer relies on conscripts, he said, as Russian military ‘rely on seven-month conscripts for 80-85% of its enlisted personnel’ .

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

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 warned that recent exercises “suggest they are catching up.”

He cited recent Chinese operations like those around Taiwan after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in early August as evidence of this.

“The study’s unstated implication that the PLA may be unable to conduct effective joint operations is misplaced,” Schuster said.

The report by Wuthnow, who is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in Washington, also revealed demographic differences between Chinese and American leaders.

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

Among 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 American 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 said.

And one final striking difference: 58% of the American officers had served in a foreign country while none of the Chinese officers had overseas experience.

Newly recruited officials undergo military training at the Shizhong District People's Court in Zaozhuang, China, September 3, 2022.

The report also notes how Chinese leader Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on the leadership of the PLA since seizing control of the Communist Party of China in 2013.

Through his role as chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xi has been personally involved in the selection of senior officers, he added.

“All PLA officers are members of the Communist Party of China and must have enough political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his program,” he said, noting that Xi rotates senior officials geographically in China. to prevent them from developing “patronage networks” that could one day threaten his leadership.

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

“Xi Jinping did not jump on a generation of people who had waited their turn to promote young Turks more familiar with modern conflicts,” he said.

As these older officers reach retirement age for their rank – up to 68 for those in the Central Military Commission – their successors will bring more experience from the modern battlefield, including the latest technology. , according to the report.

But the silos, reinforced by tradition and organizational culture, should remain, he said.

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