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

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

The report delved into the backgrounds of more than 300 of the PLA’s top officers in 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 chiefs likely had no operational experience in an industry other than the one in which they started their career.

In other words, PLA soldiers remain soldiers, sailors remain sailors, pilots remain pilots. Rarely do they venture outside those silos, the report said, noting a stark contrast to the U.S. military, where cross-training has been required by law since 1986.

The 73-page report went on to say that this “rigidity…could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts,” particularly in conflicts that require a high degree of concerted service action, and suggests that PLA forces are bogged down by the same kind. problems that have plagued their Russian counterparts in Ukraine, “where the overall cohesion of the armed forces has been low.”

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

In the recent defeat of Russian forces by a Ukrainian counter-offensive, Moscow’s ground forces had no air cover, analysts say, while earlier in the war logistical problems confused Russia’s ability to supply its troops – the trucks had no suitable tires for the site and kept breaking down due to lack of maintenance.

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

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

“Operational commanders who never needed to gain a high level of understanding of logistics or maintenance may not be able to use those troops to their fullest, paralleling another Russian failure in 2022.”

A PLA Army brigade under the Eastern Theater Command, along with a division of the Navy, Air Force and Army Aviation, organize a red-blue troop combat exercise in Zhangzhou, China, on September 2, 2022.

In a 2021 comparison of four-star commanders — such as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the head of the Indo-Pacific Command in the United States or leaders of the Central Military Commission or theater commandos in China — all 40 U.S. officers had experience in joint service. , compared to 77% of their 31 Chinese equivalents, the report found.

It also noted another important difference: In the US, almost all four-star commanders had operational experience. In China, almost 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 China is and going that I’ve seen.”

But he warned against using it as a predictor of how the PLA could fare in a Ukraine-like war, as it had numerous other advantages over the Russian military.

China is providing better training to new recruits and is no longer relying on conscripts, he said, while the Russian military “relies on seven-month conscripts for 80-85% of its enlisted personnel.”

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

Schuster, who now teaches at Hawaii Pacific University, estimates that China is about four or five years behind the US in joint surgery capabilities, but warned that recent exercises “suggest they are catching up.”

He cited recent Chinese operations, such as those around Taiwan after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in early August, as evidence of this.
Analysis: "New normal"  across the Taiwan Strait as the threat from China draws ever closer

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

The report from 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.

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 leadership in the US 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 last big difference: 58% of American officers had served abroad, while none of the Chinese officers had overseas experience.

Newly hired officials undergo military training at the 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 his grip on the PLA leadership since he took control of the Chinese Communist Party in 2013.

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

“All PLA officers are members of the Chinese Communist Party and must have sufficient political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his agenda,” it said, noting that Xi rotates the top officials geographically within China to avoid creating “protective networks.” who one day threaten his leadership.

But it also noted that Xi has been cautious about rewarding loyalty and patience in the senior officer corps.

“Xi Jinping has not skipped a generation of people who had waited their turn to promote young Turks more familiar with modern conflicts,” it said.

As those senior officers reach retirement age for their rank — as old as 68 for those in the Central Military Commission — their successors will bring more experience of the modern battlefield, including the latest technologies, the report said.

But the silos, reinforced by tradition and organizational culture, are expected to remain, it said.



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