A recently released report points to weaknesses in the Chinese military, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that directly affect all levels of leadership within the Chinese armed forces.
Joel Wuthnow, the author of the U.S. National Defense University report, researched more than 300 senior Chinese officers between 2015 and 2021 from the army, navy, rocket force, air force, and strategic support force.
According to the research, senior officers in the Chinese military manage to rise through the military career ladder conservatively and over several years. However, they lack the necessary preparation to coordinate with other military areas. Moreover, the leaders’ training is limited to their career field and does not receive cross-training, as the U.S. military does with the 1986 reform.
This reform, known as the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, was the most significant restructuring of the U.S. Army. One of the main objectives was to reunify the forces and simplify the command structure to achieve more direct communication with the civilian government. In turn, this new unified chain of command would also facilitate coordination within the military.
The Goldwater-Nichols Act changed how the various services of the army interact, as well as the management of officer personnel. Thus, officers must undertake joint training in other services to advance their military careers and higher positions. Regarding coordination, the services report to the commanders of military operations rather than as individual services. An example is the Southern Command structure, which comprises members of the Army, Armed Forces, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, and federal agencies.
In this sense, the PLA has not undergone a similar reform. However, Xi Jinping, in 2015, implemented a series of measures aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s clean-up and anti-corruption campaign. As a result, several senior officers were purged, and the four general departments of the military were marginalized.
Xi Jinping said that “China needs to have a modern and disciplined military,” to this end, he allowed young officers to occupy more leadership positions while reorganizing power within the military as a Western-style joint command.
However, Wuthnow’s report argues that the lack of training and coordination between the various services of the army could undermine the PLA’s effectiveness, especially in conflicts requiring joint action, as happened to Russia with its “special military operation” in Ukraine.
The recent defeat of the Russian army in Izium by Ukrainian forces exposes Russia’s serious failures in military coordination and strategy.
As a result of the Ukrainian advance, Russian forces lost a key location, in addition to the large quantities of military equipment and ammunition that the troops left behind along the way.
For analysts and experts, Russia’s war against Ukraine showed a lack of cohesion within the Russian army and severe deficiencies in the military structure.
In this regard, the Wuthnow report notes that within the PLA, “operational commanders who have never needed to acquire a high level of understanding of logistics or maintenance may not use those forces optimally, paralleling another Russian failure in 2022.”
“Rigidity in PLA assignments could reduce China’s effectiveness in future conflicts-especially those requiring a high level of jointness and adaptability, such as the war Russia launched against Ukraine in 2022—if Chinese military leaders lack perspectives beyond their own service, specialty, and department.”
The changes the PLA would need to make to move forward would not be easy to implement due to strong habits ingrained for decades. Although the new generation of officers is rising, it would encounter resistance from old members who hail from the Cold War. However, the reforms needed to train new officers for joint military command, as the U.S. did with the Goldwater-Nichols Act, would take more than a couple of decades and enough time to entrench the new structure.
Another relevant difference between the PLA and the U.S. Army is the experience of the senior commanders. Almost all four-star commanders in the U.S. Army had done joint service assignments, while half of the PLA’s senior officers were “professional political commissars.”
In addition, the PLA comprises a majority of ethnic Han men, while the U.S. Army is more diverse, with more women and men of other races and ethnicities. Another point to note is that U.S. officers have more experience in operations in various parts of the world, something Chinese officers do not have.
‘All PLA officers are from the Communist Party’
With the reform initiated by Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader not only ensured the modernization of an army with an ancient military structure inspired by the Soviet army but also entrenched his influence with the new officers he appointed.
Officers who joined the PLA in the late 1980s and 1990s have no personal memories of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and are more familiar with a developing post-Mao China, and are perhaps more likely to overestimate the PLA’s capabilities and China’s prospects in a military conflict, notes Wuthnow, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of China’s Military Affairs.
“All military officers are members of the Communist Party and must have the sufficient political acumen to demonstrate loyalty to Xi Jinping and his agenda,” the report said. It added that Xi Jinping rotates senior military officers to prevent them from developing their own “factions” to circumvent threats to his leadership.