China military: ‘leaders’ lack of combat experience’ a drag on modernisation drive

Minnie Chan
·5-min read

A lack of combat experience and knowledge of modern warfare at the top are hampering the Chinese military’s modernisation drive and ability to confront growing security challenges at home and abroad, analysts said.

The People’s Liberation Army, which has 2 million troops, had tried to learn from the US military in the past few decades, but experts said intrinsic faults and China’s political system were compounding problems with the modernisation push.

Over the last four years, the PLA has embarked on an unprecedented overhaul to transform the bulky military into a more nimble modern fighting force.

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The ruling Communist Party wants the PLA to be a modernised force by 2027 and a world-class military by 2050.

But there are signs of some way to go in crucial joint operations, with the all-powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) issuing new training guidelines in early November.

Details of the guidelines were not released but they are meant to foster integration between the various combat forces and the PLA’s advanced weapon systems.

A military insider said that more than 70 per cent of the document was based on US military guidelines for joint operations.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said the guidelines were drafted because the coronavirus prevented the PLA from meeting its training targets this year and the military needed to catch up.

Signs of those missed targets were apparent at an annual training review conference in Beijing on November 25, when President Xi Jinping – who is also chairman of the CMC – called on top military brass to make “comprehensive and overall improvements” to PLA training when highlighting the new and growing security challenges facing China.

China’s long battle to build a better soldier for a modern fighting force

Military observers and an insider said a lack of real combat talent remained a serious barrier to meeting those challenges.

“When you take a look at the uniformed members in the CMC, just one of them has combat experience. But his experience could be dated to four decades ago,” said a military insider, who requested anonymity, referring to General Li Zuocheng, chief of the PLA Joint Staff Department. Li cut his teeth in the skirmish between China and Vietnam in the late 1970s.

Other generals in the CMC leadership, including political chief Miao Hua, training and administration department head Li Huohui and his predecessor Zheng He, took part in missile tests in the Taiwan Strait in 1995-96, the insider said.

The PLA has failed to meet its training targets this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Reuters
The PLA has failed to meet its training targets this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: Reuters

The insider said strategies had changed since then and commanders today needed to oversee much more sophisticated systems.

“In that time, civilian vessels were used to transport missiles, weapons and other equipment,” the insider said.

“Now the navy owns enough supplies ships and their top task is how to work together with the air force, rocket force and marines in joint operation training to make everyone combat-ready.”

Hong Kong-based military observer Liang Guoliang said Xi had felt a “strong sense of crisis” when tensions between China and the US escalated in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

“As the commander-in-chief of the PLA, Xi hopes the top brass could be more responsible for making training strategies that could efficiently bring all PLA service branches and their five theatre commands together,” Liang said.

In the past, the PLA’s branches and five theatre commands operated independently, with the key responsibility of training taken by grass-roots level commanders. But Xi wanted to let top military officials lead the training plan, Liang said.

Zhou said the PLA had boosted soldiers’ education, with 30 per cent of troops completing university. But it was also a challenge to get senior members to get used to rapid technological development.

“Many weapons and equipment familiar to the top brass have been eliminated amid the PLA’s modernisation in the past few decades, replaced with new generation weapons, like the J-20 stealth fighter jet, Y-20 heavy transport aircraft, as well as the aircraft carrier and amphibious landing dock, which should be part of joint operations,” Zhou said.

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The escalating border confrontations between China and India has pushed the PLA to deploy new weapons since summer – such as the Y-20 large military transport plane which is capable of carrying tanks, the J-20 stealth aircraft and advanced main battle tanks – to the extreme Himalayas in readiness for conflicts and skirmishes.

“But how to use those weapons in a modern warfare fight is still a new topic for PLA top commanders,” Zhou said.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said the PLA’s training doctrine had long been inspired by the former Soviet Union, or today’s Russian military, as well as the US forces, in which senior officers and top generals “have all been trained by actual combat”.

“Many of today’s US military commanders have experienced several wars in the Middle East in recent years, while Russia also trained and cultivated a lot of military talents after [President Vladimir Putin] decided to invade Chechnya in 2000 and intervene in the Syrian civil war in 2011.”

As the PLA has not been involved in real battles since the late 1980s when China and Vietnam resolved their border conflicts, Wong said it was challenging for top brass “to recapture the consciousness of modern warfare”.

“Indeed, as a party military, the overemphasis of political background rather than talent is also a big problem for the future modernisation of the PLA,” Wong added.

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