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Junior Military Leadership in the PLA Today

Brig. Mandip Singh was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile.
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  • March 12, 2013

    As a part of its modernization plan to fight wars under conditions of informationalisation, the PLA has embarked upon an ambitious effort to induct, educate, train and prepare its rank and file to meet the challenges of future wars. A well conceived and planned Professional Military Education (PME) programme is underway for Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and junior officers. The aim is to raise the bar of the personnel educational standards of the PLA in order to imbibe new generation high technologies and weapon systems. Thus college degrees and university tie-ups to recruit the modern NCO and junior officer corps have become popular while technical education is limited to one to three month courses at military centres or online before becoming NCOs. While this may produce well-read and technically savvy junior leaders, what needs to be evaluated are the intangibles in the modernization and Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) of the PLA leadership and motivation. Little has been written about the capability and professional ability of the PLA. Its opacity and lack of media access has only fuelled unconfirmed and unsubstantiated views. While the PLA mouth pieces People’s Daily and Global Times release regular despatches on PLA training and exercises, including glossy photographs of hi-tech equipment and their capabilities, there is little to gauge or estimate the internal debates within the PLA. What is the officer-man relationship in the PLA? Are junior leaders motivated enough to lead from the front?

    The PLA is reported to have about 900,000 NCOs in the 2.3 million strong force, i.e., about 40 per cent. The revised rank structure of enlisted men, which came into effect in 2009, comprises a total of nine grades from the junior-most upwards; firstly, soldiers to include Private and Private First Class; secondly, junior grade NCOs to include Corporal and Sergeant; thirdly, intermediate grade NCOs to include Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant Class 4; and fourthly, Senior grade NCOs to include Master Sergeant Class 3, Master Sergeant Class 2 and Master Sergeant Class 1. Thus, there are, at an average, two NCOs for every five soldiers or four NCOs to a section or squad of 10 men. In most other armies, squads/sections are led by one NCO (normally a Sergeant) and his second-in-Command (Corporal), a junior NCO.

    Are the junior leaders in PLA adequately motivated today? I think the PLA is passing through a difficult period. Apparently, serving the PLA is no longer a very attractive option and there seem to be issues of lack of motivation among the new recruits to make the supreme sacrifice. There are a number of reasons to support this argument.

    Belief in a Just Cause

    In volunteer armies, soldiers fight for a just cause. That belief comes from within, motivated by religion, culture and a sense of national pride and duty. It cannot be forced on a soldier. It is a well known fact that Party membership guarantees better prospects and privileges. But not all soldiers can hope for such privileges. In China, only 80 million people out of its 1.3 billion population are Party members – that is barely 16.25 per cent. Assuming that the PLA membership in the Party is higher than the average of other occupations like farmers, workers, etc., it could be at best 20 per cent. Thus, only one in five soldiers is likely to be a Party member and motivated by Party ideology and privileges accorded to Party cadres. The other 80 per cent cannot be motivated by political ideology alone. They need material and financial gain, better living conditions and safety and security of their families. The PLA continues to have conscription and draws on these recruits to be absorbed into the permanent cadre after a two year mandatory period. The ‘lure of the lucre,’ better alternative options and a wide choice of occupations to the young generation have forced the PLA to resort to sops to entice young able-bodied men and women to join. Salaries had to be raised 60 per cent in 2011 and promotion prospects, living conditions and quality of life given a huge boost to encourage recruitment during the 11th Five Year Plan. Even for officers, Party membership in the junior ranks is very limited. All PLA officers above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and equivalent in the other services are compulsorily members of the Communist Party of China. Therefore, one can conclude that most junior ranks in the officer cadre and NCOs/soldiers cadres are not motivated by ideology and denied privileges that come with Party membership. To ensure that motivational levels are kept high, the PLA uses ‘nationalism’ as a tool to drum up rhetoric towards a ‘just cause’.

    Infusion of Technology

    Technology and modern equipment are essential prerequisites to win a war. As the old adage goes, ‘victory is still measured by the foot’. The PLA is well on the way to becoming a modern, sophisticated and mechanized military capable of matching the finest in the world. All of this will translate into overwhelming use of firepower, lethality and precision on the battlefield. The human aspect is unlikely to manifest itself in the early stages of battle. The traditional infantry assault from a forming up place (FUP) would now be redundant and instead be more of a ‘mopping up’. The PLA has reduced from a 100 divisions to just about 35 divisions and 41 manoeuvre brigades. The infantry component in a standard Group Army is barely two divisions, one of which is mechanized, the others being armoured, artillery, engineer and air-defence brigades. The emphasis clearly has shifted to firepower and mobility, but this will alone not guarantee victory. Ultimately, it is the quality of the junior leader and his ability to motivate his squad to physically assault and capture the objective that will carry the day. And this has not been proven in the last three decades.

    NCO-Officer Relationship

    One must recall that until 1984 the PLA had no formal ranks. Age and experience were important criteria for command. Senior NCOs, normally in the 24 to 30 years service bracket, are unlikely to take orders from 22-year old young officers. I was told by a junior PLA officer that the perks and privileges of a Master sergeant Class 1 are the same as a Second-in-Command of a battalion! NCOs on conscription are trained in one of the 31 training academies of the PLA while junior officers are recruited from 67 PLA academies which provide high school graduates and active duty soldiers an opportunity to become undergraduates and finally commissioned officers. This creates a huge disparity in the training levels, syllabus and leadership traits. In fact, one study observes a stark weakness in the tactical training levels of the PLA and recommends that, “China’s adversaries should exploit weakness at tactical level by striking PLA formations quickly, using various means simultaneously and in divergent locations. The resulting tactical problem is likely to overwhelm a command and control system that, although enjoying the trappings of modern computers and communications technology, is still reliant on centralized direction from officers.”1

    Political Indoctrination

    The other unique entity in the PLA is the political department with its hierarchy which flows all the way down from the Central Military Commission down to the company level. The political commissar, surprisingly, has the same warrant of precedence as the field commander at each level. The political representative ensures the political indoctrination of the men under his command. He is the Party man, the upholder of ideology and ensures its unswerving implementation in the PLA. In 1979, there were three political representatives to a squad, one party man between three to four men, who motivated, cajoled and convinced the ordinary soldier that will and determination is more important than firepower and professional training. Recruits were motivated by unit solidarity, sloganeering, peer pressure, books and displays.2 In an interesting interaction with middle level officers of the PLA, I was repeatedly asked as to how the Indian Army ensured ‘political indoctrination’ of the troops? On answering that we have no political advisors nor any political indoctrination, the PLA officers found my answer to be absurd. On being questioned as to how did the Indian Army ensure that men are motivated to fight, I replied that our troops fight for their motherland and for the ‘izzat’ and ‘nishan’ - none of which cut ice with them. Most found my answer incredulous. Motivation in the PLA is thus ensured by political indoctrination. China is changing and so are its youth – Communist ideology of the kind that motivated ‘mass attacks’ and ‘human waves’ in the Mao era is history. Ensuring motivation of junior leaders thus appears to be a critical issue in the PLA.

    4:2:1 Issue

    The one child policy has resulted in most families having four aged parents being looked after by two working adults who between them have one child. The spiralling cost of living and housing has made it impossible for seven people to live in a house in the cities. Most aged grandparents are in the rural areas bringing up their grandchild while the able-bodied parents work in cities or eke out a living elsewhere. It is not possible to look after a family of seven on one salary in modern day China, thus forcing the spouse to work. In the case of those in the military, the spouse finds it difficult to get a job particularly in remote and far flung areas. Further, in the event of a mishap, even if the spouse has a job, he/she is unable to support the family on a single salary. This is an emotional and psychological problem that soldiers confront which is likely to impact on the will to sacrifice one’s own life. Junior leaders would find it difficult to motivate their command to make the supreme sacrifice – a challenge that can only be tested in actual combat. Realizing the need for enhancing compensation to soldiers killed or maimed in the line of duty, the PLA came out with a slew of directives on 1 August 2011. These are: The State Council of the People’s Republic of China order 601 lays down provisions for compensation of Martyrs; The State Council of the People’s Republic of China order 602 which lays down provisions for modifying military pensions and privileges; and, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China order 608 which lays down provisions for resettlement of retired soldiers.

    Conclusion

    There is a need for China’s adversaries to study the intangibles and leadership traits in the PLA in addition to the much touted military modernisation programme. Junior leadership is the ultimate battle winning factor that has been proven time and again in the Indian context while fighting insurgency, proxy war or even the Kargil war. What matters is motivation and will power that can change the course of a battle. While the machine is important, it is the man behind that machine who will carry the day provided he is well led and ready to make the supreme sacrifice.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. Mark K. Snakenberg, ‘Junior leader PME in the PLA: Implications for the Future’, Joint Forces Quarterly, Air University Library, Vol. 62, 2011, pp. 104-09.
    • 2. Edward C. Dowd, Chinese Military Strategy in the Third Indo-China War: The Last Maoist War, Routledge, 2007, p. 146.

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