This opening paragraph can almost write itself. Every week there is a new scary click-bait headline about a new Chinese weapon system, aggression in the South China Sea, or other commentary that is supposed to inspire fear. This week included the new Chinese DD55 Destroyer and Chinese hypersonic missiles. The experience-driven commentary at OpsLens has a valuable advantage that most sites don’t, and yet we often fall into the same trap. People who have served in the military know that every piece of equipment has to be used by an often under-trained, under-paid, over-worked, and sometimes just plain lazy recruit that has as good a chance of shooting himself as he does at shooting the enemy. This post uses that experience to take a detailed look at the Chinese military to better assess their capabilities.
China has had a one-child policy that affects their modernization of their military and interacts with general trends. The one-child policy results in what Chinese analysts often call the “little emperor” syndrome. These are the only children of parents who are often spoiled to the point that the military lifestyle is rather jarring to them. Almost 70 percent of recruits are only children and this increases to 80 percent in some frontline combat units. On top of that, the general effect of modernization, such as an increasingly urban and sedentary lifestyle means that recruits, on average, are taller, weigh more, and just can’t fit into tight military equipment built for the average soldier from 20 or 30 years ago. The pollution for which China is known limits potential recruits even further. Many potential recruits have severe lung issues that limit their ability to run and leads to an increase in respiratory diseases. The increasing technical demands from these advanced weapons systems require recruits with more technical ability and aptitude. Average test scores have risen which suggests China is finding better recruits. But due to the above problems with modern and urban living, they also recruit many rural candidates that have little exposure to complex technical systems and less ability to master them.
The solution to this has been to relax recruitment standards and hope that the military can train them up to military standards. But many recruits don’t stay in very long. Military assignments are often in remote inhospitable locations far from home. Mid-career soldiers have limited professional development opportunities and their skills aren’t as readily transferable to civilian sectors. Soldiers often receive low pay and benefits which makes retention difficult and incentivizes a recurring problem with corruption. All of this means that even if raw recruits are trained up, which is dubious to begin with, they leave as soon as they reach the important leadership positions of small units.
On top of having trouble retaining recruits and seasoned mid-career personnel, the culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision making for NCOs and junior officers that do stay. The culture prompts them to refer decision making to higher units. Their training exercises are usually simplistic and a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups. There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. There is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.”
As a result, there is credible belief that the Chinese military is top-heavy and small units don’t have the leadership or skilled soldiers to properly employ their much touted wonder systems in the event of a war. A closer look suggests that Chinese recruits are often physically and psychologically unprepared for combat. They have limited training opportunities and retention among the most skilled. They have a training system that often limits junior officers and promotes a culture of delayed decision making that could prove catastrophic in combat. Chinese officials are aware of the problem and doing more to rectify the situation. But only success in combat can truly dispel the dangers and drawbacks that come from these trends. The Chinese may be a sleeping dragon with incredible weapon systems. Experience-driven commentary strongly suggests they are a paper dragon.