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Geek Sergeants Doom China
by James Dunnigan
August 20, 2008

Discussion Board on this DLS topic

China's effort to upgrade the lower end of their military leadership is running into problems, most of them cultural. Efforts to create a large number of professional NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers, or sergeants) has run afoul of ancient habits. Thus the NCO schools tend to concentrate on the technical training of their students, and leave the leadership chores to officers. About a third of the Chinese military is officers, the proportion of officers in the American military is closer to half that (16 percent). The Chinese NCO corps is being trained mainly to fill technician jobs, while still leaving leadership primarily to officers.

A decade ago, China decided to develop a Western style NCO corps. This was another result of the many studies performed to determine how the Western, and particularly U.S., forces had so rapidly and convincingly defeated Iraq in the 1991 battle for Kuwait. However, while the Chinese appreciated the many technical skills of Western NCOs, they misunderstood the role NCOs play in leading the troops. You can blame this on the Russians.

Throughout the Cold War, China had adhered to the military doctrines developed by the Soviet Union. But by the end of the Cold War, suspicions that the Soviet methods were not the most effective, began to evolve into new ideas. A close study of the U.S. and British armed forces made it clear that the Soviet custom of downplaying NCOs, in favor of more officers, was a problem, not a solution.

For the Soviet Union, the problems developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men, but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the troops, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior, or simply stronger and more ruthless, ones. This led to very low morale, and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage and desertions. Long recognized as a problem, no solution ever worked. The Chinese had similar problems.

The basic problem is simply poor discipline. The Chinese have found that, with professional NCOs, it's possible to exercise more control over what goes on in the barracks. But this is not leadership, but simply keeping order in the barracks. The Chinese still rely on political officers (another concept borrowed from the Russians), but having more numerous, and well trained, NCOs, would provide the officers with a more reliable way to get the troops in shape, and of monitoring their attitudes and capabilities. This is not leadership, it's simply better control.

Since the late 1990s, becoming an NCO in the Chinese military is almost as difficult as getting into officers school, and is a big deal for those who make it. The big difference is that you don't need a lot of formal education (the basic nine years of school most Chinese get is sufficient). If, after two years of military service, you demonstrate you are smart and ambitious, you can apply for NCO school. If you get accepted, and complete the two (or more) year course, you are obliged to serve for at least twelve more years.

The NCO school puts a lot of emphasis on technical training for whatever branch you are in (truck or aircraft maintenance, electronics, artillery, and so on). Think of it as a trade school, with some leadership courses. You get paid a lot more as an NCO, particularly one with technical skills. A recent jump in the Chinese defense budget went largely for raising troop pay. The NCOs did very well by this.

The Chinese have been replacing some officers with NCOs, particularly in technical jobs, now that they have more senior, and seasoned, NCOs as well. The NCO schools currently turns out 50,000 graduates a year. Most of these are junior sergeants (the first two, of six, NCO ranks). For the first four grades, you have to serve 3-4 years in a rank before getting promoted. For the highest two ranks, it's 5-9 years. Thus the Chinese have very few senior NCOs, and very few that are allowed to exercise leadership skills.

In peacetime, your most senior Chinese NCOs (Sergeant Major in Western parlance) will be guys in their 40s or 50s, with over a quarter century of military experience. In about 20 years, China will have tens of thousands of these senior sergeants. These are the NCOs who get things done, in peace or war. Without them, you just have lot of poorly led men with guns. With those trained and experienced NCOs, you have a force that can match anything in the West, but only if the senior NCOs are leaders, not greying geeks. These senior NCOs will be in a position to make a case for allowing NCOs to exercise more leadership.

According to studies by Chinese officers, the U.S. training and leadership edge gives American troops a major advantage in combat. To counter this, China is trying to develop tactics and techniques that will catch the Americans by surprise and exploit American weaknesses. The most obvious one is the Chinese Cyber War effort, which is extensive and growing. But China is also equipping about a quarter of their troops with modern gear, and training these troops hard, in the American style.

For the moment, the Chinese generals and admirals just want more older, more professional enlisted troops, with better technical skills. Most of these guys only understand the leadership role of Western NCOs as an abstraction, and have never really seen it in action. They don't really understand how critical NCO leadership is to success in combat.

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