Attrition: China Learns Valuable Lessons From Russia


September 22, 2015: China recently announced that it was reducing its armed forces personnel strength 13 percent (about 300,000 people). Later it was revealed that about 60 percent of those being let go would be officers. This is part of a trend. Following the Russian example the ratio of officers to troops in Russian and Chinese armed forces has been changing, with a sharp reduction in the number of officers, and the growth of the number of professional NCOs. Until recently about a third of the Chinese military personnel are officers. This high proportion of officers was adopted from the Russians, who did not want to develop a professional NCO (sergeants) corps. That was because the Russians considered officers more loyal to the Communist Party. Like Russia the Chinese are now developing professional NCOs to replace many of the lost officers. In addition China is increasing the quality of its personnel at all levels. To attract high quality conscripts, who will stay in the service to become NCOs, the military offers bonuses and help with college tuition. It will even take college graduates and promote them, right after basic training, to an NCO rank.

These Chinese reductions usually mean older, and less educated officers are being retired, and new, better educated ones, sought among the ranks of recent college graduates. The military used to rely a lot on enlisted troops becoming officers, via selection and a few months training. No more. With 20 percent of Chinese 18 year olds going to college, there is an opportunity to quickly upgrade the officer corps (at least in terms of formal education.)

China is following the Russian example, sort of. The Russian armed forces lost 80 percent of its strength in the 1990s but a disproportionate number of officers remained. So in 2008 the Russian finally did what it had long avoided and carried out a large scale purge of the bloated officer corps. At the time the Russian military had about a million personnel (400,000 in the army itself, the rest in paramilitary units that are largely uniformed and armed like soldiers). But there were 355,000 officers in this force. That's more than one in three, and included 1,107 generals, 25,665 colonels, 99,550 majors, 90,000 captains, and only 50,000 lieutenants. With all that, some 40,000 officer positions were still vacant. The 2008 reorganization eliminated 20 percent of the generals, 65 percent of the colonels, 75 percent of the majors, and 55 percent of the captains. The number of lieutenants was increased 20 percent. The eliminated officers were not missed because most staffed the 2,500 military organizations (mostly staffs of reserve units. This amounted to a long overdue reduction (by 80 percent) of the number of military organizations. Most of these were Cold War relics containing only a cadre of officers. In the event of a major war, reservists (who are no longer available) were to be called up to use the stockpiled equipment (also now missing.) The Stavka (general staff) also had its personnel cut 61 percent (to 8,500).

The senior officers (lieutenant colonel and above) were retired, all others were offered retraining. The money saved was used for training and promoting more NCOs, and enlisting more volunteer (or "contract") soldiers. The Russians want an all-volunteer forces, but, like their more affluent Chinese allies, have lacked the money to replace all conscripts with higher quality, and more highly paid, volunteers. During the 1990s, when Russian military budgets were cut by over two-thirds most of the best officers got out and went on to make their fortunes in the new market economy. That left a lot of career officers who saw no other job prospects. Many turned to corrupt practices to supplement their low military pay. Corruption got out of hand.

China is trying hard to retain its most capable officers and noted that these officer reductions does indeed improve the capabilities of the military. Russian and Chinese forces often train together so there was plenty of opportunity to see and measure the impact of the Russian officer cuts. China never went through the catastrophic economic crises (and sharp defense budget cuts) Russia experienced in the 1990s. But many Chinese officers and civilian analysts noted that the armed forces were not as effective in reality as they appeared to be on paper. The Russian experience with officer reductions made it clear where the Chinese problems were, mainly because China followed the Russian example when modernizing their armed forces after chaos of the “Cultural Revolution” in the 1960s.

One difference between how Russia and China got rid of unneeded officers was that China more often offered retired officers jobs in the government bureaucracy. After all, these officers have some skills, a lot of experience and are known to be loyal. In Russia the massive economic problems forced large cuts in government jobs in general.





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