Leadership: China's Secret Weapon

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April 14,2008: One of the clearest signs that China was serious about increasing the quality of its troops, was the decision to develop a Western style NCO (non-commissioned officers) corps. This happened back in the late 1990s, and was another result of the many Chinese studies of how the Western, and particularly U.S., forces had so rapidly and convincingly defeated Iraq in the 1991 battle for Kuwait.

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. The Chinese still rely on political officers (another concept borrowed from the Russians), but having more numerous, and well trained, NCOs, provides the officers with a more reliable way to get the troops in shape, and monitor their attitudes and capabilities.

Becoming an NCO 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 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 also includes 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 lots of 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 a lot of officers with NCOs, 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. 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 Sergeant Majors. 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.

 


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