Steven Biddle’s 2004 work, Military Power, offers one of the most comprehensive and convincing explanations of modern military effectiveness. His argument, that a “modern system of force employment” emerged during and following World War I to improve troop effectiveness and survivability in the face of overwhelming and lethal firepower, is both logical and historically sound. The system, “focused on reducing exposure to hostile fire and enabling friendly movement while slowing the enemy’s.” While conceptually intuitive, Biddle reiterates throughout the work that although most states accept and attempt to implement the modern system, few do so effectively. Reasons for the wide variance in implementation of the modern system include domestic political and budgetary considerations, but perhaps no factor has a greater bearing than the efficacy of a state’s noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps. At the tactical level, the modern system requires that ground forces master a series of tasks to, “survive the hail of metal long enough to perform meaningful military missions.” These tasks—which include cover, concealment, dispersion, small-unit independent maneuver, and suppression—are ideally suited to execution by NCOs. In the absence of competent and empowered NCOs, these responsibilities fall to junior commissioned officers who often lack the experience, span of control, and intellectual bandwidth to effectively implement them.
China’s campaign to modernize its military over the past twenty years is exceptional in both scope and rapidity. At the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Party Congress in 2017, President Xi Jinping famously committed to transforming the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into “world-class forces” by 2049. Western military experience suggests that the PLA’s ability to achieve this aspiration is contingent, in no small part, on its ability to professionalize its NCO corps. The PLA Army (PLAA) has, through a series of measures over the course of decades, sought to professionalize its NCOs. It remains to be seen whether the PLAA’s efforts bolster its ability to implement the modern system, and thereby support the goal of achieving “world-class” status.
The PLA Army NCO Corps
The PLA “Interim Regulations for Sergeants,” issued on March 31, 2022, establishes two important facts about the structure of the PLA NCO corps. The first is that the PLA recognizes two categories of NCOs: management and skilled. These categories define the scope of NCOs’ responsibilities, but also their training and professional advancement requirements. Second, there are three distinct paths to become an NCO in the PLA. Under the most traditional path, NCOs are selected from the pool of conscripts who volunteer for continued service at the end of their two years of mandatory service. Once accepted, applicants undergo specialty-specific NCO training that lasts six to twelve months. A second path to NCO leadership involves an “NCO-cadet” or “targeted training NCO” program. This model involves recruitment of high school graduates with demonstrated technical aptitude for a three-year NCO training pipeline. Over the course of three years, an NCO cadet receives approximately two and a half years of technical training and six months of military field training. The final path is known as the “direct recruit NCO” model, recruiting civilians with bachelor’s degrees into technical fields as corporals. The second and third models are used to build technical expertise within the force, particularly in fields such as information technology, engineering, and data science. This influx of specialists mitigates a deeply held concern within the PLA that it lacks the human capital to operate the increasingly sophisticated technology that will be critical to winning under the “informationized warfare” conditions China’s leaders expect. It appears that NCOs in tactical leadership roles ascend almost exclusively through the first model, and they are typically assigned first as deputy squad leaders. Technical NCOs are more likely to go through the latter models and assume roles as technical specialists and leaders of small sections.
The current trajectory of the PLAA NCO corps is one of increasing professionalization, trust, and importance. Despite that, statements by senior PLA and government leaders indicate that they are not satisfied with the progress. In his excellent 2018 essay, “Breaking the Paradigm: Drivers Behind the PLA’s Current Period of Reform,” David Finkelstein points to a surprising volume of statements from senior officials, Xi included, that suggest that the PLA is not fit to execute the missions envisioned by the party. Statements like these and repeated reference to the “five incapables” suggest that the state of PLA personnel is insufficient for the conduct of the types of operations envisioned by senior leaders.
The PLA’s system of personnel management appears to be at odds with its efforts to build a professional NCO corps due to low retention of quality personnel and inadequate professional development. Retention rates for PLA enlisted personnel are largely unavailable, but there is evidence that the PLA recognizes that they are not retaining talented personnel beyond the initial period of conscription. Chinese media reports suggest that college students and graduates are particularly unlikely to reenlist. Further, this reporting found that benefits, such as hiring preferences for veterans, induce many service members to leave the service. It appears likely, therefore, that PLA NCOs are not drawn from the top performers of the conscript force, but from those who have few civilian career prospects.
The PLA’s current personnel system also does not appear to place emphasis on experience as a prerequisite for NCO leadership. In the case of those PLA NCOs in technical fields that earn their corporal’s stripes through the “targeted training NCO” or “direct recruit NCO” programs, they likely assume their responsibilities with no military experience outside of their initial (basic) training. Even accepting that the PLA assigns these NCOs to technical duties without significant leadership responsibilities, the experience deficit described above is stark. While there is significant variance in US Army enlisted career timelines, new US Army NCOs likely have nearly twice as much experience as their former-conscript PLAA counterparts. Most new NCOs in PLAA combat arms roles have only eighteen months of on-the-job experience and approximately a year of schoolhouse instruction. Given the annual cycles of conscription and collective training progressions, a new PLAA corporal has likely only experienced a single iteration of that training cycle. To put a finer point on the issue, newly minted deputy squad leaders may have previously participated in a single squad live-fire event with their units, which they are now expected to help lead. A rough comparison between promotion timelines for PLA “intermediate-grade NCOs”—using the figures provided in a November 2022 report prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission—and average promotion timelines for their US counterparts suggests that the PLA soldiers possess approximately three years less experience.
Professional Education and Training
The quality of training and availability of professional education for PLAA NCOs are additional hurdles to professionalization. Quality training at the small-unit level is primarily hampered by the semiannual conscription cycle. Currently, PLA conscripts serve for a period of two years, and new conscripts are inducted into the service twice a year. The first six months of conscripts’ service are spent in basic training, rendering them unavailable for unit training. If the new conscripts are allocated evenly, tactical units receive a new batch of conscripts every six months. According to a report by the Jamestown Foundation, conscripts may require up to six months of additional on-the-job training before they are sufficiently proficient to contribute to collective tasks. Thus, under ideal conditions, 50–75 percent of the authorized troops in any unit are competent in collective tasks and, for six months of the year, units are manned at only 75 percent. To further illustrate the difficulty of this system, picture a standard nine-man Chinese infantry squad. From April to June, the squad leader can count on being assigned seven soldiers, of whom only five are competent in squad drills and maneuver. At this point even a single soldier injured, assigned to a special detail, going on leave, or attending a military school drastically undermines the ability of the squad to operate.
Access to professional military education for NCOs is a deficiency that the PLA has sought to address in recent years. As previously mentioned, before assuming their responsibilities, prospective management NCOs attend six to twelve months of leadership and specialty-specific training. Promotion to higher NCO ranks carries requirements for additional schoolhouse training, typically lasting one to five months depending on the individual’s grade and specialty. Before promotion to the intermediate-grade NCO rank of sergeant second class, Chinese troops must earn at least the equivalent of an associate degree in a technical field. An additional requirement imposed in 2009 stipulates that NCOs earn technical certifications in subjects such as weapon repair and equipment maintenance. These two requirements reinforce the supposition that PLA leaders are concerned with the development of sufficient subject matter expertise within the ranks to operate increasingly sophisticated weapons, sensors, and other equipment. NCOs, as the long-serving and technically oriented backbone of the PLA, are ideally suited to fill this role. Based on recent cuts to the PLA education system, questions remain regarding the PLA’s capacity to provide training to the hundreds of thousands of NCOs ascending through the ranks. Further, technical training (to say nothing of political training) appears to be a higher priority than leadership training for PLA NCOs.
Parochialism and Centralized Command
A final hurdle facing optimization of the PLAA NCO corps, and one that is unlikely to be solved by bureaucratic means, is that of parochialism. In short, Chinese NCOs lack the respect and stature of their Western counterparts. This is likely the case for two separate but related reasons. First, the history of a professional NCO corps in the PLA is quite short, and its rise has come at the expense of the commissioned officer corps. Since the late 1990s, but especially in the era of Xi’s sweeping reforms, the PLAA has shifted from an officer-heavy formation to one that increasingly relies on sergeants. As documented in a 2019 volume published by the National Defense University Press, Chairman Xi Remakes the PLA, the Chinese military force reductions eliminated over thirty percent of the commissioned officer corps, with NCOs absorbing many of the responsibilities once performed by junior officers. Some career officers may resent the perception that their stock has fallen, while that of newly empowered and professionalized NCOs has risen.
Second, socioeconomic disparities between officers and enlisted are exacerbated by the issue of party membership, presenting obstacles to mutual trust and candor. Party membership has been extended to some NCOs, apparently based on quotas, but as Dennis J. Blasko and Marcus Clay have described, NCOs wield limited influence within PLA party committees. Given the reticence of the Chinese Communist Party to allow more than token NCO membership, and the seeming antipathy that superiors have for NCOs within the party, it appears that the party’s effect is not one of cohesion. Social divides between officer and enlisted ranks persist within the PLA and are amplified by unequal access to party membership and authority. These tensions may prevent the proliferation of an effective NCO-officer relationship.
Before uncritically dismissing the Chinese NCO corps as ineffectual two alternative theories must be considered. First, Western military professionals (this author included) analyzing Chinese practices through Western paradigms may be altogether mislead. It is not clear that the Chinese view the American NCO corps as the platonic form they should strive to replicate. In other words, PLA Army NCOs may never look like their Western counterparts, but could still meet the intent of the PLA and party leadership and prove successful on the battlefield. Perhaps the high degree of technical proficiency that they bring, even if lacking leadership acumen, will prove decisive. Second, one could argue that the Chinese way of war is less dependent on the initiative and agency that professional NCOs bring to a force. Indeed, it may be the case that an operational concept predicated largely on deception, standoff, and the “Three Warfares,” rather than small-unit maneuver in the model of the modern system, may succeed with less effective small-unit leaders.
Without a doubt, the PLAA NCO corps has improved over the past two decades. These improvements are due in large part to efforts to recruit technically proficient personnel, overhaul the professional military education system, extend party membership to NCOs, and retard parochial tendencies. However, significant hurdles to optimizing effectiveness remain. First, PLAA NCOs are significantly less experienced than their US Army counterparts. In the Western tradition, years of experience and repetition in tactical tasks are the foundation of a sergeant’s influence with both troops and officers. If we are to accept that mastery of the modern system is critical to success in tactical ground warfare, then it follows that small-unit leaders must have both the experience and the authority to apply the tenets of that system. Second, while technical training appears to be a priority, there is less emphasis on leadership training. As Brian Waidelich and Bernard D. Cole have identified, it appears that the PLAA is more interested in building a body of technocrats than small-unit leaders. Finally, socioeconomic prejudices and parochialism may undermine PLAA NCOs’ authority. The existence of a rigid hierarchy, discrepancies in party membership, and class-based prejudice may prevent NCOs from exercising their authority and candidly advising commanders. As with many of its institutions, the People’s Republic of China has built its noncommissioned officer corps in a uniquely Chinese form and at a uniquely Chinese pace. This particular institution is among the most underappreciated elements of a modern state’s security apparatus, and may hold the key to realization of the Chinese dream.
Major Matt Tetreau is an active duty United States Army strategist and student at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro, US Navy