Hong Kong: With China routinely speaking of conquering Taiwan, and as it threatens other neighbors and even the USA, it is pertinent to ask questions of the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in light of what has been witnessed in Ukraine as Russia’s military campaign continues to falter.
China has previously deeply studied American wars in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gulf War and Kosovo. It is now carefully scrutinizing Russian strategy and tactics in Ukraine too. Yet Russia has reverted to World War II-style tactics of mass bombardment and attrition in Ukraine through sheer numbers of equipment and personnel, as modern joint warfare between army, navy and air force are skills proving woefully inadequate. Russian ground, sea, air, cyber and space forces are not operating in coordinated fashion.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander from 1944 onwards in WWII, uttered the words, “You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.”
This has been borne out by Russian failures in its invasion of Ukraine as well. With columns of military vehicles stuck on roadsides for days, and units running out of essentials such as fuel, food and ammunition, Russian logistics have proved suboptimal.
Importantly, the PLA is still quite similar to the Soviet style of military structure and doctrine. Sure, it speaks much of jointness, but it must now be questioning whether there are overlooked weaknesses and fundamental failings in its armed forces. At least Russia has relatively recent combat experience in places like Syria, the Crimea and Chechnya, whereas the PLA’s last combat was an ignominious incursion into Vietnam in 1979.
The PLA considers itself a learning institution, but Blake Herzinger, a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist, commented: “The PLA is capable of learning, but I think it would be a stretch to call it a learning institution. And even real learning institutions struggle to do this right all the time. There are few, if any, indications that watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine will meaningfully change anything about how the PLA thinks.”
Thinking of a possible Chinese military foray against Taiwan, David Chen, an analyst based in Denver, Colorado and writing for The Jamestown Foundation think-tank in the USA, said, “Whether the People’s Republic of China stumbles into a debacle of their own making may depend on the lessons drawn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Certainly, one of the most serious issues facing the PLA is its strictly hierarchal structure that does not encourage initiative. Personages such as Chairman Xi Jinping, head of the Central Military Commission (CMC), demands absolute control and personal loyalty from the PLA. With such a centralized communist system, how can authority devolve to lower echelons so as to take advantage of operational agility on the battlefield?
Although PLA units might get to train against an opposing force nowadays, its battalion and brigade commanders are endowed with only limited decision-making powers, and coordination with outside units depends on higher-echelon commanders.
Chen noted, “A hierarchical command structure – over-reliant on the direct involvement of general officers – is not only detrimental to maintaining momentum, but those officers can also quickly become nodes of vulnerability in the fog of war.” It was thus no surprise to see heavy casualties amongst Russian generals in Ukraine, with at least seven killed in combat in just the first week of the war.
The analyst remarked: “Russia’s loss of so many generals also exposes a particular weakness of the PLA’s own joint command model. Generals killed in Ukraine include those of the deputy commander and chief-of-staff grade, which is the grade that exercises joint operations coordination duties in the PLA. A brigade- or division-sized unit may have only three or four officers of sufficient rank to perform these critical duties. If PLA units in wartime suffered such attrition among command staff, despite the increasing reliance on automation and information networks, such losses might result in retaining the technical means for joint coordination, but lacking the authorities to effectively task and respond to joint requirements.”
The PLA’s adoption of combined-arms battalions and brigades is similar to the Russian employment of battalion tactical groups. Indeed, after introducing these battalion tactical groups in 2012, the Russian Army deployed 100 of 170 of them against Ukraine. Yet, these Russian formations have not proved adept at modern warfare against a peer adversary.
Other Russian weaknesses, such as relying on conscripts and not developing a professional non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps, are issues being addressed by the PLA. Herzinger commented, “The PLA will never be professionalized in the same way other armies are. Anti-corruption campaigns and purges aren’t objectively employed; they just get rid of the guys that aren’t corrupt the way you want them to be corrupt.”
China recognizes it does not have a professional NCO corps, and it has been developing one for more than a decade. But questions need to be asked as to how much progress the PLA has actually made here. The undeniable truth is that the PLA, as a party-controlled force, must always be a top-down organization. It cannot be given wide-ranging powers and independence to make decisions, because then it becomes a threat to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself. The servant cannot wield more power than the master!
Another problem for the PLA’s warfighting capability, but an absolutely essential one for the CCP, is political loyalty. Chen of The Jamestown Foundation again: “The emphasis on ‘red culture’ and ‘red genes’ – burnishing the origin mythos of the CCP and PLA – permeates all levels of society, but particularly the military. Devoting such energy to political education hints at the insecurity President Xi Jinping feels about the ideological purity of the armed forces, and by implication, their will to fight in an actual conflict.”
At the Two Sessions when the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Consultative Conference met in March, the PLA imposed mandatory political study sessions at all PLA levels. This type of requirement takes up limited training time, but for a one-party state like China it is critical to maintain ideological purity and obedience.
The poor morale and unit cohesion of Russian units must surely be of concern to the CCP, and may well result in China doubling down on political indoctrination. Chen correspondingly observed that such a trajectory might not only further erode substantive training priorities, but also suggested “that the average ‘G.I. Zhou’ may lack a compelling reason to fight”.
Another concern for Beijing must be how NATO and Western countries have come together to support Ukraine. Chen postulated: “This ought to give Xi pause in pursuing his own vision of capturing Taiwan before his tenure as president and general secretary comes to an end. Yet, while these setbacks observed from afar might delay a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan, they might also prompt PLA leadership to accelerate the timetable for a smaller-scale conflict.”
He continued: “In order to truly test the outcomes of their two decades of technical investments and structural reforms, the CMC may choose to launch an outlying island seizure, naval blockade or other limited campaign that could be de-escalated quickly under China’s own concepts of ‘war control’. This raises the stakes for deterrence forces in theater and underscores the imperative to improve the indigenous capabilities of the Taiwanese armed forces. Indo-Pacific forces must be ready to respond to any attempts at military misadventures by another aging authoritarian nursing revanchist dreams of restored imperial glory.”
Another issue being exposed in Ukraine is Russia’s pervasive corruption at all levels. Indeed, the level of corruption is probably worse than even Western analysts predicted. The PLA, too, is rotten with corruption, despite some progress being made by Xi’s anti-graft campaign that has netted both high- and low-level culprits.
Nonetheless, endemic corruption throughout Chinese society and military does not just disappear with a snap of Xi’s fingers, for such corruption is engrained in communist systems. Herzinger offered his conclusion: “Over-hyping the PLA is common … The idea that Russia’s embarrassment in Ukraine will result in a much better PLA (or even a PLA that won’t make the same mistakes) is a canard. Let’s not discourage discussion in favor of blindly over-hyping a threat.”
Tony Stark, author of the novel Ex Supra about a future PLA adversary, scathingly said the PLA “bets mission success on the pure weight of its firepower, willpower and overbearing numbers”. At the same time, it “ignores the concept of mission command and waits for AI to progress far enough where you can just skip relying on lower-echelon human decision-making that conflicts with Marxist doctrine and Soviet-era command and control”.
Stark further noted, “PLA doctrine is not expeditionary beyond its near-abroad [periphery]. It relies explicitly on the ease of massing forces from the homeland. Their doctrine relies on their favorable geography.” While the PLA might well be engaging in more effective training, it nevertheless still has a long way to go.
Derek Solen, a senior researcher at the US Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute, wrote: “People tend to respond to rewards, so if an armed force rewards pointless precision or high win-loss ratios, then it can expect its members to strive to achieve results that are ultimately meaningless for assessing combat capability. Moreover, an overemphasis on an individual’s or a unit’s aggregate number of victories can drive people to cut corners or to game the system in order to win, defeating the purpose of training.”
Solen added, “It is likely that the PLA’s promotion of competitions has had another negative effect: performance in competitions has come to be regarded as a standard by which to judge overall combat capability.”
China, whilst studying Russian military prowess – or lack thereof – still remains staunchly supportive of Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd explained why. “[The alignment] is based on deeply concluded enduring Chinese structural interests. Number one, they want a benign border with Russia. Number two, it enables China to focus all of its resources on managing the Americans, who are their principal strategic adversaries for the future. And three, the Russians create all sorts of additional diversions and distractions for the United States in Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
“Not to mention, Russia is a handy source of commodities, both energy and agriculture. This is a deeply useful relationship from China’s overall perspective. The expectation that China will simply just pivot is misplaced.”
Rudd added, “If Putin was about to fail comprehensively on the battlefield in Ukraine, or even begin to fall politically in Moscow, you’re likely to see a ‘two minutes to midnight’ Chinese diplomatic flurry to try and bring about a ceasefire in order to pull some political face out of the fire.”
Till then, China will be seeking lessons to apply to the PLA so it can better threaten and coerce Taiwan and eventually conquer it in the face of American military might. (ANI)