Here's What You Need To Remember: China, despite boasting an impressive army and weapons program, has not actually gone to war in forty years. This is a good thing, but it means that their soldiers lack realistic training - a problem that PLA strategists have increasingly acknowledged.
A surprising article in Chinese state media makes a rare admission of a serious weakness in the Chinese military.
True, the People's Liberation Army is acquiring high-tech new weapons that, in theory, match the best American, Russian, Japanese, South Korean and European hardware.
"As training began in 2019, an elite-combined arms brigade under the 81st Group Army of the People's Liberation Army Central Theater Command reflected how they failed to beat its opponent in a 2018 mock battle, despite being equipped with China's strongest main battle tank, the Type 99A," Global Times reported, citing the state-run CCTV television news network.
"Although the mock battle took place in July 2018 at the Zhurihe training base, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, it was the first time that the details of the exercise were revealed," Global Times continued.
"The Type 99A units are digitized and interconnected, and are capable of striking enemies even beyond visual range. However, the elite brigade was heavily suppressed during the exercise because of obsolete ways of thinking, the CCTV report said."
"We rushed with the Type 99A too close to the frontline, which did not optimize the use of the tank's combat capability," CCTV quoted Xu Chengbiao, a battalion commander in the brigade, as saying.
"We only studied the capabilities of older tanks, but have not completely understood new ones," Zhao Jianxin, another battalion commander, reportedly told CCTV.
The Chinese army since 2015 has been working to develop new doctrine for high-tech ground war, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency explained in its January 2019 report on the PLA. "At the tactical level ... battalion training most likely includes use of precise, long-range fire to maximize protection and surprise; dispersion of formations of weapon platforms while relying on advanced communications technologies; and increasingly lethal munitions to enable [army] commanders to produce mass effects on an enemy."
"In 2015, PLA leaders directed changes to ground forces training," the DIA continued in its report. "These changes included a call for increased emphasis on problem solving, innovation and realistic combat training, replacing previously scripted training methods."
But a lack of interest in military service among Chinese youth could hold back recruitment and undermine efforts to combine modern tactics and doctrine with the latest weaponry. "Military service probably will remain a less attractive career option if China’s economy stays healthy," the DIA predicted. "Although Chinese youth remain interested in the career field, interest is not widespread."
The People's Liberation Army Air Force also is struggling to develop doctrine for its new weapons, the DIA found. "Numerous professional articles and speeches by high-ranking Chinese officers indicate the PLAAF does not believe that its past training practices prepared its pilots and other personnel for actual combat. Unrealistic training manifested itself in multiple ways that hindered the PLA’s air combat capabilities."
"The PLA recognizes that a gap exists between the skills of its pilots and those in 'the air forces of powerful nations,'" the DIA continued in its report. "To address training weaknesses, the former PLAAF commander said that when the PLAAF trains, it must 'train for battle' instead of 'doing things for show…[or] going through the motions.'"
The air force might be making progress. "During the past few years, the PLAAF has revamped its training program and now seeks to replicate real-world combat environments as closely as possible," the DIA explained. "Through its four 'name-brand exercises'—Red Sword, Golden Helmet, Golden Dart, and Blue Shield—the PLAAF is making incremental improvements to its training regimen."
The stakes are high for the PLA. "As China reportedly continues to develop weapons like stealth bombers, rail guns and aircraft carriers with an electromagnetic catapult, PLA soldiers need to pay extra attention to maximizing them," Global Times paraphrased a Beijing-based military expert as saying.
David Axe serves as the new Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad. This article first appeared in January 2019.