Asia Defense

Chinese PLA Training: A Window on Military Culture

Find out how Chinese PLA training stacks up against its U.S. counterpart.

Chinese PLA Training: A Window on Military Culture
Credit: Chinese military image via Alexander Ryabintsev /

As a newly-minted lieutenant in the U.S. Army of the 1990s, I learned quickly that there were two main tasks in the peacetime military: training and combat readiness. Training is what you would expect: honing troops’ ability to do their job in combat, including everything from physical fitness and individual weapons qualification to working effectively within small groups and large units. The term combat readiness is a bit deceptive, covering activities that don’t build combat skill directly but without which individuals and units might never even make it to the battlefield. This means maintaining weapons and equipment, ensuring medical preparedness, and administrative readiness, etc. The way the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) handles these tasks says much about its military culture.

A guide for PLA company commanders distinguishes between training and combat readiness, although the latter is limited to direct combat preparation. Training occurs in two phases: (1) preparation, including political indoctrination, organization, materiel and equipment, and instruction; and (2) execution and assessment. Readiness includes academic and Party education (again), alerts, equipment and materiel maintenance, readiness exercises, and inspections. Other areas (e.g. medical) are covered separately under administration, logistics, and armaments management.

As for training itself, a 2005 National Defense University military handbook sets out two categories: foundational training, which builds specific individual and collective skills, and maneuvers, in which units negotiate simulated combat scenarios. As with U.S. Army training, the training process begins with an assessment of needed skills and uses multiple training formats – instruction, demonstration, observation, practice, exercise, etc. – to reach the desired skill level. It then proceeds stepwise from simple individual skills to complex collective activities, the “crawl, walk, run” progression.

But there are significant differences between the two. The PLA system appears designed from the top down to guide users through each step of the process. Should a new training need arise, all offices with a stake would have to reach consensus on how to proceed. And with the recent PLA reorganization, there are more offices than ever providing input. If your military is about to train with China’s for the first time, be prepared for a carefully scripted and approved plan, as outlined above.

By contrast, the American habit is to create new structures to address evolving problems (think Department of Homeland Security). The U.S. Army offers an infamous example: the training demanded by regulation annually has over the years expanded to consume more than a year’s worth of training time. Keep in mind this does not include the unit-specific training without which a unit gains no proficiency in its combat skills. There is a way out of this trap, but it most assuredly does not come from within the system.

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Having worked within both structures, I can vouch for the headaches of a system without well-defined boundaries and no overarching organizational scheme to contain the inevitable mess. The open-endedness of the U.S. training system requires great creativity from its participants. Ironically, this seems to translate into active leadership at all levels, enhancing individual and collective skill and fighting spirit. U.S. trainers and trainees are buying into the system by making their part of it up as they go along. The PLA is for all appearances extraordinarily disciplined in its training and other areas, but the abundance of structure and social mandate to follow it tend to stifle innovation.