In mid-August the Chinese air force, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), conducted the 10th iteration of Golden Helmet, its annual air combat competition for the PLAAF’s best fighter pilots. This year the PLAAF instituted more changes to make the competition more realistic. However, the PLAAF seems to have also used Golden Helmet 2021 to test various methods of instilling greater élan or “fighting spirit” into its fighter pilots. Such efforts are of dubious value, but they underline the fact that no matter how technically proficient the PLAAF and the Chinese military as a whole become, these forces will remain encumbered by the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to mold the thoughts and feelings of their warriors.
Golden Helmet has evolved throughout the last decade, expanding and becoming more realistic. It began as a simple one-on-one air combat competition, but in 2014 a two-on-two dog-fighting event was added, and by this year even four-on-two dogfights were being held. From 2014 the PLAAF began regarding the infliction of a certain degree of simulated damage to an aircraft as a kill, and from 2017 it changed the focus of the competition to achieving certain missions rather than just shooting down one’s opponents – or not being shot down by them. Apparently, until 2017, if a participant could not shoot down his opponents, he would often “flee” in order to run down the clock and have the engagement end in a tie.
By 2020 the PLAAF had added airborne early warning and electronic warfare aircraft to the dogfights, pushing the simulated combat far beyond visual range and forcing participants to deal with jamming as they fight. This aligns with the PLAAF’s emphasis on “system-of-systems” training and its efforts to have fighter pilots focus on fighting as a team in order to accomplish missions rather than focusing on just racking up kills.
In this year’s iteration of Golden Helmet, the PLAAF attempted to increase the degree of such “jointness” by for the first time having dissimilar aircraft and participants from different units fight on the same team in a single formation. (The Chinese military uses the term “joint” as the U.S. military does to indicate inter-service cooperation, but it also sometimes uses the same term more loosely to refer to what the U.S. military refers to as “combined-arms” or even just inter-unit cooperation.) Unit-versus-unit competition has long been an aspect of Golden Helmet, the winning unit of which would receive the Skyhawk Cup. Because one-on-one dog-fighting is almost certainly still an event at Golden Helmet, this latest change probably has not eliminated the competition between units and the Skyhawk Cup, but it has made Golden Helmet that much less of a competition and that much more of an advanced training event.
However, rather than focus on this change, reports about Golden Helmet 2021 focused on another first in this year’s iteration: the “study of and training in” élan, or “fighting spirit,” which was conducted throughout the competition. This was done in order to “explore ways of [conducting] the work of cultivating the fighting spirit of the people’s air force of the new era.” It seems, then, that the PLAAF used its best fighter pilots as guinea pigs to try different methods of cultivating fighting spirit that it could then apply throughout the force.
As is usual with reporting about the Chinese military, details about how the PLAAF explored ways to cultivate fighting spirit were few and fragmentary. The PLAAF tried one typical way to strengthen participants’ “political consciousness for training and preparation for war”: a temporary branch of the Chinese Communist Party was organized at Golden Helmet 2021, and at the party branch’s meetings participants were “educated” about the international situation, the necessity of preparing for war, and their “functions and missions.” Also “vigorously promoted” at these meetings was the courage to face difficulty and death as well as the fighting spirit of the “aerial bayonet,” a reference to the fighting spirit of the PLAAF pilots who faced U.S. pilots during the Korean War.
The PLAAF also tried another typical method of bolstering the participants’ fighting spirit: It rallied the participants before each event, encouraged them during each event, and conducted evaluations of them immediately after each event. The PLAAF also tried holding “under-the-wing” discussions immediately after an event. One pilot who won an air-to-air engagement reportedly encouraged everyone who gathered by his aircraft after he landed by saying: “Fighting spirit is the key to defeating the enemy and gaining victory. Victory in air combat depends not merely on skills and tactics; one must also have a selfless spirit of fighting relentlessly.”
Some of the PLAAF’s efforts were more personal. The PLAAF apparently had the participants conduct self-criticisms, which seems like a better way to sap morale than to bolster fighting spirit. Political officers “investigated” participants’ “thinking,” helping them “find relief and overcome difficulties,” which sounds somewhat sinister in translation, but almost certainly refers to mental coaching. The Chinese military’s political officers are supposed to serve as counselors of a sort, so this normal. But their effectiveness in this role is likely proportional to their having “been there,” and political officers in the PLAAF are the furthest from “there” because they are usually not pilots.
All the ways in which the PLAAF tried to cultivate fighting spirit during Golden Helmet 2021 are of dubious value. There is not necessarily an inverse relationship between training and political indoctrination, so if the PLAAF applies these methods of cultivating fighting spirit throughout the force, the PLAAF’s fighter pilots will not necessarily become less effective unless they sacrifice training time for indoctrination. The PLAAF is unlikely to neglect training.
However, even if these methods of indoctrination do foster a greater sense of purpose in some pilots, one wonders why the PLAAF deems them necessary in the first place. Is morale low among the PLAAF’s fighter pilots, or is the PLAAF just finding new ways to do the same old thing? The latter seems more likely, but the PLAAF’s efforts will probably still amount to an extravagant waste of time and effort. They will likely keep political officers busy at the expense of making everyone else busy. They will, however, satisfy the Chinese Communist Party’s innate desire to attempt to ensure conformity and allegiance in its tried, but not necessarily true, ways.