Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Chinese PLA Officer Corps Promotion Cycle, and Some Notes on India

Here is an observation thread about China today. Most of the observations are valid, coming from different perspectives. The observation about their selective enforcement of laws can be jarring to a Westerner, but not news to anyone else. The Rule of Law is definitely one of the larger issues the international aid community is struggling with now.

One commenter there noted the rapid promotion cycle of PLA officers, compared to the US Army. American officers generally have made Lieutenant Colonels (O5) by their 20th year in commissioned service. [We're not talking about the guys who are retiring.] However, the People's Liberation Army expects its officers to make "Division-Commander-Equivalent" (O8-equivalent) by their 20th year. That is fast indeed.

The speed of promotion in PLA has several effects. One is that the pressure for promotion is correspondingly high. You are not only preparing for the promotion coming up, you're also preparing for every subsequent promotions. With the intense competition, every little mistake or blemish has huge consequences (Think Zero-Defect Mentality in the post-Cold War US Military.) So the officers are always afraid of stepping away from the group norm.

Another effect is that the sycophancy gets magnified. China has a gift-giving culture that Americans might call bribery, but similar to every other non-Western nation. In the PLA the officers obviously cannot afford much given their salary, but they're still expected to give something. Coupled that with the sycophancy natural in a political organization, even someone who wants to stay clean cannot do so.

On the other hand, their generals do become very good at reading people. To survive the promotion system, they have to be good at reading body language and socializing. That may give them an edge in certain military and political situations.

With so short a promotion cycle, the officers hardly spend any time at any position. In the US Army, battalion command is supposed to be a three year job, giving the lieutenant colonels some time to make their mark on the team. The staff also have time to learn and anticipate the commander's intent. In the PLA, commanders hardly spend any time on their post (probably a year at most). Just when the commander and his staff have gelled as a team, it's time for the commander to move on to his next position. He also does not have much time for schooling, definitely not the year-long CGSC and War Colleges American officers are accustomed to. He has to depend a lot on On the Job Training.

Another effect of the fast promotion system is that the PLA has to kick out a lot of young officers along the way. If you do not make that first promotion list, you probably will not be on the next one, either. With many government-owned companies in the defense sector and elsewhere, this provides a steady stream of employees.

Another effect is that the PLA has a small staff system. The US military let many not-likely-to-promote officers stick around to make their 20 years and qualify for retirement, in part to fill the many staff jobs. The PLA does not have that pool of bodies to draw on.

However, sycophancy does not imply mindless sucking up. The PLA does think about the future and values scholarly activity (a carryover from Confuscianism), as opposed to the anti-intellectual US Army. Combine that with the obedient officer corps. If the political leadership or the PLA brass needs to change their doctrine or organizational direction (eg, from centralized corps formations to decentralized battlegroups), the officer corps will quickly adapt and adopt their orders. That organizational flexibility cannot be discounted.

Some people in that observation thread mentions nepotism. It does exist, but its effect on the PLA is limited these days. With the economic growth of the past thirty years, there is a lot of money in the non-military sector. Generals are more likely to place their children in the government enterprise or private companies, to make money, than to groom them to follow the family tradition.

Compare and contrast the PLA system with that of India. Bharat-Rakshak recently had an interesting thread that touches on Indian Army's promotion system. [Another one talks about officer commissioning sources and touches on promotion, too.] The Indian promotion cycle is definitely slower than the PLA's, maybe slightly longer than America's. So the battalion commanders have more time to gell with their staffs.

Two features of the Indian system are worth noting though: Its top-heavy chain of command, and its emphasis on a full career.

The Indian Army is remarkably brass heavy, when compared to NATO formations. On the line units, they have majors (O4) commanding companies, colonels (O6) battalions, and brigadiers (O7) brigades. Coupled with the 5 to 6 years you typically spend in each rank, that makes for a long time between command billets. While the line commanders definitely get more maturity and "wisdom" for being so senior in their military career, they may also be more set in their ways.

Another part of the Indian system is their emphasis on career. Most of the Short Service Commission officers get out of the Indian Army at the five year mark. However, the permanent commissioned officers (like the Regular Army officers of yore) usually stay on until retirement. So the Indian Army has a big population of the field grade, permanent commissioned, officers on the payroll. This is as opposed to the American system where most officers separate from service between the fifth year mark and the twelfth year mark, with the rest holding out for the 20th year retirement. The "iron rice bowl" mentality associated with government career service makes the Indian Army more rigid, less mentally flexible, than the US military. Indian Army's military operations around the country keep its line units on their toes, but the institutional and support side of the army are slow and inflexible. The slower tail of the Indian Army may hold the line units back in an extended campaign.

Edited to add labels and remove signature.

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