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Officer and Enlisted Quality Comparison in the U.S. and PLA

  • Published
  • By Eric Danko, LTC, USA

There is a vast amount of discussion about China becoming a potential near-peer adversary in the future; there is also much discussion about their military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  Since taking over in 2012, Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, has been rebuilding the military in China and striving to make it a global force.  However, there are still many shortfalls within the PLA, and unless they make drastic changes, they will not become a near-peer to the United States.  As it currently stands, due to inadequate overall training and decreased morale within areas of the PLA, the enlisted and officer quality within the United States military is superior to those within the People’s Liberation Army.


            The primary reason why the Service Members (SMs) in the United States military are superior to the PLA is due to training, which is a broad category that encompasses many areas. The first area is how the current members of the PLA have not engaged in any recent wars since China’s last major conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Whereas, in the U.S., over 67% of the Army alone, as of 2008, had either deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.1  Additionally, further breaking this number down, more than 775,000 U.S. service members have deployed to Afghanistan at least once.2  The U.S. maintains a presence within other countries, also expanding the training for wartime situations having 200,000 active-service members deployed to at least 170 countries worldwide.3  Out of 1.3M total U.S. military, this figure equates to about 15%. Considering rotations about every two to three years, many members of the military gain the experience, knowledge, and training from being stationed overseas or on a combat deployment.

This lack of wartime training experience is essential because it is almost impossible to simulate warfare and gain that knowledge until someone engages in war. During combat, people will behave in ways that were not accurately anticipated or forecasted. Scenarios and situations will continuously change and evolve, reemphasizing the importance for members of the military to be ready to adjust to those changes. Carl von Clausewitz described this uncertainty and lack of understanding in what would later be known as the fog of war.4  This “fog” is the inability to see or understand what the enemy is doing with complete accuracy. While the PLA has not experienced actual combat, many other countries worldwide are, such as the United States, resulting in a significant gap for the PLA. The PLA has resorted to attempting to gain some war experience and reduce this gap by reading books on war.5 Having wartime experience helps the SMs who have been in a similar situation previously make informed decisions; the PLA cannot learn this knowledge to a level of actually participating in war through reading. While one cannot eliminate the fog of war, one can reduce it with experience. Peacetime training helps, but it can only do so much.

            The PLA’s primary attempt to overcome this lack of wartime experience and training is by conducting what they consider to be real combat drills. Over the past three years, China has undertaken hundreds of exercises to improve proficiency.6 However, the quality of the training requires some analysis. Service members in the U.S. military lead by the saying, “Train as you fight.” This phrase serves as a reminder to SMs that even though they are training in a non-combat zone, such as in garrison, they must place themselves mentally as if they were in a combat situation. This mentality leads to increased attention to the training, increased effort, and overall higher training quality. The point is to prepare the SMs for when they are in combat, so they have the best tools available from the training to execute the mission. However, the PLA, with their previously mentioned lack of warfare since 1979, can tend to fall into “peace disease,” where the SMs may believe they will always be in a peacetime environment.7 This mindset can lead to complacency during training exercises and a reduced level of effort. 

Additionally, since the PLA has not been in an actual conflict, they cannot frame the training as if they were in a combat scenario.  They do not have a visualization of what “right looks like.”  How can they train as they fight if they do not know what fighting looks like?  Overall, this potential to “go through the motions reduces the quality and overall effectiveness of the training.8  These training exercises must be productive for the PLA to become higher quality SMs.  Most importantly, this training experience is even more critical for leadership roles in preparation for wartime, especially in mission command.

The PLA struggles with training their leadership in the concept of mission command. Mission command is when a commander gives the guidance and intent to subordinates for them to make decisions without constant communications.9 The U.S. military uses mission command throughout all levels on an almost daily basis. Commanders are required to give the end state, and it is up to the subordinate to develop the plan of action to meet that end state. By frequently using mission command in a garrison environment, the U.S. SMs are trained better for war. 

Additionally, once the subordinates understand the expectations of their commanders, they can foresee, in many instances, what their commander would envision as an end state and execute in the absence of orders. While the path to get to the objective may be different than what the senior commander may have done, the outcome is the same. This experience allows the junior officer to think independently, utilize resources, and empower the people in the unit to achieve the result. Most importantly, this officer is making decisions. By continually using this in the garrison environment, the subordinates learn and are training, although many do not typically envision it as a training exercise. This absence of training and proficiency using mission command is quickly apparent in a combat situation when communication between commanders and subordinates breaks down, leading to mission failure.

In the PLA, the command structure is different from the U.S. and introduces additional factors, complicating the training gained from mission command. The PLA already understands that they may be some shortcomings in the current command structure since the senior civilian and military leaders have expressed concern about the command capabilities currently present.10  The PLA has a “traditional” military commander present for operational issues and has a political officer present for political matters at the company level and above. These two individuals share equal say in what occurs within the unit, and neither can make a unilateral decision.11 Additionally, if they violate this and fail to consult with each other on all decisions, they may be reported to the party committee where the decision would be subject to review.12 With this sort of system in place, the military commander is unable to exercise any initiative,  significantly degrading the leadership abilities of the officers in the PLA. Officers should be entrusted to analyze a situation and decide on an outcome based on the information that they possess, coupled with their prior experiences. This process will enable officers to grow and mature in their skills and knowledge. While officers (or humans in general) will not always make the correct decision, they can learn from their mistakes, as they would in battle. If the PLA were to go to war, these officers would not have the confidence or the ability to make sound decisions, especially if they are in a situation with high levels of pressure. It seems that the PLA is stuck in a cycle and is unable to break out of it.

The PLA is attempting to correct this and allow commanders more freedom to make decisions. However, even though the PLA is trying to have their cadre take the initiative on solving problems on their own, there is still the risk that the cadre will not be granted amnesty, thus jeopardizing their opportunities for advancement.13 Whether their actions and intent were intentional is open to interpretation. If the cadre was genuinely trying to do what was best, given the information at that time, superiors might not view the decision in the same light.  Given this scenario, the cadre still may be very hesitant to take the initiative. It will take some considerable time to give the cadre the confidence, based on the actions of senior leadership, and the word to spread amongst the cadre that the PLA senior leadership is holding to what they are saying.

If, as expected, a military loses communications systems in a war, the fog of war becomes even more significant. During these times, the reliance upon proper utilization of mission command will be even more invaluable because decisions are far less likely to be relayed up the chain for institutional contemplation and wisdom.14 There will not be adequate time to do this, even without a loss of communications. If relaying up the chain is attempted with every decision, possible enemy targets may evade sight, targets missed, or initiative lost. Given that the United States promotes initiative by commanders, the PLA system continues to centralize decisions, restricting freedom of action heavily.15 Without proper training in mission command, where will the orders arise from without communications? Who will lead the formation and understand what the unit needs to complete to seize the objective? Further complicating this, if two people in the unit must agree on a decision, or act unilaterally and face possible disciplinary action, they may lose more time, resulting in the same adverse outcomes. 

Why is this occurring in the PLA? Is it only the presence of two leaders present in the unit, or is it something additional? It seems it is more than just having the two leaders, as the capability of cadres at all levels is insufficient for commanding modern warfare.16 It appears that the lack of experience and training has created a systemic problem for the officers. If the higher leadership in the military is insufficient to command, how can they convey their commander’s intent? If they cannot give the goal, then the junior leadership will not learn the correct way to utilize mission command and will not become developed to lead at higher levels. This inability perpetuates the issue, creating a cycle of inadequate mission command training.

Additionally, some commanders cannot understand the intention of higher authorities and make operational decisions and deal with unexpected situations.17 This insufficiency also results from members of the PLA not having sufficient discipline in following orders and procedures.18 This inability to effectively communicate and understand higher orders is a detrimental quality of the PLA over the U.S. officers and enlisted. In a wartime situation, this would lead to mission failure. There is a need for the PLA to utilize better quality and focused training.

The final concern with training is the lack of quality and quantity for the training conducted by the PLA. To ensure quality training in the U.S. military, most SMs complete their training throughout a career at a centralized location where everyone receives the same standardized training. This centralized training helps to ensure uniformity in the training and ensure that everyone trains to the same standard. Therefore, when a SM goes to their unit, their leadership already knows their baseline training standard and what to expect from that individual. This routine creates a common operating picture throughout the military. 

However, in the PLA, there is a lack of emphasis on the centrality of training.19 They do not currently have centralized locations where everyone receives this standardized training to ensure that all SMs train to the same standard. Instead, the PLA would rely on the local unit, mostly at the brigade level, to conduct training for SMs. This localized training creates several issues, including ensuring that the SM is trained to the correct standard because different locations with different brigades will possess differing capabilities for training. Additionally, this would be an additional duty for whoever is training these SMs to have their typical day to day job, and then prepare the incoming people. Finally, there is no way to ensure a subject matter expert in every unit for every job to train these personnel. If there is one person in a unit with a specific skill set, who will train them? This lack of centralized training results in SMs taught and prepared to a lower level, making the U.S. SMs higher quality.

The PLA does not place adequate time or quantity for their military training. In the PLA, SMs spend 40% of their time in basic training on political activity.20 While the PLA views this as essential training, it does not provide the PLA SM with adequate military-focused training.  Essentially, the PLA has its personnel only 60% trained to perform military activities. Comparing this ratio to the U.S., which spends almost all of its time performing military training, shows the improved quantity of training, which is another reason why the U.S. is better trained.


One of the other significant issues in the PLA is the morale of the service members (SM).21 There is currently a high attrition rate for mid-career soldiers because of the limited range of opportunities the PLA provides for professional development, continuing education, and skills to serve the soldier after returning to civilian life.22 As a result of this low morale, the better-quality SMs are unlikely to join voluntarily. The higher quality PLA conscripts are likely to exit upon completing their obligation period, leaving the remaining SMs as lower quality members. The U.S. military, while certainly not perfect, continuously works to improve the quality of life and benefits for the military to attempt to retain high-quality personnel. One of the areas of tension that I have witnessed is keeping high-quality medical providers in the U.S. military. In many instances, the providers see the additional income they can earn outside the military in the civilian sector, so the military continuously has to assess the different bonuses paid to medical providers and compare these wages to the civilian sector. While the military cannot match the salaries of the civilian sector, they have to be relatively close; so when the service member weighs in the additional benefits such as training, retirement, and healthcare, they will be enticed to remain in the service.

            Since many SMs are exiting the PLA military, around 400,000 each year, there is a high demand for conscripts each year.23   With a total force in the PLA of about two million, there is approximately a 20% turnover every year. With this high number of turnover, any unit would have a difficult time maintaining combat readiness. Conversely, the U.S. Military comprises about 1.4 million service members and about 200,000 transition out for a 14% turnover. Even in the U.S. military, training and readiness are complicated, with a 14% turnover.  The 6% additional turnover in the PLA is a significant number leaving the force each year. Additionally, more workforce and funding are required to train these other service members, which the military could utilize elsewhere. This turnover decreases the morale in a unit due to continuously training new personnel in the unit.

            This high attrition rate also has secondary issues for the recruiting and suitability of new members of the PLA, further lowering the morale. With the high number of people needed each year, there has become additional problems with finding people that can serve in the military. In China, air pollution levels and modern sedentary lifestyles have reportedly reached such severe levels that health and lung strength impair broad swaths of society, even among what would typically expect to be healthy segments of the population.24  Furthermore, many people that want to join the military are unable to medically, as more than 23% of the applicants failed to pass the eyesight exam. In comparison, 19% were either obese or underweight, resulting in the PLA lowering their entrance standards.25 These lowered standards result in decreased quality service members, and also an increase in conscription if people are unable to voluntarily join due to physical conditions that exceed the reduced standard. Conversely, in the U.S. military, 100% of the force volunteered to serve, resulting in higher overall morale.

            Another demoralizing aspect of the PLA is the widespread “pay to play” scandal over several years and possibly as late as 2017 instead of a merit-based system for promotion.26 Knowing this information in the PLA would be demoralizing because those individuals without the means to pay for the promotion will not get promoted as those who do have the financial resources. Additionally, why would they think their leadership is competent, knowing that they probably bribed their way to the top? Those individuals promoted without paying would be demoralized for working hard throughout their career, while others got a free pass. Furthermore, outsiders and subordinates would view those that legitimately earned their promotion as being corrupt, even though they were not. This negative mindset that the senior officers all paid to get promoted will take many years to correct and overcome this factor that is reducing morale. 

            Conversely, in the U.S. military, there is the mindset and inspiring viewpoint that promotions are merit-based. With an independent board voting on individual records, and then scoring each candidate, an order of merit list determines who gets promoted. In the past, possible discriminatory information was removed from the individual’s record to reduce biases among the board members. Examples of this would include items such as marital status and religion. Additionally, only a few months ago, the Army decided to remove an individual’s official photo from boards to reduce any other biases, such as those based on race or gender. 

            Another demoralizing aspect in the PLA is how they do not use Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) as leaders, as the U.S. military does. For example, the PLA tends to use NCOs as technical specialists, and they do not seem to be moving away from that tendency.27  This treatment is demoralizing to these NCOs because they chose to stay beyond the conscription period through passing difficult exams and requirements, and are they are still viewed as technical personnel. They are not comfortable interacting with officers and other leaders and are not involved in making decisions within the unit. In the PLA, senior leadership does not entrust them to lead the junior military members, which is the opposite of the U.S. military. In the U.S., once a SM becomes a NCO, seniors view them as leaders, entrusting them with making decisions and taking the responsibility of leading junior troops. In the U.S., these NCOs will interact with officers and other leadership, making recommendations for courses of action and anticipated outcomes, which empowers the NCO.

            Overall, the PLA recognizes their deficiencies, and they are attempting to correct these between 2035 and 2050 to become a recognized world military power. However, with the inherent nature of the PLA, they may not be able to correct all of these. They need to work on increasing the morale of the members to attract better candidates. Additionally, they must also work on all aspects of the training mentioned previously. Some of these training areas will be more difficult to correct than others. For instance, to fix the wartime experience training, the PLA will need to engage in real-world scenarios to assess how their military currently performs. Also, the PLA will need to reassess how they utilize their NCOs, as they must give them additional leadership responsibilities. Finally, the PLA needs to correct the quality and quantity of training to create competent SMs in the PLA. Until the PLA updates all of these deficiencies, the U.S. military officers and enlisted will continue to be of superior quality to those in the PLA.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric Danko
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Danko is currently a Dental Corps staff officer at the Army Office of The Surgeon General's (OTSG) office at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, VA. Prior to attending the Air War College, he commanded the 673rd Dental Company, Area Support at Joint Base Lewis McChord.  The mission of the 673rd is to provide deployed dental services to Service Members in a deployed environment.  Prior to that assignment, LTC Danko was the commander of dental services at Fort Huachuca, AZ..

This article was written as part of an AWC elective class on China.



1. Timothy Bonds, Dave Baiocchi, and Laurie McDonald, Army Deployments to OIF and OEF. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010: 53.

2. Dan Lamonthe, “How 775,000 U.S. troops fought in one war: Afghanistan military deployments by the numbers,” The Washington Post, September 11, 2019.

3. Niall McCarthy, “All the Countries Worldwide With a U.S. Military Presence [Infographic],” Forbes, March 28, 2017.

4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 101.

5. Rocky, ed., “Shenyang Military Region Commander Zhang Youxia Interprets the New Revolution of Military Training in the New Period,” People’s Daily, accessed September 11, 2020,

6. Yao Jianing, ed., “Xi Brings Strength, Integrity to Chinese Armed Forces,” accessed September 11, 2020,

7. “Strengthen Political Consciousness and Resolve to Cure “Peace Disease,” China Military Network Ministry of Defense Network, July 2, 2018,

8. Dennis Blasko, “PLA Weaknesses and Xi’s Concerns About PLA Capabilities,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 7, 2019: 4.

9. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, October 22, 2018: xv.

10. Dennis Blasko, “PLA Weaknesses and Xi’s Concerns About PLA Capabilities,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 7, 2019: 2.

11. U.S. Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, “The Culture of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” 2009: xiv.

12. Chang Yongfu, “Company Party Branch,” in Song Shilun and Xiao Ke, eds., Chinese Military Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 237.  Quoted in Marcus Clay, “It’s Not Just Propaganda: Understanding the Political Officers of the PLA,” China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI).

13. China Military Network, “The General Office of the Central Military Commission Issued the Implementation Opinions on Further Incentivizing the Cadres of the Whole Army to Take New Roles in the New Era,” January 2, 2019.

14. Martin Dempsey, Mission Command White Paper, April 3, 2012: 4.

15. Shane Smith, Thomas Henderschedt, and Timothy Luedecking, “Reverse Engineering Goldwater-Nichols: China’s Joint Force Reforms,” JFQ 90, (3rd Quarter 2018): 80.

16. “12 Questions on the Goal Concerning Building Strong Armed Forces That Should Be Known and Answered,” Vanguard News, August 13, 2013: 1. Quoted in Michael Chase et al., China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015: 75.

17. Dennis Blasko, “PLA Weaknesses and Xi’s Concerns About PLA Capabilities,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 7, 2019: 17.

18. “Cheerful Sight on Training Field, Intense Real Combat Atmosphere,” People’s Armed Forces, May 28, 2013: 2. Quoted in Michael Chase et al., China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015: 75.

19. “Unflagging Efforts to Solve Real Difficulties With Combat-Realistic Training,” PLA Daily, November 29, 2016. Quoted in Dennis Blasko, “PLA Weaknesses and Xi’s Concerns About PLA Capabilities,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 7, 2019: 13.

20. Wang Yuwei ed., “The General Political Department issued a notice requesting the whole army and armed police forces strengthen the ideological and political education of recruits,” September 30, 2013.

21. Michael Chase et al., China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015: xi.

22. Michael Chase et al., China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015: 54.

23. Marcus Clay and Dennis Blasko, “People Win Wars: The PLA Enlisted Force and Other Related Matters,” July 31, 2020.

24. Michael Chase et al., China's Incomplete Military Transformation: Assessing the Weaknesses of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2015: 59.

25. Zheng Xin, “Students Fail Army Fitness Standards,” August 13, 2013.

26. Roderick Lee ed. and trans., “Building the Next Generation of Chinese Military Leaders,” China Aerospace Studies Institute, for Air War College Strategic Leadership and the Profession of Arms Course (unpublished). May 24, 2020: 1.

27. Kevin McCauley, “Reforming the People’s Liberation Army’s Noncommissioned Officer Corps and Conscripts,” China Brief Volume 11 (20), October 28, 2011.

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