Chinese Air Force Officer Recruitment, Education and Training

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 22

PLAAF National Defense Students in Training

As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to emphasize the need to raise the quality of its personnel, analyzing the recruitment, education and training of the officer corps becomes all the more important for assessing Chinese military modernization, especially for the technology-dependent PLA Air Force (PLAAF). Based on the available information, it is unclear whether the PLAAF has succeeded in reforming officer recruitment, education and training to build a more highly-educated officer corps capable of commanding, operating and supporting a growing high-tech force in a combined-arms and joint environment.  It is clear however that a number of challenges remain, including limited opportunities for joint training in the academy and a lack of centralized management.

PLAAF officers come from military academic institutions, a Defense Student (Reserve Officer) Program and direct recruitment of civilian graduates. The PLAAF, which has multiple officer academic institutions, separates its education and training system at each level (cadet, basic, intermediate and advanced) based on the five officer career tracks: military/command, political, logistics, equipment and special technical. Whereas all PLAAF academic institution graduates receive their specialty training as a cadet, Defense Students and directly recruited graduates must receive their specialty training after graduation. In addition, almost all new officers serve a one-year probationary period and must serve at least eight years before leaving the military.

Finally, as the PLAAF continues to build up the size and education level of its NCO corps with civilian college students and graduates and increases the number of officers from the Defense Student Program, it has greatly reduced the number of enlisted personnel chosen to become officers after attending an officer academic institution.

To address these issues, this article is organized into the following seven sections. Recruitment, education and training for pilot cadets will be covered in a later China Brief article.

  1. Education and training goals and management
  2. Non-aviation cadets
  3. PLAAF officers from other PLA academic institutions
  4. Direct recruiting of civilian college graduates
  5. Defense Student (Reserve Officer) Program
  6. Post-graduation assignments, education, training, grades and ranks
  7. Party membership

Education and Training Goals and Management

Since the late 1990s, the PLA’s overall education and training goal for its officer corps is to train commanding officers for joint operations and high-level support officers in technological innovation (China‘s National Defense in 2010). To help accomplish this, the PLA has reduced the number of officer and noncommissioned officer (NCO) military academic institutions to 67, which are divided into two types: those for academic credentials and those for pre-assignment education. The former offers undergraduate education for pre-commission officers and graduate education for officers. The latter consists of basic-, intermediate- and advanced-level officer institutions and offers pre-assignment training and rotational training for active-duty officers (China‘s National Defense in 2006).

In addition to reorganizing its officer academic institutions, the Central Military Commission (CMC) and State Council also implemented the Defense Student (Reserve Officer) Program in 2000, which currently has programs in 117 civilian universities, including 19 PLAAF programs. In 2006, the PLAAF set the goal of having 60 percent of all new officers come from civilian academic institution graduates, which included 40 percent from the Defense Student Program and 20 percent from direct recruitment of other civilian graduates (Beijing Kaoshi Bao, September 1, 2006).

Based on analysis of multiple sources, one of the major problems with this goal is that the PLA and PLAAF academic institutions are managed by the General Staff Department’s (GSD’s) Military Training and Service Arms Department and the PLAAF Headquarters Department’s Military Training Department, respectively, but the Defense Student Program is managed by the General Political Department’s (GPD’s) Cadre Department and the PLAAF Political Department’s Cadre Department. As a result, there is virtually no oversight of the Defense Student Program by the training organizations [1].

Non-Aviation Cadets

Although the PLAAF directly recruits its pilot cadets, it selects its non-aviation cadets based on how well they score on the National Unified College Entrance Examination as well as the results of a political reliability review. These personnel come from high school graduates, two-year enlistees who have served one year, NCOs who have served two to three years, as well as the children of military officers who have served on the border for 20 years and pilots and crew members who have served a full career (PLAAF Officers Handbook, 2006).

The PLAAF’s non-aviation cadets can attend one of the following academic institutions (PLAAF Officers Handbook, 2006):

  • PLAAF Command College
  • Air Force Engineering University (Natural Science College, Engineering College, Surface-to-Air Missile College and Telecommunications EngineeringCollege)
  • Xuzhou (Logistics) College
  • Guilin (AAA and Airborne) College
  • Early Warning (Radar) College
  • 1st Technical (Aircraft Maintenance) College

Although most cadets receive a four-year bachelor’s degree, some technical track cadets receive only a three-year senior technical (associate’s) degree; however, the PLAAF is aiming to have all cadets receive a bachelor’s degree. PLAAF non-aviation officers receive their education and specialty training as cadets and are then assigned directly to their operational unit. Cadets also receive a small monthly stipend for living expenses  (PLAAF Officers Handbook, 2006).

PLAAF Officers from Other PLA Academic Institutions

The PLAAF occasionally receives officers who served as cadets at non-PLAAF academic institutions, including the CMC’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) and the General Armament Department’s Academy of Equipment and Command Technology (AECT). Most of the PLAAF officers who graduate from NUDT receive their degree from the College of Aerospace and Materials Engineering. AECT educates and trains cadets primarily for Army equipment management, advanced engineering technologies and China’s ground-based space facilities. One difference between the two institutions is that all cadets at NUDT wear Army uniforms, while cadets at AECT can wear Air Force uniforms [2].

In addition, some PLAAF officers who have graduated from a PLAAF academic institution, NUDT, or AECT can return to NUDT or AECT for graduate studies [3].

Direct Recruitment of Civilian Graduates

The PLAAF’s goal in 2010 was to recruit 20 percent of its new officers from civilian college graduates with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, but it is not clear if it met this goal. Since 1998, more than 5,000 civilian graduates have joined the PLAAF. Many of these students were enrolled in the “211 Project,” which is a civilian education reform program that was part of China’s 9th Five-Year Plan (1996–2000). The stated goal is to raise the research standards of high-level universities and cultivate strategies for socio-economic development (Xinhua, January 19, 2005).

The Political Department accepts applications by all direct recruits in late August. In addition, individual units are allowed to recruit personnel to meet their requirements (PLAAF Officer Handbook, 2006). Depending on their career track and specialty, graduates must receive basic military-political and pre-billet specialty training, which includes 3-12 months of military-political training at a PLAAF academic institution followed by 2-3 months of probation, which includes basic specialty and on-the-job training in the billet at their new unit (Xinhua, December 24, 2007).

In addition, if the wife of a pilot has an appropriate college degree, she can be directly recruited as an officer. Most of these spouses serve in support billets, such as logistics, weather and administration (Zhongguo Guinü Bao, September 6, 2006).

Defense Student (Reserve Officer) Program

In 1998, the PLA initiated a Defense Student (guofangsheng) Program, which is also called the Reserve Officer (houbei junguan) Program, in a few civilian universities. In May 2000, the State Council and CMC issued the “Decision Concerning Establishing a System for Civilian Colleges to Educate and Train Military Officers.” To date, the PLA has created programs in 117 civilian universities, including 19 PLAAF programs each of which has its own website (People’s Net, September 27, September 19).

Goals: In April 2007, the GPD Cadre Department stated that the PLA’s goal was to have 60 percent of all new officers in 2010 come from the Defense Student Program (Xinhua, April 30, 2007). It does not appear, however, that the PLA met this goal. A November 2009 Jiefangjun Bao article stated that the PLA’s officer corps receives about 100,000 graduates per year, of which 70 percent come from military academic institutions and 30 percent from the Defense Student Program (PLA Daily, November 30, 2009).

In September 2006, the PLAAF stated that its goal in 2010 was to have 60 percent of its officers come from civilian college graduates, but two-thirds of this 60 percent (40 percent of all officers) was to come from the Defense Student Program and one-third (20 percent of all officers) from direct recruitment of civilian college graduates (Beijing Kaoshi Bao, September 1, 2006). As of September 2011, the PLAAF had recruited 21,000 Defense Students, of which 13,000 had graduated (People’s Net, September 19). Accounting for approximately 6,000 students still in the program, this equates to a 90 percent graduation rate. Unfortunately, the PLAAF does not publish figures for the total number of new officers who have graduated from military and civilian academic institutions, so the percentage of Defense Students within this total is not known.

Although the regulations state that at least 70 percent of the graduates must earn a science and engineering degree, it appears that it is closer to 100 percent. Yet another goal is to have at least 70 percent of the graduates assigned to division and lower units [4]. Finally, the number of female students is limited to a maximum of 5 percent (Xinhua, December 24, 2007).

Monetary Assistance: In 2000, Defense Students began receiving 5,000 RMB ($780) per year, of which 3,000 RMB ($470) was for tuition given directly to the university and 2,000 RMB ($310) was for living expenses. In 2009, the amount doubled to 10,000 RMB ($1,560), but it is not clear how it was divided.

Education and Training [5]: Although the goal is to recruit new students for a four-year program, some students do not begin until their third year. During their four-year program, PLAAF students must complete 488 hours of classroom study and 59 days of military skills and physical training. All students also live in a military dormitory on campus and attend their military classes in a Defense Student building.

All new students receive 15 days of military-political training conducted at the university or a PLAAF organization, which includes wearing the uniform, political instruction, regulations, marching and formations, small arms training and physical training.

During their second- and third-year, students receive summer group training at a site off-campus or at a military unit, which includes physical training, marching, field training, small arms and observation of technical skills. Just before graduation, students must complete a physical training exam. They also deploy to an operational unit for four days of training.

Upon graduation, the Defense Students are assigned to an operational unit, a PLAAF academic institution, or a training unit where they receive their specialty training. In addition, about 40 percent of Defense Students move directly to graduate school.

Post-graduation Assignments, Education, Training, Grades and Ranks

According to the PRC Active Duty Officer Law, all graduates from military and civilian academic institutions must serve for a minimum of eight years [6]. Whereas cadets in military academic institution are considered active duty and their student time counts toward total time-in-service, cadets in the Defense Student Program are not considered active duty and their time-in-service does not begin until the day they graduate.

Excluding new officers who are assigned to remote areas, all other new officers must serve their first year on probation (jianxi). Depending on their specialty and career track, they receive training in different locations. For example, some Defense Students must receive training at a military academic institution for 3 to 12 months (National Defense Students’ Comprehensive Information Net, July 5, 2010). New officers who have graduated from a military academic institution are assigned based on their respective specialty to a company-level unit, where they learn from their peers. Command track officers are first assigned as a squad leader [e.g., an NCO billet] and  then as a platoon commander or equivalent billet. After serving their probationary period, they receive the commensurate rank and grade, which is retroactive to the day they graduated.

Depending on their career track and specialty, new officers can be assigned different grades and ranks:

  • The grade of platoon leader or technical grade 14 with the rank of second lieutenant
  • The grade of company deputy leader or technical grade 13 with the rank of first lieutenant.

As officers move up their career ladder, they receive various types of professional military education (PME), which is divided by career track. Whereas officers in the command track receive their PME at the PLAAF Command College in Beijing, support officers return to their specialty college. PME includes basic, intermediate and advanced programs, which can include a one-year diploma, a two- to three-year master’s degree or a doctorate [7]. The Air Force Command College holds multi-national four-month courses as a means to learn about foreign air forces (Global Times, January 16, 2010).

Party Membership

Finally, not all PLA officers are Communist Party members, where membership requires two years of preparation and training. Most officers who choose to become Party members begin the process during their first year as a cadet [8]. All officers in the command and political track and any leadership billets must be a Party member to serve on a Party committee. Because many officers in the special technical career track, including almost all Defense Student graduates, do not serve in a leadership role, they do not have to become a Party member. As a result, only 60 percent of Defense Student graduates are Party members [9].


It is unclear whether the PLAAF has been meeting its goal over the past decade of restructuring its officer recruitment, education and training system to build a more highly educated officer corps at all levels capable of commanding, operating and supporting a growing high-tech force in a combined-arms and joint environment.

Although the PLAAF has restructured its education and training system, it still separates undergraduates, as well as officers receiving different levels of PME, by career tracks, which reduces the opportunity for officers in different specialties to interact. Moreover, the PLAAF has almost no joint PME courses with the Army, Navy and Second Artillery until corps-level command track officers attend the NationalDefense University.

To help prepare new officers to assume their billets immediately after graduation, the PLAAF has begun shifting undergraduate courses in its military academic institutions from education based on theory (xueli jiaoyu) to professional education (renzhi jiaoyu) with more hands-on training.  Whether this has been successful cannot yet be determined.

The PLAAF’s 19 Defense Student Programs are designed to bring in more support officers with science and engineering degrees, but coordination and focus is lacking because they are run by the Political Department not the Training Department. With an approximate 90 percent graduation rate, the PLAAF is meeting its goals in terms of numbers and a high percentage of these students remain in school to obtain a graduate degree. Upon graduation, they then receive their specialty training at a PLAAF academic institution or an operational unit below the division level.


  1. He Zongfa, Dong Jinhai and Wang Zhanhe, "Dui jin yi bu tigao guofangsheng xuanba peiyang zheliang de jidian sikao" [A few thoughts on improving the selection and training of national defense students], Jiaoxue yanjiu [Education research], Vol. 3, No. 3, 2008
  2. Based on author’s observations and an amateur documentary about the schools,
  3. See, for example, Senior Colonel Yu Nong,
  4. National Defense Student website for Southwest University
  5. The information in this section comes from a survey of PLAAF Defense Student websites.
  6. The information in this section comes from A Guide for Applicants to Military Academic Institutions and Civilian College National Defense Student Program, Beijing: PLA Press, January 2005, as well as multiple websites
  7. Yuan Wei, Zhang Zhuo, ed. History of the Development of Chinese Military Academies and Schools, Beijing: NDU Press, July 2001, p. 914-915.
  8. Multiple sources, including author’s interviews with PLA officers
  9. PLA General Political Department, China’s Defense Student Program, PLA Press, 2008, p. 69.