Noncommissioned Officers and the Creation of a Volunteer Force

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 18

NCO Skill Appraisal

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is conducting a major reform of the Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) corps in recognition of the key role NCOs can play supporting force modernization, warfighting and new missions. Since 1999, quality improvements and a significant expansion of the NCO corps are creating a more professional and volunteer military force with a decreasing reliance on two-year conscripts, recruits and volunteers (Xinhua, March 23, 2005) This year’s white paper “China’s National Defense in 2010,” as well as a series of PLA press reports marking the new guidelines for NCO management over the last few months have highlighted the importance of developing a quality NCO corps, as well as problems in attracting and training skilled personnel [1]. This article examines the development of a professional NCO corps and its impact on PLA modernization and warfighting capabilities.

The Noncommissioned Officer Corps: A Brief History

The PLA believes that establishing a large, skilled, professional NCO corps is necessary to support the construction of an informationized military and win modern wars; meet complex security threats and diversified military tasks; create a pool of qualified personnel to operate and maintain high-tech weapons and equipment; and cultivate high-quality squad leaders to support more independent operations at the tactical level (PLA Daily, November 4, 2009; August 24, 2009; Xinhua, December 27, 2004). Increased numbers of NCOs who have been given improved training, education and technical skills will support all the services and branches, particularly the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Navy (PLAN) and PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF). These are modernizing to a greater extent and with more advanced equipment than the ground forces. These NCO squad leaders will command at the tactical level and lead squads in combat in ground force, airborne and marine combined arms battalions.

The PLA issued the first “Military Service Law of the People’s Republic of China” in 1955 creating a separate compulsory military service system along with the existing volunteer system. The law stipulated length of military service and established the grades and ranks of the enlisted force that lasted until the start of the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, the PLA combined conscripts and volunteers into a single system that allowed conscripts to remain as volunteer soldiers for a total of 16 years. This was the beginning of a nascent NCO system [2].

The 1988 “Regulations for PLA Active-Duty Enlisted Personnel” established the system of preferential treatment and demobilization for both conscripts and volunteer soldiers. These regulations also reestablished the system of grades and ranks for the enlisted force. Officers who remained on active duty became known as noncommissioned officers (shiguan) [4].

The General Staff Department (GSD) established six NCO schools that offer two-year high school equivalency and three-year associate degree programs. By the late 2000s the GSD had also added two- and three-year NCO programs to 29 of the PLA’s 67 officer academic institutions (Xinhua, July 18, 2005). In 1995 the GSD and Ministry of Labor issued trial methods for implementing occupational skill requirements for technical soldiers in a further effort to improve the force (PLA Daily, November 4, 2009; January 14, 2008).

Establishing a large group of personnel with advanced technical skills is critical to support the increasing pace of PLA modernization. Changing tactical doctrine and new missions such as counterterrorism, maintaining stability, disaster relief and peace keeping also require high-tech capabilities and greater leadership skills at the lowest echelon (PLA Daily, November 4, 2009). In 1999, these developments—and the PLA’s assessment that the original volunteer servicemen system was too narrow in scope and limited in scale—lead the PLA to initiate extensive reform and expansion of the NCO corps. This reform included improvements in the selection process, training, administration and benefits to attract and retain qualified personnel that continue to the present to support the PLA’s transformation efforts (PLA Daily, November 4, 2009; October 13, 2004).

The revised conscription law that went into effect in 1999 reduced the compulsory service period of all enlisted personnel to two years. The shortened service period resulted in the demobilization of conscripts just when they have achieved competency at their position, only to be replaced by an influx of untrained conscripts, thus reducing the combat readiness and capability of units. This development added to the importance of establishing a large, technically skilled NCOs corps to maintain continuity and combat readiness in an increasingly high-tech force and reduce the reliance on conscripts (Xinhua, July 14, 2009). NCOs have been selected primarily from conscripts who have completed two years of compulsory service, although this is beginning to change as the PLA recruits civilians with specialized skills and higher educational levels directly as NCOs (Xinhua, March 23, 2005).

Current Developments

NCOs hold specialized technical and squad leader positions. The number of authorized NCOs in the PLA has risen from a few hundred thousand in 1999 to more than 800,000 in 2009 and, now, may be closer to 900,000 (Xinhua, July 14, 2009; PLA Daily, November 12, 2008). In July 2011 the PLA reported that more than half the enlisted personnel were NCOs (PLA Daily, July 18). This expansion of the NCO corps is creating a more professional volunteer force, despite some lingering problems. According to the PLA, NCOs comprise 80 percent of the complement on some naval ships,and more than 80 percent of NCOs hold important professional posts (PLA Daily, April 20; November 12, 2008). They account for 58 percent of enlisted personnel under the General Logistics Department, fill all squad leader positions and constitute over 60 percent of troops in high-tech units (PLA Daily, November 12, 2008; July 2, 2006).

The percentage of NCOs in the PLAAF, PLAN and PLASAF likely approach 60 percent of the enlisted force, although the numbers will vary between units within the services and branches. For example, infantry, antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missile and airborne units probably have lower percentages of NCOs than high tech units such as communications, radar, aviation, surface-to-surface missiles and combat vessels (People’s Daily, January 10, 2006). During PLA restructuring, NCOs filled a few hundred thousand officer positions in an effort to rebalance the ratio of officer to enlisted personnel (PLA Daily, November 12, 2008).

Subsidies and other compensations were added in 1999 to increase retirement and demobilization benefits and welfare policies. These include insurance, housing and medical benefits to attract and retain qualified personnel. Pay and benefits also have been raised, dependent housing improved and rules on vacation and leave adjusted (PLA Daily, November 12, 2008). NCOs, in some but not all specialties, can now have a military career serving a maximum of 30 years (Xinhua, October 4, 2009).

New NCO Rank Structure

NCO ranks

Maximum Service Time in Years

Service Grades



Junior NCO


Sergeant First Class


Intermediate NCO

Master Sergeant Class Four

Master Sergeant Class Three

More than 14

Senior NCO

Master Sergeant Class Two

Master Sergeant Class One

The PLA is upgrading and adjusting all of its current academic institutions and training programs with additional financial support and training resources to resolve several problems, such as a low NCO training rate and insufficient resources to train NCOs for high-tech equipment maintenance and repair. The PLA also plans an expansion of NCO schools. Classroom training is combined with on-the-job training, correspondence or on-line training and use of local educational resources (PLA Daily, November 4, 2009). In 2002, the PLA began requiring NCOs to increase the number of specialties and skills they have in order to receive a promotion to the next level. For example, command NCOs must have "three specialties and four skills" and technical NCOs must have "one specialty and multiple skills" (PLA Daily, September 11, 2002).

Since 1999, the PLA has identified a number of continuing challenges for establishing a large and high quality NCO corps. The PLA has initiated a series of reforms and adjustments to address the selection process, education and training, management and pay and benefits. Recent reports however indicate problems continue to hinder attracting, retaining and training highly skilled personnel (PLA Daily, August 16; July 10; June 27, January 25). The process of reforms and adjustments to the NCO corps will likely last a considerable time.

PLA Air Force NCOs

PLAAF conscripts can enter the NCO corps by selection based on merit or by passing an entrance at a PLAAF officer college or the PLAAF’s Dalian Communications NCO School (Xinhua, January 20, 2009). The PLAAF also targets technical schools affiliated with the aircraft industry for recruiting NCOs. For example, the Air Force Military Vocational University was established in 2008 to provide a wide range of educational opportunities to serving officers, NCOs and compulsory servicemen with promotions tied to course completion (PLA Daily, July 4, 2008). In addition to serving in technical positions in aviation, communications and radar units, NCOs also are filling posts previously held by junior officers, such as mess officers. In addition, they help train conscripts and junior NCOs; serve as acting platoon leaders and maintenance flight leaders; and serve as squad leaders [5].


The Navy Bengbu NCO School trains Navy and Marine NCOs. The NCO school is a technical school with two or three year programs including chemical defense, communications, navigation, logistics, machinery, mechanical/electrical and weapons courses. It received upgrades in 2000 including information technology improvements (Xinhua, January 20, 2009; PLA Daily, August 12, 2002). NCOs can also attend a two or three year program at one of six PLAN officer academies. Many PLAN NCOs hold technical posts, but they also include trainers, commanding officers on some smaller support vessels, acting platoon leaders and squad leaders (PLA Daily, August 13, 2009) [6].

PLA Ground Force NCOs

The ground forces have three NCO schools: the Beijing Maintenance NCO School, the Wuhan Ordnance NCO School and the Xuanhua NCO Communications School. The specialized technical NCOs graduating from these three NCO schools provide equipment support, including field repair of advanced equipment in the ground forces (PLA Daily, April 5, 2007). NCO squad leaders within the ground forces support a changing doctrine at the tactical level. Efforts to make maneuver battalions operate more independently is placing greater responsibilities on both officers and NCO squad leaders to coordinate and fight an increasingly complex combined arms battle (PLA Daily, October 9, 2010). NCOs also are supporting battalion staffs during exercises to make up for the limited number of officers assigned to that echelon (PLA Daily, August 16, 2010).

PLA Second Artillery Force NCOs

The Second Artillery Qingzhou NCO School had more than 700 graduating students in 2010 in key technical areas, including missiles, satellite communications and electronic warfare; provides courses on more than twenty new types of equipment; and conducts field and simulation training (PLA Daily, August 16, 2010; November 4, 2009; Xinhua, January 20, 2009). NCOs conduct maintenance and repair to the key technical areas and equipment taught at the Qingzhou NCO School, as well as operating the equipment. PLASAF NCOs also provide support during emergency and disaster relief operations (Jiefangjun Bao, November 3, 2009).


The PLA recognizes that developing a professional NCO corps is critical to the success of its effort to create a modern, informationized military, meet new missions and implement doctrinal change at the tactical level. The expansion of the NCO corps increasingly is creating a volunteer force, with a decreasing reliance on two-year conscripts. The large NCO corps provides a large skilled force to operate and maintain advanced equipment as well as mitigates the effects of the yearly influx of untrained conscripts. This helps maintain a higher level of unit readiness, and allows units to progress more rapidly into complex training and exercises.

The PLA has created NCO schools, NCO programs at officer academic institutions and correspondence courses to provide more advanced education for the increasingly professional NCO corps. These technical NCOs appear to be making the greatest contribution to PLA transformation efforts, especially in the PLAAF, PLAN and PLASAF. NCO contributions to leadership within the PLA, however, are limited to the lowest tactical levels.

While the NCO corps is better positioned to support modernization goals as more high tech equipment is developed, there are significant issues that are affecting the quality and limiting the impact of the NCO corps. PLA reforms and adjustments since 1999 have attempted to redress these problems, but the development of a fully professional and highly skilled NCO corps is still in its early stages and will require considerable time to complete.


  1. The PLA Daily ran a series of articles in August 2011 on NCO development including continuing issues hindering the quality of the NCO corps. Additional articles in that paper included the following:  “Winning ‘Battle of Noncommissioned Officers’—First Commentary on Vigorously Strengthening the Construction of Noncommissioned Officer Teams", July 18; “Newly revised NCO management regulations issued,” June 27; “Raise the Building of the Noncommissioned Officer Contingents to a New Level,” July 10; and and “NCO selection qualification system to be implemented in 2012,” January 25.
  2. Military Science, Vol. 2, Chinese Military Encyclopedia, Beijing: Academy of Military Sciences Publishing House, July 1997, p. 563.
  3. Ibid., pp. 401-405.
  4. People’s Liberation Army Air Force 2010, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, August 1, 2010.
  5. China’s Navy 2007, Office of Naval Intelligence. This document can be found at