It is a truism that organizational culture can be a decisive factor in determining a military’s fate on the battlefield, but its intangibility and qualitative nature make analyzing a military’s culture difficult, particularly from the outside. However, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently published several articles reporting instances of successful cultural change in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). These articles reveal some of the cultural problems that units in the PLAAF had, problems that reduced their combat effectiveness and even defeated the purpose of their training. Nevertheless, given the nature of the medium in which the articles were published, it is likely that they were published to provide other units examples to emulate, so it is also likely that the same cultural problems that were reportedly remedied still exist throughout the PLAAF and the PLA as a whole.
Units Profiled in the PLA’s Paper of Record
All of the articles were published in the PLA Daily (解放军报, Jiefangjun Bao), the mouthpiece of the PLA’s Central Military Commission (CMC), which is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Defense. The first three articles were published as a series concerning units that are subordinate to the same unspecified base in the PLAAF’s Western Theater Air Force (WTAF); the fourth article concerns an aviation brigade of the WTAF whose subordination is unknown. The base could be one of three air defense bases under the WTAF. The PLAAF’s air defense bases are commands, not installations, that are like the U.S. Air Force’s numbered air forces, but that also command surface-to-air missile brigades. The fourth piece in this series concerned a flight group of an aviation brigade that also falls under the WTAF. The PLAAF’s aviation brigades and flight groups are hierarchically equivalent to the U.S. Air Force’s wings and squadrons, respectively, but possess fewer aircraft than their American counterparts.
Eliminating Pointless Precision
The first article in the series concerns “precision that is removed from [the conditions of] real war” or just pointless precision (PLA Daily, February 11). It begins by describing how an aircrew attacked a bridge in a recent drill. Instead of the “traditional” way of bombing the surface of the bridge with many bombs, the aircrew targeted a pillar supporting the bridge to efficiently destroy the bridge. This example illustrates how the aircrew’s unit has changed the criteria by which it assesses its pilots’ performance of air-to-surface strikes.
The change reflects the demands of war versus the impractical demands of past practice. In “the past,” when an aircrew would practice dropping live ordnance, targets were all fixed targets of a single type (PLA Daily, February 11). Moreover, the approach to the target, the altitude from which ordnance would be dropped, and even the time at which an aircrew would arrive over the target were all codified or predetermined. Aircrews were assessed based on how precisely they executed a strike according to these rules and plans. Needless to say, a pilot could only be expected to do so precisely flying unopposed and in good weather conditions. Assessing pilots in this way was essentially like assessing the skill of an infantryman by how well he fires his rifle on a range: it still requires skill, but does not reflect combat performance. However, now the unit assesses aircrews by criteria such as the appropriateness of the munition for the target and the duration of the effects that the strike would achieve, and aircrews are encouraged to execute strike missions flexibly.
Changing Attitudes towards Victory and Defeat
The second and third articles in the PLA Daily series are closely related as they both concern attitudes towards victory and defeat. The second article focuses on after-action reviews. It starts by detailing an engagement between an air defense unit and aircraft from an aviation unit. The air defense unit’s radars were suppressed by jamming and lost the engagement, but the unit calmly accepted its defeat and sought to learn from the loss (PLA Daily, February 13). The aviation unit, on the other hand, sought to determine what aspects of its success could be attributed to luck. This example illustrates how the base’s units now value the lessons to be learned from defeats and victories in training exercises rather than just defeats themselves. However, the leaders of the aviation unit recalled that, in “the past,” problems identified in after-action reviews often went unresolved. In order to make sure that lessons are learned, the unit instituted a system by which personnel would be assigned to solve identified problems within a certain period of time.
The third article focuses on what is regarded as a victory in the first place. It begins with an account of another engagement between an aviation unit and an air defense unit. The aviation unit’s aircraft was an older-generation one, and the air defense unit operated an advanced weapon system (PLA Daily, February 18). The pilot of the aircraft attempted to evade detection by flying at low altitude and behind natural features (a technique called terrain masking), but he was still detected and “shot down.” However, despite having been shot down, the pilot was the praised for operating his inferior aircraft brilliantly. The article also recounts a story about two battalions that participated in an air defense brigade’s live-fire training. The brigade’s 4th Battalion hit their targets eleven of twelve times while the 6th Battalion hit their targets three of five times, but did so under realistic combat conditions. Although the 6th Battalion’s hit rate was lower, it was still awarded the title of “First-Class Military Training Unit” because it achieved its hit rate under more difficult conditions. Both stories illustrate how, when assessing performance, the base’s units now consider the conditions under which victories are achieved and defeats are suffered, instilling “battlefield thinking” in place of the “firing-range thinking” that was prevalent in the base before.
The fourth article under consideration here is not a part of the aforementioned series, but nevertheless relates due to its focus on the value of competitions. The piece features one flight group of an aviation brigade, whose current and former members have won many iterations of Golden Helmet, an annual dogfighting competition for the PLAAF’s best fighter pilots (PLA Daily, May 27). Attaining victory in the contest is the “highest honor” for a PLAAF fighter pilot. However, this PLA Daily article juxtaposes the unit’s achievements in Golden Helmet with a vignette about the difficulty that its pilots had during one exercise because of their relative inability to fight as part of a team. The implication is that although a courageous pilot who “rides alone” can win the Golden Helmet, that pilot’s bravery and skill will not guarantee victory in a real battle because “the enemy [conducts] system-of-systems [joint and combined-arms] warfare.”
The flight group has since reformed its training under a program called “Golden Helmet Plus” that regularizes training in subjects beyond the scope of Golden Helmet, such as training with special mission aircraft and naval vessels (PLA Daily, May 27).The unit is also encouraging its pilots to shed the “old thinking” that prized individual courage and to fight smarter by employing the full range of their aircraft’s capabilities, such as their electronic warfare suites, as well as the capabilities of other elements of a joint and combined-arms team. The flight group’s political officer thus encapsulated one of the lessons of the article: “Winning a ‘Golden Helmet’ is good, to be sure, but if a unit always exerts itself with an eye on a prize, then it will fail the test.”
Although the connections between each of the articles in the PLA Daily series is not immediately obvious, taken together the pieces focus on how the performance of individuals and units is assessed in the PLA. People tend to respond to rewards, so if an armed force rewards pointless precision or high win-loss ratios, then it can expect its members to strive to achieve results that are ultimately meaningless for assessing combat capability. Moreover, an overemphasis on an individual’s or a unit’s aggregate number of victories can drive people to cut corners or to game the system in order to win, defeating the purpose of training.
This is particularly true when the training activity is a competition. Throughout the past decade the PLA has increasingly used competitions to incentivize individuals and units to improve their proficiency. These competitions do not represent the totality of the PLA’s training, and because winning competitions requires real skills, it is likely that the PLA’s effort has produced some positive effects. Nevertheless, the prevalence of competition in PLA training has had some negative effects with some units and individuals performing as sports teams and athletes, respectively. This was manifested in the behavior of pilots in past iterations of Golden Helmet: before 2017 pilots would sometimes “flee” an engagement to run down the clock and have it end in a tie rather than risk being shot down and scoring a loss (The Diplomat, September 29, 2021). The same phenomenon was also manifested in one army unit’s approach to training. In late 2019, a company of the 78th Special Operations Brigade that had swept a competition earlier in the year was censured for poor performance (PLA Daily, May 18, 2020). Apparently, it did so well in the competition because its members had trained hard for their events, but these same soldiers “just went through the motions” in their regular training.
It is likely that the PLA’s promotion of competitions has had another negative effect: performance in competitions has come to be regarded as a standard by which to judge overall combat capability. The fourth article addresses this problem. The featured flight group may have trained conscientiously, but the unit discovered that the “old” combination of individual courage and skill that was enough in Golden Helmet was insufficient outside the competition’s limited scope, implying that the real honor of victory in even the most highly regarded competition would not guarantee victory in actual battle. While the article never negates the value of competitions, it does repudiate the use of performance in competitions as a comprehensive measure of combat capability.
The four articles seem to indicate that units of the WTAF have made progress towards changing a self-defeating culture, a culture that is unlikely to be unique to the units featured in the articles. The medium in which the articles were published is intended to “educate” the troops, not merely to inform them of recent events, a fact that has two implications. First, the degree of actual change in the units’ culture may be less than portrayed. Second, it can be concluded that the purpose of the series was to encourage other units throughout the PLAAF and the PLA to affect the same kind of cultural change. The corollary, then, is that the cultural problems that the units reportedly remedied are widespread enough in the PLA to require the propagation of their examples, as the report about the 78th Special Operations Brigade suggests. Hence, it is likely that “firing-range thinking” is still common in the PLAAF and in the PLA as a whole. Such an attitude towards training would naturally hinder PLAAF’s and PLA efforts to improve their combat capability, making cultural change as imperative to both as the modernization of their weapons and equipment.
Changes to organizational culture are difficult to affect. This is illustrated by the fact that a different aviation brigade of the WTAF has already reportedly achieved the very same cultural change attributed to the flight group in the fourth article. In early 2020, PLA Daily reported that fighter pilots in that brigade had shed their exaggerated sense of importance and their tendency to “ride alone” in favor of fighting as part of a joint and combined-arms team (PLA Daily, February 9, 2020). As with the articles that appeared recently, this piece was probably more aspirational than real. However, all the articles indicate that the PLAAF and the PLA are aware of their cultural problems and are trying to remedy them. It will take years for them to change entrenched attitudes and to replace stubborn personnel, but their concerted efforts should eventually succeed, perhaps within this decade.
Derek Solen is a senior researcher at the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute. He was a civilian intelligence specialist in the U.S. Army. The opinions and conclusions that are expressed or implied herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Air University, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.