The Chinese Navy Has a Command Conundrum in Its Fleet


Credit: Israel Defense Forces, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese Navy or People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been adding ships to its fleet at an impressive rate and analysts believe it could dominate the Indo-Pacific maritime domain by 2030. The singular focus by PLAN watchers on the number of ships being added in PLAN, however, distracts attention from serious underlying issues bedevilling the PLAN – the command structure and quality of leadership in its frontline ships. PLAN’s unique dual-command model of sharing of command between a ship’s captain and political commissar has operational implications. Besides, the lack of combat and blue-water experience of its seagoing officers is an important leadership issue affecting the PLAN’s combat power. This article studies these issues and its operational impact upon PLAN.

Dual Command System in the PLAN

The PLAN’s Political Commissar system is influenced by the Soviet model yet it is significantly different from it. The Soviet Navy operated with a single-command structure where the captain was higher in rank to the political commissar. In sharp contrast, in the PLAN system, the captain and the political commissar have equal ranks making it a dual command system. The decision making on a ship is done in a collegiate style by the Party Standing Committee (PSC) consisting of five members. In theory, the PSC system works as a democratic forum, however, there is more than what meets the eye. The professional advancement of a captain in the PLAN is based on several factors which include his political standing. A political commissar though equal in rank to a captain, forwards a report on him recommending his suitability for promotion. The captain-political commissar relationship is thus far from equal. The political commissar being the Secretary of PSC exercises a dominant influence on administrative and operational issues. 

Limited Blue-water Experience

The top and middle-level officers of PLAN have limited experience of blue-water operations. An in-depth 2013 CNA study found that South Sea Fleet Commander, VADM Jiang Weilie, had no experience with blue-water operations. The same study identified five PLAN leaders who began their careers in either the PLA ground forces or the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and transferred to PLAN at a later date. This situation has been remedied to some extent in the middle and junior level officers. The recent blue-water exposure of PLAN officers has been limited to combined military exercises, anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden, training missions in the Western Pacific and humanitarian missions. The only sustained blue-water mission by PLAN has been in the Gulf of Aden. In 2011, PLAN carried out a non-combatant evacuation from Libya. These experiences have however been available to only a few officers and been limited in scope. 

Lack of Combat Experience or “Peace Disease”

The combat experience of the senior leaders is of vital importance in fighting complex battles under the ‘fog of war.’ A PLA military insider, recently revealed that “When you take a look at the uniformed members in the CMC, just one of them has combat experience. But his experience could be dated to four decades ago.” He was referring to General Li Zuocheng, Chief of the PLA Joint Staff Department whose combat experience dates back to the 1970s skirmishes with Vietnam. Some middle-level officers have experience of the Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996 which broke out over attempts by China to coerce Taiwan. A minor naval action with Vietnam occurred in 1988. According to the People’s Liberation Army Daily, PLA has been afflicted with “peace disease” as it has not fought a war since 1979 Vietnam war.

Operational Implications for Command and Leadership Issues in PLAN

Delayed Response in a fast-moving situation

Most of the navies the world over follow the Mission command or ‘Auftragstaktik’ model of leadership which is focused on mission accomplishment in the face of uncertainties. Mission Command gives naval commanders sufficient latitude and mandate to make split-second decisions in conditions of uncertainties. It also lets them exercise flexibility in the execution of battle plans to achieve the stated mission. As the incidents of USS Stark and shooting down of an Iranian airliner by USS Vincennes showed, a naval commander has very limited time for decision making in a dense and uncertain environment. In the PLAN’s dual command system, the naval commander will have to rely on the political commissar and PSC for operational decisions in a fast-moving scenario. This can cause crucial delays in operational decision making. The proliferation of new weapons like the hypersonic anti-shipping missiles will further exacerbate this situation.

Overly Cautious or no ‘Loss of Face’ Approach

War is chaotic and unpredictable. Accidents, chance, and luck abound. The zero-defect mentality prevalent is present in many navies and is not unique to PLAN  but the Chinese culture places a premium on “loss of face” and it is to be avoided at all costs. The PLAN like the other wings of the Chinese military is a component of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and therefore its victories (and defeats) are considered to directly impinge on the CCP’s prestige. In the June 2020 land skirmish with the Indian Army in the Himalayas in which 20 Indian soldiers and 43 Chinese soldiers were reportedly killed, the PLA refused to acknowledge its losses to ‘not lose face.’ The Royal Navy placed a premium on its commander’s seeking action in battle. Admiral Nelson before the start of battle of Cadiz, famously said “No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”. The risk-averse approach of PLAN’s leadership model is at odds with the need for offensive action and owning attendant risks in battle.

Inexperience in Operational Art or “Tribal Knowledge”

A naval battle today involves mind-boggling complexities. The Operational Art attempts to streamline a campaign by using concepts like ‘Lines of Operation’, ‘Decisive Points’ and ‘End State.’ Despite all the operational tools, the best-laid plans rarely survive the first contact with the enemy. An experienced commander like Nelson or Napoleon can intuit when to press home an attack or conserve to fight another day. Andrew Erickson of the US Naval War College says “while China can copy a lot, without combat experience and ‘tribal knowledge’…it will find it hard to attain that (US Navy) level.” Taking part in anti-piracy deployments or training exercises cannot generate sufficient realism to simulate battle conditions. The blue-water operations have an entirely different battle rhythm than coastal or ‘near sea’ operations. To develop operational art amongst its seagoing commanders a more devolved model than the dual command model and more blue-water experience will be required.

PLAN’s impressive force structure build-up may not translate into combat power unless it can address the command issues onboard its ships. There are indications that CCP and PLAN leadership are aware of these issues and are working to address them. The dual command structure is essential to the CCP to maintain control of PLAN and it may not be an easy decision to abandon this in immediate future. President Xi Jinping during his speech at 2014 All PLA-Political work conference emphasized the Party’s supremacy in military affairs. To address the issue of blue-water experience, the PLAN is showing greater willingness to undertake ‘far sea’ operations and is building up bases overseas like in Djibouti for this purpose. These command and leadership issues will be a big challenge for PLAN as it is easier to absorb technology but not easy to change work culture and command ethos in a hurry.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Manoj Rawat is a former Indian naval Captain and Director of Naval Operations at the Naval Headquarters, New Delhi. He has years of experience on front­line warships and senior operational and policy positions in the Ministry of Defence. Rawat is an alumnus of National Defence Academy, Singapore Aviation Academy, Indonesian Command and Staff College, and College of Defence Management. He tweets at @SeaSkipper.



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