China's air force and navy may be undergoing massive expansion with most modern aircraft and ships, but a Chinese military veteran has warned that lack of rigorous training of the PLA troops with new weapons could prove costly in real battle conditions. Training, not hardware is key to military preparations and size is not everything in modern warfare, Chinese naval officer (retd.) Wang Yunfei said in a rare public appraisal of the levels of training of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy and air force which, he termed, inadequate compared to Japanese troops.
Comparing the skill training put in by Japanese pilots flying new generation aircraft, Wang said he saw them training even murky and overcast conditions. "In China, (our military planes) would not have taken off (for training) if the cloud was lower than 400 metres above ground," he told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post on Tuesday.
"Such conditions are dangerous (for military aircraft to take off) but they (Japanese pilots) were able to carry on training despite the weather," he said. The Chinese military which has now annual budget of over USD 175 billion is investing heavily in modernisation of navy and air force.
As China expands its military might with new aircraft carriers, advanced fighter jets and other world-class weaponry, questions have been raised about whether the PLA can compete with other advanced forces, the Post said. Wang, now a naval armament expert, pointed out that size was only one determining factor in modern warfare, and hardware could only answer part of the question as China raced to catch up with leading powers like the US and its top allies, including Japan.
"Doubling the number of our warships would not make our military twice as strong strategically," he said. "It is the people who use these weapons that count, and that essentially boils down to our level of training.
"Some people hold the view that our military planes are more advanced than others. But if we look at the level of training of our forces...We are not at the same level (as others) yet." Antony Wong Dong, a military expert based in Macau who has spent years studying the PLA, agreed with Wang's assessment.
Although the PLA – which has not fought a major war since the Korean war - has made great strides in improving training for its rank and file in past decades, Wong said there was much room for improvement to raise its "preparedness". After watching the Japanese pilots training, Wang said, "it immediately came to my mind that we should not look down upon the Japanese forces. We must bear in mind that the level of training reflects your level of combat preparedness.
"Our fleet of warships and military planes far outnumber the Japanese forces, even by the number of more advanced generations of fighter jets... but in real combat, the size of the battlefield is limited, whether it is at sea or in the sky," he said. "You cannot deploy everything you have. And when both sides deploy the same resources into the battlefield, we must not be blindly [optimistic] about our chance of winning," he said.
The rapid development of new hardware could also pose challenges for training Chinese troops, especially in helping them master the skills necessary to use and understand the new weapons. "We are still exploring. It is not that we are slack. (These new weapons) are just too advanced," Wang said.
"Like (the stealth fighter jet) J-20... or (carrier-based fighter jet) J-15, we initially didn't know how to make the best use of them in different circumstances," he said. "We only recently mastered how to take off and land (J-15s) at night. It is not certain if we are ready to undertake evening flight missions of these aircraft when they are loaded with heavy missiles," he said.
Since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012, the military - now 2-million strong after the lay of the three lakh troops - has undergone a sea change. According to a recent report, China's military, the world's largest force, has cut the size of its land-based army by about 50 per cent and significantly boosted its navy and air force as part of an "unprecedented" strategic shift designed to transform the PLA into a comprehensive modern force.
While the navy is being expanded with new aircraft carriers, observers say battleships and submarines are being added on an almost monthly basis. China has one aircraft carrier, another undergoing sea trial and the third one is being constructed at a feverish pace. Official media reports say China plans to have four to five aircraft carriers in the near future.
In terms of aircraft, China is building new jets for the aircraft carriers besides stealth planes. Xi, who is regarded as the most powerful Chinese leader heading the military besides the ruling Communist Party and the Presidency, has been pushing the military into real-time military exercises emulating battle conditions.
(With inputs from agencies.)