Men Over Machines: Chinese Submariners Show Psychological Problems

A recent report suggests that most Chinese submarine seaman have significant mental health problems. I want to examine how this affects most analysis of China which examines weapon systems – which turns out to be click bait fear mongering that focuses on whiz bang technology operating in a vacuum, but not on training of soldiers and the strategy behind them. This report reinforces the idea that pilots need to be properly trained, recruits need to be physically fit, and every weapon system is used by a person whose training can vary wildly.

Leaving aside if China’s A2AD strategy is as vaunted as it seems, the increasingly technical demands from weapons systems like hyper sonic missiles and submarines demand recruits with more technical ability and aptitude. A recent RAND study found that average test scores have risen, which suggests China is finding better recruits. But China increasingly faces the problem of most modern societies and urban living, resulting in rural candidates that meet physical fitness standards, and don’t have the obesity or lung problems of urban recruits, but also have little exposure to complex technical systems. (Or desire to learn.)

The solution to this has been to relax recruitment standards and hope that China can train them up to military standards. But many recruits don’t stay in very long. Military assignments are often in remote inhospitable locations far from home, including frequent patrols by submarines in the South China Sea. Mid-career soldiers often have limited professional development opportunities and their skills aren’t as readily transferable to civilian sectors. Soldiers often receive low pay and benefits which makes retention difficult and incentivizes a recurring problem with corruption.

On top of having trouble retaining recruits and seasoned mid-career personnel, the culture of the military often prohibits independent and local decision making. They often refer decision making to higher units. One analyst summarized that “‘some’ officers cannot judge situations, understand higher authorities’ intentions, make operational decisions, deploy troops, nor deal with unexpected situations.”

Of course, none of those situations will confront a submarine commander. But in addition to being unable to handle the stresses and fog of war, Chinese researchers have suggested that submariners, as many as one in five, show serious psychological disorders. This is especially prevalent among younger crew members with less time in service. This is significantly higher than the average soldier in the Chinese army and contrasts with US Navy efforts to embed mental health services among its seaman on deployments with efficacious results.

If Chinese sailors can’t handle the stress of a long civilian deployment, and their training consists of so many rote exercises with an ossified command structure and lack of properly trained mid-career enlisted personnel I doubt they can successfully launch drone swarms, track and then overwhelm a  US carrier with missiles, navigate narrow waterways, conduct surveillance deep in enemy territory, and any number of sensitive missions required of advanced submarines.

To remedy this China has increased their number of training exercises, (which become yet more fear mongering articles). But they could just as easily be interpreted as frantic attempts at remedial actions instead of dire threats. Their training exercises are often a way for unit commanders to look good for higher ups or photo ops for the foreign press that eats it up. (The Iraqi air force, for example, recently flew two dozen of its advanced F16s yet fewer than 20% of their entire fleet are combat ready.) There is severe pressure for Red Units to win, resulting in exercises that fail to identify weaknesses. There is legitimate worry that their fighter pilots are “dumb.

Analysts often argue that multiple and near continuous deployments in the War on Terror are degrading the forces. Again, in terms of machines that may be true to a small extent. But the military personnel don’t suffer from peace disease, small unit leaders have real world experience making life or death decisions, pilots fly sorties against active defenses, and the soldiers learn how to handle stress.  As a result I can easily imagine the highly trained commanders and crew of an Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer or Virginia Class Submarine fresh off a tour in the war on terror wiping the floor with these submarines despite their advanced weaponry and years of click bait, fear mongering articles.

From the King Tiger panzer and Japanese super battleships of World War II, to the Chinese submarines and hyper sonic missiles today, there is no substitute for a trained and proficient force, and bad strategy can waste good weapons. While there are many advanced weapons that sound scary on paper, there is ample evidence to suggest they won’t be used to their full extent in battle.