For several decades, the American military has relied on its superior training to ensure victory in its campaigns across the globe. Often far from home during extended missions abroad, the U.S. military planning assumption is that any opposing force, more often than not, will heavily outnumber it. Making sure that U.S. troops, although fewer in number, are better trained than their enemies has been one of the keys to guaranteeing success — or at least, staving off defeat.
But the absolute advantage in training that the U.S. military has come to depend on since the late 1970s is no longer as certain as it once was. Russia and China, recognizing the value of highly trained troops, have begun ramping up and revamping their training programs in recent years. Though they will not be able to overtake the United States in conventional military dominance anytime soon, the United States will have to prepare to face adversaries that are better trained than any it has encountered since World War II.
Closing the Gap
With decades of global military deployments and campaigns under its belt, the U.S. military has developed a strong foundation in institutional warfare. On average, across any given force worldwide, one can argue that no soldiers, airmen or sailors are better trained than those in the U.S. military, give the size of the organization. Indeed, the current generation of American soldiers may very well be the best the United States has ever fielded.
Nevertheless, Russia and China have started to catch up. Over the past few years, Moscow and Beijing have taken steps to overhaul and expand their military training programs, and both seem determined to maintain or even accelerate this trend in the future.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, Russian military training rapidly deteriorated, largely because of a lack of resources and investment. Sub-par training greatly contributed to the heavy losses Russian forces experienced during both Chechen Wars, especially the first of these. At the turn of the 21st century, as more funds became available and leaders became more willing to allocate resources to the military, the training of Russian troops began to steadily improve. That said, the force still suffered from a legacy of severe hazing, corruption and an inefficient reliance on conscription. The real turning point did not take place until several years later, when the 2008 Russo-Georgian War made painfully clear Russia's need for better equipment and, even more important, better instruction and training.
China, for its part, primarily depended on the largely defensive strategy of the "People's War" — from the birth of the People's Republic until the end of the Cold War. This strategy called for leveraging the population's support to defeat better-trained and -equipped forces. Under the People's War model, ideology and commitment were favored traits, and the average Chinese soldier was at a distinct training disadvantage in modern technological warfare compared with the average NATO or Soviet soldier. But Chinese leaders keenly observed the U.S. military campaigns in the Gulf War and the Balkans, and quickly realized that their military would need to undergo significant changes to even begin to face the powerful modern forces of the United States or its allies. Since the late 1990s, Chinese training, doctrine and incorporation of modern technology has steadily increased, particularly within the past five or six years as China has dramatically expanded its military education programs, training deployments and exercises.
Despite their many significant differences, Russian and Chinese forces often train and cooperate with each other. Their navies are currently participating in Joint Sea 2015, the largest joint naval exercise in history. Scheduled to last until Aug. 28, the event features 22 warships, submarines and support ships in a battery of amphibious, anti-submarine, anti-aircraft and anti-ship exercises.
Joint Sea 2015 is also but the latest example of large-scale Russian and Chinese exercises; currently, both countries hold at least one significant exercise almost every week. According to figures compiled by the Atlantic Council, the Russian military held at least six major military exercises involving between 65,000 and 160,000 personnel between the start of 2013 and the end of 2014. During the same period, NATO's largest exercises barely exceeded 6,000 personnel. While the size of an exercise by no means determines the quality of training and instruction, the size, scope and frequency of Russian exercises demonstrates Moscow's serious intent. Given the institutionalized manner of these exercises, they cannot be dismissed as simple grandstanding or signaling attempts. Russia's forces, particularly the elite special forces and airborne units, have already demonstrated a considerable degree of expertise and professionalism in the Ukrainian conflict.
Not to be left out, China has also dramatically increased its training efforts in the past few years, building upon the improvements made since the 1990s. In 2014, the Chinese emphasized the development of joint training exercises set in realistic and complex conditions. In several large-scale exercises, Chinese units from different service branches and military regions operated jointly against an opposing force using foreign components and tactics. This year, the People's Liberation Army Navy has increased its amphibious and littoral training. In July, it participated in a 10-day live-fire exercise in the South China Sea involving more than 100 vessels.
Chinese forays beyond the first island chain have also become routine and increasingly call for joint coordination between air and naval forces. The People's Liberation Army Air Force has also begun to integrate dissimilar training, build up aggressor squadrons and stage non-scripted exercises. More frequent training with foreign militaries has given the Chinese military branches valuable insight and enhanced their training methodologies. It is unlikely that China will ease up on its push for better training anytime soon. According to the U.S. Defense Department's latest report on China, Beijing's new Leading Group for Deepening Defense and Military Reforms plans to institute many new policies, including raising the enlisted-to-officer ratio, establishing a theater-level joint command system, and enhancing non-commissioned officers' status and responsibilities. These policies will likely be fully implemented by 2020.
U.S. Troops Face Tougher Foes Ahead
U.S. military leaders have voiced alarm at the damage that budgetary and legislative issues, especially sequestration, have done to their troops' readiness and training cycles in recent years. While they are right to be concerned, it is very likely that the highly adaptive nature of the U.S. military will mitigate the negative effects of congressional hang-ups in Washington.
The more pressing and far more certain threat facing U.S. troops in future conflicts is the increasingly better-trained potential adversary, particularly in the form of Russian or Chinese forces. Though the United States will likely continue to enjoy its absolute training advantage well into the future, the wide lead military planners have come to expect is no longer a guarantee. Both Russia and China appear to be determined to continue investing in their forces' development, despite growing financial constraints; even if military spending is ultimately cut, training and instruction will likely continue to take precedence over other areas. Superior training alone cannot win a war, but it can make the difference between success and failure.