• Chinese submarine officers — except for engineers — tend to have the lowest entry exam scores.
  • The lack of selectivity is remarkable. Submarines are likely to be critical in a conflict. 
  • The Chinese navy seems to have doubts about its ship and submarine commanders.

The job of commanding a nuclear submarine should go to smart and well-qualified officers. Or at least that's the case in Western navies.

Not so in the Chinese navy. Chinese submarine officers — except for engineers — tend to come from candidates with the lowest college entrance test scores, according to a US analyst. This suggests that People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sub commanders are not the best and the brightest officers most poised to cope with the stresses and challenges endemic to submarine warfare.

"Based on Gaokao national college entrance exam scoring information for PLA [People's Liberation Army] academic institutions, the PLAN Engineering University on average ranks number two on test scores across PLA academic institutions," according to a paper written by Roderick Lee, an expert on the Chinese military, for the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College. "Meanwhile, the Submarine Academy consistently ranks among the bottom three of all PLA institutions."

"Assuming a student's Gaokao score is generally indicative of overall performance potential, this suggests that PLAN submarine officer cadets tracking towards non-engineering department positions are inferior to their engineering brethren," Lee said.

Rivalry between the engineers on the lower decks who keep the ship's engines running, versus bridge officers such as captains, navigators and weapons officers, isn't unusual in any navy; in the US, by contrast, all submarine officers and commanders are trained in nuclear engineering. By the time a Chinese officer reaches submarine command, they've had more than a decade of training and fleet experience since taking their college entry tests.

Still, the selectivity disparity inside the Chinese navy is remarkable, given that submarines would be one of China's most important weapons in a conflict with the US, Japan or Taiwan. The PLAN currently operates around 60 submarines, including 6 armed with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, plus 6 nuclear- and 46 diesel-powered attack subs armed with a variety of anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.

Whether academic prowess equates to military competence has always been up for debate. History is full of commanders — such as George McClellan in the American Civil War — who proved more impressive in the classroom than on the battlefield. On the other hand, the legendary George Patton nearly flunked out of West Point.

Regardless, the Chinese navy seems to have had doubts about those commanding its surface ships and submarines: higher-level officers would often sail with them to supervise. "Historically, a PLAN submarine captain's authority could be eroded by the presence of more senior officers onboard," Lee noted. "The issue of flotilla-level leadership deploying to single-ship formations and 'babysitting' ship captains was such an issue for the PLAN surface fleet that the PLAN explicitly prohibited the practice in 2019."

It is not clear to what degree senior officers continue to babysit submarine skippers, who already have to share authority with a political commissar aboard each vessel. There is evidence that having a senior officer effectively take command of a submarine breeds resentment among a sub's crew. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lee notes that flotilla commanders and staff were aboard when the Ming-class diesel sub SS-361 sank in 2003, as well the near-loss of the Kilo-class SS-372 in 2014.

Chinese sailors salute on top of a submarine during the fleet's review of the China-Russia joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea on April 26, 2012. Foto: China Daily/Reuters

Submarine duty is already arduous and isolating, and command conflicts only exacerbate what appears to be a mental health crisis among Chinese commanders and crews. When researchers from China's Second Military Medical University conducted a survey in 2021 of submarine crews in the PLAN's South China Sea fleet crews, 21 percent reported experiencing mental health issues. Sailors and officers "in the submarine force in the South China Sea are facing mental health risks and suffering from serious psychological problems," concluded the study, which listed education — along with age and experience — as the best predictors of mental health for sub crews.

"Life in the PLAN submarine service is difficult," Christopher Sharman, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute, told Business Insider. "Conditions are challenging and China has suffered submarine accidents in the past.  These variables contribute to making a life in the submarine force less attractive."

The thought of a submarine — especially one powered by a nuclear reactor or even armed with nuclear missiles — being commanded by an officer with a low SAT score is less than reassuring. Nonetheless, Lee believes that China's submarine fleet is still a capable force. There are "no clear and glaring flaws in how the PLAN leads its submarine force. Although its educational system underwent some turmoil in the beginning of the 21st century and continues to encounter challenges today, these challenges do not appear to be substantial enough to dramatically affect operational performance."

Yet the poor educational qualifications of Chinese sub skippers may be a vulnerability that US anti-submarines can exploit, Lee suggests. China's submarine force is more likely to make mistakes since it "draws its leaders from some of the worst-performing officer cadets," Lee said. "Even if the Gaokao score is not indicative of overall human performance, it does reflect some level of intelligence and individual dedication. The PLAN submarine force must therefore rely on its least talented officers to lead forces that may be cut off for days if not weeks at a time."

By stressing Chinese submarine commanders, such as confronting them with multiple or unexpected challenges, they could be goaded into making a mistake. "This may make PLAN submarine officers more likely to suffer from the error precursors of poor proficiency, poor problem-solving skills, inappropriate attitudes towards tasks, imprecise communication habits, and inability to handle stress."

On the other hand, a Chinese submarine captain will have had years of experience and additional training before assuming command. It remains to be seen if his college test scores impact his combat performance.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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