26 February 2015

Puppies Who Climbed Out of the River: The Roles and Influence of Chief Commanders and Designers

Andrew S. Erickson, “Puppies Who Climbed Out of the River: The Roles and Influence of Chief Commanders and Designers,” in Kevin Pollpeter, ed., The Human Dimension of China’s Defense Science, Technology, and Innovation System 8.5 (La Jolla, CA: University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, January 2015), 1-4.

For all its limitations, China’s “Two Chiefs” program management system has been highly effective. Through periodic efforts to improve the system, the “Two Chiefs” system and the leaders who run it have evolved considerably over five generations, with a trend toward more programs, more work, better incentives, and younger personnel. This research brief addresses the following dynamics concerning chief commanders and chief designers over the first six decades of defense industrial development in the People’s Republic of China: their career trajectories, roles, and influence. It also examines broad demographic trends, incentives, and challenges. This brief focuses primarily on program managers from China’s aerospace industry.

… Chinese program managers have been selected through on-the-job challenges and attrition, then entrusted with incrementally greater technological leadership roles.

However, since the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, problems have emerged, prompting periodic efforts to improve the system through revised guidance and regulations. The “Two Chiefs” system and the leaders who run it have evolved considerably over five generations. There has been a trend toward more programs, more work, better incentives, and younger personnel. …

The most difficult weapons development problems occurred before this system was implemented consistently in 1962 and during subsequent Maoist political excesses when it was crippled or eliminated altogether. Admittedly, problems have emerged, prompting periodic efforts to improve the system through revised guidance and regulations. Chinese program managers are selected through trial by fire to determine talent and suitability, then entrusted with progressively larger technological leadership roles (subsystem to system to project, deputy to lead). Over five generations, the “Two Chiefs” system and its leaders have evolved considerably, towards more programs, more work, and better incentives. Average ages continue to decrease. Organizational innovation is growing, particularly for key programs. All this portends an even more promising future for China’s defense industry.