The Central Military Commission has called for the urgent upgrading of the country's Air Force to neutralize growing threats from regional neighbors and other countries....Our country now faces a serious challenge....China needs to develop airborne early warning systems and foster research in the development of high-tech electronic combat systems....If threatened from the air, China must have the ability to carry its defense strike capability to targets outside its own airspace.
- Jiefangjun Bao, 7 April 1996 (1)
The Chinese Air Force plans to acquire state-of-the-art weapons systems by early next century, including early warning planes, electronic warfare warplanes, and surface-to-air missiles. The PLA Air Force is now able to fight both defensive and offensive battles under high-tech conditions.
- Liu Shunyao, PLA Air Force Commander, April 1997 (2)
ChinaÆ’Âs Air Force has significantly improved its combat readiness. During 1998, pilots achieved a record of per capita flying time, the highest since 1985, in spite of heavy summer flooding and a program to restructure the Air Force. Pilots paid particular attention to improving basic flying techniques. The fact that sixty-six percent of air units conducted highly successful long?distance mobile maneuvers under harsh weather conditions indicated that China's Air Force has greatly enhanced its combat readiness.
- Wu Guangyu, PLA Air Force Deputy Commander, January 1998 (3)
We should build an Air Force capable of both offensive and defensive operations with Chinese characteristics.
- Jiang Zemin, March 1999 (4)
China's Air Force, known as the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), is in a crucial transition period, as it changes from an obsolescent giant to a modern force prepared to fight local, limited warsunder high-tech conditions. The PLAAF is slowly moving from a defensive force dominated by 1950s vintage combat aircraft with short legs and limited all-weather intercept capabilities to an offensive-oriented force with extended range and greater lethality. While new aircraft like the J-10, J-11 (Su-27), and Su-30 are gradually introduced into the force, older aircraft like the J-7 and J-8 are being modified with better avionics and air-to-air missiles to bridge the gap. The new combat aircraft force of the 21st century will be controlled by airborne early warning aircraft, refueled by tankers, and supported by electronic countermeasure and intelligence collection aircraft. The PLAAF is forging ahead with advanced tactics and logistics techniques for its newer aircraft, while sustaining the operational capabilities of its older inventory. In addition to its combat aircraft, the PLAAF is improving its surface-to-air missile force and mobility for its elite airborne corps. In ten years, the PLAAF will be a much smaller force, but will have greater range and lethality than the PLAAF of the 1990s. (5)
PLAAF writings indicate that it has an impressive history defending China. The PLAAF established its credibility during the Korean War, the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, and the Vietnam War, but it has not conducted any large-scale air battles since then. The official PLAAF history states that it has shot down 1,474 and damaged 2,344 aircraft of all types. Analysis of these figures shows that PLAAF aircraft have shot down or damaged only about 200 aircraft during air-to-air combat, most of which occurred during the Korean War. The PLAAF's antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missiles (SAM) shot down or damaged the remaining 3,600 aircraft. The PLAAF's SAM forces are particularly proud of shooting down five Nationalist Air Force U-2 reconnaissance planes between 1963 and 1967. (6) The last PLAAF combat took place in October 1987, when a SAM shot down a Vietnamese MiG-21 that had crossed the border.
The PLAAF readily admits that its equipment is backwards, but modernization is taking place across the board, including equipment, tactics, training, logistics, and maintenance. Unlike the 1980s, there are very few PLAAF leaders left who fought in the Korean War. Today's Air Force leaders have put forth an optimistic vision of the future. Unfortunately, the PLAAF does not provide many solid clues as to how it plans to reach that vision. One of the biggest problems foreigners have looking at the PLAAF is the lack of open source information. Even when information is available, it focuses on the vision, not on the process. Most Western writings on the PLAAF tend to focus on the acquisition of hardware, such as the Russian Su-27s, Su-30s, Il-76s, and S-300s. (7) These articles pay little attention to the "software" issues, including leadership, missions and organization, strategy and doctrine, personnel, support equipment, operations, training, logistics, maintenance, and C4I (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence). (8)
This paper will address the PLAAF's operational capabilities and modernization. The first part will provide statements by the PLAAF's commander, Lieutenant General Liu Shunyao, describing the PLAAF's past, present, and future. The next part will look at the PLAAF's missions and organizational structure, including the aviation, air defense, and airborne forces. The third part will assess the air activity that has occurred over the Taiwan Strait in reaction to President Lee Teng-hui's 9 July 1999 statements about "state-to-state" relations between Taiwan and the mainland. The paper will also address China's neighbors' perceptions of the PLAAF. The final part will provide conclusions.
PLAAF Commander's Assessment (1/2)
Lieutenant General Liu Shunyao has had several interviews with Chinese reporters since he became PLAAF commander in December 1996. (9) The first of these interviews coincided with Taiwan's receipt of the first group of 150 F-16 fighters from the United States and 60 Mirage 2000-5s from France. The interviews also came after the PLAAF had already received several Russian Su-27 fighters, Il-76 transports, and S-300 SAMs. The PLAAF had also deployed its first indigenous B-6 airborne refueling aircraft for its J-8II fighters, and had ordered the first Il-76 airborne early warning platform from Russia and Israel.
During the interviews, Commander Liu stressed that the aviation troops formed the Air Force's backbone. The PLAAF culture has always focused on the role of aircraft as the core of the force, even though the air defense (SAM and AAA) forces have shot down more aircraft. He also emphasized that the PLAAF's 15th Airborne Army, which has also become more integrated into the PLA's joint operations, has established 'fist' units that are now more mobile and have longer range as a result of acquiring several Russian Il-76 transports. (10)
While discussing the PLAAF's current capabilities, Commander Liu has focused on the ability to fight defensive and offensive battles under high-tech conditions. The shift from strictly defensive to offensive capabilities derived from the PLAAF's post-Gulf War realization that precision guided missiles (PGMs) and long-range cruise missiles had changed the rules of warfare. This realization was one of the driving forces for the PLAAF to acquire modern weapon systems from Russia. As a result of modernizing its weapon systems, the Air Force has been able to changes its tactics, extend its combat range, and practice providing support for ground and naval operations.
Liu and other PLAAF officials continue to emphasize that three-quarters of its pilots are now able to fly in all-weather conditions, the percentage of category "A" combat regiments, an indicator of the Air Force's combat effectiveness, has reached 95.5 percent, and that the Air Force has a sixteen year flight safety record. (11) As for flying in all-weather conditions, there is some question as to exactly what types of flying the pilots conduct under visual flight regulations (VFR) and night flying conditions. Are these types of flights flown only on cloudless, moonlit nights, or during cloudy, pitch black conditions over long distances while engaged in air intercept training? Since the Chinese media rarely reports aircraft accidents, there is no way to verify the accuracy of the flight safety record, but this claim, also, is questionable. For example, there are credible reports that Cao Shuangming, the PLAAF commander from 1992-1994, was relieved of duty partly due to a series of aircraft accidents that took place under his command. Furthermore, since the PLAAF rarely trains using rapid aircraft turn around sorties and most engines can only be used from 100 to 300 hours before they are overhauled, the maintenance record would probably be reduced considerably during periods of sustained use, such as during a conflict.
Given the PLAAF's current limitations, Commander Liu and other Air Force leaders have expressed an optimistic vision of the future. As the Air Force upgrades the capabilities of its current inventory with foreign technology, begins producing the J-10 and J-11 (Su-27) aircraft, and acquires new fighters (Su-30) and airborne early warning aircraft and SAMs, the PLAAF will be able to extend its range, increase its firepower, and change its tactics through the use of improved electronic warfare, night training, and joint campaign training. The PLAAF will also focus its efforts on research and development, while importing some high-tech weapons.
PLAAF Commander's Assessment (2/2)
The debate in China about importing weapon systems versus domestically producing them continues. For example, a July 1999 report in Science and Technology Daily, complained that China's achievements in many areas over the past twenty years have attracted world attention, but the aviation industry has increasingly lagged behind. The aviation industry continues to have a sprawling organization with weak facilities and low standards, and the gap between it and the aviation industries of the developed western countries is widening. The article lamented that this is cause for anxiety, because without a strong defense there can be no genuine overall strength. (12)
There is also a debate among foreign analysts about how much China's aviation industry has been able to learn from foreign aircraft manufacturers and transfer the knowledge to producing combat aircraft. Foreign aircraft manufacturers have routinely complained for almost two decades that they have spent time and money training Chinese technicians to work on a specific commercial aircraft project, only to have those technicians disappear to some unknown project and be replaced by a new batch of trainees.
While some observers see China's aviation industry as large and stagnant, other observers cite some centers of excellence. Facilities such as the Chengdu Aircraft Company, Xian Aircraft Company, and Shenyang Aircraft Company have made significant progress through joint ventures with Western companies and assistance from Russia and Israel. For example, Boeing 737 tail sections are produced in China with no U.S. backup. These ventures have provided access to Western manufacturing processes and provided valuable technical and managerial training. While these are derived from commercial aircraft manufacturing, the processes are generally the same for a mostly metal fighter aircraft like the J-10 and the Su-27. Only time will tell how these aircraft production programs will turn out. Because of the size of China's air forces, however, any modernization plan will require Chinese production to be economically feasible.
As the PLAAF upgrades its weapons systems, it must also modernize its organizational structure, tactics, training, and support capabilities. One problem associated with analyzing the PLAAF is determining which changes are being tested and which changes are being implemented. PLA journals often discuss research or changes that have taken place at the unit level. Some analysts, however, assume that these changes have been, or will be, implemented throughout the force. This is not necessarily the case. The PLAAF, like the PLA as a whole, has a complex method of introducing new ideas, weapon systems, and tactics into the force. The General Equipment Department has attempted to streamline this process, but only time will tell whether or not it is successful.
After identifying a problem, the PLAAF systematically seeks a solution. First, the appropriate research institute and/or the PLAAF Command College studies the problem from a theoretical perspective and makes recommendations. (13) Next, PLAAF Headquarters approves the recommendations. After this, the theories are tested at the unit level. Occasionally, separate units test different alternatives simultaneously. Based upon evaluations, competing theories may be accepted, modified, or rejected. After the competing theories are tested and accepted at the unit level, they are tested at the next level, and so forth up the organizational structure. At some point, the PLAAF selects one of the theories and begins implementing it force-wide, starting again at the unit level.
This is a time consuming process and involves a tremendous amount of coordination. The problem becomes even more complex if the theory being tested involves more than one PLAAF branch or PLA service. Whereas a change in flying tactics involves only the PLAAF's aviation branch, changes in the logistics system to support joint service operations involves the entire PLA. For example, the 1995 and 1996 exercises opposite Taiwan were intended as a show of force, but they also provided the PLA with the opportunity to test joint training that had been evolving since the end of the Gulf War.