The PLAAF's evolution of operational capabilities is tied to the evolution of the PLA.Âs overall doctrine and strategy. ChinaÆ’Âs communist leaders have long seen themselves as encircled by real or potentially hostile forces threatening the regime's security. They have also long sought to define a doctrine and strategy to deal with this situation. The PLA's doctrine has evolved from Mao Zedong's basic doctrine of people's war, which still retains a measure of influence in Chinese thinking, at least in broad conceptual terms. In 1985, the CMC radically revised China's doctrine and strategic defense policy by directing the armed forces to change from preparation for an "early, major, and nuclear war" to preparing for "local limited wars around China's borders, including its maritime territories and claims." Following the Gulf War, this doctrine was amended to "fight local wars under modern, high-technology conditions." Thus, people's war has evolved as a blend of defense and offense, and has been modified to incorporate various strategies, including active defense and the rapid-reaction strategy.
In its essence, the people's war doctrine reflects a strategy of weakness. Since the PLA was founded in 1927, it has had to develop strategies for defeating adversaries which had superior weapons and equipment. That this dilemma should continue into the 21st century is no doubt frustrating to members of the current military hierarchy.
While people's war places special emphasis on defensive strategy and on the factor of manpower over weapons, the PLA has never ignored the need for an offensive strategy. The PLA's involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars, plus its attacks against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979 - which were followed by quick, unilateral withdrawals - were all described as defensive operations. At the same time, Mao long recognized the value of utilizing superior force to overwhelm China's adversaries. Within the people's war doctrine, the basic military strategy Mao formulated, known as active defense, was one of a protracted, defensive war.
In a recent paper, Dr. Paul Godwin states that "the PLA has been shifting over the past twenty years from continental defense in depth to peripheral defense and maritime force projection, and from a ground-force dominated approach to war, to a multi-service joint operations doctrine. In conceptualizing the battlefield, the PLA has shifted from a two dimensional concept, where the ground war was the central focus, to a multidimensional battlespace, where space and cyberspace play roles as important as the traditional air-land-sea dimensions. The PLA has faced the major difficulty of the absence of any period of stability in which it could complete the organizational, training, and logistics changes required to implement a revised strategy and operational doctrine."
Although PLAAF writings mention the broader PLA doctrine and strategic concepts of people's war, people's war under modern conditions, and people's war under modern, high-tech conditions, they tend to focus more on campaign strategy, campaign tactics, and tactical training.
As an arm of the PLA, the PLAAF has traditionally conducted its combat operations as a series of subordinate campaigns within the PLA's overall campaign. The PLAAF describes a campaign as "using from one to many aviation, air defense, or airborne units to carry out a series of combined battles according to a general battle plan to achieve a specified strategic or campaign objective in a specified time." During March 1997, Commander Liu stated the PLAAF must improve its capabilities in actual combat by highlighting campaign and tactical training. He emphasized that campaign training involves air deterrence, air interdiction, air strikes, and participation in joint exercises.
Although the PLA has always had an active defense strategy, one of the PLAAF's most significant developments in the past couple of years has been the public emphasis by Chinese leaders, including CMC Chairman Jiang Zemin, on the PLAAF's capability to fight offensive battles. What this means is that the PLAAF is beginning to acquire the types of weapon systems, such as the Su-27 and Il-76, that will allow the PLAAF to change its doctrine appropriately and move away from its purely defensive missions.PLAAF Rapid-Reaction Force
The PLAAF's Airborne Troops
One of the PLAAF's most important changes in campaign strategy took place in 1992, when the Air Force's 15th Airborne Army began changing into a rapid-reaction force (RRF). Although PLAAF airpower discussions in the late 1980s included ideas about fist units, these discussions centered on the airborne forces and not the aviation units. While the airborne forces were clearly included in plans for the RRF, it appears that the airborne forces did not actually form any operational RRFs until around 1992.
images from PLA Daily
According to an October 1993 Jane's Defence Weekly report, China was in the process of changing the 15th Airborne Army's three brigades into divisions, in order to boost their rapid-response power. The 43rd Brigade, based in Kaifeng, was the first brigade to undergo expansion to a division. The other two brigades, the 44th at Yingshan and 45th at Huangpi, followed suit shortly thereafter. Military planners had apparently decided that brigade-size forces were too small for their assigned combat missions. Chinese brigades normally have about 3,000 to 4,000 troops, and ground force divisions have about 15,000 troops. The airborne units are composed of eight types of troops: scouts, infantry, artillerymen, signalmen, engineers, antichemical warfare corps, and automobile corps.
The 1999 Department of Defense's (DoD) assessment of the PLA describes the 15th Airborne Army as consisting of three airborne divisions, each with about 10,000 troops. The 15th Airborne Army is China's primary quick reaction force and has been designated as a strategic rapid reaction unit, but the airborne units remain handicapped by insufficient airlift. Acquisition of additional aircraft and modern equipment, together with the increased emphasis on utilizing airborne forces during training exercises, would marginally improve the airborne army's combat capabilities.
According to Commander Liu, however, since the PLAAF began receiving several Russian Il-76 transports in 1992, the airborne troops now have all-terrain, all-weather, omni-directional combat capabilities. (21) In order to adapt to various adverse operational conditions, the airborne units have conducted exercises in the snowfields of the Greater Khingan (Da Xingan) Mountains, the hot jungles on the Shiwan Mountains in Guangxi, and the Kunlun Plateau, located 4,600 meters above sea level where the air is thin.
Airborne troop training over the past few years appears to have focused primarily in and around Tibet. At the same time, however, some airborne training has also concentrated on a Taiwan scenario. By reporting this type of activity, the government is apparently trying to send a signal to inhabitants of Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang that the airborne forces are preparing for internal contingencies, should the need arise. Reporting of these types of exercises also points out some of the airborne forces' limitations. For example, during the 1996 military exercise opposite Taiwan, the PLAAF inserted a small contingent of airborne troops onto Haitan island, but this portion of the exercise was scaled down due to inclement weather, again calling the reliability of Liu's statement into question.
Aviation Rapid Reaction Force Units
Serious discussions about establishing aviation RRF units did not occur until around the early 1990s, which coincided with China's purchase of the first Russian Su-27s and Il-76s. According to interviews with foreign air force officers in Asia, the PLAAF's rapid-reaction aviation units are currently composed of J-7, J-8, and Su-27 fighters and Il-76 transports. Although the bulk of the PLAAF consists of J-6 fighters, the RRF does not include any of these aircraft.
The PLA's rapid-reaction strategy is based on the premise that China will only be engaged in local wars for the foreseeable future, and that the PLA must strike quickly to end the war and meet Beijing's political objectives. Furthermore, cost is a big factor, since equipment is becoming more expensive and the cost of maintaining older weapon systems is rising.
PLAAF Missions and Organizational Structure (1/2)
Over the past fifty years, the PLAAF has endeavored to undertake an exceptionally broad range of operational missions. The first mission the CMC assigned to the PLAAF in 1949 was the air defense of Beijing and Shanghai against Nationalist air raids. This mission expanded to include northeast China during the Korean War and to the southeast provinces during the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. Although Western writings normally refer to air defense as including aircraft, AAA, and SAMs, the PLAAF makes a clear distinction between its aviation troops (aircraft) and air defense (AAA/SAM) troops.
Today, the PLAAF still describes its primary mission as defending China's territorial airspace. However, this mission can best be described as defending China's major cities and industrial areas, which can clearly be seen by looking at the location of the PLAAF's airfields, combat aircraft, SAMs, and AAA. As the PLAAF acquires aircraft and SAMs with longer ranges, these envelopes will gradually expand. Although the PLAAF states that its secondary mission is supporting ground and naval forces, it has never successfully carried out direct support to the ground troops and officially states that it can only support them indirectly. The PLAAF still describes a joint exercise as having aircraft airborne at the same time that its own SAM and AAA units or that some ground force units are active in a different area. It is also questionable just how much the PLAAF can actually support the ground and naval forces in the future. The PLAAF lacks the proper aircraft and joint experience to accomplish close air support or interdiction and has only recently made nascent inroads into the over water training necessary for naval air support. Support for the naval forces is left up primarily to the Naval air force.
The PLAAF also supports other maritime activities. For example, according to a May 1998 Xinhua report from Guangzhou, the PLAAF was to conduct inspection flights in the coastal waters off Guangdong Province, as well as the Zhujiang River delta area, in order to enforce the May to September fishing ban. Guangdong Province and the South China Sea Branch of the National Bureau of Oceanography had requested the inspections in order to counter serious problems in excessive, unpaid, and disorderly utilization of maritime resources.
In the absence of broader PLAAF mission statements, one must look at the PLAAF's organizational structure, operational branch functions, force locations, weapon systems, and planned weapons acquisitions, in order to analyze the PLAAF's full range of missions.
Administratively, the PLAAF's chain-of-command is organized into four levels: headquarters air force; seven military region air force (MRAF) headquarters; air corps and command posts; and operational units. Headquarters Air Force is equivalent to the US Air Force's Air Staff and is organized administratively into four first level or major departments - headquarters, political, logistics, and equipment - and their subordinate elements (second level departments, bureaus, divisions, offices, and sections). The PLA's military region (MR) headquarters is responsible for combined operations, and the MRAF commander, who is also an MR deputy commander, is responsible for flight operations within the MR. The seven military regions are Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, Jinan, and Chengdu. Each echelon below Headquarters Air Force from the MRAF headquarters to the lowest level in the chain-of-command basically mirrors this administrative structure.
In order to perform its operational missions, the PLAAF is organized into branches - aviation, AAA, SAM, radar, and communications. The PLA's airborne troops belong to the Air Force, and sometimes, but not always, are noted as the PLAAF's sixth branch. The PLAAF also has schools, logistics units, repair facilities, research institutes, hospitals, and sanitoriums as part of its organizational structure. The Air Force's Logistics Department has its own water transport craft and boat troops to ship fuel to PLAAF units along the Yangzi River and coast. The PLAAF's political structure ensures Party control at all levels. By looking at modernization of the PLAAF's six branches, it is possible to understand more fully the scope of the Air Force's operations and capabilities.
The PLAAF's Aviation Branch
The PLAAF was formed around its aviation troops (hangkongbing), which remain the Air Force's main arm. The aviation troops are organized into fighters, ground attack aircraft, bombers, transports, and reconnaissance aircraft. These aircraft are organized into air divisions, regiments, groups, squadrons, and associated maintenance, logistics, and support units. The support units are organized into regiments, battalions, and companies. There are also independent air regiments and groups, which conduct specialized missions, such as operational test and evaluation of equipment, reconnaissance and surveying, troop transport, and reforestation. For the most part, these special mission aircraft include reconnaissance fighters and Il-14 and Yun-5 transports. Air divisions can be directly subordinate to Headquarters Air Force, an MRAF headquarters, an air corps, or a command post.
A typical air division headquarters consists of the command staff and administrative organization. These organizations are responsible for combat, training, political training, supply, and maintenance support for the division. Each division and regiment has a Party committee and a standing committee, of which the political commissar serves as the secretary for both committees. The division's Party committee consists of the standing committee, which includes the division's command staff, plus the commanders and political commissars of each subordinate regiment.
Because the PLAAF has historically been synonymous with the aviation troops, the Headquarters Department's second level Operations Department has basically functioned as the Aviation Troop Department. The Operations Department also is responsible for the airborne troops. This is in contrast to the separate second level departments that have been established for the radar, communications, and AAA/SAM branches. This separation of aviation and air defense permeates the entire chain-of-command, keeping administrative firewalls between the aviators and the rest of the PLAAF. PLAAF Missions and Organizational Structure (2/2)
Origins of the Aviation Branch
When the PLAAF was established, its aviation troops were organized into several brigades with three to four regiments each. For example, the 4th Combined Brigade was established at Nanjing in June 1950 and became the PLAAF's first aviation troop unit. It consisted of 10th and 11th Pursuit Regiments, the 12th Bomber Regiment, and the 13th Attack Regiment. By the end of 1950, these brigades reduced the number of regiments to two, dropped the type of unit (Pursuit/Attack/ Bomber) from the name, and became air divisions.
Since 1951, the number for regiments per division has fluctuated between two and three, depending upon the number of aircraft available and the changing missions. Some flying academies have up to four regiments. By the end of May 1951, the PLAAF had seventeen air divisions, each with two regiments, including twelve pursuit divisions, two attack divisions, two bomber divisions, and one transport division. This expanded rapidly, so that by March 1953, a total of twenty-eight air divisions and fifty-six air regiments were formed. At the same time, each division began changing from two regiments back to three. By early 1954, the PLAAF had twenty-eight air divisions and seventy air regiments, with 3,000 aircraft.
From 1960-1965, more air divisions were created to guard the coast. From 1966-1976, aviation troop units were expanded to cover the rest of China. Although the PLAAF had fifty air divisions by the mid-1980s, the number was reduced to around forty-five by 1990 as older aircraft were gradually taken out of the inventory.
According to the 1999 DoD report, the PLAAF currently numbers over 400,000 personnel with approximately 4,500 combat aircraft organized in some thirty air divisions. The PLAAF also maintains about 150 transport aircraft in two air divisions. A PLAAF air division can have one or more air regiments per airfield, with each airfield assigned a field station for logistics support. Although a division can have more than one type of aircraft (i.e., J-7s and J-8s), each regiment typically has the same type of aircraft. The table of organization and equipment (TO&E) for a typical air regiment consists of from 25-32 aircraft, but may actually have more or less assigned. The regiment is the basic organization for training and operations. Each regiment has three flying groups and one aircraft maintenance group. Each flying group is further divided into three squadrons.
The division has about one and one-half to two pilots per aircraft. Although the pilots are assigned to squadrons, each with three to five pilots, the aircraft are assigned to the regiment as a whole, not just to the squadrons. Each pilot, however, normally only flies one to three airframes, so they become familiar with each aircraft's handling capabilities. The average pilot remains in the Air Force until he or she retires. The PLAAF established age limits for its pilots in the 1980s: fighter and ground-attack pilots, 43-45 years; bomber pilots, 48-50 years; transport pilots, 55 years; helicopter pilots, 47-50 years; and female pilots, 48 years. The average fighter and ground-attack pilot is 28 years old.
Flight Training (1/3)
To help build esprit de corps, the PLAAF began awarding four pilot ratings in 1986 - special, first, second, and third grade - which are awarded after the pilots complete their initial and upgrade training at an operational unit. The criteria includes time-on-station, flying hours, "flying in weather," and special missions. In addition, the PLAAF awards aircrew ratings to navigators, communications and gunnery personnel, and instructor pilots. According to a 1989 PLAAF report, of the 10,000 pilots in the entire PLAAF at that time, seven percent of the total and fifteen to twenty percent of the fighter pilots were special grade. There are differing reports about the educational background of today's PLAAF pilots. In April 1999, Commander Liu stated that all air division and regiment leaders are special-grade or first grade pilots, and one-half of the pilots in the flight units are college-educated. This is in contrast to an interview in 1989 with then-PLAAF Political Commissar Zhu Guang, who stated that all the pilots had a college education or above, and to a 1999 article by John Lewis and Xue Litai that states,
In 1997, the PLAAF finished drafting its training programs for high-tech wars, but in carrying them out, it has encountered a fundamental problem because only 20.7 percent of the air officers are college graduates. Quick fixes or short-term training classes cannot solve the lack of qualified technical personnel to operate high-tech air weapons in an environment that attracts the best to civilian occupations.
There are no ready explanations for this apparent drop in college educated officers, especially since all PLAAF officers must attend a PLAAF four-year academy, many of which now offer post graduate degrees as well.
Based upon an analysis of Chinese literature and interviews in China, it is evident that PLAAF pilots do not fly as many hours as their Western counterparts. According to interviews with PLAAF and foreign air force officials, the PLAAF's flying hours have not changed appreciably over the past fifteen years, but they have changed their training techniques. Since the end of the 1970s, bomber pilots have consistently flown an average of 80 hours per year; fighter pilots 100 to 110 hours; and A-5 ground attack pilots up to 150 hours. This compares to about 215 hours per year for US Air Force bomber, fighter, and attack crews. USAF pilots also conduct numerous hours training on advanced simulators.
Based on interviews in Asia, it appears that PLAAF pilots are flying the Su-27s between 60-100 hours per year, and supplementing this with flight time in J-7s. These interviews also indicate that every country considers the PLAAF's Su-27s as their primary concern, regardless of how many hours the pilots train. The acquisition of these aircraft has definitely had a significant psychological impact on China's neighbors.
Since 1996, PLAAF pilots have been noted flying in more sophisticated simulated air-to-air combat with newly-formed aggressor units, employing jamming, flying over the Taiwan Strait, conducting live missile firings over the East China Sea, and dropping parachute-retarded bombs at a bomb range. There are also Chinese writings that the PLAAF conducts post mission analysis of aerial combat using information from flight data recorders which contain information from the air data computer and possibly some fire control data. The Chinese are also seeking Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pods similar to those used by Western forces. These pods send information to ground personnel so they can evaluate aerial engagements on a real-time basis.
Although the PLAAF may not fly as many hours as the USAF, the PLAAF believes that its training is improving and is adequate to conduct its missions. Some Air Force leaders firmly believe that their intelligence, mobility, and attack capabilities will be sufficient to allow them to react appropriately to any situation, including gaining air superiority, supporting the ground forces, and conducting counterattacks against targets inside the enemy's borders. Furthermore, interviews with foreign air force officials indicate that they believe Western reporting does not take into account how the PLAAF matches up against China's neighbors. For example, Commander Liu noted that aviation units during 1996 exceeded their annual training plan requirements by 1.8 percent. Highlights during that time included night flying, live bombing and missile firing, training over the ocean, low-altitude flights, and emergency mobility deployments to other airfields. This type of training accounted for forty-five percent of the planned annual training time. What the article failed to state was that most of this training took place in a single exercise opposite Taiwan, and that several portions of the exercise were curtailed due to inclement weather.
To round out the PLAAF's tactical training and help make up for the limited number of flying hours per year, the PLAAF has increased its use of flight simulators. The PLAAF now reportedly conducts more than ninety percent of its tactical and technological training on simulators. The PLAAF has developed a full-spectrum spherical screen simulator, three-dimensional flight simulator, and in-flight refueling plane simulator for pilots to train and develop special flight and air strike skills under simulated combat conditions. Simulation capabilities have evolved from electromechanical simulation to laser, electronic, and computer simulation; from technical simulation to tactical and campaign simulation; and from the simulation of a single armament or aircraft type to integrated simulation of the main battle arms combined with multiple aircraft types and various forms of weaponry. If these types of simulators have, in fact, become operational at all aviation units, then they will definitely help supplement pilot training, which is minimal at best. During the 1980s, the Air Force only had a few, non-standard simulators. Most of the pilots trained on an instrument board - a mock cockpit with a wooden panel containing all of the cockpit's instrument dials on it.
In January 1999, PLAAF Deputy Commander Wu Guangyu emphasized the PLAAF's increased readiness by stating,
China's 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.
Commander Liu also discussed training reforms by stating that several units have been selected to carry out a series of reforms on tactics. Those units have tried, demonstrated, and refined a series of advanced combat theories and propositions in live-fire training exercises. They have scored excellent initial results in mobile operations, air strike, air superiority, air control, night attacks, and defensive operations