The Chinese Air Forceand Air andSpace Power
In an informal interview with James Reston of the New York Times in 1971, Zhou Enlai, premier of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), laid out in broad terms the PRCs foreign-policy objectives: (1) unification of the mainland and Taiwan, (2) removal of US military power from Asia, (3) withdrawal of the massive Soviet military force deployed along the Sino-Soviet border, and (4) prevention of the rise of Japan as a military power.1 Meeting these objectives would have established the PRC as the dominant military power in Asia. Even more important, meeting them today would produce the same effect. Equally notable is their ideological neutrality: any Chinese nationalist, Communist or otherwise, can support such policy aims. If the Chinese Communist Party continues its gradual drift from Marxism to Chinese nationalism as its justification for ruling, these objectives are not likely to change. Although diplomacy can finesse and conveniently obscure the issue, to a degree, and although the events of 11 September 2001 may have changed its tone, the overall circumstances of US-PRC relations make very possible a future of fundamental hostility.
Even though Chinas primary focus today remains on its internal development and even though it is probably satisfied with its land borders, such is not the case with its maritime borders- especially with Taiwan and, secondarily, the South China Sea.2 The status of Taiwan, in particular, could lead to war sometime in the future. Even more important, China is a profoundly dissatisfied power in psychological terms. It craves respect, but the United States is not likely to give it such respect as long as the PRC remains a dictatorship. To the degree that the PRC ultimately aspires to the leadership of Asia, it is likely to clash with the United States, Japan, and probably with Russia. A policy of containing China as a strategic competitor will be regarded by its government as hostile, while a policy of "engagement" has been and will likely continue to be regarded in the same light- as one of smiling containment and subversion. Some sources have indicated that the PRC government already regards the United States as a rival and has done so for several years; indeed, anti-Americanism is evidently widespread among the population.3 The overall circumstances of US-PRC relations provide at least considerable potential for a fundamentally hostile Sino-US relationship.
For these reasons, it is prudent to study China in general and its military in particular. If the Chinese are not an enemy, it is worthwhile to understand them so as to minimize the chances of inadvertently identifying them as such.4 If they are, we need to understand why and to judge accurately whether they represent a threat, since a powerless enemy is more a nuisance than a danger.5 If they are indeed a present or emerging threat, we must understand them in order to deter or, if necessary, defeat them.
In studying the Chinese military as a potential enemy, one must pay attention to more than just the capabilities of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) and its component services. Specifically, one would do well to begin with the PRCs military doctrine, since it shapes objectives, strategy, force structure, procurement, and training. This article addresses the air and space power doctrine of the PRCs Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and analyzes its ability to carry out that doctrine.
Drew and Snow define three levels of doctrine: (1) fundamental, which deals with basic characteristics such as the nature of war, purpose of military power, and relationship of military force to other instruments of power; (2) environmental, "a compilation of beliefs about the employment of military forces within a particular operating medium" (functionally speaking, this is air and space power doctrine- a statement of how todays air and space power capabilities should be used to have a decisive effect on military operations and wars); and (3) organizational, which includes basic beliefs about the operation of a particular military organization and its roles, missions, and current objectives.6 In the US Air Force, Air Force Doctrine Document (AFDD) 1, Air Force Basic Doctrine, covers environmental doctrine, defining it as "most fundamental and enduring beliefs that describe and guide the proper use of air and space forces in military action"; AFDD 2, Organization and Employment of Aerospace Power, covers organizational doctrine.7
The PLA and its component services do not use the term military doctrine. The closest analog they have to Western doctrine is what they call military science, which links theory and practice.8 Chinese military science consists of (1) basic military science, the fundamental concepts that govern PLA military operations at the various levels of war (basic military science would include whatever environmental doctrine- air and space power doctrine- the PRC might have);9 and (2) applied military theory, the specifics of how to apply military force at each level of warfare (similar to US organizational doctrine).10
PLA military concepts, including those of the PLAAF, are not couched in terms of roles and missions, as is the case with the US military. Instead, they use the alternative concept of campaigns, defined as a series of battles fought under a unified command to achieve a local or overall objective.11 Campaigns primarily take place at what the US military would call the operational level of war, using a wartime operational structure called a War Zone. Depending on the size of the operation, a War Zone can encompass either a portion of or more than one Military Region.12
A critical point of the PLAs campaign planning lies in its expectations of the military environment in the type of war it expects to face. These expectations will obviously have a dramatic effect on strategy, force structure, and procurement. At present, the PLA views the primary threat as a local (i.e., regional) war under high-technology conditions.13 It expects such a war to have the following general characteristics:
It will be a limited war, fought in a restricted geographic area for limited objectives with limited means and a conscious effort to curtail destruction. It will not be a comprehensive or total war, fought to destroy the Chinese state and to invade and occupy the homeland. It will not threaten the survival of the states involved. In many ways, such a conflict is the modern equivalent of a border war.14 Overall, the threat of world war is minimal for the indefinite future, due to the revolutionary changes in external circumstances faced by the PRC over the last 15 years (i.e., the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War).15
Such a war will be fought with comparatively small, highly trained joint forces using mostly long-range, precision-strike weapons made available by the ongoing revolution in military technology.
The objective in such warfare is to defeat the enemy rapidly by inflicting strategic and operational paralysis through attacks on his weaknesses. In fact, it may be possible to defeat the enemy with one strike. This kind of war will not require annihilation of the enemy or physical occupation of his territory.
This multidimensional war will unfold in all dimensions (air, sea, ground, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum) simultaneously. Warfare in one dimension will integrate with that in the other dimensions. Forces will fight throughout the depth of the theater (a "full-depth strike"), and the battlefield will be extremely fluid and dynamic. Airpower and precision strike are now the primary means of conducting warfare, with ground operations secondary.16
This type of war, of course, represents a revolutionary change from the traditional PLA concept of Peoples War, which assumed a total war fought primarily by ground forces and a comprehensively mobilized population against an invading enemy seeking to destroy and occupy the PRC. At first glance, it would appear that this new war is tailor-made for air and space power, which can have a major impact by waging an independent air campaign against vital targets and supporting other arms of the military.17 Thus, one would reasonably expect the PLAAF to have a concept of air and space power that calls for such an air force and to restructure itself along the lines of the US Air Force (i.e., emphasizing all-weather offensive aircraft; precision-guided munitions; and sophisticated command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability). However, little evidence suggests that PLAAF military science thinks in these terms or that the PLAAF is building this kind of an organization. If anything, a massive disconnect seems to exist between what we might expect the PLAAF to do and what it is actually doing. Several likely explanations account for this situation.
For one, by assuming that the PLAAF would choose a course parallel to our own, we are mirror-imaging- that is, projecting our assumptions and thinking onto the PLAAFs. This practice proved dismally common and nearly disastrous during both the Cold War and, in fact, at times during our past dealings with the PRC.18 It is essential to remember that we are not dealing with Americans or, for that matter, Westerners. The PLAAFs aims are not necessarily the ones we would choose under similar circumstances (even if the PLAAFs aims were identical to ours, it might choose drastically different ways of pursuing them); its assumptions are not necessarily our assumptions; and its tactics and strategies are not necessarily the ones we might choose. We must remember that the PLAAFs history is not ours and, above all, that the circumstances it faces are profoundly different than those we face.
Beyond this explanation for the apparent disconnect, I suggest two others. The first is that local war under high-tech conditions is what some authors call aspirational doctrine.19 The second is that, at present, PLA military science, strategy, and procurement do not seek to wage a high-tech local war but to defeat an enemy who wages high-tech local war against them. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive.
In aspirational doctrine, military theory is much more advanced than actual military technology and capability, and the concepts of a local war under high-technology conditions detail the kind of offensive war the PRC wants to be able to wage. Such doctrine does not necessarily suggest that the PRC can in fact fight such a war today. In this respect, Chinas military science bears a marked resemblance to Soviet doctrinal writings such as Marshal Sokolovskiys classic Soviet Military Strategy, which originally laid out an extremely ambitious strategy for fighting a nuclear war at a time when the USSR was only starting to deploy the capabilities necessary to fight such a war.20 One should note that the highest levels of the Chinese leadership have evidently recognized that at present the PRC cannot fight a high-tech local war.21
Preventing it from doing so are the PRCs geopolitical and historical circumstances, economic limitations, and technological limitations, as well as the legacy of its past military policies. Obviously, these factors have had- and continue to have- a profound impact on shaping the PLAAF and its military science. They constitute an enormously unfavorable legacy for the PLA and PLAAF and their military theory- one that will be difficult to overcome.
Geopolitical and Historical Circumstances
Historically for the Chinese, war has been a home game, fought on and over their territory; until recently, their military science has reflected this fact.22 In recent centuries, China has endured humiliation and partial dismemberment from invasion, and in recent decades it has largely been surrounded by states perceived as hostile or powerful or both. The PRCs strategic concepts and military strategy have reflected this situation by focusing on a Peoples War, mentioned above- a strategic, defensive war to defend the mainland from attack and invasion. China expected to wage a war of attrition designed to wear down and ultimately expel invading enemies. In this strategy, the PRCs ground army would be the preeminent service, supplemented by a comprehensively mobilized population. Power projection beyond Chinas borders was only a secondary concern, and any power projection would be by ground forces into adjacent territory. The air force played an even lesser role. In the conflict envisioned by Peoples War, the PLAAFs function was primarily defensive, with very limited offensive capability. China did not expect to use air and space power but did expect an enemy to do so. Indeed, the very name of the Chinese air force- the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force- speaks volumes in this regard. Clearly, China considered its air arm an extension of the army. Under such conditions, the PRC had no need for air and space power doctrine. Only recently has China, facing the challenge of local wars under high-technology conditions, reportedly granted the PLAAF an enhanced role. However, having a new role on paper does not equate to the ability to carry out that role. In many ways, the PLAAF now faces the worst of all worlds: it has a huge legacy force of obsolescent or obsolete equipment that was inadequate for the old strategy and that is utterly unsuited for the new one.
Chinas lack of wealth has severely restricted the resources available for military-related matters.23 Until fairly recently, the country spent much of its available military funds on infrastructure such as tunnel systems and the construction and dispersal of military industry to remote areas. Although economic reforms of the last 20 years have led to impressive (although often overstated) economic growth, the PRC still has neither a wealthy nor modern economy. Even partial replacement of the PLAs and PLAAFs antiquated equipment with modern assets suitable for major power projection would be enormously costly at best and ruinous at worst- undoubtedly one of the major reasons that the PLAAFs acquisition program for new equipment is proceeding so slowly.
Because of its poor and developing economy/ society, China has had only a very limited technology base to draw upon to support its military. Although the PRC has established an increasingly significant industrial base, its ability to support a technologically sophisticated military, let alone build one by itself, remains very much open to question. The countrys aviation-related military industry is limited, technologically backward, and inefficient.24 Most of the PLAAFs equipment, especially its aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAM), is based on Soviet designs of the 1950s and 1960s, such as F-6 and F-7 fighter aircraft, based on the MiG-19 and MiG-21, respectively, and the B-5 and B-6 bombers, based on the Il-28 light bomber and Tu-16 medium bomber, respectively. At best, these aircraft have only limited ability to operate at night, in bad weather, and in an electronic-countermeasures environment. Few are capable of using precision- guided munitions. Chinas attempts to design and build more sophisticated aircraft, such as the F-8, have met with limited success, as have its attempts to import, integrate, and maintain foreign technology.25 The PLAAF and PLA evidently have major programs aimed at developing high-technology weapons, but generally they are still in the technology-development phase- years (or decades) away from actual deployment.26
Campaign Theory of the
PLA and PLAAF
Clearly, the PLA and PLAAF have only an extremely limited ability to wage a high-tech local war at present, even against an enemy such as Taiwan, and any gains in capability are proceeding slowly.27 This situation suggests the second, probably more important, reason for Chinese military sciences adoption of this concept of war: It is the kind of war the PRC expects to have imposed upon it in any future conflict, especially one with the United States or a US-led alliance.28 Within the limits of the circumstances discussed earlier, China is preparing to try to survive and defeat this kind of war. Thus, it might be more accurate to say that the PLAAF does not have an air and space power doctrine so much as it has an antiair and space power doctrine.
At present, the national military strategy of the PRC calls for "active defense," which involves a nominal strategic defensive that uses offensive tactics, including preemptive war. In such a war, the PRC aims not necessarily to conquer enemy territory but to win decisively and coerce the enemy to change the particular policy that prompted the PRC to go to war in the first place.29 More than likely, the PRC will base its campaign strategy on three principles:
1. Using elite forces and sharp arms. The cutting edge will consist of "fist forces"- comparatively small, well-equipped, and highly trained elite joint forces.
2. Gaining the initiative by striking first. Evidently, the PRC is prepared to launch a war if diplomacy fails in a crisis. PLA preparations for such an attack emphasize a campaign of deception and disinformation to maximize the chances of surprising the enemy. Furthermore, the PLA seems prepared to launch a preemptive strike, preferably before enemy deployments are complete.
3. Fighting a quick, offensive battle to force a rapid, successful end to the war. A long war would likely prove both economically and militarily costly. Even more important, because any PLA superiority would probably be temporary, a long war would enable an enemy to recover, mobilize, reduce the PLA to a position of inferiority, and eventually defeat it.30
The PRC will likely structure the War-Zone or overall campaign as a joint effort aimed to integrate ground, naval, air, and special operations forces, as well as surface-to-surface missile forces of the II Artillery Corps, with service-based subsidiary campaigns functioning with relative autonomy within the campaign plan. Any PLAAF campaign would probably be subsidiary, but some writers theorize that it might serve as the primary campaign.31
PLAAF Air Campaign
The Military Region Air Force (MRAF) commander will direct aviation units assigned to the air campaign and have responsibility for coordinating with any other service units (e.g., II Artillery Corps, special operations forces, etc.) operating in support of the air campaign. The commanders purview will include the air defense campaign, the offensive air campaign, any air transport, and, presumably, any air support provided to other services, such as the ground forces and navy.32
Air Defense Campaign. Historically, the PLAAFs primary campaign entailed strategic air defense of the PRC mainland, especially the Beijing and Shanghai areas, with the air forces major arms (aviation, SAMs, and antiaircraft artillery) operating in parallel, not as parts of an integrated air defense system. It would provide defense in depth, with light screening forces located in a forward area and most forces concentrated close to key potential targets ("light front, heavy rear"). Strategic air defense remains the PLAAFs principal campaign; indeed, some authors suggest that, under some circumstances, it may be the wars only campaign.33 In fact, its importance is increasing, for three reasons:
1. In a local war under high-tech conditions, air and space power represents the major threat faced by the PRC. Air and space power has been central to all such wars fought since 1990.
2. The threat from air and space power is growing, a fact acknowledged by the PLAAF in its "three offenses and three defenses" training program.34
3. The PLAAFs legacy interceptor aircraft are suited only for short-range air defense missions, and most of its newer aircraft (F-7s and F-8s) face similar limitations. This situation is likely to change only very slowly as new aircraft enter the inventory.
The PRCs air defense campaign seeks to establish and maintain strategic air superiority over the War Zone by (1) achieving complete deterrence through denial (psychologically, the enemy becomes reluctant to attack because he expects any such attack to fail); (2) resisting attack by targeting hostile intelligence and surveillance platforms, as well as airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and jamming aircraft, with either long-range fighters or, preferably, long-range SAMs (resisting attack remains PLAAFs priority and will become an increasingly multidimensional activity with the integration of advanced surveillance systems); and (3) launching timely counterattacks against enemy air bases (PLAAF writers stress that a purely defensive air effort surrenders the initiative to the enemy and would likely guarantee defeat).35
Currently, the PLAAF is working to upgrade its extremely limited strategic air defense capabilities by deploying better equipment and developing an integrated (though probably rudimentary) air defense system, something it has lacked until very recently.36 However, modernization is proceeding slowly due to the relatively small number of Su-27s acquired thus far, either purchased from Russia or manufactured under license in China, and problems with other systems.37 The PLAAF is in the early stages of building an AWACS component through indigenous development and the leasing of aircraft from Russia after the United States vetoed a sale from Israel.38 Furthermore, it has just a few advanced SAMs (SA-10s purchased from Russia) although this situation may change if and when it initiates major deployments of FT-2000s.39 Overall, the PLAAFs limited means of projecting airpower, whether for timely counterattacks or any other reason, renders its ability to conduct an air defense campaign largely aspirational.
Offensive Air Campaign. This campaign seeks to maximize enemy weaknesses by "moving the battlefield as far as possible toward the enemys side" and forcing the enemy to fight on the defensive at Chinas initiative.40 It intends to exploit air and space powers advantages of initiative, versatility, and suddenness. The campaign can either stand alone as an independent air force effort or, far more likely, become part of an integrated joint campaign of surface-to-surface missiles, special operations forces, electronic and information strikes, and attacks by aircraft. The PRC could aim such a campaign at either strategic-level or campaign-level enemy target systems. The former includes political and economic systems, transportation and lines of communication, and supply and mobilization targets that will have strategic-level effects. The latter encompasses air defenses, air bases, and aircraft carriers (damage to or destruction of such targets can influence events in the War Zone).41
Historically, the PLAAF has not considered offensive attack a major mission since it has no capability for conducting strategic intercontinental air attack and extremely limited means for either a strategic- or campaign-level offensive in a local war- a situation subject to gradual change at best.42 Most of the PLAAFs current aircraft might prove useful only as a sacrificial first wave to soak up the defensive armaments of targets attacked in an offensive campaign; as mentioned earlier, its aircraft have little or no capability to operate at night, in bad weather, and in an electronic-countermeasures environment- and the greater part of the B-5/B-6 bomber force is obsolete.43 Furthermore, few, if any, of its aircraft can use precision-guided munitions against land targets; it has only a modest force of fighter aircraft (Su-27s) with the capability (not to mention the range) to conduct air-to-air offensive counterair; and, aside from the Su-30s coming from Russia, the PLAAF lacks the aircraft and specialized munitions necessary for airfield attack and suppression/ destruction of enemy air defenses.44 Thus, the Chinese air force will likely find itself relegated to nothing more than a supporting role in any offensive campaign, with the major burden carried by missiles of II Artillery Corps and by information warfare, for which the Chinese have vast enthusiasm.45 If the conflict should expand to intercontinental ranges, the PLAAF would probably have no role at all.
Direct Support of Ground Units. The PLAAF has a record of scant participation in close air support, battlefield air interdiction, and interdiction, and shows no signs of improvement in the foreseeable future. Interestingly, it evidently does not consider this mission a separate campaign. Although the PLAAF has a substantial force of attack aircraft, they are not equipped- nor are their crews trained- for direct support of ground units; nor is the PLAAF organized and equipped to function in support of a highly dynamic surface war of maneuver.46 Evidently, the air force has never successfully carried out direct support, preferring to provide indirect support by attacking targets in the enemys rear area, such as air defenses, campaign reserve forces, logistics support, communications, and helicopters.47 The PLAAF shows no sign of initiating major efforts to improve its capabilities in this area.
Conclusions and Implications
PLA military sciences concept of high-technology local wars gives the army an accurate assessment of the military environment it faces in the early twenty-first century in the form of challenges from either a local enemy or a "powerful country" such as the United States. The PLAs strategy of relying on surface-to-surface missiles, fist forces, and asymmetric warfare, while gradually modernizing its massive and obsolete military, is reasonably sound so long as it deals with an isolated Taiwan; over time the strategy may provide plausible capability to coerce or overwhelm Taiwan, so long as the United States does not intervene. But it does not provide plausible capability to defeat or even deter the United States at any time in the foreseeable future.
The situation is even worse for the PLAAF, which wishes (1) to move from the primarily defensive strategy and force structure of the past to one that combines offensive and defensive elements and (2) to initiate a qualitative transformation that reflects the ongoing revolution in military technology. In theory these wishes make reasonable sense. At present, however, they remain an aspirational concept that exists largely on paper. The PLAAF has moved very slowly to build the force it requires: out of a force of approximately 2,500 combat aircraft, fewer than 150 can be considered modern, and that number is increasing by fewer than 50 a year- with no sign of accelerating the acquisition process. The air force has not taken the obvious interim step of upgrading the capabilities of existing aircraft (e.g., by adding modern missiles, especially standoff weapons, and improved electronics). Nor has it taken more than preliminary steps toward making the qualitative improvements in organization, training, and tactics that have proved so central to the success of American air and space power. Finally, the PLAAF has not undertaken a major effort to build the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities it will need if only to partially duplicate American capabilities.
The PLAAFs military science, force structure, and acquisition make considerable sense if it is not expecting a conflict with the United States within the next 20 years. But the unsettled status of Taiwan makes that assumption uncertain at best. Against a major American effort, the PLAAF fundamentally would remain in the same position it found itself after Operation Desert Storm: incapable of either effective offense or defense- and its current efforts will not change that status in the foreseeable future. In fact, in all likelihood the United States is widening its lead and will do so even more rapidly as it deploys new capabilities, such as the F/A-22.
Chinese military science and strategy for a war with the United States over Taiwan call for defeating the island rapidly and presenting America with a fait accompli before it can intervene. Chinas published writings are extremely vague as to what it intends to do if its first effort does not succeed and a million tons of US diplomacy come roaring across the Pacific at flank speed and/or the speed of sound before Chinese forces have won. It seems that China hopes the United States will not be willing to endure the casualties and costs of a major war, but in that hope may lie an immense potential for danger. Such a mind-set has ominous parallels to the wishful thinking of the leadership of the Hirohito Shogunate before Pearl Harbor. The Japanese felt that they could rapidly overrun the western Pacific and that the soft, materialistic United States would not have the stomach for a long and bloody war. Three and a half years later, their country in ruins, they surrendered unconditionally. However, it is difficult to conceive of a nuclear-armed China surrendering on the aft deck of the USS Ronald Reagan.