Wednesday 10 June 2009

Chinas Air Force Modernization

Chinas Air Force Modernization
The Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is in the midst of a modernization campaign
aimed at retiring and replacing obsolete aircraft designed in the 1950s and 1960s. While modernization has been under way in earnest for the past 15 years, Chinas air force is still in a transition phase, caught in the middle ground between the type of force that the PLAAF fielded over its first 50 years and the development of a new air force withmodern equipment, doctrine, and capabilities.
The thousands of J6 fighters that once made up the fighter fleet have been retired: about
1,000 older J7 and J8 fighters remain in service, including 32 Russian-built Su-27UBK
multirole fighters and 116 Chinese-assembled Su-27 variants; 73 Russian Su-33MKK fighters;
and 62 of the new, indigenously produced J10 multirole fighters. China is also developing
and purchasing force multipliers, including advanced transport aircraft, tankers, and
airborne early warning aircraft.
The Chinese vision is of a highly trained modern air force equipped with high-tech air-
craft, advanced precision-guided munitions, support aircraft that serve as force multipliers,
and networked command and control and intelligence capabilities that allow the PLAAF
to fight and win a high-tech war under informationalized conditions. This force
not only would be more capable of carrying out missions such as air defense and support
for ground forces against a modern adversary but also could undertake offensive strikes
against ground and naval targets farther from Chinas borders.
The new PLAAF will integrate support systems such as airborne early warning aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, and intelligence collection and jamming aircraft to increase the effectiveness of combat aircraft and enhance warfighting capability.Modernization will also include larger numbers of more capable air transports, which will enhance the effectiveness of PLAAF airborne
forces for internal and external missions.
The Chinese air force of the future will consist of fewer but more capable aircraft and support systems. Yet the total size and precise mix of foreign and domestic aircraft remain open questions. This article seeks to illuminate the future force structure ofthe PLAAF by exploring the different waysof thinking about the role of the air forcewithin overall PLA modernization plans,as well as the potential roles it will play infuture PLA missions. It begins with a concise
breakdown of the PLAAF as it stands now and is shaping for the future. It then shifts to the
potential influences and missions that Beijing will weigh in making determinations for
modernization. These influences are already affecting PLAAF transformation.
An Evolving Force The PLAAF is now in transition between the limited force consisting mainly
of obsolete capabilities that it fielded in the 1980s, and the more advanced force that it
intends to field in the coming decades. The new PLAAF will be a smaller force, composed
primarily of third- and fourth-generation multirole fighters and fighter-bombers. It is
uncertain whether China will decide to build or acquire new bombers, but the deployment
of advanced cruise missiles should effectively to a variety of missions, including
antiship and ground attack taskings. The new air force will also fully integrate support
systems such as airborne early warning (AEW)/airborne warning and control
systems (AWACS), aerial refueling tankers, intelligence collection, and signal jamming
aircraft to increase the effectiveness of combat aircraft and enhance warfighting capability.
Modernization will also include larger numbers of more advanced air transports,
which will enhance the effectiveness of PLAAF airborne forces for both internal
security and external missions. The air force will continue to modernize its ground-based
air defenses and will likely seek to develop more effective defenses against cruise and
ballistic missiles.
The J6 fighters that once made up most of the fighter fleet have all been retired. The
PLAAFs future aircraft are beginning to enter the force, although the total number and
precise mix of foreign and domestic aircraft remain unknown. The PLAAF now has 15
years of experience with the Su-27 fighter as well as with Su-30s and J10s and modern
surface-to-air missiles. The Su-27s and Su-30s are being complemented with the J11, the
Chinese-assembled version of the Su-27. Initial coproduction involved Chinese assembly
of aircraft kits provided by the Russians, but the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation plans
to increase the proportion of domestically produced components for the J11 gradually.
Throughout the 1990s, there were concerns in Beijing that the Russians were not giving
China the most advanced version of the Su-27 but were offering more advanced versions
of the aircraft to India. The Su-27SM system exhibited at the Zhuhai Air Show was
reported to have upgrades aimed at addressing Chinas concerns, including multifunction
liquid crystal displays and a precision navigation system incorporating laser gyroscopes
and a Global Navigation Satellite System/ NAVSTAR receiver. China has continued
to purchase Russian-built Su-30s and to assemble J11/Su-27 aircraft.
The J10 is Chinas first domestically produced fourth-generation aircraft and
will likely make up a large portion of the future force. The J10 is a highly capable,
multirole fighter strongly influenced by the Israeli Lavi, which was influenced by the
F16.7 The J10 is equipped with aerial refueling capabilities that significantly improve
its range and flexibility.8 The J10 has entered into serial production, and some 60 aircraft
(enough to equip about three Chinese aircraft regiments) are reportedly deployed.
The PLAAF may also field the Xiaolong/ FC1, an indigenously developed fighter that
is the product of a Chinese-Pakistani joint venture.10 Originally known as the Super-7,
the project goal was to upgrade the J7 into a more capable fighter with an advanced engine
and upgraded Western avionics to provide an effective but less expensive fighter. The
PLAAF is reportedly not enthusiastic about acquiring the Xiaolong, but the producer,
the Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group, is pushing for PLAAF purchases in order to validate
the aircraft for foreign customers.12 The Xiaolong/FC1 would provide a less expensive
alternative to the fourth-generation aircraft the PLAAF is currently acquiring.
Along with fighters, the PLAAF will continue to modernize its ground-attack and
bomber forces. Chinas efforts to improve its ground-attack capabilities include development
of the JH7/FB7 Flying Leopard.
Although the JH7 is a multirole aircraft, its limited capabilities against modern fighters
suggest that it will be used mainly for ground attack and antiship missions. The JH7 is
capable of carrying C801/802 antiship missiles and was initially deployed with the
PLA Navy (PLAN).13 About 20 JH7s are currently deployed with the PLAAF 28th
Air Division in Hangzhou.14 The air force is reportedly unenthusiastic about the JH7
and would probably prefer to acquire more advanced multirole fighters.
Bomber modernization is less certain than the efforts being made on behalf of
ground-attack aircraft. Production of the H6/Badger bomber has resumed, with
an emphasis on a new variant capable of carrying antiship and land-attack cruise
missiles.15 Chinese military Web sites show pictures of the H6 and the modified H6D
with cruise missiles on them as well as pictures of the H6 firing cruise missiles
from the air.16 The H6s vulnerability to modern air defenses suggests that it will
likely be employed as a standoff platform to deliver cruise missiles outside the range of
enemy air defenses. It is still unclear if the Chinese intend to upgrade the bomber fleet
with the Russian Tu-22 and Tu-95 bombers. The Chinese press has openly discussed
the pros and cons of those aircraft, but thus far there has been no decision to purchase
either one. Chinese sources have indicated that the only reason the PLAAF would want
to acquire new strategic bombers would be to prevent the United States from entering
any Taiwan scenario. Some Chinese analysts believe the purchase of these aircraft would
mark a significant shift in the balance of power in Asia.
The PLAAF will also develop and deploy force multipliers that will enhance
the capabilities of its combat aircraft. These systems will include tankers, AEW aircraft,
electronic warfare and intelligence rapid-response capability for internal and
external contingencies. The S30 can be refueled by the Il-76/Midas tankers, with four
already ordered from Russia although not yet delivered because of a production problem.18
The J8s and J10s can be refueled by HY6 tankers, a modified H6 platform. Expansion
of the tanker force and delivery of the Il-78 will extend the range and endurance of the
PLAAF refuelable combat aircraft.
China has made several efforts to acquire or develop AEW and AWACS capabilities, but current information suggests that only limited progress has been made. Some Chinese sources take
the position that AEW would be more beneficial to the PLAAF than AWACS
since it would require fewer changes in current operational practices. China
reportedly signed a deal in 1996 to acquire the A501 Phalcon AWACS from Israel, but
the purchase was canceled in July 2000 after the Israeli government came under pressure
from the Clinton administration.20 Chinas initial effort to develop a domestic AEW
capability used the Il-76 as a platform for the KJ2000, equipped with indigenously
designed phased-array radar.21 Research and development on this system has reportedly
made significant progress, but the program was set back by the crash of a prototype in
June 2006 that killed some 40 technicians.22 A second domestic AEW program, the KJ2,
is being developed based on the Chinese Y8X transport aircraft.23 Both the KJ2 and
the KJ2000 are to be equipped with data links compatible with the J7, J8, J10, JH7,
and H6. Both of the domestic AEWs carry phased-array radar.24 The PLAAF is also
making efforts to modernize its transport fleet, focusing primarily on the Il-76/Candid,
the Chinese Y8 and Y9, and the Soviet Antonov An-12. Along with these dedicated
transports, Chinese airlines fly large numbers
of commercial aircraft that could be pressed
into service in a crisis.
Future Size
The preceding section has examined
the modernization programs under way and
the aircraft and systems that will constitute
the future PLAAF. However, the ultimate size
of the future force is unclear, with questions
remaining about what quantity and mix
of aircraft China will eventually deploy. A
number of influences and perspectives will
shape what the air force looks like. Leaders
will have to balance modernization goals
between somewhat competing sets of factors.
This section describes five perspectives that
may influence the future size and composition
of the PLAAF.
The first perspective focuses on Chinas
external security environment, the military
missions derived from potential threats, and
the air force capabilities and force structure
necessary to carry out these missions. The
1991 Gulf War highlighted to the Chinese how
advanced U.S. military capabilities and operational
concepts could make a country vulnerable,
prompting intensified efforts to build a
more advanced and capable PLA. Beginning in
1993, Beijings sense that momentum toward
Taiwan independence was growing further
accelerated PLA modernization. The issue
of Taiwan threatened to bring China and the
PLAAF into direct confrontation with the
United States, a possibility made clear with
the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers
to the vicinity of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis.
Most of the aircraft acquisitions and development
programs shaping todays PLAAF were
initiated prior to the leaderships intensified
concern about Taiwan independence, including
the acquisition of Russian Su-27/Flanker
fighters, the J10 fighter development
program, and
initial efforts to
build tankers
and AEW/
threat of Taiwan
independence led
the PLAAF to build
near-term combat capabilities
through purchase and
coproduction of Russian
multirole fighters, such
as the Su-30, while decreasing
the emphasis on strategic air force assets such
as tankers and strategic bombers.
The general assessment of the international
security environment will continue to
influence overall Chinese defense budgets
and the resources available for army building,
but specific contingencies might shape
air force modernization more directly. Some
of these scenarios include a relatively benign
security environment in which the air force
concentrates on its air defense mission. This
would imply greater emphasis on air bases
and air defense assets along Chinas land and
maritime borders and a relative neglect of
long-range strike capabilities. This scenario
would see decreased emphasis on long-range
bombers and aerial refueling capabilities,
including tanker acquisition. Another
scenario would have the air force focusing
on power projection into the East China
and South China Seas to ensure a PLAAF
capability to protect vital Chinese sea lines
of communication. This would imply greater
emphasis on aerial refueling capabilities,
overwater flight training, long-duration
maritime patrol and intelligence collection,
and perhaps strategic bombing capabilities.
This scenario might bring the PLAAF into
conflict with the PLAN naval aviation over
responsibilities for these missions.
A third scenario would involve greater
attention to potential threats from Japan
and India. This scenario might also include
preparation for dangers stemming from
the U.S. Air Force beyond Taiwan, which
would be the most demanding scenario
for the PLAAF. This would require a
greater emphasis on training operations in
preparation for well-equipped air forces.
Geographically, the
PLAAF might
redeploy its
assets in order
to increase its
capabilities to
strike India and,
to a lesser extent,
Japan. The lack of
overseas bases constrains
the contributions that tactical
aviation assets (such as multirole fighters) can
make to scenarios that require long-range
operations. Air refueling can help extend
the operational range of tactical aircraft but
is an imperfect substitute for overseas bases.
Without overseas bases, the PLAAF might
be at a disadvantage relative to the navy and
the Second Artillery in fighting for budget
resources in some scenarios.
A second means of assessing the future
size for the PLAAF and Beijings modernization
choices is to look at the potential military
requirements associated with Chinas growing
international interests. Continued economic
growth and global integration have increased
dependence on foreign sources of energy
(especially oil and gas) as well as access to
international markets to maintain that economic
growth. This is stimulating a more
activist foreign policy that may eventually
require new military missions.25 The extent
to which expanding international interests
translate into new military requirements
for the PLAAF will depend on how Chinese
leaders decide to pursue their interests and
the relative value of military instruments
(especially airpower). To date, the leaders
have stressed Beijings peaceful development
and downplayed the potential for using force
to pursue national interests. If this approach
continues, the most likely new missions
for the PLAAF would be strategic airlift to
support Chinese contributions to international
peacekeeping, disaster relief, and evacuation
of Chinese nationals from conflict zones. A
more aggressive approach to resource conflicts
could generate requirements for an air force
capable of expeditionary operations, but this
appears unlikely. This scenario would call for
increased acquisition of transport aircraft.
A third approach for sizing the PLAAF
would focus on the priorities of top civilian
leaders, which encompass a range of strategic,
developmental, and political objectives. From
this perspective, the future size of the force is
a function of the leaderships estimate of the
return on investments in air force capabilities
relative to other uses of the resources. Civilian
leaders are clearly concerned with the
need to keep defense expenditures in proper
proportion to economic development; the
2006 Defense White Paper calls for coordinated
development of national defense and
the economy. However, defense and civilian
industries can have positive synergies,
so leaders might support some additional
military expenditures (especially in research
and development) due to their benefits for the
civilian economy. Civilian leaders might also
view defense spending increases as a means of
helping to ensure the loyalty of the military to
the Communist Party. Significant portions of
recent hikes in spending have been devoted to
increased pay and improved living conditions
for the military. Without more detailed knowledge
of how Chinese civilian leaders think
about the costs and benefits of various air force
capabilities, it is difficult to derive a specific
size for the PLAAF from this perspective.
A fourth approach would be to focus
on the relative return on investment in air
force capabilities compared to other military
resources. The future size of the PLAAF
would depend on the relative contribution airpower
can make to the PLAs overall ability to
perform its missions and execute its campaign
plans. The PLAAFs primary mission has long
been air defense, with support for ground
troops an important secondary mission. The
air defense mission requires close coordination
of both aircraft and ground-based air
defenses such as surface-to-air missiles and
antiaircraft artillery.26 Despite the longstanding
secondary mission of supporting ground
troops, the PLAAF has never been able to
perform close air support missions for ground
forces and has only had limited capability to
perform bombing and interdiction missions
in support of ground operations.
The 2004 Defense White Paper describes
the PLAAF responsibility for safeguarding
Chinas airspace security and maintaining a
stable air defense posture nationwide, noting
that the Air Force has gradually shifted from
[a mission] of territorial air defense to one of
both offensive and defensive operations. It
highlights the development of new fighters,
air defense, and anti-missile weapons and
emphasizes training to improve the capabilities
in operations like air strikes, air defense,
information countermeasures, early warning
and reconnaissance, strategic mobility, and
integrated support.27 The 2006 Defense
White Paper stresses PLAAF efforts to speed
up its transition from territorial air defense
to both offensive and defensive operations
and to increase its capabilities in the areas
of air strike, air and missile defense, early
warning and reconnaissance, and strategic
projection.28 The white papers and other PLA
doctrinal literature reveal that the air defense
mission is now conceived as a nationwide
responsibility that incorporates both offensive
and defensive actions. The emphasis on
offensive operations, air strikes, and strategic
mobility (coupled with the PLA-wide emphasis
on joint operations and joint campaigns)
implies a higher priority for operations that
support ground forces.
The overall balance between offensive
and defensive capabilities, emphasis placed on
air force missions and campaigns, and relative
contributions the PLAAF can make to joint
campaigns will all influence the size of the air
force compared to other services. The 2004
Defense White Paper called for giving priority
to the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery
Force, implying the need for greater investment
in air capabilities. However, ground force
officers remain dominant within the PLA, so
parochial service considerations are likely to
continue to influence resource allocation.
A fifth approach would emphasize
building the PLAAF into a modern air force
capable of engaging and defeating other air
forces. Here the most ambitious benchmark
would be the ability to engage and defeat the
U.S. Air Force. A less ambitious goal would
be to tackle modern Asian air forces such
as those of India and Japan. This approach
implies the development of advanced fighters
and force multipliers such as tankers and
AWACS aircraft. In terms of force structure,
such an approach would emphasize additional
procurement of Russian aircraft, efforts
to acquire advanced Western technology
for Chinese platforms, and a reluctance to
procure less capable indigenous systems.
These five perspectives outline different
ways of thinking about the future size of
the PLAAF. Each suggests a different view
about the role the air force might play in
national security and what force structure
would be appropriate. However, none provides
a straightforward prediction as to what
the future force will look like. In reality, the
PLAAF force structure will be the product
of a political process that incorporates some
aspects of each of these perspectives.
How top civilian leaders assess the
overall international security environment
and the resources they are willing to devote
to military modernization will shape the
overall budget and policy environment
in which air force modernization takes
place. A leadership reassessment of Chinas
security environment might change the
relative priority and resources devoted to
For example, the need to prepare
for a conflict over Taiwan independence
has been a key justification for increased
military spending in recent years. If the
Taiwan situation appears more stable and
the international environment is relatively
benign, the need for increased military
spending may be less persuasive to civilian
leaders focused on domestic priorities, such
as promoting development and reducing
inequality between urban and rural parts of
China. There are some indications that PLA
strategists are beginning to look beyond the
Taiwan issue and articulate the rationale for
building a military capable of global operations
in defense of Chinas sea lines of communication
and expanding global interests.
It is unclear how persuasive this rationale
will be to national leaders. Conversely, a
downturn in Sino-U.S. relations could reinforce
concerns about potential threats posed
by the United States and cause an increased
emphasis on military modernization.
Other factors will also influence
military budgets, including Chinas ability to
sustain its rapid economic growth, whether
it avoids a serious economic or financial
crisis, the relative weight placed on military
expenditures compared to other leadership
priorities, and additional costs for social
spending as the population ages.29 Barring
an economic collapse, air force budgets are
likely to increase even if Chinas recent pace of
double-digit increases in real defense spending
slows. Nevertheless, budget limitations
will still force leaders to make difficult choices
about air force modernization.
Modernization Paths
In addition to the strategic perspectives,
PLAAF force structure will be shaped by narrower
decisions about the division of labor on
air defense and conventional strike missions,
proper tradeoffs between foreign and domestic
production, high-tech versus lower-cost
systems, and relative emphasis on support
aircraft. The most likely path for PLAAF
modernization is to maintain present efforts
to build the air force using a variety of means,
including ongoing procurement of advanced
aircraft from Russia, continued domestic
efforts to design and produce advanced aircraft,
and incorporation of imported engines,
avionics, and munitions into Chinese aircraft
designs. The preference is to gradually shift
away from foreign procurement and use of
foreign components as the domestic aviation
industrys capabilities to produce advanced
aircraft and components improve.
Three variations on this force modernization
path illustrate alternative possibilities.
Efforts to Maximize Capability Quickly.
This path would likely flow from a leadership
assessment that Chinas security environment
was deteriorating and that more resources
needed to be devoted to accelerate military
modernization. The likely consequences
would be increased procurement of foreign
aircraft, redoubled efforts to acquire foreign
AWACS, tanker, and transport aircraft, and
accelerated production of both high- and
medium-quality indigenous aircraft. Efforts
to replace imported components with
Chinese-produced equivalents would be
deemphasized in favor of buying increased
stocks of critical foreign components. Given
procurement and production lead times, this
scenario would require at least 2 to 3 years
to produce substantial gains in capability.
The PLAAFs ability to absorb and employ
additional aircraft would be constrained by its
capacity to train pilots and maintenance personnel
and the time needed to upgrade units
to operate more advanced aircraft.
A High-Tech Air Force. This path
would emphasize advanced aircraft, support
systems, and command, control, communications,
computers, and intelligence capabilities
to integrate aircraft into informationalized
operations. The PLAAF would focus procurement
on Russian fighters and possibly
the J10 fighter while procuring few if any
FC1 or JH7 aircraft. China might also
explore co-development of new advanced
aircraft with Russian partners as a means of
upgrading its aircraft inventory and improving
the research and development capability
of its defense industry. The PLAAF would
retire older aircraft as more capable replacements
entered the force in order to focus its
resources on advanced aircraft. Investment
in support aircraft such as AEW/AWACS and
tankers would be a priority, with renewed
efforts to procure foreign platforms and technology
combined with intensified indigenous
development. The PLAAF would resist efforts
to replace foreign engines and avionics with
Chinese-produced equivalents that did not
deliver the same performance or reliability.
A Domestically Produced Air Force. This
path would emphasize indigenous efforts to
produce advanced weapons and seek to avoid
reliance on foreign suppliers. It implies less
emphasis on procurement of Russian aircraft,
increased purchases of J10 fighters (and possibly
FC1 and JH7 aircraft), and enhanced
efforts to replace foreign engines and avionics
with indigenous equivalents. Development
of force multipliers such as AEW/AWACS,
tankers, and transports would depend on
how quickly the defense industrys research
and development efforts progressed. (A spiral
development model where initial capabilities
were deployed and then improved over
time would be a possibility.) This approach
implies a more relaxed pace of modernization
but would lay a firmer foundation for future
Chinese efforts to develop advanced aircraft.
This path would likely result from leadership
confidence that the security environment was
improving and that a military conflict was
unlikely in the midterm.
The Peoples Liberation Army Air
Force hopes to build a force consisting
primarily of advanced aircraft integrated
with effective support systems, with the
capability of conducting offensive strike
missions against ground and naval targets
and effective air defense against advanced
militaries. This air force would be capable of
conducting and supporting joint operations
and would rely heavily on networking and
informationalization to employ airpower
effectively. These aspirations will likely be
constrained by the current technological
limitations of the Chinese aviation industry
and by the resources made available to
support defense modernization. One of the
biggest uncertainties is whether the air force
will choose (or be forced) to procure large
quantities of less capable aircraft to support
the Chinese aircraft industry or to support
the leaderships goal of indigenous innovation
and self-reliance. Decisions
how many J10, FC1, and JH7 fighters to
procure will be a key indicator. In theory,
the defense reorganization of 1998 that
established the General Armaments Department
should give air force requirements
greater weight in procurement decisions, but
this may not be true in practice.
Chinese leadership perceptions of the
international threat environment (to include
assessments of the likelihood of a crisis over
Taiwan or a conflict with the United States)
and budget allocations will have a significant
influence on the overall size of the future
Peoples Liberation Army and the speed with
which modernization takes place. Nevertheless,
it is already clear that the future Peoples
Liberation Army Air Force will be a significantly smaller but more capable air force.