PLA Air Force (PLAAF): Doctrine and Strategy

Geschrieben von Gp Capt J V Singh (retd)

This article is published with the kind permission of "Defence and Security Alert (DSA) Magazine" New Delhi-India

Defence and Security Alert (DSA




Changing PLA, Changing PLA Air Force -“We should keep deepening and broadening preparations for military struggle, quicken the pace of the modernisation work of the troops and keep enhancing the capability of accomplishing diversified military tasks with winning localised wars under informatised conditions as the core”.
- Hu Jintao to PLA Air Force Officers Attending 11th PLA Air Force Party Congress on 22 May 2009.

An analytical overview of the Doctrine and Strategy of the Chinese PLAAF. The writer highlights that change in the PLAAF is happening across a wide front and in myriad endeavours, in operational matters, in institutional affairs and in the acquisition of new capabilities. Today, the PLAAF is more operationally capable than at any time in its past. The years 1993, 2002 and 2004 represent important benchmarks for Chinese military modernisation. In 1993, the Chinese leadership and the PLA issued the equivalent of a new national military strategy. In 2002, the entire PLA was told to rethink how it would incorporate 21st century information technologies and operations in outer space, cyber space and in the electromagnetic spectrum to conduct information intensive operations. In 2004, the PLA Air Force, promulgated a service specific Space Operations concept, being Prepared for Simultaneous Offensive and Defensive Operations, yielding a significant PLAAF role in strategic deterrence and a desire for the capability to win high-tech local wars with airpower. The PLA Air Force, PLA Navy and the Second Artillery are now being described as “strategic” services with strategic level missions in their own right.

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The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is an organisation undergoing a series of major transitions and significant changes. Like the rest of the Chinese armed forces, change in the PLAAF is happening across a wide front and in myriad endeavours, in operational matters, in institutional affairs and in the acquisition of new capabilities. Today, the PLAAF is more operationally capable than at any time in its past and it is enjoying the fruits of years of focused and sustained reform and modernisation.1

Operation Desert Storm (1991) shocked the PLA into the realisation that, if it did not begin to focus on being able to engage in high-tech, information age warfare, then it would fall even further behind the world’s modern militaries than it already had. Hence, the CMC promulgated a new national military strategy.

The years 1993, 2002 and 2004 represent important benchmarks for Chinese military modernisation as well as for the PLAAF. In 1993, the Chinese leadership and the PLA issued the equivalent of a new national military strategy. The objective in promulgating “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” was to refocus China’s military modernisation objectives across and well into, the new century to enable the PLA to fight and win wars based on high-tech weapons and joint operational concepts. In 2002, the entire PLA was told to rethink how it would incorporate 21st century information technologies and operations in outer space, cyber space and in the electromagnetic spectrum to conduct information intensive operations “Local Wars Under Informatised Conditions,” in the parlance of the PLA. In 2004, the PLA Air Force, for the first time in its history, promulgated a service specific "Space Operations, Being Prepared for Simultaneous Offensive and Defensive Operations."

The exposure to these ideas has driven recognition of the air force as a major national capability to contain and win wars, yielding a significant PLAAF role in strategic deterrence and a desire for the capability to win high-tech local wars with airpower. Also in 2004, the CMC directed the PLA to develop high-tech conventional war fighting capabilities as well as preparing for non-traditional security operations. “The Historic Missions of Our Military in the New Period of the New Century,” articulated by PRC President and CCP leader Hu Jintao in 2004, provided the PLA with a mandate to think beyond conventional war fighting scenarios. The PLA, literally borrowing a term previously used by the US armed forces, now speaks of engaging in “Military Operations Other Than War” (MOOTW).2

Aircraft acquisition

The PLAAF divides its aircraft acquisition into five periods. The first period revolved around the relationship with the Soviet Union (1949-1960), which had a lasting impact on the development of China’s aviation industry and PLAAF force composition. During that period, China acquired about 3,000 Soviet aircraft and received production rights to various models.

The second period began in July 1960, when the Soviet Union notified China that it was withdrawing all of its specialists and cancelling all of its contracts. China then spent several years attempting to either modify or reverse engineer some of the aircraft and missiles furnished by the Soviet Union. After 1965, the Cultural Revolution severely disrupted PLAAF efforts. Between 1969 and 1971, continued disruptions led to profound quality control problems.

The third period began following the 1979 border conflict with Vietnam, when the PLAAF realised that the F-6 could no longer meet its long-term requirements. As a result, the PLAAF terminated the F-6 programme and money was infused into the F-7 and F-8 programmes, which were faltering at the time. This led China and the PLAAF to begin negotiations with the United States, resulting in a foreign military sales contract (known as the Peace Pearl Programme) in the late 1980s to upgrade the fire control system on the F-8II with F-16 class avionics.

The fourth period occurred during the 1990s, when China turned back to Russia for weapon systems and technology. During this period, the PLAAF purchased Su-27s, Su-30s, and Il-76s from Moscow. The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation also began assembling and producing the Chinese-licensed copy of the Su-27, known as the F-11. The PLAAF deployed its first F-11s to an operational unit in 2000.3

The fifth period covers the 2000s. During this period, the PLAAF has deployed Chinese produced FB-7s, F-10s, and K-8s, as well as modified B-6 bombers capable of carrying air launched cruise missiles. Although China produces all of these aircraft, most of them either are based on foreign aircraft and technology or include key foreign components, such as the engines.


The current operational component of the “Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” is known as the “Active Defence” strategy as adjusted for the conduct of “Local Wars under Informatised Conditions.” The “Active Defence” or “Active Defence Military Strategy” establishes set of broad strategic concepts and principles and a set of very general operational concepts, for prosecuting war at the strategic level of conflict. It applies to all PLA services and branches. “Active Defence” strategy has remained relatively constant


The picture today is quite different. The PLAAF is replacing older fighters with third and fourth generation aircraft fitted with long range, precision strike weapons for land attack and anti-ship missions and, in some of these aircraft, in-flight refuelling capabilities, which when fully operational, will extend operating limits. These include Russian designed Su-27s and Su-30s but also China’s own domestically developed J-10, which is assessed to be comparable in capability to the US F-16. Many PLAAF fighters now carry beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and PGMs and the PLAAF possess a first generation air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), carried on the H-6 medium bomber. China is experimenting with domestically produced airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and PLAAF aircraft now routinely operate at low level, over water, in bad weather and at night (sometimes all at once). Based on recent trends, these changes are likely to accelerate in the future, so that, within another decade, the capabilities of China’s air force would have strategic reach.4

The defence White Paper of 2004, in unambiguous terms, states that China intends to eventually achieve “command of the air and sea” and the ability to “conduct strategic counter-strikes.” The PLA Air Force (Aerospace Power), PLA Navy and the Second Artillery are now being described as “strategic” services with strategic level missions in their own right.

Military doctrine and strategy

China does not publish equivalents to the US National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy, or National Military Strategy. Rather, China uses “white papers,” speeches and articles as the principal mechanisms to communicate policy and strategy publicly. The transparency of China’s military and security affairs has improved in recent years, including its biennial publication of Defence White Papers. The Defence White Papers 2008 and 2010 summarise China’s defence policy as upholding national security and unity and ensuring the interests of national development.

Operational Theory (zuozhan lilun, i.e., doctrine): There is no single Chinese word for “doctrine,” and the PLA does not use a word substitute for “doctrine” in referring to its own operational theory or operational concepts. However, recognising that the Americans do use that word, PLA operations professionals translate “US doctrine” as “American Military Operational Theory.” Understanding the linkage between operational theory and operational practice in the PLA is an important tool for identifying operational concepts.

Active Defence (jiji fangyu): The current operational component of the “Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” is known as the “Active Defence” strategy as adjusted for the conduct of “Local Wars under Informatised Conditions.” The “Active Defence” or “Active Defence Military Strategy” establishes set of broad strategic concepts and principles and a set of very general operational concepts, for prosecuting war at the strategic level of conflict. It applies to all PLA services and branches. “Active Defence” strategy has remained relatively constant.


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1 DOD, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2009 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2009), VII. P 206.
2 China’s National Defence in 2010. Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. Downloaded from URL:http:// www. china.org.cn/ government/ whitepaper/ node. 7114675. htm on 31 March 2011.
3 Tong Hui, Chinese Military Aviation, 1995–2009, Section 1: Fighters, 1–2, available at http://cnair.top81.cn/.
4 IHS (Global) Limited, "World Air Forces, China," Jane's World Air Forces, (Singapore: IHS, July 2009), P, 3–5.




Offensive-defensive doctrine

Since the 1990s, China has paid close attention to developments in airpower thought in other countries. In formulating its own offensive-defensive doctrine, the PLAAF has synthesised US assessments of the Gulf War, Kosovo campaign and US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, building on the doctrine that it has practiced since the days of Russian assistance and influence. There is recognition of the air force as a major national capability to contain and win wars, yielding a significant PLAAF role in strategic deterrence and a desire for the capability to win high-tech local wars with airpower. Former President Jiang Zemin asserted that "we must construct a powerful people's air force ‘with Chinese characteristics,' that is both offensive and defensive."5

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Operationally, the PLAAF is going to aim to extend its reach and its lethality in order to enable the joint operational concepts --- the --- greater PLA is adopting as it thinks through how to fight and win high tech 21st century wars

As part of this drive China plans to accelerate PLAAF modernisation, transform it from a homeland air defence type of air force to a type that combines both offense and defence and develop modernised capabilities to defend China's security and interests. In 2004, in accord with the Central Military Commission's new military strategy programme, the PLAAF formalised this approach in a new air force strategy (actually more operational doctrine than strategy), which integrated air and space, with both attack and defence.

The PLAAF is a multifaceted service with many missions; therefore, it already has a strategy. As we saw beginning in 1992 the PLA established a committee of NDU and PLAAF officers to initiate research on Air Force strategy, culminating in the publication of Science of Air Force Strategy in 1995. This book laid out an argument, based on international air power doctrine, for the PLAAF to be an “independent” service and to be assigned its own operational component in the PLA’s National Military Strategic Guidelines.

PLAAF strategy

The Gulf War and the 1995- 96 Taiwan Strait crisis provided additional ammunition for the PLAAF to seek its own strategic doctrine. For example, statements by Former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Military Commission (CMC) Chairman Jiang Zemin and recently installed PLAAF commander Liu Shunyao emphasised the PLAAF’s requirement to fight offensive battles. In 1997, General Liu stressed this new strategic direction in the following words:

“The Chinese Air Force plans to build-up state-of-the-art weapon systems by early next century, including early warning aircraft, 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. The Air Force is now capable of waging high level long distance combat, rapid manoeuvrability and air defence and is able to provide assistance to Navy and ground forces. Over the next few years, the Chinese Air Force will enhance its deterrent force in the air, its ability to impose air blockades and its ability to launch air strikes, as well as its ability to conduct joint operations with the ground forces and Navy”.

The CMC approval

In 2004, the CMC approved the PLAAF’s “Active Defence” strategy as a component of the National Military Strategic Guidelines for air operations. The PLAAF’s strategic component was designated as “Integrated Air and Space, Simultaneous Offensive and Defensive Operations.” The approval also signalled a fundamental shift in how the PLAAF was to be viewed.

The article states that this change is encapsulated in three bold new assertions on the strategic positioning of the PLAAF:
  • First, the PLAAF is a national Air Force led by the CCP.
  • Second, a modern Air Force must be built to unify aviation and spaceflight, combine defence and offense and unify information and firepower.
  • Third, the PLAAF should be a strategic Air Force standing side by side with the Army and Navy to achieve command of the air, ground and sea.

New warfare concepts

At the strategic level of discourse, the PLAAF today is beginning to rethink the roles and missions it must assume and the capabilities it must have, to conduct aerospace operations that will achieve Beijing’s larger national objectives. Exactly what is meant when the PLAAF is exhorted to become a “strategic air force” is still unfolding. What is clear at this point is that the PLAAF is no longer viewed as being solely a tactical adjunct to ground force operations or a service mainly concerned with territorial air defence. It is evident that the leadership of the PLA is looking to the PLAAF to be capable in the future of offensive operations in larger joint campaigns and even to “execute long range precision strikes and strategic projection operations” although at the moment, these latter two missions are challenging. In 2004, in recognition of the new emphasis the PLA leadership places on the aerospace dimensions of warfare, the PLAAF was finally given its own service-level strategy, known as “Integrated Air and Space, Being Prepared for Simultaneous Offensive and Defensive Operations.”

Joint experience

Another noteworthy trend in the past few years is the assignment of PLA Air Force general officers to important national level military assignments. The PLA has traditionally been dominated by “army green” and, to a certain extent, it still is. However, more blue uniforms (PLAAF) are showing up in venues that matter reflecting more jointness in the make-up of its national level leadership relative to the past.6

For example:
  • Since 2004, the commander of the PLAAF (along with the commander of the PLA Navy and Second Artillery) has been a member of the Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CMC), the national command authority for the PRC.
  • In 2003, PLAAF Lieutenant General Zheng Shenxia became the first air force officer appointed as head of the prestigious PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS). The AMS serves as a think tank directly subordinate to the CMC and both drives and executes major initiatives of PLA-wide reform and modernisation in the realms of military strategy, the operational art and tactics.
  • In 2006, PLAAF Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian became the first air force officer appointed as Commandant of the PLA National Defence University (NDU). In 2007, Ma became one of the four Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff with the important portfolio of intelligence and foreign affairs for the entire PLA.
  • In the last few years, PLAAF general officers have also been appointed to various Deputy Director positions in the General Political Department (GPD) and General Logistics Department (GLD).
  • Moreover, since the early 1990s, the practice of concurrently dual hatting each Military Region Air Force commander as a Military Region deputy commander has been institutionalised.

Conclusion

It is clear that the PLAAF is going to become more operationally capable over time. That said, its transition from a primarily tactical asset to a “strategic air force” will not happen overnight or without problems along the way; there are weighty systemic and technological challenges that will guarantee a certain amount of friction.

What one can state with some certainty is the following:
  • The fundamental decisions the CMC makes for the entire PLA will continue to shape the major contours of future PLAAF reform and modernisation programmes administratively and operationally. Therefore, any understanding of where the PLAAF will be in 5 to 10 years must factor in the bigger picture of where the PLA will be and why.
  • Bureaucratically, because of historical precedents and how the Chinese defence establishment continues to be organised and managed, the PLAAF is unlikely to develop the very unique service persona or accrue the same degree of independence that characterise the services in other major powers. That said, if the PLAAF links its institutional stature in the PLA system to where its general officers are placed at the national level, then the PLAAF is going to continue to accrue bureaucratic gravitas over time.
  • Operationally, the PLAAF is going to aim to extend its reach and its lethality. PLA is adopting as it thinks through how to fight and win high-tech 21st century wars. Regardless of the shortcomings it may exhibit today, the vector clearly points towards enhanced range and capabilities.
  • The PLAAF has the potential to be an air force, among other regional air forces, that will shape the future operational environment in the Asia-Pacific region and, perhaps one day, even beyond.

Finally, although the PLAAF has traditionally emphasised defensive operations, that is no longer the case and the PLAAF will be an aggressive opponent in the event of a conflict. The PLA clearly prefers to achieve air superiority by attacking its enemy on the ground or water. Especially at the beginning of a war, the PLA will endeavour to attack enemy air bases, ballistic missile bases, aircraft carriers and warships equipped with land-attack cruise missiles before enemy aircraft can take off or enemy missiles can be launched. These attacks, moreover, will be carried out not by China’s air force operating in isolation but in coordination with the Second Artillery’s conventional ballistic and cruise missiles.


The PLA Air Force is now able to fight both defensive and offensive battles under high-tech conditions. The Air Force is now capable of waging high level long distance combat, rapid manoeuvrability and air defence and is able to provide assistance to Navy and ground forces. Over the next few years, the Chinese Air Force will enhance its deterrent force in the air, its ability to impose air blockades and its ability to launch air strikes, as well as its ability to conduct joint operations with the ground forces and Navy


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5 Guo Jinxiao, "The Science of Air Force Strategy," Chinese Military Encyclopedia (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2002), 311–312.
6 Yang Xiaobo et al., Science of Joint Campaign Command (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, December 2005), 282.


About the Author:
Gp Capt J V Singh (retd)
The writer was commissioned as an Officer in Indian Air Force in 1978. He is a graduate of Defence Services Staff College and in addition has undergone a diploma course at National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE) during his service tenure. He has also worked as a Senior Fellow with Centre for Air Power Studies while he was in active service for a period of two years. He has recently retired from Indian Air Force and he has rejoined as a senior fellow at the Centre once again. His current research project relates to the understanding of China’s Aerospace Strategy and its present status and future implications for the Asia Pacific Region as well as its larger role as a global player.


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