PLAAF: Coercive Air Force Of The 21st Century

The future bat­tle­field areas are get­ting cor­po­ra­tised; forces becom­ing lean and mean and muni­tions more lethal with unimag­in­able accu­ra­cy. The effi­cien­cy of the bat­tle­field area is increas­ing at a rapid pace and there­fore PLAAF too had to quick­ly adapt to the changes and pre­pare itself to fight the next gen­er­a­tion war. 

It restruc­tured its force, exu­vi­at­ed ‘Corp lev­el’ and asso­ci­at­ed cadre from its organ­i­sa­tion struc­ture; sliced almost a 1,00,000 per­son­nel and pruned its fight­er fleet to half of its ear­li­er strength. It phased out major­i­ty of its obso­lete J‑6, J‑7 and old­er vari­ants of J‑8 and reduced the num­ber of such air­craft by two thirds whilst increas­ing the num­ber of mul­ti-role plat­forms by four times5. It pro­posed that the num­ber of J‑6 would be halved before the turn of the last cen­tu­ry and by the first decade of this mil­len­ni­um the entire fleet would be phased out, reach­ing an end of their ser­vice life and not sur­pris­ing­ly, PLAAF has been able to achieve all the set tar­gets. They also stopped pro­duc­tion of J‑7 and con­vert­ed a large num­ber of the phased out J‑6 and J‑7 into unmanned aer­i­al plat­forms. As a result PLAAF reduced the num­ber of fight­er air­craft from 4,400 to rough­ly 2,300 by 20056 and from a 32 fight­er divi­sion air force in 1997 to 20 divi­sions by 20057.

To bridge the gap between aspi­ra­tions and capa­bil­i­ties; the Chi­nese resort­ed to the con­cept of ‘joint­ness’ which in their design includ­ed ground forces, air force, navy, sec­ond artillery and also the space based assets

Frank W Moore esti­mat­ed that the total num­ber of fight­er and bomber air­craft with PLAAF in 2000 con­sist­ed of 1900 J‑6; 720 J‑7; 222 J‑8; 55 Su 27/J‑11; 440 Q‑5 (mod­i­fied MiG-19); 305 H‑5/IL-28; 142 H‑6/­Tu-16 and just about a dozen JH-78. PLAAF vig­or­ous­ly start­ed induct­ing large num­ber of Russ­ian and indige­nous air supe­ri­or­i­ty fight­ers and tac­ti­cal bombers and by the end of the first decade of this mil­len­ni­um had a far wack­i­er force con­sist­ing of 120 J‑10; 150 JF-17; 200 upgrad­ed Su-30MKK, 200 upgrad­ed J‑11 and 120 JH‑7. 800 dif­fer­ent vari­ants of J‑7s and upgrad­ed J‑8s con­tin­ue to be in ser­vice and employed in dif­fer­ent roles; a few out of them are also utilised as con­ver­sion train­ers at flight train­ing base and flight colleges9. Though the peri­od did see a change in PLAAF’s pro­file from an ear­li­er force which con­sist­ed of basic fight­ers with lim­it­ed radius of action, low end avion­ics and lim­it­ed fire pow­er capa­bil­i­ties to a force equipped with AWACS, air to air refu­elling and mul­ti-role tac­ti­cal air­craft with high end avion­ics, fire­pow­er and extend­ed radius of action to reach at least the first island chain, Sprat­ly and Para­cel. Although PLAAF’s deci­sion to acquire large num­ber of tac­ti­cal mul­ti­role fight­ers instead of strate­gic bombers not only intrigues a num­ber of Chi­na gaz­ers but also expos­es the lim­i­ta­tion of its inven­to­ry which does not match-up with its larg­er vision to evolve as a strate­gic air force; con­sid­er­ing that its front line bomber fleet con­sists of no more than a hun­dred H‑6 air­craft with a weapon car­ry­ing pay­load capac­i­ty lim­it­ed to 20,000 pounds; one third of B‑52s total capac­i­ty! Hence from that per­spec­tive, Chi­na requires to urgent­ly aug­ment its fleet with long range heavy bombers and strate­gic air­lift air­craft. Its cur­rent bomber fleet of a few hun­dred Q‑5, JH‑7 and H‑6, which at most could car­ry a land attack cruise mis­sile (LACM), appears to be gross­ly insuf­fi­cient for Chi­na to be able to tan­go deep into the Pacif­ic. PLAAF approx­i­mate­ly has thir­ty IL-76 strate­gic air­lift air­craft; eight to ten IL-78 aer­i­al refu­ellers which they acquired from Rus­sia in 2005 and a few H‑6 bombers con­vert­ed to refu­ellers. Though it appears that the air-to air refu­elling capa­bil­i­ty of PLAAF has sub­stan­tial­ly improved since 2000 but its effi­ca­cy in an oper­a­tional envi­ron­ment remains ques­tion­able due to lim­it­ed train­ing. China’s AWACS pro­gramme has also been through a roller­coast­er ride. It suf­fered its first set­back when US threat­ened Israel with US$ 2.8 bil­lion mil­i­tary aid; to can­cel the sale of Phal­con radar to the Chi­nese and the sec­ond set­back was the crash of KJ-200 in June 2006 dur­ing the devel­op­ment stage which killed forty oper­a­tors. But China’s resolve to indige­nous­ly devel­op an air­borne ear­ly warn­ing air­craft has yield­ed good div­i­dends. It has devel­oped KJ-200 on a Y‑8 plat­form and four to five KJ-200 on IL-76 plat­form inspired by Russ­ian Beriev A‑50.

Potent strat­a­gem

It has been a jour­ney of anoth­er kind, from an obso­lete force con­sist­ing of vol­un­teers formed by adopt­ing a sys­tem in the nar­row celes­tial realm of ter­ri­to­r­i­al air defence in 1950s to striv­ing to become an air force capa­ble of both offen­sive and defen­sive oper­a­tions in a bat­tle­space are­na con­cep­tu­alised in an infi­nite ethe­re­al expanse with a strike capa­bil­i­ty extend­ing beyond its bor­ders with range in excess of 3,000 km. The expan­sion of PLAAF’s long range strike capa­bil­i­ty aug­ment­ed by an increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed col­lec­tion of bal­lis­tic and cruise mis­siles is becom­ing a key instru­ment in China’s evolv­ing coer­cive state­craft and grad­u­al­ly alter­ing the region­al strate­gic land­scape. PLAAF’s rise, though sur­re­al has been a com­bi­na­tion of planned and des­tined occur­rences ade­quate­ly cap­i­talised by the lead­er­ship and clev­er­ly incor­po­rat­ed in its strat­a­gem. Resource con­straints and the rapid rise of sec­ond artillery may have ini­tial­ly con­tributed to the slow pace of PLAAF’s mod­erni­sa­tion in the ear­ly 1990s; how­ev­er the pace of China’s eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and the surge in the arms trade with coun­tries in South Amer­i­ca, Africa Iran and Pak­istan could have off­set PLAAF’s ear­ly set­back. China’s new and evolv­ing strat­a­gem has con­cep­tu­alised PLAAF as an emerg­ing play­er in the joint the­atre cam­paign which envi­sions syn­er­gy between infor­ma­tion war­fare, long range fire­pow­er, space, mar­itime and air defence assets; all ‘game chang­ers’ in future mil­i­tary campaigns. 

5 , Roger Cliff, The Devel­op­ment of China’s Air Force Capa­bil­i­ties , Paper pre­sent­ed before US-Chi­na Eco­nom­ic and Secu­ri­ty Review Com­mis­sion, May 2010, (RAND), accessed on July14, 2011.
6 You Ji, The Armed Forces of China,(IB TaurusPublishers,1999), Ch. 5, pp.134.
7 accessed on June 20, 2011.
8 Frank W Moore, “China’s Mil­i­tary Capa­bil­i­ties”, Pub­lished for Insti­tute for Defence and Dis­ar­ma­ment Stud­ies, Cam­bridge MA, June 2000.
9 These fig­ures may not be absolute; how­ev­er they have been cor­rob­o­rat­ed from var­i­ous web­sites, news reports as well as The Mil­i­tary Bal­ance 2010, which men­tions that the fight­er fleet con­sists of 800 J‑7 and J‑8; 120 J‑10; 134 J‑11; 73 Su-30MKK and 72 JH‑7/JH-7A. There isn’t any men­tion of JF-17 and oth­er vari­ants of Su-30 in its list of fight­er air­craft. Mil­i­tary Bal­ance also alludes that PLAAF has 1,100 or more fight­ers; 8 AEW air­craft; 18 tankers and 120 recon­nais­sance air­craft con­sist­ing of JZ‑6, JZ‑8 and JZ-8F

PLAAF was quick to embrace RMA after the Gulf war and by the turn of the cen­tu­ry start­ed con­sol­i­dat­ing on var­i­ous aspects like the infor­ma­tised and asym­met­ric war­fare tech­niques. It aug­ment­ed its ear­li­er capac­i­ty to car­ry out air strikes,reconnaissance and ear­ly warn­ing, air and mis­sile defence and enhance its strate­gic pow­er pro­jec­tion capa­bil­i­ty in an effort to build itself into a strate­gic air force by 2020

About the Author:
Wg Cdr Vishal Nigam
The writer grad­u­at­ed in Eco­nom­ics (Hons) from Del­hi Uni­ver­si­ty and was com­mis­sioned in the Indi­an Air Force in 1991. He holds a post­grad­u­ate diplo­ma in Busi­ness Man­age­ment and a diplo­ma from Nation­al Defence Uni­ver­si­ty in Taipei, Tai­wan. He is present­ly work­ing as a research fel­low at Cen­tre for Air Pow­er Stud­ies focus­ing on PLAAF and the rapid growth in China’s Avi­a­tion Industry. 

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