China — PLA Air Force (PLAAF): Doctrine and Strategy

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.

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.

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

Defence and Security Alert (DSA

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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.