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

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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Team GlobDef

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