China — PLAAF: Coercive Air Force Of The 21st Century

PLAAF dur­ing the Deng era was also look­ing to improve its deter­rent capa­bil­i­ty by strength­en­ing air­borne forces, enhanc­ing quick mobil­i­ty and increas­ing the strate­gic reach, which until now had been its innate weak­ness. It also start­ed to per­ceive itself as a unique ser­vice capa­ble of engag­ing in local bor­der wars because of its intrin­sic qual­i­ty of reach and speed; and fur­ther strength­ened by its rapid reac­tion force capa­ble of attain­ing the laid down polit­i­cal objec­tives and end the war as quick­ly as pos­si­ble; an ear­li­er domain of the PLA, which ceased as a result of soul-search­ing by the ground forces. PLAAF dur­ing this peri­od also start­ed to under­stand the con­cepts of air supe­ri­or­i­ty, fire­pow­er, manoeu­vra­bil­i­ty, con­trol of elec­tron­ic means and tech­nol­o­gy; all crit­i­cal and with­out which the strate­gic objec­tives could not have been achieved. It there­fore ini­ti­at­ed sig­nif­i­cant reforms in the force struc­ture, train­ing and weapon sys­tems and rede­fined its role with greater clar­i­ty by list­ing out areas of respon­si­bil­i­ty in terms of its offen­sive capa­bil­i­ties to car­ry out air strikes and attain air suprema­cy. It was almost a fore­gone con­clu­sion that any future war would have to be mul­ti-dimen­sion­al involv­ing land, sea, air and space; there­fore no sin­gle ser­vice could afford the lux­u­ry of being over­bear­ing. Hence, it took more than three decades for the estab­lish­ment to con­vince PLA that; ‘the largest obsta­cle for any ground force or a unit­ed cam­paign came from the air’, and the onus for this ideation­al shift will nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be attrib­uted to Deng’s will­ing­ness to accept the tran­scen­dent nature of air pow­er and Wang Hai’s sur­pass­ing influ­ence on Deng dur­ing the Sino-Viet­nam con­flict. Also, soon after the Gulf war; PLA was left with no oth­er option than to accept the gospel truth that the biggest chal­lenge for the ground forces actu­al­ly came from the air and for the first time also acknowl­edg­ing the inher­ent lim­i­ta­tion in the con­cept of PLA being the sole under­writer to guar­an­tee secu­ri­ty; a prime con­cern for all Chi­nese cit­i­zens and its pol­i­cy for­mu­la­tors. PLA as a result was left with no oth­er choice than to coerce PLAAF to mod­ernise and pre­pare itself to fight major air bat­tles away from home. The major take-away from the peri­od of tran­si­tion was that it accen­tu­at­ed the role of infor­ma­tion, high-end tech­nol­o­gy, weapon­ry and air pow­er. Also the accep­tance of air pow­er being piv­otal and an impor­tant ele­ment of the deci­sion mak­ing appa­ra­tus and an inde­pen­dent instru­ment in the con­text of a joint cam­paign was a result of Deng’s broad-mind­ed approach; which helped PLAAF tran­scend into becom­ing an offen­sive air force and prepar­ing to take on the cen­tre-stage to chal­lenge the best in the world.

PLAAF’s aspi­ra­tions

PLAAF was quick to embrace RMA after the Gulf war and by the turn of the cen­tu­ry start­ed con­sol­i­dat­ing on var­i­ous aspects like 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 aero­space pow­er CHINESE HAUTEUR An ISO 9001:2008 Cer­ti­fied Mag­a­zine pow­er pro­jec­tion capa­bil­i­ty in an effort to build itself into a strate­gic air force by 2020. The 2010 white paper fur­ther states that there has been a con­cert­ed effort on part of PLAAF to accel­er­ate the tran­si­tion from being a tac­ti­cal air force look­ing at ter­ri­to­r­i­al air defence to now being able to par­tic­i­pate in both offen­sive and defen­sive oper­a­tions2. Hu Jin­tao had also said that “we will ensure that our armed forces are capa­ble of win­ning a war in the infor­ma­tion age, mod­erni­sa­tion of weapons and equip­ment should be accel­er­at­ed and per­son­nel train­ing enhanced. We will grad­u­al­ly increase spend­ing on nation­al defence as the econ­o­my grows and con­tin­ue to mod­ernise nation­al defence and the armed forces.”


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 use of air­pow­er in the 21st cen­tu­ry is also guid­ed by the phi­los­o­phy of coer­cion aimed at com­pelling to change the behav­iour of the tar­get State and then become a mid­wife to the con­tin­u­a­tion of the State’s pol­i­cy by oth­er means. It also acknowl­edged the huge poten­tial of air­pow­er being an effi­ca­cious tool to influ­ence inter­na­tion­al dis­putes both through active and pas­sive means, which could fur­ther also be employed for decap­i­ta­tion of lead­er­ship and ‘denial’ with­out the deploy­ment of any cred­i­ble ground threat. At the same time they were cau­tious against bequeath­ing over­ar­ch­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty in one sin­gle ‘pow­er’; main­ly because of the lim­it­ed capa­bil­i­ty of its armed forces and more so of its ‘air­pow­er’ assets. They believed that with lim­it­ed capa­bil­i­ty, chang­ing region­al archi­tec­ture and under the weight of geopol­i­tics, no sin­gle ‘pow­er’ could win for them future wars against a strong and a robust adver­sary like Amer­i­ca. Hence 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. Although PLAAF in the past has had issues over con­trol of space-based assets, but has nev­er laid too much impor­tance oth­er than to state the obvi­ous that aero­space pow­er has a broad­er scope as com­pared to air­pow­er and both have an inher­ent capac­i­ty to guar­an­tee ‘air supe­ri­or­i­ty’. They also believed that build­ing a cred­i­ble air force with enhanced fire-pow­er capa­bil­i­ty, will large­ly help them to off­set their major short­com­ings in the face of a pow­er­ful adver­sary and there­fore air­pow­er in their cal­cu­lus was turn­ing out to be an extreme­ly pow­er­ful tool of PRC’s coer­cion strat­e­gy3. Attain­ment of ‘air supe­ri­or­i­ty’ con­tin­ues to be the soul for all future wars whether fought in an envi­ron­ment of a joint cam­paign or an inde­pen­dent air cam­paign; prob­a­bly inspired by Colonel John War­den III, when he stat­ed that “no coun­try has won a war in the face of ene­my air supe­ri­or­i­ty, no major offen­sive has ever suc­ceed­ed against an oppo­nent who con­trolled the air and no defence has sus­tained against an ene­my who had air supe­ri­or­i­ty”4. PLAAF’s larg­er aim is to evolve a seam­less aero­space strat­e­gy with a poten­tial to be spread out over a bat­tle space area envis­aged larg­er than ever in the past. It ini­ti­at­ed this process by induct­ing mul­ti­ple plat­forms, devel­op­ing potent EW capa­bil­i­ties, inte­grat­ing com­bat and con­trol sys­tem in a mod­ern air com­bat envi­ron­ment with enhanced capa­bil­i­ties and lethal strike option. PLAAF was in a state of tran­si­tion, redefin­ing its ear­li­er mis­sion exclu­sive­ly respon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing sup­port to its ground forces to now grad­u­at­ing and becom­ing an inde­pen­dent ser­vice capa­ble of pro­vid­ing deter­rence and con­duct­ing strate­gic attack. Over the years PLAAF has made sig­nif­i­cant inroads in devel­op­ing con­cepts relat­ed to aero­space pow­er in a joint envi­ron­ment involv­ing PLAN, sec­ond artillery and space based assets.

2–03/31/c_13806851.htm,White paper on China’s Nation­al Defence 2010, accessed on July14, 2011.
3 Accord­ing to Mark Stokes, coer­cive pow­er is dif­fer­ent from brute force and attempts to dis­suade the adver­sary from tak­ing an action and there­fore can con­sist of diplo­mat­ic coer­cion and mil­i­tary coer­cion. As per Daniel L Byman’s def­i­n­i­tion both mil­i­tary and diplo­mat­ic coer­cion can force anoth­er gov­ern­ment to choose between mak­ing con­ces­sions or suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences.
4 Colonel John A War­den III, The Air Cam­paign, Plan­ning for Com­bat, (Wash­ing­ton: Pergamon-Brassey’s, 1989), pp.10.