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.
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 http://www.uscc.gov/hearings/2010hearings/transcripts/10_05_20_trans/cliff_testimony.pdf , 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 http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/plaaf-intro.htm 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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