Meet the New PLAAF
By Rebecca Grant
The PLAAF put itself in the headlines around the world by rolling out the J-20 with its first public flight in January 2011. The stealthy aircraft’s first flight was one dramatic example of a steady process of modernization based on outright purchases from
Fighters aren’t the only new capabilities.Today the new PLAAF is reorganized, modernized, and in the hunt for control of the air.
China has added
advanced missiles, upgraded its venerable H-6 bombers, and pressed ahead with
airborne early warning. China’s
air force operates numerous advanced air defenses. In the last few years,
progress in doctrine and training has picked up speed. Last but not least, China has an
aircraft carrier undergoing sea trials.
Amy Chang of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in a recent report that the crisis "catalyzed investment in the long-term modernization and professionalization of
A June 2012 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report on Asia stated, "In particular, China realized after the Taiwan confrontations that it possessed a limited set of military options (short of nuclear weapons) and that US power projection in the form of aircraft carriers and long-range precision strike (e.g., B-2 bombers) to deter Chinese aggression were insurmountable for the PLA."
China entered the second decade of the 21st century on track to wield a much wider range of conventional force options and with improved airpower capabilities out in front. No longer is the PLAAF "an overly large, technologically inferior force," stated NASIC. Divestment and investment have reshaped
China’s Fighter Modernization
By far the most significant development for the PLAAF has been the shift from a large force of outdated, 1960s-vintage fighters to a smaller, more capable force. Today’s PLAAF features several fighters brought into service in the 2000s. Some were purchased from
The PLAAF describes its force structure as a two-tier system. "The PLAAF has established a major weapons and equipment system with third generation aircraft and surface-to-air missiles as the mainstay, and modified second generation aircraft and surface-to-air missiles as the supplement," as China described it in a 2008 national defense document.
The Pentagon’s 2012 China military report tallies 1,570 fighters, 550 bombers, 300 transport aircraft, plus another 1,450 older aircraft in the PLAAF inventory. However, the report does not offer a thorough order of battle.
A more detailed way to look at the PLAAF is by its own metric of "mainstay" and "supplement" forces. The mainstay forces correspond to fourth generation fighters in
The number range suggestsJust as important are improvements in air-to-air missile technology.
probably has more than 400 fighters in the fourth generation class by US terminology.
Analyst Richard Fisher Jr. expects this number to grow. "Given what can be
discerned about production rates, by 2020 it is conceivable that the percentage
of ‘modern’ combat aircraft could exceed 50 percent or be closer to 1,000 in
number," Fisher concluded in a late 2011 calculation published by the International
Assessment and . Strategy
Two major Chinese aerospace firms are flying stealthy fighter demonstration aircraft. Of course, both are subsidiaries of AVIC, China’s Aviation Industry Corp. Together, the J-20 and J-31 could represent a design competition similar to the contest between the Lockheed Martin team X-35 and the Boeing X-32 back in 2001. At the least, the new fighters indicate a healthy combat aircraft design base absorbing lessons from multiple international sources and putting them in experimental designs.
The Chengdu J-20 was first to fly. In a 2009 China Central Television interview, Gen. He Weirong, deputy head of China’s air force, said stealth fighters were about to undergo test flights and would be deployed in eight or 10 years. The J-20 "Mighty Dragon" made its first public flight in January 2011 during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to
The J-20’s front aspect in particular shows many external stealth design curves and features similar to the F-22. From side and rear aspects, the resemblance fades, due to the block fuselage, canards, protruding engines, and thin vertical stabilizers. For now, it is equipped with Russian-built AL-31F engines. The size of the J-20 suggests it could carry internal fuel plus a large bomb bay suited to known Chinese missile inventories including cruise missiles and extended range air-to-air and anti-ship missiles.
Second to fly, on Oct. 31, 2012, was the Shenyang J-31 (named by analysts after its tail number), first seen in roll out photos before it took flight. The J-31 appeared to be a more compact and advanced design. From flattering angles it could almost be the fourth variant of the F-35. "The J-31 is almost certainly designed with the intention to have the potential of operating on aircraft carriers, judging from its enhanced double-wheel nose landing gear" and vertical stabilizers, aviation analyst Bai Wei told The Times of
The flight of the
The DH-10 cruise missile shows Chinese military air attack development in microcosm. The ground-launched missile was first deployed in small numbers in 2008. By 2009, the number of deployed DH-10s was pegged at up to 350 missiles. Current assessments suggest
Still, this growing capability gives
The PLAAF is also tasked with ground-based air defense. The PLAAF took delivery of its first SA-2s in 1958 and has since built a formidable arsenal of legacy SAMs, advanced Russian systems, and their own indigenously modified HQ-9s. Like fighter aircraft, the PLAAF surface-to-air missile fleet has a highly modernized elite force of about 192 launchers on top of a bedrock of approximately 490 legacy launchers.
Of particular concern are the 192 SA-20, SA-10, and HQ-9 type launchers. The SA-10 range is about 50 miles, but the SA-20 variants have ranges between 93 and 124 miles.
Training for the SAM units "focuses heavily on night mobility," according to NASIC. A typical exercise begins with rapid departure, positioning to a preselected launch site, and camouflage and concealment.
The Chinese-developed HHQ-9 is a sea-launched missile that has been demonstrated in launch from Chinese Navy destroyers. Its range is estimated between 47 and 93 miles. With the HHQ-9,Carrier Aviation Prospects
project lethal air defenses at sea as far as its fleet can maneuver. China
Next to its stealth aircraft, the most dramatic expansion of
People’s Daily Online in October 2012 reported that Li Jie, a professor at the
As with the stealth programs, there have been major debates about the Chinese carrier. "The most controversial issue of the post-Cold War era has been whether or not
Full flight operations have not yet been observed. However, a Shenyang J-15 fighter completed a touch-and-go landing drill on Liaoning on Oct. 12, 2012, and in late November a pair of J-15s made successful arrested landings before launching again from the carrier. The J-15 is a Chinese-built derivative of the Su-33 designed for carrier operations.
NASIC summed up the improvements so far: The PLAAF "is emerging as a well-equipped and increasingly well-trained force, still possessing some identifiable shortcomings and weaknesses."Significant holes remain in the PLAAF modernization. Foremost among these is its small air refueling fleet.
Lack of combat experience is also a factor. The USAF pilot force, for example, has long boasted at least a fraction of airmen with combat experience from
What’s much harder to assess is the tactical savvy of
Given the forces it’s acquiring,
Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was "Linebacker II" in the December 2012 issue.