The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved to be a boon to China and the PLAAF. Apart from a formidable enemy being neutralised, many displaced scientists, engineers and technicians from the erstwhile Soviet Union found employment in the Chinese military industrial complex. The Russian aircraft industry struggling to survive, was more than willing to sell modern aeroplanes and technology to China. And the booming Chinese economy could afford to import the best that was on offer.
PLAAF : An Emerging Aerospace Power
A visionary, long-term and time-bound approach to military modernisation, supported by a strong and innovative military-industrial capability has transformed the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force(PLAAF) of China, from an antiquated, derelict, poorly trained and over-sized force to a modern aerospace power with increasing proficiency to undertake its stated missions in the 21st Century.
The Indian establishment, especially the Indian Air Force (IAF), needs to absorb this reality and restructure its modernisation plans. The Indian security environment is being continuously impacted by China’s rise, militarily and economically as a global power.
Thefoundations of China’s long term plan for its modernisation programme were laid in 2010 and aims at major progress by 2020. By 2050 China would accomplish its strategic goal of building an ‘informatized’ (net-centric warfare enabled) armed forces capable of winning wars. Perhaps the unstated objective of the plan is to expand China’s ‘comprehensive national power’ beyond the existing regional status.
China’s plan to ‘lay a solid foundation by 2010’ appears to have been achieved as demonstrated by the large-scale exercise ‘Stride-2009’ held to coincide with 50 years celebration of communist rule in China. 50,000 troops were moved from regions in the West to the East. The objective of Stride-2009 was to test the ability to move forces on a large-scale from the areas they had trained in to areas they were unfamiliar with.
Another aim was to subject the massive rail, road and air infrastructure created over the years to heavy military movement pressure and examine if such pressure adversely affected civilian population. The PLAAF played an important role in this exercise.
China’s long term plan for its modernisation programme were laid in 2010 and aims at major progress by 2020. By 2050 China would accomplish its strategic goal of building an ‘informatized’ (net-centric warfare enabled) armed forces capable of winning wars.
China is determined in developing modern military aerospace capabilities. Having generated a certain quantum of expertise in the field, including learning from the designers, technicians and scientists imported from CIS countries where they had been rendered unemployed…
In 1999, PLAAF operated over 3500 combat aircraft comprising mainly the J-6 (MiG-19 equivalent) and the J-7 (based on the MiG-21). A deal with Russia saw the induction of 100 Su-27 fighters. PLAAF also had in its inventory the H-6(Tu-16 based) bombers. China had no precision-guided munitions(PGMs) and only the Su-27 was BVR compatible.
Modernisation of the PLAAF has been propelled by China’s astounding economic growth.
The 21st century has witnessed the acquisition of 105 Su-30MKK from 2000 to 2003 and 100 upgraded Su-30MKK2 in 2004. China produced more than 200 J-11s from 2002 onwards. The PLAAF also bought a total of 126 Su-27SK/UBK in three batches. The production of the J-10 combat aircraft began in 2002 and 1200 are on order. The H-6 bombers (Tu-16 Badger) were converted into flight refuelling aircraft. In 2005, the PLAAF unveiled plans to acquire 70 Il-76 transport aircraft and 30 Il-78 tankers to significantly upgrade strategic airlift capability and offer extended range to the fighter force. The US Department of Defense has reported that Su-27 SKs are being upgraded to the multi-role Su-27 SMK status.
The PLAAF is also organising a combat air wing for a future aircraft carrier group, possibly based on the Su-33, which is a carrier capable variant of the Su-27.
Many existing fighters are being upgraded, some for night maritime strike role, permitting carriage of Russian weapons, including Kh-31A anti-radiation cruise missile and KAB-500 laser-guided munition.
China is also developing special mission aircraft including the KJ-2000 AWACS based on the Il-76 platform. The Y-8 transport planes are being modified to undertake a variety of roles of Airborne Battlefield Command, AEW and intelligence gathering.
PLAAF’s aim is to have a primarily fourth generation air force. JH-7/7A will be the backbone of the precision strike force with large numbers of J-10 and J-11 in the air superiority role.
The interceptor role will be undertaken by the JF-17 which is under production now in China.
The transport force will have Il-76, Il-78 and Y-9 aircraft. China has a variety of helicopters and other aircraft to undertake specialist missions and routine tasks. With a fast developing C4ISR and its shift to joint operations, the Chinese military will be a formidable force to reckon with even by a well prepared adversary. In this process of modernisation the PLAAF has improved exponentially, though it has yet to be tested in actual operations.
The PLAAF classifies its aircraft as J for fighter, Q for ground attack, H for bomber, JH for fighter-bomber, Y for transport and JZ for reconnaissance aircraft and Z for helicopters.
Recently China unveiled its fifth generation fighter, the J-20 which represents a significant step in the evolution of the Chinese aerospace industry. The new aircraft displays stealth features and indicates a determination on China’s part to shape new military capabilities in the period ahead.
China is determined in developing modern military aerospace capabilities. Having generated a certain quantum of expertise in the field, including learning from the designers, technicians and scientists imported from CIS countries where they had been rendered unemployed post the break-up of the Soviet Union, China invested significantly in the aerospace sector and the benefits are visible now.The progress has been much faster than predicted by western analysts. The phenomenal growth in its economy permits China increased investments in innovation and the result would be that by 2020 or so China will become the world’s most important centre for innovation, overtaking the US and Japan.
The Chinese Aerospace Industry
A short foray into the history of the growth of China’s aerospace industry would reveal the transformation achieved. Initially, the Soviet Union extended assistance to the fledgling PLAAF in the early 1950s and helped the People’s Republic in setting up its aircraft production facilities. The PLAAF pilots were trained in Soviet tactics and some took part in the Korean War against the USAF. By the late 1950s, Chinese factories were assembling, under licence, aircraft in large numbers. These were MiG-15(J-2), MiG-15bis(J-4), MiG-17(J-5 and the MiG-19(J-6).
Chinese J-11 Multirole Fighter Aircraft
The break in relations with the Soviet Union dealt a double blow to China. The aircraft industry nearly collapsed and a new and powerful enemy appeared on the northern flank, though the PLAAF was not involved in any border skirmishes with the Soviets.The industry, however, began to recover by 1965 and China produced its first indigenous fighter, the J-8, a mix of various Soviet designs.Development of the PLAAF was adversely affected as budget priorities were skewed in favour of missile and nuclear forces of the PLA. Exploiting the rift between the Soviet Union and China, the western nations extended considerable aid to the PLAAF in the late 1980s. Western avionics were incorporated into the J-7(MiG-21 copy), the J-8 and the A-5 ground attack fighter. Western technology also helped in development of the B-6D bomber, the HQ-2J high altitude SAM and the C-601 air-launched anti-ship missile. Support from the West ended abruptly in 1989 with the Chinese crackdown on protestors in the infamous Tianamen Square incident.The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved to be a boon to China and the PLAAF. Apart from a formidable enemy being neutralised, many displaced scientists, engineers and technicians from the erstwhile Soviet Union found employment in the Chinese military industrial complex. The Russian aircraft industry struggling to survive, was more than willing to sell modern aeroplanes and technology to China. And the booming Chinese economy could afford to import the best that was on offer.
Today, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China has under its umbrella a large number of entities engaged in the production of aircraft and associated equipment. The PLAAF classifies its aircraft as J for fighter, Q for ground attack, H for bomber, JH for fighter-bomber, Y for transport and JZ for reconnaissance aircraft and Z for helicopters.
The Changhe Aircraft Industry Corporation is dedicated to helicopters and produces the WZ-10 Attack, Z-8 Heavy Transport, CA-9 Utility, Z11J and Z-11 Light Utility helicopters. The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation produces the JJ-5 basic trainer(exported as the FT-5), J-7 lightweight interceptor, FC-1/J-17 Thunder lightweight multi-role fighter, J-10 medium weight multi-role fighter, and the latest J-20 fifth generation fighter with stealth capabilities. The Hongdu Aviation Industry Group specialises in trainers and produces the CJ-5 tandem two-seat military primary trainer, CJ-6 basic and advanced trainer, K-8 basic trainer, JL-8 and the L-15 supersonic trainer. The Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corporation produces the JL-9 trainer(MiG-21U) and a host of UAVs, The Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation makes helicopters including the Z-5,Z-9, Z-9W/G, Zhi-15 and HC-120.The Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation is into producing transport aircraft and makes the Y-8 variants(AN-12 based), Y-9 whose capabilities compare with the C-130J, Y-7 and the Y-20 four-engine tactical support aircraft expected to fly in 2012. The Shenyang Aircraft Corporation produces the J-8, J-11(variant of Su-27), J-15 carrier -compatible fighter based on Su-33, J-XX fifth generation fighter under development, co-produces the J-20, H-6 bomber(Tu-16 Badger) and some UAVs. The Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation makes the H-8 strategic heavy bomber and the JH-7 twin-engine fighter bomber.
…there are a large number of factories involved in manufacturing civil commercial aircraft.Many foreign manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus and Eurocopter find it profitable to outsource part or complete production to Chinese factories
Apart from these, there are a large number of factories involved in manufacturing civil commercial aircraft. Many foreign manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus and Eurocopter find it profitable to outsource part or complete production to Chinese factories. This helps the Chinese industry to absorb new technology and much of it is dual-use.
Training in the PLAAF
There has been a qualitative improvement in the training and operational philosophy of the PLAAF. Pilot training lasts for four years as an undergraduate and is divided into two distinct parts. The first part lasts for 20 months at one of two basic flying schools (Changchun and Banding), and consists of military, political, cultural/literary, and physical training, as well as parachute training. The second part lasts 28 months at one of the ten flying academies, each of which has 3-4 flying regiments and consists primarily of special technical training. The first phase is divided into five months of aeronautical theory, political courses, flight theory, navigation, aerodynamics, air-to-air gunnery, aircraft structure, flight dynamics, aircraft engines, instruments, weather, and two practice parachute jumps, as well as command, control, and science training.
Chinese J-10 Fighter aircraft
The next phase of training lasts for one year and consists of 155 hours in the primary trainer CJ-6. Six courses are taught, including aerobatics, navigation, and formation, circuit, and instrument flying. There is a 30 percent dropout rate in this phase. The last phase (advanced training), lasts for 12 months and consists of 130 flying hours on the F-5. Trainee pilots train in attack, navigation, circuit, formation, aerobatics, and instrument flying, as well as participate in exercises. This portion has a ten percent attrition rate. The total attrition rate during the three phases is 55 percent. Graduates receive a degree in military science and have the status of a Deputy Company Pilot Officer. Outstanding graduates may become Company Grade Officers. Those who fail are given the opportunity to train in the appropriate school as Ground Support Officers.
The PLAAF has also established age limits for the various types of pilots. Once a pilot has reached the mandatory age or fails to meet medical qualifications, his flying is terminated. One of the most common problems cited, however, is that the PLAAF does not have a mechanism to absorb these pilots into a non-flying assignments. The age limits laid down are 43-45 for fighter and ground attack pilots (the average age is 28), 48-50 for bomber pilots, 55 for transport pilots, 47-50 for helicopter pilots and 48 for women pilots.
J-20 Mighty Dragon
Operational Philosophy of the PLAAF
PLAAF’s operational philosophy states that battlefield dominance will depend on an integrated struggle for air, space, information and electro-magnetic superiority. This came about after Chinese military was jolted out of its earlier dependence on mass and size, by the demonstrated predominance of air power in the 1991 Gulf war and the subsequent operations by the Western powers.
China realised that a smaller, better equipped force created through improved training, equipped with high-technology stealthy aircraft and an overall capability of rapid response, were essential in modern warfare.
As per established principles, air superiority is a prerequisite for victory in war. However, the PLAAF does not assert that achieving absolute air superiority in all stages of combat across all theatres is necessary. Instead, it aims to achieve air superiority to achieve its tactical objectives.
As per established principles, air superiority is a prerequisite for victory in war. However, the PLAAF does not assert that achieving absolute air superiority in all stages of combat across all theatres is necessary.
The PLAAF places primary emphasis on achieving air superiority by attacking the enemy forces, equipment, bases, and launch pads used for air raids whether on land or sea.In the initial stages of a war, the PLAAF 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 air strike launched by other means.
Another means of achieving air superiority will be to carry out attacks to destroy and suppress ground-based air defence systems and air defence command systems.
In addition, defensive operations will be an important component of air superiority throughout a campaign.
In future wars, space superiority is expected to be crucial for controlling the ground, naval, and air battlefields. To gain space superiority, offensive and defensive weapon systems will be deployed on the ground, air, sea, and space.
Space control operations are likely to include space information warfare, “space blockade warfare,” “space orbit attack warfare,” space-defence warfare, and space-to-land attacks.
In the struggle for informationsuperiority, the goal is to control information on the battlefield, allowing it to be transparent to one’s own side but opaque to the enemy.
Methods for achieving information superiority include achieving electromagnetic superiority through electronic interference; achieving network superiority through network attacks; using firepower to destroy the enemy’s information systems and achieving “psychological control”.
The induction of AWACS also allows PLAAF command & control over 100 aircraft. PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types to South China Sea with aerial tankers and AWACS in a possible dispute with Vietnam.
While acquiring electromagnetic superiority is described as a subset of acquiring information superiority, it is treated as a distinct operation.
Methods for obtaining electromagnetic superiority include electronic attack and electronic defence.
In electronic attack, soft kill measures include electronic interference and electronic deception. Hard kill measures are said to include anti-radiation destruction, electromagnetic weapon attack, firepower destruction, and attacks against the enemy’s electronic installations and systems.
Electronic defence is simply defending against enemy electronic and firepower attacks. The primary targets of electronic warfare (EW) include command, control, communications, and intelligence systems.
There have been allegations that China has carried out clandestine hacking operations against selected target in the USA, India and other countries in a bid to test its own capabilities in this field.
Chinese military publications identify four types of air force campaigns: air offensive, air defence, air blockade and airborne campaigns. These can be either air force only campaigns or, more frequently, air force–led joint campaigns that incorporate other services. These air force campaigns can also be part of broader joint campaigns, such as an island-landing campaign or joint blockade campaign. In most air operations, a great deal of emphasis is placed on surprise, camouflage, use of tactics, meticulous planning, and strikes against critical targets.
The PLAAF is training and developing tactics to operate nation-wide rather than just within individual military region. In Exercise Red Sword 2008, Su-30MKK, JH-7 and H-6 performed long range strikes with KD-88, KH-59ME, KH-31P and penetration of layers of opposing defence and launched bunker buster KAB-1500 and LGB-250. In fact, PLAAF fired more Russian A2G missiles in this exercise than Russia did in the conflict in Georgia in 2008.
The exercise demonstrated that PLAAF’s role has changed from support to ground forces to being able to conduct operations independently.
The induction of AWACS also allows PLAAF command & control over 100 aircraft. PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types to South China Sea with aerial tankers and AWACS in a possible dispute with Vietnam.
PLAAF aims to form several AF strike groups under the direction of Beijing Military Region for offensive missions. PLAAF is actively trying to imbibe better training programs from the West. It has increased joint training with other air forces in the recent years. In Peace Mission 2007, a JH-7A regiment performed better than a Russian Su-25 in a ground attack exercise. During the past year, PLAAF has held exercises with Turkey and Pakistan. According to some reports, the PLAAF actually fared pretty badly in an exercise with the Turkish Air Force, but learnt some lessons in the process. These are the growing pains it must experience to become a modern air force.
Implications for the IAF
The PLAAF is striving to become the second most powerful air force in the world. Its trajectory so far indicates that this aim will be achieved in the near future.
The bleak economic situation in the USA and Europe inhibits Western air forces from spending too much on their military, though with a $ 700 billion defence budget, the USA is still leagues ahead of other countries.
The implications of the growing strength of the PLAAF for the IAF are implicit in what has been stated in this article so far. The PLAAF is clearly sprinting ahead of the IAF.
India has yet not articulated a long-term vision for its security and military requirements. Inter-service bickering impede effective jointness, which is the essence of modern warfare. Military acquisitions are done piece-meal service-wise, without any comprehensive, joint threat analysis based on national security imperatives. It is not lack of resources but less than optimum utilisation of the available resources that bedevil India’s military modernisation effort.
…pilot training in the IAF has been disrupted by the grounding of the HAL-built HPT-32 aircraft. The successor to HPT-32 is nowhere in sight and the IAF is scouring the international aviation market for a replacement aircraft.
In the short/medium term the IAF is poised to add 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), over 200 fifth generation T-50 aircraft, two additional AWACS, 10 C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft, 140 medium lift helicopters, 22 attack helicopters and unspecified air defence systems to its arsenal. These accretions will stabilise the IAF to a degree. However, the IAF still has a number of MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons in its inventory which need to be replaced. With China rapidly improving its air force and the PAF benefitting from China’s rise, the IAF and the other two services should seriously factor in a two-front conflict situation. An earlier study, still relevant, had concluded that the IAF requires 55 combat squadrons to fight a two-front war. It should be abundantly clear to the political leadership of the nation that in the event of a conflict, China and Pakistan would collude and countries like Russia, USA and the European Union would not intercede. India has to stand on its own but there are many shortcomings in our military capacity and preparedness.
The most glaring deficiency has been the inability of the indigenous industry in supporting the armed forces. India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the US equivalent Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) were set up in the same year-1958. DARPA has a scientist to support staff ratio of 1.4:1, while the figure for DRDO is 1:5. The DRDO has been bureaucratised and there is no visible accountability. The organisation is into developing and producing ‘Leucoderma Herbal Care’ and mosquito repellent cream while the Kaveri engine project languishes despite huge investments.
The National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) designed and built the SARAS light transport aircraft with questionable technology resulting in a disaster during a test flight. NAL is persisting with the project but there is resistance from the IAF which lost two test pilots and a test engineer in the mishap. The DRDO has not made any worthwhile contribution to India’s war fighting capability. Their latest claim is about the deployment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system by 2014 to protect the national capital. The ABM is an expensive system whose effectiveness is, at best, limited. The DRDO should direct its efforts and resources at providing better aircraft and tanks.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is the premier aircraft manufacturing entity in the country. The last indigenous fighter aircraft it designed and produced, and which entered operational service, was the HF-24 Marut. The LCA Tejas is yet to be inducted into the IAF. The LCA Tejas has been unduly delayed and the IAFs Long Term Re-equipment Plans adversely affected by the delay. HAL is now concentrating on licensed production of Su-30MKI and mid-life upgrade of MiG-27 and MiG-21 fleets. It will take up manufacturing of the 126 MMRCA after the vender is finally chosen This MMRCA deal was first mooted in 2000 and it will be 2015 when the IAF will get the first squadron. HAL is also collaborating with Russia in producing the T-50 fifth generation fighter.
Perhaps the unstated objective of the plan is to expand China’s “comprehensive national power” beyond the existing regional status.
What is most disconcerting is that basic pilot training in the IAF has been disrupted by the grounding of the HAL-built HPT-32 aircraft. The successor to HPT-32 is nowhere in sight and the IAF is scouring the international aviation market for a replacement aircraft. The Interim Jet Trainer (IJT) programme has suffered delays due to a variety of reasons including accidents. The overall military aviation industrial scene in the country is not very encouraging. The Defence Public Sector Units(DPSUs) have to be freed from the clutches of bureaucratic control. Despite the high quality of professionals in entities like the HAL, the final decision is taken by a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence Production, and the IAF, the main customer and user has hardly any leverage in the decision-making process. There is a strong case for the private sector entry into defence industry. The IAF needs radars and air defence weapons like SAMs to strengthen our capability along the northern borders which will be the front line of defence in the event of a conflict with China.
The Way Forward
The IAF’s operational philosophy is based on solid foundations honed by the experience gained in the air wars fought from 1947 to Kargil. Our pilot skills and professionalism of the 1,40,000 Air Warriors, are as good as any air force in the world.
There is realisation in the decision-making bodies that air power will play a dominant role in future conflicts. The IAF should take the lead in jointness and shed the apprehension that a much larger Indian Army would subsume it in a changed environment.
The fifth generation technology that the IAF is inducting should be matched by an equivalent new generation mindset.
An ever growing PLAAF will loom large over the northern borders, with the PAF set to play spoilers in the West. India has to get its act together in facing future challenges.
The Indian military in general and the IAF in particular need to study the developing threats and optimise our strategies to meet the challenges ahead.