The Dragon’s Claws

With re­cent state-en­forced or­gan­i­sa­tional re­forms, in­sti­tu­tional re­struc­tur­ing and the in­duc­tion or flight test­ing of a va­ri­ety of fourth and fifth- gen­er­a­tion com­bat plat­forms over the last decade, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force ( PLAAF) is on co

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With re­cent state-en­forced or­gan­i­sa­tional re­forms, in­sti­tu­tional re­struc­tur­ing and the in­duc­tion of a va­ri­ety of fourth and fifth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat plat­forms over the last decade, the Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force ( PLAAF) is on course to­wards be­com­ing a most as­sertive in­stru­ment for re­gional dom­i­nance and in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence for China. Sameer Joshi re­views sta­tus of the PLAAF re­struc­tur­ing and re­forms, mis­sion strat­egy and com­bat ca­pa­bil­i­ties, along with fo­cus on its in­dige­nous Air Su­pe­ri­or­ity Fighter (ASF) force, con­clud­ing with an assess­ment of the PLAAF vs IAF sce­nario over Ti­bet in the com­ing years.

The long- term, wide- rang­ing modernisation of the armed forces of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China (PRC) en­tered a new phase in end-2015, as Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping un­veiled sweep­ing or­gan­i­sa­tional re­forms to over­haul the en­tire mil­i­tary struc­ture. Th­ese in­cluded cre­ation of The­atre Com­mands in place of Mil­i­tary Re­gions and for­ma­tion of the Strate­gic Sup­port Force (SSF), an ex­clu­sive arm to con­duct In­for­ma­tion War­fare along with the PLA, PLAAF, PLAN and the re- des­ig­nated Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Rocket Forces (PLARF), for­merly the Sec­ond Ar­tillery Force. Th­ese re­forms aim not only to strengthen the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party’s (CCP) con­trol over the mil­i­tary, but en­hance China’s abil­ity to fight short-du­ra­tion, high-in­ten­sity re­gional con­flicts at greater dis­tances from the Chi­nese main­land. China’s grow­ing mil­i­tary, diplo­matic, and eco­nomic clout to ad­vance its am­bi­tions to es­tab­lish re­gional dom­i­nance and in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence, will not be pos­si­ble with­out it por­tray­ing a strong and mod­ern mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity, a ma­jor bur­den of which ar­guably falls on the wings of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force (PLAAF).

A Resur­gent PLAAF

The PLAAF is the third largest Air Force in the world, with some 2,700 air­craft (ex­clud­ing UAVs) in­clud­ing 2,000 com­bat air­craft ( fighters, bombers, and at­tack air­craft), which have been sub­ject of con­sid­er­able modernisation since the first Gulf War. Af­ter the United States’ mil­i­tary adopted a paradigm shift to­wards in­for­ma­tion adap­tive and deep- strike style of war­fare against Sad­dam Hussein’s sim­i­larly- equipped forces, the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army’s (PLA) be­came acutely aware of just how wide the ca­pa­bil­ity gap had grown. The over­whelm­ing use of air power in that con­flict sig­nalled a dra­matic step up in ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the PLAAF due to its crit­i­cal role in any Tai­wan re­lated con­flict. The Tai­wan Straits cri­sis in 1996 re­in­forced the PLAAF’s ca­pa­bil­ity con­cerns even fur­ther. Piv­ot­ing around this need, it has since then rapidly closed the gap with western air forces across a broad spec­trum of ca­pa­bil­i­ties in­clud­ing air­craft pro­duc­tion, tech­nolo­gies, tac­tics and train­ing. The rise of China as a mod­ern world power has given the mil­i­tary a plethora of new mis­sions to carry out and ca­pa­bil­i­ties to achieve by end of the next decade. Look­ing at th­ese ca­pa­bil­i­ties through a mis­sion anal­y­sis of a Tai­wan cen­tric cam­paign, the list in­cludes an ef­fec­tive A2/AD ca­pa­bil­ity, the abil­ity to dom­i­nate/ sup­press/ sat­u­rate mod­ern air de­fences, LR strike, tac­ti­cal/ strate­gic medium and heavy air­lift, special mis­sions through un­manned and manned assets and flex­i­ble air-to-air re­fu­el­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. As of mid-2017, the PLAAF con­tin­ues to field ad­di­tional fourth-gen­er­a­tion air­craft (now over 600), as well as flight test two fifth gen­er­a­tion air su­pe­ri­or­ity plat­forms, with one type be­ing de­clared to have achieved ini­tial op­er­at­ing ca­pa­bil­ity (IOC). While it still op­er­ates many older sec­ond and third- gen­er­a­tion plat­forms it will prob­a­bly be­come a ma­jor­ity ‘fourth and fifth gen­er­a­tion’ force by 2025.

While prin­ci­pal fo­cus of the PLAAF re­mains preparation for a po­ten­tial con­flict in the Tai­wan Strait, there is lit­tle doubt that in­ter­ests of the Chi­nese air arm, like those of the PLA, have ex­panded well beyond this re­gion. It aims for greater in­flu­ence in con­duct­ing of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions over po­ten­tial hotspots in the East and South China Seas, where China has op­er­a­tionalised Woody Is­land air­field in the Para­cel Is­lands,

along with con­struc­tion of three new air­fields in the Spratly Is­lands, as well as in the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous re­gion (TAR), where af­ter Gong­gar (Lhasa), Shi­gatse and prob­a­bly Ngari Gunsa air­fields are be­ing con­verted into all-weather air­bases, ca­pa­ble of ac­com­mo­dat­ing reg­u­lar ro­ta­tion of fourth gen­er­a­tion fighters like the J-11 and J-10. In this the­atre, the PLAAF recog­nises the quick re­ac­tion abil­ity of the Indian Air Force (IAF) well and ex­pects the IAF to de­ploy rapidly to con­flict zones dur­ing hos­til­i­ties.

It was a pair of J-11As of the 17th Air Reg­i­ment on de­tach­ment at Gong­gar which on 12 Oc­to­ber 2012 scram­bled to­wards a flight of IAF Su-30MKIs, ob­served fly­ing over Tawang by a JL-3D-90 long range sur­veil­lance radar at Lhasa. The J-11s would have had in­ter­mit­tent con­tact with the IAF jets with their N001VE Pulse Dop­pler radars, fi­nally break­ing off near Kuono, 20 km north of Tawang, per­haps re­al­is­ing that the IAF jets had no in­ten­tion of cross­ing into Ti­bet.

Two Chi­nese J-11B fighters in­ter­cepted a US Navy Lock­heed Martin EP-3E Aries II SIGINT air­craft in in­ter­na­tional airspace over the South China Sea (SCS) on 17 May 2016, and ‘buzzed’ the air­craft to within 50 feet, be­fore car­ry­ing out a bar­rel roll around the dazed USN air­crew. And re­cently on 19 May 2017, a Su-30MKK flew at 100 feet above (and in­verted) over an Amer­i­can WC- 135 special mis­sion air­craft in the East China Sea, the pi­lot per­haps want­ing to recre­ate a scene out of the Hol­ly­wood flick ‘Top Gun’. An­tics apart, the PLAAF is clearly seen as up­ping the ante, favour­ing ag­gres­sive pa­trolling over zones of po­ten­tial con­flicts. How­ever, can it ‘walk the talk’ on a sus­tained air cam­paign, with multi the­atre op­er­a­tions?

De­cree for the PLAAF

The CCP’s ex­pec­ta­tions from the PLAAF are defini­tively laid out in its Mil­i­tary Strate­gic Guide­lines (MSGs), the “core and col­lected em­bod­i­ment of mil­i­tary strat­egy”. The scope of th­ese guide­lines in­cludes both gen­eral prin­ci­ples about the whole process of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions, and spe­cific prin­ci­ples for cer­tain types of oper­a­tion. The May 2015 Chi­nese na­tional se­cu­rity strat­egy White Pa­per fur­ther ex­plains what is ex­pected of the PLA in the com­ing time. The mis­sion list com­prises of many tra­di­tional, as well as ‘new his­toric’, mis­sions which the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party ex­pects the PLA forces to be able to carry out ef­fi­ciently in the com­ing 15 to 20 years. Th­ese are:

To res­o­lutely safe­guard the uni­fi­ca­tion of the moth­er­land

To safe­guard China’s se­cu­rity and in­ter­ests in new do­mains

To safe­guard the se­cu­rity of China’s over­seas in­ter­ests

To main­tain strate­gic de­ter­rence and carry out nu­clear coun­ter­at­tack

To par­tic­i­pate in re­gional and in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion and main­tain re­gional and world peace

To strengthen ef­forts in op­er­a­tions against in­fil­tra­tion, separatism and ter­ror­ism to main­tain China’s po­lit­i­cal se­cu­rity and so­cial sta­bil­ity

To per­form such tasks as emer­gency res­cue and disas­ter re­lief, rights and in­ter­est pro­tec­tion, guard du­ties, and sup­port for na­tional eco­nomic and so­cial de­vel­op­ment

The above mis­sion set is broad and in­ten­tion­ally vague in many as­pects to leave room for fu­ture re­fine­ment and re­di­rect­ion if needed. How­ever, the mis­sions clearly re­flect the di­ver­si­fied and global range of in­ter­ests of China as a ‘ris­ing power’ rather than one con­tent with the sta­tus quo.

The PLAAF’s Doc­trine

Since 2010, the Chi­nese doc­trine has hinged around its ini­tia­tive to take the bat­tle away from the Chi­nese shores and add for­ward de­fen­sive depth to the main­land. The nine- dashed line is an at­tempt to for­malise this de­fen­sive loop, which adds 500–1000 km of pen­e­tra­tion grav­ity for the op­po­si­tion, pro­vid­ing de­cent early warn­ing for the Chi­nese. Based on this, the PLAAF’s doc­trine has prin­ci­pally piv­oted to­wards ‘ Large Area de­fence’, in­stead of ‘ Vi­tal Area/ Vi­tal Point’ (VA/VP) de­fence. This en­sures early warn­ing, with en­gage­ments oc­cur­ring as far for­ward as pos­si­ble.

The doc­trine en­vis­ages de­vel­op­ment of China’s air force ca­pa­bil­i­ties in four clear ar­eas, which are

Of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­ity to pro­tect na­tional se­cu­rity and na­tional in­ter­ests from the air and space.

In­te­grated air de­fen­sive and anti-mis­sile ca­pa­bil­ity for mon­i­tor­ing both air and space fly­ing ob­jects and at­tack­ing them.

Su­pe­rior ca­pa­bil­ity over its main op­po­nents (Tai­wan, Ja­pan, In­dia) and cer­tain counter-in­for­ma­tion ca­pa­bil­ity against its strate­gic op­po­nents ( the United States and to some ex­tent Rus­sia).

Strate­gic air­lift ca­pa­bil­ity to con­duct both air­lift and air­drop op­er­a­tions.

To ac­com­plish the above ca­pa­bil­i­ties, the PLAAF iden­ti­fies Air Of­fen­sive Cam­paigns; Air De­fence Cam­paigns; Air Block­ade Cam­paigns; Air­borne Cam­paigns.

Th­ese can be ei­ther air force only cam­paigns or air force-led joint cam­paigns with other ser­vices. In most air op­er­a­tions, a

great deal of em­pha­sis is placed on sur­prise, cam­ou­flage, use of tac­tics, metic­u­lous plan­ning and strikes against crit­i­cal tar­gets. With in­tended op­er­a­tions against Tai­wan and the de­fence of for­ward sta­tioned assets in the East and South Sea, of­fen­sive air de­fence mis­sions, with a greater role for coun­ter­at­tack is the key con­trol strat­egy in place. Th­ese mis­sions fac­tor mo­bile am­bushes, cov­er­age, as well as seek & de­stroy sor­ties to boost China’s abil­ity to fight short-du­ra­tion, high-in­ten­sity re­gional con­flicts at greater dis­tances. How­ever, ex­e­cu­tion of this doc­trine is still ‘work in progress’, re­quir­ing mod­erns AD and mul­ti­mis­sion plat­forms, am­pli­fied C4ISR assets, evolved air/ ground crew train­ing lev­els and a syn­chro­nised A2/AD net­work. The PLAAF cer­tainly grasps th­ese in­ad­e­qua­cies, while clos­ing the gaps at a prodi­gious rate.

Ma­jor Re­forms

To ac­com­plish its de­sired mil­i­tary strat­egy, the PLAAF is un­der­tak­ing a ma­jor pro­gramme of re­forms, which ad­dress train­ing and ed­u­ca­tion, de­vel­op­ment and ac­qui­si­tion of mod­ern weapon sys­tems and equip­ment, the way th­ese sys­tems are op­er­ated, as well as struc­tural re­form of the over­all com­mand sys­tem. While the most pub­li­cally vis­i­ble amongst them – in­duc­tion of new air­craft types in a big way, in­clud­ing dis­play­ing the fifth- gen­er­a­tion air­craft un­der de­vel­op­ment at Zhuhai air­show overs the years – and per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant to­wards pre­par­ing for fu­ture op­er­a­tions is a change in the train­ing phi­los­o­phy. The PLAAF has been tak­ing el­e­ments of ac­tual com­bat sub­jects, top­ics, ex­er­cises, and meth­ods as the ba­sis for trans­form­ing its mil­i­tary train­ing sys­tem and im­prov­ing its level of op­er­a­tional ef­fec­tive­ness. Although themes as­so­ci­ated with ‘ ac­tual com­bat’ have been fea­tured in key strate­gic train­ing guid­ance doc­u­ments for years within the PLAAF and Chi­nese armed forces as a whole, it ap­pears that se­nior PLAAF lead­ers have re­dou­bled their ef­forts at in­still­ing dis­ci­pline and of­fer­ing hon­est as­sess­ments of short­com­ings across all lev­els of avi­a­tion unit train­ing. Newer train­ing mod­ules on Lead-In Fighter Train­ers (LIFT) such as the JL-10, as well as front­line units, in­clude fly­ing un­der chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, such as at night and ex­treme weather pat­terns; fly­ing at low al­ti­tudes through val­leys and moun­tains and over wa­ter; cul­ti­vat­ing ‘free air com­bat’ skills among avi­a­tors with de­creased alti­tude re­stric­tions; and hold­ing so­phis­ti­cated cross branch/ ser­vice ex­er­cises un­der com­plex elec­tro­mag­netic en­vi­ron­ment and for­mi­da­ble air de­fence sce­nar­ios to repli­cate ac­tual bat­tle con­di­tions, which a po­ten­tial mil­i­tary ad­ver­sary may present.

In a sig­nif­i­cant shift from prior prac­tice, pilots in some units are now given the re­spon­si­bil­ity to cre­ate their own com­bat train­ing pro­files and have full au­ton­omy over their sor­ties with lit­tle guid­ance from ground con­trol as in the past.

Flex­i­ble Re­struc­tur­ing

At an op­er­a­tional level, the PLAAF is un­der­go­ing a very flex­i­ble process of re­struc­tur­ing, which has seen some Air Reg­i­ments dis­banded, some units merged with oth­ers, as well re-as­sign­ing of roles. Prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant struc­tural change has been the in­tro­duc­tion of de­fined ‘Bases’ with sub­or­di­nate Brigades. Th­ese have been formed where for­mer Di­vi­sional Head­quar­ters and Com­mand Posts (CPs) were lo­cated and then merged. Com­bat units have also been re-lo­cated to more mod­ern and up­graded air bases in line with the reequip­ment process, as well as for pro­vid­ing space to­wards the ur­ban de­vel­op­ment drive in Chi­nese cities. In a sig­nif­i­cant move, China’s mil­i­tary es­tab­lished five re­gional com­mands for its op­er­a­tions on 1 Fe­bru­ary 2016, in line with the CCP’s ef­fort to­wards con­sol­i­dat­ing seven mil­i­tary re­gions into five ‘bat­tle zones’. Be­fore the re­forms, there were seven Mil­i­tary Re­gions (MRs), in­clud­ing the Bei­jing MR, Shenyang MR, Ji­nan MR, Lanzhou MR, Chengdu MR, Guangzhou MR and Nan­jing MR. Th­ese re­gions have now been re­clas­si­fied into five bat­tle the­atre com­mands or bat­tle zones, be­ing the East, West, South, North, and Mid­dle the­atre Com­mands.

For many years, the Chengdu MR had served as the ma­jor PLAAF group re­spon­si­ble for the de­fence of south­ern and south­west­ern China in­clud­ing a ma­jor part of Xizang ( Ti­bet) and the mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Chongqing. This com­prised the en­tire bor­der re­gion from Viet­nam to Nepal (ex­clud­ing Viet­nam, which was re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Guangzhou MR). The Chengdu MR was merged as part of this re­form with the even larger Lanzhou MR, to cre­ate the Western The­atre Com­mand ( WTC). The Lanzhou MR was made re­spon­si­ble for com­plete Air De­fence of the Western and South Western sec­tors, in­clud­ing au­ton­o­mous re­gions of Ningxia hui, Qing­hai, Xin­jiang Uyghur, as well as the Ngari pre­fec­ture. Con­se­quently, the WTC, head­quar­tered at Chengdu, has be­come the largest of the five com­mands in terms of area of re­spon­si­bil­ity and de­fence.

The Western The­atre Com­mand’s main im­por­tance lies in its prox­im­ity to the bound­ary with In­dia and Cen­tral Asia. It also houses some of China’s most se­cre­tive mil­i­tary ori­ented in­stal­la­tion, in­clud­ing Base 21 (the ‘Lop Nor’ nu­clear re­search site). The WTC is also the cus­to­dian of the China Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CPEC), a $54 bil­lion ini­tia­tive between China and Pak­istan to up­grade the in­fras­truc­ture and econ­omy of Pak­istan. This is part of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) pol­icy of Xi- Jin­ping, wherein China is re­ac­ti­vat­ing old trade routes “to re­vi­talise the econ­omy”, but ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing geopo­lit­i­cal dom­i­nance of China as a bona fide world power. Fu­ture eco­nomic ex­ploita­tion of the CPEC, es­pe­cially with In­dia skipping the re­cently held One Belt One Road Sum­mit in Bei­jing in May 2017, protest­ing sovereignty and ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity vi­o­la­tion with the CPEC pass­ing through POK, will ramp up the WTC’s li­a­bil­ity in the re­gion sig­nif­i­cantly.

With the cur­rent Indo-China dis­pute on the Dok­lam plateau, the Chi­nese are rapidly mo­bil­is­ing PLA assets into this re­gion, mak­ing WTC among the most volatile re­gions in the world.

The PLAAF in Ti­bet

The PLAAF has 14 Air Bases avail­able within the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion ( TAR) and Xin­jiang, be­sides an­other 20 air­fields in the re­gion, which can be fur­ther up­graded for mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity. While most of th­ese air­fields are used by civil­ian air­craft, Gong­gar at Lhasa is the pri­mary op­er­at­ing base for un­der­tak­ing com­bat op­er­a­tions in Ti­bet. How­ever, in a tac­ti­cal shift over the last few years, the PLAAF has be­gun de­vel­op­ing in­fras­truc­ture and op­er­at­ing from du­aluse air­fields at Ngari Gunsa, Ny­ingchi Main­ling, Qamdo Bamda, Shi­gatse and Nagqu Da­gring in the WTC. Of th­ese, Shi­gatse is be­ing con­verted for all weather op­er­a­tions like at Gong­gar, fol­lowed in

the fu­ture prob­a­bly by Ngari Gunsa. Although no front­line PLAAF fighter el­e­ments are based there, reg­u­lar ro­ta­tion de­ploy­ments to Ti­bet are an im­por­tant part of the train­ing doc­trine, with most for­ma­tions usu­ally com­ing from the for­mer Chengdu MR. High alti­tude of th­ese air­fields con­sid­er­ably re­stricts per­for­mance of th­ese jets and China is likely to de­velop ad­di­tional all- weather strips in the fu­ture. With threats from the Indian Air Force in mind, a quick re­ac­tion el­e­ment of J-11A/B or Su-27SKs is al­ways avail­able at the Gong­gar AFB at Lhasa.

The PLAAF Air De­fence com­po­nent in the WTC com­prises of two Air Reg­i­ments of J-11A/B/BS (98th AR and 111th Brigade) and one mixed Reg­i­ment of Su-27SK and J-11Bs (16th AR). By 2020, there will be a min­i­mum of 3 ORP de­tach­ments (with at least 8 air­craft) avail­able all through the year in Ti­bet, with prob­a­bly a full-time squadron de­ploy­ment at Shi­gatse by 2025.

Assess­ment of PLAAF Ca­pa­bil­i­ties

Air Su­pe­ri­or­ity The PLAAF has made mean­ing­ful progress in clos­ing its fighter ca­pa­bil­ity gap with the United States and its main Asian ri­vals. It con­sid­ers long term strate­gic su­pe­ri­or­ity dif­fi­cult to achieve and is in­stead fo­cus­ing on achiev­ing tac­ti­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity ca­pa­bil­i­ties, that would be con­cur­rent with larger of­fen­sive op­er­a­tions aimed at lo­cal cam­paigns. Re­cent force as­sess­ments of the PLAAF have noted the con­tin­u­ous in­duc­tion of more mod­ern air­craft, while de­com­mis­sion­ing sec­ond and third- gen­er­a­tion air­craft from its fleet. By 2010, mod­ern fourth-gen­er­a­tion fighters ac­counted for al­most 30 per­cent of the force. In 2015, the fig­ure was 50 per­cent, and by end 2017, it will reach roughly 65 per­cent. Between 2010 and 2015, China’s in­ven­tory of fourth- gen­er­a­tion fighters in­creased from 383 to more than 600.

The Type J-11 fighter is an ex­am­ple of an ad­vanced 4th gen­er­a­tion plat­form brought into ser­vice, which can ef­fec­tively con­test airspace against the F-15 and F/A-18 class. How­ever, early third gen­er­a­tion types like the J-7 (MiG-21 vari­ants) per­sist through­out the PLAAF and are of lim­ited ef­fec­tive­ness against mod­ern air assets. The newly in­ducted Sukhoi Su-35, equipped with the Ir­bis-E AESA, is the most ad­vanced air­craft in the Chi­nese in­ven­tory at present, with a to­tal of 24 of this type to be de­liv­ered to China from Rus­sia by end 2018. How­ever, a clear dis­trust ex­ists between Rus­sia and China, with the lat­ter ear­lier hav­ing re­verse en­gi­neered a large amount of Rus­sian aero­space in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty/ tech­nol­ogy to yield home–grown air­craft types/com­po­nents. Aero engines are one of th­ese crit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies, and vir­tu­ally all in­dige­nous Chi­nese air­craft lack qual­ity engines ca­pa­ble of op­er­at­ing for longer than a few hun­dred hours, with dis­mal per­for­mance from the lo­cally de­vel­oped high per­for­mance tur­bo­fans of Rus­sian ori­gin such as the WS- 10. Main­te­nance re­quire­ments for th­ese sys­tems will po­ten­tially side­line large num­bers of sys­tems in the event of long term op­er­a­tions. Thus, the PLAAF’s abil­ity to main­tain strate­gic long term su­pe­ri­or­ity re­mains sus­pect, at least for the next 15 to 20 years, re­in­forc­ing its fo­cus on short term/ range cam­paigns.

On the other hand, China is the only coun­try out­side the United States to have

two on­go­ing stealth fighter pro­grammes, the J-20 and the J-31. The J-20’s air­frame sug­gests a stealth in­ter­cep­tor de­signed to counter the op­po­si­tion at long ranges. The J-31’s frame sug­gests a mod­ern air-to-air fighter, with a multi–mis­sion ca­pa­bil­ity, that will be com­bat ready in the next 5 years. The true ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the J- 20 and the J-31 are yet to be seen, but they do rep­re­sent the PLAAF’s progression to­wards a fully mod­ern air force, ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing of­fen­sive deep strike mis­sions against sim­i­lar mod­ern air de­fences. Th­ese Fourth and Fifth Gen­er­a­tion PLAAF Air su­pe­ri­or­ity fighters are cov­ered in de­tail in the later part of this ar­ti­cle.

Tac­ti­cal/ Long Range Strike

For tac­ti­cal strike, the PLAAF re­lies on its fleet of JH-7/JH-7A fighter bombers. Though un­der­pow­ered, the JH-7 equipped with the ex­cel­lent JL-10A terrain fol­low­ing radar has a good low level pen­e­tra­tion per­for­mance. How­ever, its role is be­ing tran­si­tioned onto the mul­ti­role J-10/11/16s and the Su-30MKK/ Su-35 types which can be equipped with a wide va­ri­ety of guided/ un­guided air to ground or­di­nance.

The PLAAF’s long range strike ca­pa­bil­ity has lagged be­hind many of its other ca­pa­bil­ity en­hance­ment ini­tia­tives. The PLAAF re­lies upon the 120-unit strong H-6 fam­ily of strate­gic bombers de­rived from the Soviet Tu-16 ‘Badger’ bomber. This de­sign is over 50 years old, hav­ing un­der­gone nu­mer­ous modernisation pack­ages that keeps it a vi­able, but is not a truly im­pres­sive stand­off strike plat­form. First re­vealed in 2007, the D-30KP tur­bo­fan-pow­ered H-6K was de­vel­oped to pri­mar­ily carry un­der its wings six nu­clear/non-nu­clear ( CJ- 10/ 20) land- at­tack cruise mis­siles, each of which has a max­i­mum range of 1,500/ 2,200 km. It can also carry the elec­tro- op­ti­cally- guided KD- 63 lan­dat­tack cruise mis­sile, with a range of 200 km. The H- 6K could well sat­u­rate the Tai­wanese and Indian A2/ AD set­ups dur­ing time of con­flict op­er­at­ing out of hin­ter­land Chi­nese bases, but will nowhere threaten main­land US tar­gets. Re­cent PLAAF lit­er­a­ture has em­pha­sised the need for ‘su­per bombers’ able to carry out larger vol­ume strike mis­sions, with in­creased sur­viv­abil­ity and a more global span­ning range. Such lit­er­a­ture re­flects a yearn­ing of the PLAAF that re­mains un­ful­filled and is un­likely to be ful­filled in the next 15 to 20 years, so tem­per­ing China’s LR strike ca­pa­bil­ity for decades to come.

De­vel­op­ment of a new long range stealth bomber is re­port­edly un­der­way at China’s 603 Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute. Des­ig­nated the H-20, the air­craft de­sign fea­tures a wing de­sign sim­i­lar to the Northrop Grum­man B-2 Spirit, with com­po­nents al­ready be­ing man­u­fac­tured. It will carry an in­ter­nal pay­load of cruise mis­siles and bombs. An­a­lysts note that the Xian-man­u­fac­tured bomber may en­ter ser­vice by 2025 and will seek to re­place China’s ex­ist­ing fleet of Xian H-6K bombers. Cer­tain con­tri­bu­tions to the H-20 project were made by one Noshir Gowa­dia, a de­sign en­gi­neer who pre­vi­ously worked for Northrop Grum­man. He had also con­trib­uted to the B-2 Spirit de­vel­op­ment but in 2011, was con­victed and sen­tenced to 32 years for sell­ing clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to China.

Air­lift Ca­pa­bil­i­ties

The Chi­nese mil­i­tary’s lack of mean­ing­ful air trans­port ca­pa­bil­ity was ap­par­ent in air evac­u­a­tion op­er­a­tions from coun­tries like Libya and Ye­men in the past and the PLAAF has worked to cor­rect the glar­ing de­fi­ciency since then. The Chi­nese mil­i­tary is es­ti­mated to re­quire at least 100 heavy lift air­craft of the Il-76 class. With only 20 Il-76 in ser­vice, the PLA’s strate­gic lift re­quire­ment could be as mas­sive as 500 such air­craft by 2030. In­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment of the Y-20 (the 50-ton ca­pac­ity air­lifter, ‘in­spired’ from the C-17 and the An-70) heavy lift trans­port has been China’s long term re­sponse to this per­ceived short fall and has en­tered ser­vice in 2016, pro­vid­ing timely en­hance­ment in this area.

How­ever, plagued with lim­ited sup­ply of DK- 30 tur­bo­fans for the Y- 20, the Y- 20A is ex­pected to be equipped with the un­der de­vel­op­ment WS- 20 tur­bo­fan, to en­hance ca­pa­bil­ity to 66 tons as orig­i­nally planned. The Y- 20A has ben­e­fit­ted from MBD and ADT de­sign and de­vel­op­ment tech­niques, sig­nal­ing Chi­nese will­ing­ness to cut short de­vel­op­ment and man­u­fac­tur­ing time to meet op­er­a­tional re­quire­ments. The Y- 20A is likely to be­come the com­mon plat­form serv­ing next gen­er­a­tion multi mis­sion needs in­clud­ing AEW&C, EW, Air-to-Air Re­fu­el­ing and able to op­er­ate out of air­fields in Ti­bet with ease. How­ever, like all Chi­nese in­dige­nous air­craft,

the Y- 20 suf­fers from en­gine qual­ity con­trol is­sues, that make sus­tained use of the up­com­ing fleet dif­fi­cult in the long term. On the other hand, in­tro­duc­tion of the Y-9 (22-ton ca­pac­ity) and a small (44 num­bers) Y-8 medium trans­port fleet would ful­fill the much in-de­mand C-130- class medium-lift ca­pa­bil­ity. The Y-30 is an­other Medium-Lift trans­port un­der de­vel­op­ment in the 30- tonne pay­load class.

In 2016, the Avi­a­tion In­dus­try Cor­po­ra­tion of China ( AICC) and Antonov Cor­po­ra­tion signed an agree­ment to restart pro­duc­tion of the An- 225. This mas­sive 640 ton, six­engine trans­port is the world’s largest air­craft. Mea­sur­ing 84 me­tres in length with a wing­span of over 88 me­tres, it holds the world record for pay­load at 250 tons. The agree­ment between AICC and Antonov aims for first flight of the new An-225 in 2019. The sec­ond stage of the project will in­volve the com­plete trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy, in­clud­ing the 23-ton thrust Progress D-18T tur­bo­fan engines, to China, for li­cenced pro­duc­tion of a mod­ernised ver­sion in Sichuan Province. The An-225 would open in­cred­i­ble new av­enues in com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary air trans­porta­tion, and there are plans to open 6 in­ter­na­tional lo­gis­tics hubs in China for op­er­a­tions of medium & heavy lift trans­port. On the mil­i­tary front, the An- 225 would pro­vide China with the kind of large and global a lift that not even the US has pos­sessed. The Type would be cer­tainly able to air­lift strate­gic assets like ICBMs, space rock­ets/shut­tles, S-400 SAMs and MBTs across all de­ploy­able lo­ca­tions, thus re­duc­ing strate­gic re­sponse time.

The Com­mer­cial Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion of China (COMAC), has de­vel­oped its C-919 air­liner which can seat up to 168 pas­sen­gers and is in­tended to com­pete with the sin­gle-aisle jets, such as the Air­bus A320 and Boe­ing 737. The 80-minute first flight of the C-919 took place re­cently on 5 May 2017, at Shang­hai’s Pudong air­port. This is an­other plat­form which could well be mod­i­fied for troop trans­port, special mis­sions and for MR/LR ASUW/ASW em­ploy­ment.

As an assess­ment, the train­ing reg­i­men re­quired to ef­fec­tively carry out large scale air lift op­er­a­tions at ex­treme ranges from rapid de­ploy­ment of assets has yet to be fully re­alised. Train­ing is lack­ing for most ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the PLA when com­pared to Western stan­dards and such air lift op­er­a­tions are no ex­cep­tion. This train­ing

de­fi­ciency will hand­i­cap any po­ten­tial of the PLAAF’s air­lift ca­pa­bil­ity in high pres­sure sit­u­a­tions. The other issue is the non-avail­abil­ity of home­grown aero engines, crit­i­cally lim­it­ing the com­pe­tency and num­ber of types re­quired for sus­tain­ing long range air trans­port op­er­a­tions. Still, China’s plans to en­hance its global air­lift ca­pa­bil­i­ties mir­rors the im­mense gains made in global sea trans­porta­tion, in­vest­ing deeply its reach across the globe in com­ing years.

Mid–Air Re­fu­el­ing

Air-to-air re­fu­elling is an­other lo­gis­ti­cal ca­pa­bil­ity which the PLAAF has been steadily en­hanc­ing. It has been ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing out mid-air re­fu­elling for some time, how­ever it has not op­er­a­tionally mas­tered this at a strate­gic level. The PLAAF’s mid- air re­fu­elling ca­pa­bil­ity is re­strained by a lack of ae­rial tankers, which be­sides the con­verted H-6D/Us fleet, has only a lim­ited num­ber of mod­ern Il-78 plat­forms (3 Il-76 tankers ac­quired from Ukraine). Com­pound­ing the num­bers issue is a lack of re­fu­el­ing com­mon­al­ity between the two PLAAF tanker types. This mis­match likely means that the fu­ture Y-20 trans­port may only re­fuel Chi­nese types as a tanker type while the hand­ful of Il-78s will sup­port fighters such as the Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35s, which form the bulk of the PLAAF’s high end air su­pe­ri­or­ity and of­fen­sive air sup­port ca­pa­bil­ity. Thus the small num­ber of ae­rial tankers avail­able will re­main a hand­i­cap in im­prov­ing long range su­pe­ri­or­ity ca­pa­bil­i­ties in such ar­eas as the South China Sea and the Tibetan re­gion.

Special Mis­sions

Over the past decades, in­creas­ing fo­cus has been placed on leapfrog­ging mea­sures to close the PLAAF’s cy­ber and elec­tronic war­fare (EW) gap with the United States and Western Europe. The de­vel­op­ment of so­phis­ti­cated com­mand, con­trol, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ( C3), or in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance, and re­con­nais­sance ( ISR) ca­pa­bil­i­ties has been the PLAAF’s most ur­gent pri­or­ity.

Older recce and EW air­craft are be­ing sup­ple­mented by newer types like the KJ- 2000 ( Il- 76 AWACs), KJ- 500 (Y-9AEW&C), ZDK-03 (Y-8 AEW&C), KJ-200 (Y-8 AEW&C) and the Tu-154 (ISR/ELINT/ /EW). The KJ-2000 was de­vel­oped in China af­ter the US forced the Is­raeli’s to can­cel sale of its EL/W2090 Phal­con AESA radar for the Chi­nese

A- 501 pro­gramme. As of date, with en­gine avail­abil­ity plagu­ing the Il-76 fleet, the readi­ness of the KJ-2000 fleet too is lim­ited. The KJ-500 em­ploys 3-faced fixed AESA radars on the top of a mod­i­fied Y-9 air­craft, which can track over 60 air­craft at ranges of up to 470 km. This ar­range­ment of­fers con­tin­u­ous 360 º radar cov­er­age. The KJ-200 sys­tem, em­ploy­ing a ‘bal­ance beam’ phased ar­ray radar and based on the Y-8F-600 plat­form, can lo­cate tar­gets out to 400km. In Fe­bru­ary 2017 a Lock­heed P-3 Orion of the US Navy and a KJ-200 in­ad­ver­tently came close to each other over the South China Sea but avoided col­li­sion.

Such dif­fer­ent vari­ants be­ing de­vel­oped in­di­cate that the Chi­nese are yet to con­sol­i­date on a pre­ferred AEW&C type for their long term needs, with the KJ-500 emerg­ing as a sta­ble con­tender from the present stock, and likely to re­place the KJ2000 plat­form by 2022. Avail­abil­ity of the Y-20A and the C919 will cer­tainly ad­dress this issue in the com­ing decade even though the PLAAF will be se­verely lim­ited in its ca­pac­ity to de­ploy over­whelm­ing num­ber of AEW assets over mul­ti­ple bat­tle ar­eas at the same time till 2030. Hence, in­duc­tion of special mis­sion air­craft will be a pri­or­ity for the PLAAF in the com­ing decade, seek­ing con­sol­i­da­tion of air­craft types.

Un­manned Ae­rial Ve­hi­cles

China has de­vel­oped a va­ri­ety of ad­vanced mil­i­tary-use UAVs in re­cent years. The range of UAVs, from hand-launched to taxi­ing mod­els with ex­tended loi­ter times, be­ing ca­pa­ble of mul­ti­ple mis­sions, in­clud­ing Un­manned Com­bat, C4ISTAR and EW, also serv­ing as launch plat­forms for var­i­ous weapons, and act­ing as de­coys or A-A tar­gets. The Chi­nese are only next to the Amer­i­can in the ar­eas of ‘Au­ton­omy’ and ‘Swarm’ based drone op­er­a­tions, which aim to at­tain lo­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity over con­flict zones.

Amongst the most ad­vanced of th­ese un­manned sys­tems are the Cai­hong CH4/ 5 ( Rain­bow), an un­manned com­bat ae­rial ve­hi­cle (UCAV) sim­i­lar to the US MQ- 9 Reaper, the BZK- 005/ HY- 01 medium-alti­tude long-en­durance (MALE) UAV, the Wing Loong ( or Yi­long), a MALE UAV sim­i­lar to the Preda­tor and the Xian­g­long (Soar­ing Ea­gle), a HALE UAV sim­i­lar to the Global Hawk. The Soar­ing Ea­gle is a HALE UAV, fea­tur­ing an un­usual joined, tan­dem wing plane. While not a true stealth air­craft, the Soar­ing Ea­gle ap­pears to sport some ac­cepted stealth fea­tures such as its out­ward canted V-tail ar­range­ment, chinned fuse­lage body, and S-duct work used to as­pi­rate the WP-13 tur­bojet en­gine within.

There are at least three Chi­nese UAVs de­signed to carry pre­ci­sion strike weapons, be­ing the Wing Loong/Yi­long (Sky Sabre,) and the Li­jian (Sharp Sword), which is the PLA’s first stealth drone. The Li­jian is ac­tu­ally China’s first of­fi­cial foray into a jet-pow­ered, stealth–minded UAV and is be­lieved to serve the role of tech­nol­ogy demon­stra­tor for a pos­si­ble fu­ture com­bat sys­tem. The de­sign was pho­tographed dur­ing a taxi run in May 2013, of­fi­cially mark­ing its ap­pear­ance in the Chi­nese air­craft in­ven­tory. The third is a su­per­sonic de­sign un­der de­vel­op­ment called the An­jian (Dark Sword), which may have dog­fight­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

China has re­cently started de­ploy­ing the po­tent Shen Diao (Divine Ea­gle) HALE UAV, which was re­port­edly first tested in 2015. This is a twin-fuse­lage air­craft, with long-range air to air/ground sur­veil­lance and strike co­or­di­na­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties, that could ad­vance China’s A2/AD ca­pa­bil­i­ties lit­er­ally by leaps and bounds. Fly­ing at

al­ti­tudes up to 25 km (79,000 feet), the twin bod­ied fuse­lage of the Divine Ea­gle has elec­tro­mag­netic per­me­ables, which are likely to house the Divine Ea­gle’s long range anti-stealth radars, in­di­cat­ing that its radar ar­rays are 10 me­tres long, sug­gest­ing trans­mis­sion of lower fre­quency (L and S Band) radar waves for stealth air­craft de­tec­tion. VHF wave length starts at one me­tre and in fact re­quires the length of the Divine Ea­gle. Since VHF wave­length is one me­tre and higher, very few VHF T/R mod­ules can be placed in the radomes. Thus, ow­ing to the con­straints im­posed by physics, the only place to lo­cate a VHF AESA radar with rea­son­able res­o­lu­tion is along the length of the fuse­lage and to achieve in­ter­fer­om­e­try, it would re­quire two fuse­lages at a fixed dis­tance from each other. The Chi­nese Divine Ea­gle an­ti­s­tealth UAV fulfills both re­quire­ments.

For­ma­tions of Divine Ea­gle UAVs could pro­vide an early warn­ing line to de­tect threats to China’s airspace, such as from cruise mis­siles and stealth bombers, also tak­ing on such mis­sions as hunt­ing for air­craft car­ri­ers in the open wa­ters of the Pa­cific. One pre­sumes that the Divine Ea­gle would also be able to find tar­gets for the no­to­ri­ous DF-21D ‘car­rier killer’ anti-ship bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

In the ab­sence of ad­e­quate manned ISR and special mis­sion assets, the PLA will rely heav­ily on un­manned plat­forms to en­gage in ISR roles and pro­vide unique ca­pa­bil­i­ties like pre­ci­sion strike and wide area per­sis­tent sur­veil­lance, which will give an un­de­ni­able edge to the PLAAF over fu­ture bat­tle­fields.

Anti-Ac­cess/ Area-De­nial (A2/AD) De­fence Ca­pa­bil­ity

Chi­nese A2/ AD ca­pa­bil­i­ties have con­sid­er­ably im­proved over the last 20 years and all signs point to it con­tin­u­ing to im­prove even fur­ther. The PLAAF has moved from static and short range sur­face to air mis­sile (SAM) sys­tems of the ‘Cold War’ to mo­bile sys­tems with a sub­stan­tial range to cover most of Tai­wan when de­ployed on the Fu­jian Coast. Since the 1990s, China has re­lied upon a mix of im­ported Rus­sian sys­tems like the S- 300PMU- 1 to cover

swaths of A2/AD zones even as China has suc­cess­fully re­verse-en­gi­neered Rus­sian and Western tech­nolo­gies and in­cor­po­rated el­e­ments from both the S-300 and Pa­triot fam­ily of SAM sys­tems to de­velop the in­dige­nous HQ-9 sys­tem. The HQ-9, with a 200km range, rep­re­sents China’s strong­est at­tempt yet to cre­ate a mod­ern LR-SAM com­po­nent. China con­cur­rently de­vel­oped the 50-km-range HQ-12 SAM, which has been fol­lowed by the HQ-16 SAM.

Sup­ple­ment­ing th­ese is the re­cent ac­qui­si­tion of Rus­sia’s S-400 ‘Triumph’ ( SA- 21) SAM, the most mod­ern non­west­ern sys­tem in the world with even longer ranges and en­hanced track­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties. China will re­port­edly be re­ceiv­ing the first six S-400 bat­ter­ies by mid-2017 and may si­mul­ta­ne­ously de­velop its in­dige­nous CSA-X-19 (HQ-19) to pro­vide the ba­sis for a bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fence ca­pa­bil­ity.

China’s prin­ci­pal radar man­u­fac­turer, the China Elec­tron­ics Tech­nol­ogy Group Cor­po­ra­tion ( CETC), ex­hib­ited air de­fence radars at Zhuhai 2016, which claims de­tec­tion of low-ob­serv­able air­craft such as the Lock­heed Martin F-22 Rap­tor and F- 35 Light­ning II. One of th­ese, the JY-27A 3-D is a VHF band AESA LR sur­veil­lance/guid­ance radar. The sec­ond is the JY-26 Sky­watcher-U, which op­er­ates in the VHF/ UHF bands. Both have a claimed range of 500 km. Over the Hori­zon (OTH) de­tec­tion HF based radars have also been de­ployed by China to mon­i­tor back scat­ter re­turns from the East and South China Seas. Th­ese are com­plex and large sys­tems, which use mul­ti­ple sites to de­tect fly­ing ob­jects and sur­face ves­sels, in­clud­ing stealthy air­craft. A Quan­tum radar is also re­ported to be un­der de­vel­op­ment by the CETC’s 14th In­sti­tute. Quan­tum radars can the­o­ret­i­cally de­feat stealth by us­ing sub­atomic par­ti­cles, in­stead of ra­dio waves. Con­ven­tional sig­na­ture re­duc­tion tech­niques and jam­ming can­not de­feat ‘Quan­tum’ de­tec­tion and although de­tails are sketchy, de­tec­tion range of 61 miles has been achieved as per Chi­nese me­dia. As part of its anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ABM) de­fence net­work, China is de­vel­op­ing phased ar­ray long- range early warn­ing radar sys­tem, sim­i­lar to the US PAVE PAWS, ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing tar­gets up to 5,500 kilo­me­tres dis­tant. The ex­per­i­men­tal sets are po­si­tioned in Hei­longjiang, Xin­jiang and Fu­jian prov­inces which can mon­i­tor space ve­hi­cles, as well as reen­try tar­gets and ap­pear to use de­rived tech­nolo­gies from the Soviet era ‘ Hen House’ ABM radar sys­tems.

The PLAAF’s SAM sys­tems and their de­gree of in­te­gra­tion with de­fen­sive in­ter­cep­tor air­craft are not fully known of as of now, es­pe­cially along some of the world’s most densely pop­u­lated radar net­works around the East and South China Seas. With­out con­stant co­or­di­na­tion and train­ing, Chi­nese fighter in­ter­cep­tors and mis­siles will not be able to op­er­ate in the same en­vi­ron­ment with­out se­vere risk of friendly fire, giv­ing a sense of mixed progress. Not­with­stand­ing is­sues of in­te­gra­tion and con­trol, the S- 400/ 300/ HQ- 19/ 9 LR SAMs, along with a con­tem­po­rary LR de­tec­tion radars, will form a for­mi­da­ble A2/AD shield, ca­pa­ble of de­fend­ing China against the next gen­er­a­tion of­fen­sive plat­forms of the United States and other re­gional pow­ers.

Chines Mil­i­tary Re­gions (MRs) with PLA de­ploy­ment in 2017

The PLAAF is heav­ily in­vest­ing in im­prov­ing pi­lot train­ing stan­dards as part of the on­go­ing re­forms

An artis­tic im­age of the H-20 bomber, be­ing de­signed by China’s 603 Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute, which re­sem­bles the Northrop B-2 bomber to a large ex­tent

An-225 will be handed over to China in 2019

The JY-27A anti stealth radar has evolved from the JY-27, which ap­pears to be copy of the Rus­sian 1L13/ 119 Nebo SV VHF radar se­ries

The HQ-9 is de­ployed ex­ten­sively in the South China Sea on Chi­nese claimed is­lands and reefs. It, along

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