The air forces of China aren’t as large or as skilled—yet—as the Soviet Union’s airmen were in the days of the Cold War. However, trends in Asia point to more encounters with China’s increasingly active forces at sea and in the air.
“China is conducting a coordinated and deliberate campaign of coercive diplomacy in the South China Seas,” noted Georgetown University professor and Air Force Reservist Oriana Skylar Mastro in a 2012 bulletin for the Center for a New American Security. She cited the establishment of a garrison on tiny Sansha Island as a definitive example of deliberate expansion, clearly directed from the top leadership.
That was before the 2013 declaration of special rules in the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and the December confrontation between an escort ship of China’s aircraft carrier and USS Cowpens, a US Navy cruiser.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force—PLAAF—and smaller counterparts in Naval Aviation and Army Aviation are changing fast. Yet with China especially, history and culture play a big role in operational art. USAF is still getting to know this Pacific power and its airmen. Herewith are 10 things to know about the PLAAF circa 2014.
1. They’re Flying Near Japan.
When China flies in the East China Sea, the Japanese react. Japan scrambled aircraft due to PLAAF activity 38 times in 2009 and 96 times in 2010. In 2013, 415 scrambles occurred, according to Japan’s Ministry of Defense. And these aren’t isolated reconnaissance patrols; on Sept. 8, 2013, two PLAAF H-6 bombers took off from China and flew a diagonal course between Miyakojima and Okinawa’s main island. Although the H-6s are based on the old Russian Tu-16 Badger design, they have been extensively updated. The H-6s can carry air-launched cruise missiles with ranges of several hundred miles, fitted for attack against ships at sea or fixed points on land.
Japan’s Ministry of Defense took the unusual step of releasing the flight track of the bombers in this incident. The bombers followed a corridor used by Chinese naval forces transiting toward exercise areas in the Pacific. They stayed in international airspace and China called the flights routine.
Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Pacific Air Forces, reinforced the importance of the treaty ties between Japan and the US as a counterweight to increased flight activity by China. Just last month, another scuffle involving China’s fighter patrols and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force interceptors made news. This time, the military aircraft came dangerously close to each other. China claimed Japan Air Self-Defense Force fighters flew within 100 yards of a Tu-154, while Japan said its aircraft were being harassed by Chinese Su-27s. The frequent encounters have made the East China Sea a high-risk airspace.
“They see the strong friendship and enduring alliance between Japan and the United States, and they see that [working] together, we can counter threats to the security and stability of the region,” Carlisle told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun [newspaper] in April 2014.
2. They’re Hospitable.
USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Carlisle, and CMSAF James A. Cody visited China together in late 2013. They made strides in deepening the connection and Welsh later said they were “treated exceptionally well.”
According to Welsh, the USAF delegation experienced something of a charm offensive. “Commander Ma [Gen. Ma Xiaotian], the Chief of Staff of their air force, was a wonderful host,” said Welsh. China had not hosted a USAF Chief of Staff since 1998, nor had a PLAAF Commander visited the US since 1997.
In between, then-PACAF commander Gen. Paul V. Hester traveled to two bases in China in 2007. Hester saw Su-27s and China’s FB-7s, all-weather, supersonic, medium-range fighter-bombers. “There are still a lot of unknowns, and if you will, unanswered questions,” Hester observed, according to the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper. “There are certainly not many solid answers to that question of ‘What is your vision for your military and where will it lead you?’?”
Carlisle (who visited China in 2009 for the 60th anniversary founding of the PLAAF) had reflections on the relationship, too. He told the Asahi Shimbun that “just to have the discussion with them, it gives us a greater understanding. It also gives them a greater understanding of us and our capabilities. And so, I think it has a potential to influence, in a positive way.”
After the 2013 trip, Welsh said, “The biggest take-away was that I think we can communicate, we can cooperate in a way that helps prevent misinformation, miscommunication, accidental confrontation. … I don’t think a mil-to-mil relationship will ever be the pillar of the US-Chinese relationship, but I think it can be part of the connective tissue.”
Yet cautions abound. Engagements with US Pacific Command are an example. At first, the People’s Liberation Army “readily engaged with PACOM when its interests could be met or when PACOM offered entrée to more strategic, national-level lessons resident elsewhere in the United States,” wrote Frank Miller in a 2011 Army War College publication, Chinese Lessons From Other People’s Wars. But as China’s own position improved, the attitude toward contact shifted. Now, according to Miller, “the primary lessons the PLA wants to learn from PACOM is how to defeat it.”
3. They’re Hosting Other Airmen.
Overall, China’s airmen seem to prefer hosting visits to traveling themselves.
According to China expert Kenneth W. Allen, exchanges with other air forces have been steadily increasing since 2001. Allen, a retired USAF officer and former assistant air attaché in China, has emerged as one of the nation’s foremost guides to the inner workings of China’s air force. He concentrates on people, organization, and training—not on equipment.
Recently, activity intensified. Allen wrote that from September 2011 to January 2012, the PLAAF Command College held a course that included foreign and PLAAF pilots with a focus on tactics, combat methods, and training.
In addition to six PLAAF pilots, a total of 69 officers—including several pilots—from 41 countries participated. The countries included Chile, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Venezuela.
Likewise, Carlisle noted, “We have to keep in mind [that] every single one of these nations has a bilateral relationship with China. They have trade with China. They have an economic relationship with China and cultural [ties] in many cases,” Carlisle told Defense News in February 2014.
4. They Play Second Fiddle to the Ground Forces—For Now.
China claims that the PLAAF is a force of 398,000, or just over 17 percent of China’s total military.
The PLA has a “ground force-dominated culture,” said Allen. Most attachés sent abroad are PLA army officers specializing in intelligence. Nor is the PLA an army doing the bidding of the state, per se. The PLA answers to the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Communist Party, not the defense ministry or state apparatus. Ten uniformed officers plus one civilian sit on the CMC. Army officers dominate senior posts on the CMC, which controls the modernization of China’s military forces.
Two PLAAF airmen entered the inner circle in 2012 when they were appointed to the Central Military Commission. One was incoming air chief Ma. More significant, in the opinions of Mastro and colleague Michael S. Chase of the US Naval War College, was the choice of outgoing PLAAF air chief Xu Qiliang to serve as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Mastro and Chase described Xu as a trailblazer. He’s the first airman to take a high-ranking position amongst the CMC Army officers.
According to Mastro, Xu is a blunt-talking fighter pilot. He sees China developing anti-satellite and other space control capabilities to ensure China has access to space, even though space programs are run by the army. Xu has spoken of conflict moving to the air, space, and even deep space as a “historical inevitability.” That’s Marxist-tinged language for top priority.
“Given that two air force officers have secured a place on China’s highest military body for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic,” Mastro and Chase wrote in The Diplomat in 2012, “many China watchers believe this foreshadows the loosening of the ground force’s 60-year-long stranglehold on the levers of military power.”
“Of particular significance is that Xu is identified as an air force general and continues to wear an air force uniform,” Allen commented.
5. Their Combat Record Is Slim.
Xu and Ma together look set to continue pushing the boundaries of PLAAF airpower toward extended-range and joint operations.
Their biggest obstacle may be China’s lack of combat experience. “The only times the PLAAF has engaged in any sustained air-to-air combat were during the Korean War [1950 to 1953] and the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, which lasted only a few days,” noted Allen.
The most recent experience belongs to their surface-to-air missile battery operators, some of whom manned batteries during the Vietnam war, according to Allen and unrelated colleague Jana Allen. The air defense forces lack recent experience. “The last shootdown by a PLAAF SAM occurred against a Vietnamese aircraft that inadvertently crossed the border in October 1987,” they found.
6. They Are Students of Recent Military History.
A keen eye to recent operations helps compensate for the lack of combat time. Carlisle, from the 2013 visit, recounted that China’s leaders were serious about improving.
“I’ll tell you, frankly, they watched what the Western nations and the United Nations did in Desert Storm, they watched what we did in the Deliberate Force, in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, in Europe, and then, of course, they saw Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom,” Carlisle said in his April interview. The West’s overwhelming airpower was incentive for China to improve. “I think all of that made them aware of their disadvantage, strategically, with the United States and the West,” he added.
“The PLA, given its lack of combat experience, seems to be trying to compensate through the close study and analysis” of how other countries fight, especially the US, wrote Dean Cheng in the 2011 Army War College publication Chinese Lessons. In his view, what particularly impressed Chinese observers was the need for advanced technology systems, integrated operations, command and control to cover wide expanses, as well as the reality of a high rate of munitions expenditure.
7. They’re Trying Out Global Reach.
China made its first foray into long-range air operations in 2005. A Chinese 747 with 104 tons of relief supplies for victims of Hurricane Katrina landed at Little Rock AFB, Ark., on Sept. 7, 2005. “It’s quite unusual,” commented USAF Brig. Gen. Joseph M. Reheiser, quoted at the time by Xinhua news agency. “I’m not a historian, but I can’t think of a time when China has airlifted relief supply to the United States,” he said. The cargo included tents, light power generators, linens, and clothing.
In 2010 a detachment of Chinese Su-27s arrived at Konya air base in Turkey for a joint exercise with Turkey’s F-4s. “Indeed, an incipient expeditionary PLA is in the making,” David M. Finkelstein, director of the China program at the Center for Naval Analyses, said at the time.
Activity accelerated in 2011. During February and March, the PLAAF sent Il-76s to evacuate Chinese civilians from Libya. Altogether, the aircraft flew 1,655 Chinese from Libya to Khartoum, Sudan, and then brought 287 back to China, calculated Allen.
China now frequently participates in international relief missions. Besides Hurricane Katrina, in September 2011, four Il-76s took supplies to Pakistan following severe flooding and the next month three Il-76s flew similar relief missions to Thailand, wrote Allen.
More recently, however, China lagged badly in assistance when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013. China also scored few points with its lackluster response to the missing Malaysian airliner Flight MH370 earlier this year. The flight was bound for Beijing and most passengers were Chinese.
8. They’re Like a Big Family.
The PLAAF is inward-looking by nature due to its organizational style. China’s People’s Liberation Army has a distinct sociology that often looks more like a sprawling extended family than a Western-style army. Those who joined Mao in the years before the Communist takeover in 1949 were often educated, fed, and raised within what became the PLA.
Chinese troops typically serve in one unit for their whole careers, developing strong personal relationships, said Allen.
Aircrews work on one aircraft at a time, and pilots will fly only one or two different airplanes, Allen said, according to Stars and Stripes coverage of his briefing to airmen at Misawa AB, Japan, in 2009. Since the Chinese airplanes are handmade in factories, crews and pilots have to learn the ins and outs of each piece of equipment, the newspaper reported.
One remarkable tradition is that Chinese pilots often serve only at one base. Allen said wing commander-equivalents exercise detailed control over flight operations, starting with taxi and takeoff. Units are organized around one type of aircraft. However, a recent PLAAF reorganization at upper echelons opened up the possibility for dissimilar aircraft types to train together. According to Allen, pilots in some units are now given “pilot autonomy” to create the own flight plans and conduct “free air combat” in training zones, which includes non-scripted air intercepts. That could signal progress.
9. They’re Training With Air-Launched Cruise Missiles.
Ballistic missiles like the so-called carrier-killer DF-21, which belong to the Second Artillery Force, get most of the attention. However, the PLAAF has aircraft equipped to carry long-range cruise missiles.
“A key element of the PLA’s investment in anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities is the development and deployment of large numbers of highly accurate anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) on a range of ground, air, and naval platforms,” noted the 2014 book A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier by Dennis M. Gormley, Andrews S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan.
The key lies in how well they are learning to employ the missiles as air-launched weapons. Why worry? Because the “supersonic speed, small radar signature, and very low altitude flight profile of cruise missiles stress air defense systems and airborne surveillance and tracking radars,” the authors noted.
10. They’re Flying Longer Missions and More Hours.
The Wall Street Journal claimed in late November 2013 that PLAAF pilots were on track to fly more hours than their US counterparts. That was due in part to sequestration, but the Chinese are flying more. The question is what they gain from it.
Idiosyncratic PLAAF recruiting and training has raised Western eyebrows for years. The PLAAF long recruited mainly high school-equivalent graduates. They excluded those from certain provinces and didn’t mix women or college graduates in with the majority of pilot trainees.
Operational training is picking up. “For several years now, both PLAN Aviation and the PLAAF have been running exercises that involve cruise missile firing over water including at night and against surface vessels,” noted Gormley and his coauthors.
One thing that’s not changing? An outlook common in air forces. “Pilots are gods in the PLAAF,” remarked Allen at his Misawa briefing.
Most observers expect growth and progress from the PLAAF and Naval Aviation—not just in capabilities but in the essentials of training, tactics, organization, and even culture. Monitoring how the change affects the Pacific balance of power will require a watchful eye.
“Some experts believe a major goal of China is to emerge as a regional hegemon quietly and without fanfare until it achieves that status as a fait accompli,” concluded Carl D. Rehberg, an analyst in USAF’s strategic plans and programs office, in a recent article.
China’s leadership is realizing its economy and stability are intertwined with the international system. That’s “terra incognita” for China’s leaders, in Finkelstein’s words. “There simply is no precedent in the history of the PRC for a China so enmeshed in the international system.”
Carlisle put the progress of the PLA in context. “The efforts they have put forth are to try to fix what they thought were their disadvantages, to put them in a better strategic position,” he explained in his Japanese newspaper interview. “Clearly, they’re doing that,” he said, “but at the same time, so are we.”
Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS In-dependent Research. Her most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “The Autonomy Question” in the April issue.