China's Air Force Modernization

By Saunders, Phillip C.; Quam, Erik R. | Joint Force Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

China's Air Force Modernization


Saunders, Phillip C., Quam, Erik R., Joint Force Quarterly


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The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is in the midst of a modernization campaign aimed at retiring and replacing obsolete aircraft designed in the 1950s and 1960s. While modernization has been under way in earnest for the past 15 years, China's air force is still in a transition phase, caught in the middle ground between the type of force that the PLAAF fielded over its first 50 years and the development of a new air force with modern equipment, doctrine, and capabilities. The thousands of J-6 fighters that once made up the fighter fleet have been retired: about 1,000 older J-7 and J-8 fighters remain in service, including 32 Russian-built Su-27UBK multirole fighters and 116 Chinese-assembled Su-27 variants; 73 Russian Su-33MKK fighters; and 62 of the new, indigenously produced J-10 multirole fighters. China is also developing and purchasing force multipliers, including advanced transport aircraft, tankers, and airborne early warning aircraft. (1)

The Chinese vision is of a highly trained modern air force equipped with high-tech aircraft, advanced precision-guided munitions, support aircraft that serve as force multipliers, and networked command and control and intelligence capabilities that allow the PLAAF to fight and win a high-tech war under "informationalized" conditions. This force not only would be more capable of carrying out missions such as air defense and support for ground forces against a modern adversary but also could undertake offensive strikes against ground and naval targets farther from China's borders. (2) The new PLAAF will integrate support systems such as airborne early warning aircraft, aerial refueling tankers, and intelligence collection and jamming aircraft to increase the effectiveness of combat aircraft and enhance warfighting capability. (3) Modernization will also include larger numbers of more capable air transports, which will enhance the effectiveness of PLAAF airborne forces for internal and external missions.

The Chinese air force of the future will consist of fewer but more capable aircraft and support systems. Yet the total size and precise mix of foreign and domestic aircraft remain open questions. This article seeks to illuminate the future force structure of the PLAAF by exploring the different ways of thinking about the role of the air force within overall PLA modernization plans, as well as the potential roles it will play in future PLA missions. It begins with a concise breakdown of the PLAAF as it stands now and is shaping for the future. It then shifts to the potential influences and missions that Beijing will weigh in making determinations for modernization. These influences are already affecting PLAAF transformation.

An evolving Force

The PLAAF is now in transition between the limited force consisting mainly of obsolete capabilities that it fielded in the 1980s, and the more advanced force that it intends to field in the coming decades. The new PLAAF will be a smaller force, composed primarily of third- and fourth-generation multirole fighters and fighter-bombers. It is uncertain whether China will decide to build or acquire new bombers, but the deployment of advanced cruise missiles should allow existing bombers to contribute more effectively to a variety of missions, including antiship and ground attack taskings. The new air force will also fully integrate support systems such as airborne early warning (AEW)/airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), aerial refueling tankers, intelligence collection, and signal jamming aircraft to increase the effectiveness of combat aircraft and enhance warfighting capability. Modernization will also include larger numbers of more advanced air transports, which will enhance the effectiveness of PLAAF airborne forces for both internal security and external missions. The air force will continue to modernize its ground-based air defenses and will likely seek to develop more effective defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles. …

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