The Chinese Air Force and Air and Space Power
McCabe, Thomas R., Air & Space Power Journal
Editorial Abstract: Analysts who predict that China will become the next peer competitor of the United States often cite as evidence China's large population and latent industrial potential. If they are correct, a critical component of US-Chinese relations will involve understanding the strategic perspective, composition, and doctrine of China's People's Liberation Army Air Force, because the unique characteristics of Chinese society and culture discourage using historical war-fighting models as foundations for strategy.
IN AN INFORMAL interview with James Reston of the New York Times in 1971, Zhou Enlai, premier of the People's Republic of China (PRC), laid out in broad terms the PRC's foreign-policy objectives: (1) unification of the mainland and Taiwan, (2) removal of US military power from Asia, (3) withdrawal of the massive Soviet military force deployed along the Sino-Soviet border, and (4) prevention of the rise of Japan as a military power.1 Meeting these objectives would have established the PRC as the dominant military power in Asia. Even more important, meeting them today would produce the same effect. Equally notable is their ideological neutrality: any Chinese nationalist, Communist or otherwise, can support such policy aims. If the Chinese Communist Party continues its gradual drift from Marxism to Chinese nationalism as its justification for ruling, these objectives are not likely to change. Although diplomacy can finesse and conveniently obscure the issue, to a degree, and although the events of 11 September 2001 may have changed its tone, the overall circumstances of US-PRC relations make very possible a future of fundamental hostility.
Even though China's primary focus today remains on its internal development and even though it is probably satisfied with its land borders, such is not the case with its maritime borders-especially with Taiwan and, secondarily, the South China Sea.2 The status of Taiwan, in particular, could lead to war sometime in the future. Even more important, China is a profoundly dissatisfied power in psychological terms. It craves respect, but the United States is not likely to give it such respect as long as the PRC remains a dictatorship. To the degree that the PRC ultimately aspires to the leadership of Asia, it is likely to clash with the United States, Japan, and probably with Russia. A policy of containing China as a strategic competitor will be regarded by its government as hostile, while a policy of "engagement" has been and will likely continue to be regarded in the same light-as one of smiling containment and subversion. Some sources have indicated that the PRC government already regards the United States as a rival and has done so for several years; indeed, anti-Americanism is evidently widespread among the population.3 The overall circumstances of US-PRC relations provide at least considerable potential for a fundamentally hostile Sino-US relationship.
For these reasons, it is prudent to study China in general and its military in particular. If the Chinese are not an enemy, it is worthwhile to understand them so as to minimize the chances of inadvertently identifying them as such.4 If they are, we need to understand why and to judge accurately whether they represent a threat, since a powerless enemy is more a nuisance than a danger.5 If they are indeed a present or emerging threat, we must understand them in order to deter or, if necessary, defeat them.
In studying the Chinese military as a potential enemy, one must pay attention to more than just the capabilities of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and its component services. Specifically, one would do well to begin with the PRC's military doctrine, since it shapes objectives, strategy, force structure, procurement, and training. This article addresses the air and space power doctrine of the PRC's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and analyzes its ability to carry out that doctrine. …