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How China Rebuilt Its Air Force

August 31, 2014

Chinese Su-27 J-11

History repeated itself last week.

It was 14 years ago when a PLAAF J-8 interceptor collided with a US Navy EP-3 surveillance plane near Hainan Island. The ensuing diplomatic row almost permanently soured relations between Washington, D.C. and Beijing.

On Tuesday, August 19, a J-11 multirole fighter intercepted a US Navy P-8 Poseidon in the vicinity of Hainan Island. The Pentagon made sure to publicly comment on the encounter. Like similar incidents with Japan, Chinese Su-27 clones are symbolic of its growing clout. The air force that used to be a cause for embarrassment is now a cause for alarm.

The feedback from experts in the US military and private sector is unanimous: The PLAAF and the PLA’s air formations are taking a huge leap forward.

“Since 2011 seven new aircraft have made their maiden flights, including two fifth-generation combat aircraft designs,” IHS Jane’s reveals.

It’s a far cry from what the PLAAF used to be. A half century ago, the 1960 Sino-Soviet split left China’s industries reeling. Until the 1990s, the PLAAF’s inventory of J-6, J-7, JH-7, J-8, and Q-5’s were all derivatives of the leftover MiG-21.

In With The Old

As early as 1993, research papers like US Air Force Lt. Col. Patricia M. Fornes’  Modernizing China’s Air Force reflected the popular view of the 5,000-plane, half-a-million-strong PLAAF–large, antiquated, and ill-equipped.

For example, Lt. Col. Fornes wrote, the PLAAF’s 970 Soviet-era bombers, including 350 H-5 light bombers and 120 H-6 heavy bombers, had little strategic value.

The PLAAF knew this and soon retired their entire bomber arm. A new variant of the H-6 is about to enter service.

For the PLAAF’s generals, post-Tiananmen arms sanctions and their observations of the second Gulf War created a need for genuine multirole aircraft equal to what the USAF had. This is when the Su-27 came to their attention.

In 1992, 1995, and 1996 China acquired 100 Su-27’s, assembled 100 more as multirole fighters, and bought an additional 100 Su-30MKK’s by 1999. Beijing spent $5 billion in total.

Chinese H-6 bomber

The scramble for Sukhois meant scrapping the J-6, J-7, and J-8. The researcher David Shlapak explained it best in his essay for The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities, a book published by the US’ National Defense University in 2012.

In it, Shlapak claims, “between 1990 and 2010 almost 3,500 obsolete aircraft–70 percent of the force–were returned, mostly since 1995.”

The Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) own open source tabulation of the PLAAF’s inventory agrees with Shlapak.

Research by IHS Jane’s reveals the extent of the PLAAF’s overhaul. The 10-page China’s Air Ambitions report from 2013 indicates a much smaller air force with mostly new planes–bombers, trainers, transports, fighters, and helicopters.

IHS Jane’s took note of recent breakthroughs with the J/F-17 multirole fighter jet, the upcoming KJ-2000 AWACS, and the Y-20 transport, which is similar to the Russian Ilyushin-76.

Russia wasn’t the only enabler of the PLAAF. When China and Israel renewed diplomatic ties in 1992, the schematics for the Lavi–a delta-wing fighter jet with canards–somehow ended up in Chinese hands. The PLAAF is now fielding its multirole J-10 in large numbers.

By 1987 the state-owned aerospace conglomerate Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) was building unlicensed copies of the French Dauphin, the Super Frelon troop transport, and even the S-70 Blackhawk.

A New Era

Another pair of authors writing on The Chinese Air Force, Philip C. Saunders and Erik R. Quam, are aware the PLAAF’s evolution has problems. China is reliant on Russian and Ukrainian AL-31FN turbofan engines, its helicopters are too few, and the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters are mere prototypes.

“It remains unclear how effective these [modernization] efforts have been,” they conclude.

Today, the USAF’s estimate of the PLAAF’s fighter jets stands at 2,300 aircraft in total and 500 are modern J-10, J-11, and J-15’s. The FAS’ own 2010 estimate seems to agree, placing the total at 2,194 with a slightly larger segment of modern fighters.

Chinese J10

IHS Jane’s tally is lower, claiming that by 2013  China only had 1,300 fighter jets left. If this were accurate, there could be anywhere between 500 and 700 aging J-7’s still in service. IHS Jane’s estimate for modern PLAAF fighter jets in 2013 were 300 J-10’s and 350 Su-27/J-11.

Having attained its optimum size, the PLAAF’s near-to-medium-term goals are:

  • Local production of world-class turbofan engines.
  • Deploying genuine aerial refueling tankers.
  • Deploying airborne early warning and control (AEWAC) and electronic countermeasures.
  • Create an airborne logistics capability of helicopters and large transports.
  • Introduce stealth features for the upcoming generation of jet aircraft, UAVs, and helicopters.
  • Expand naval squadrons to complement the PLAN’s aircraft carriers.

Barring a major internal disaster, East Asia’s most capable air force is almost ready.