Modernisation of the Chinese Air Force

A.K. Sachdev, Research Fellow, IDSA



A feeble debate has incessantly been a part and parcel of the Indian security arena since the break up of the USSR; its core has been the loss of reassurance against a possible hostile stance by China in the future. This debate needs to be seen as elemental to the wider and more vigorous one regarding the future security of the Southern Asian region. The fluidity and dynamism of the strategic environment that accrues in the region is perhaps a direct consequence of the disappearance of the erstwhile USSR's influence and the diminishing sway the US holds in the region. From India's point of view, the blossoming of a Beijing-Islamabad-Washington nexus during the last decade or so was a disturbing trend which may have contributed to India's nuclearisation and which continues to affect its security concerns.

The criss-crossing interests in the region of, inter alia, China and India, have rendered further turbulence to the vorticity prevalent there. The economic crisis that had affected South Asia did not influence China's financial affairs to the same degree as it did the other South Asian nations (as evidenced by the unabated progress of the Chinese modernisation programme). China's growing assertiveness in international, regional and sub-regional affairs is another perceptible feature—noticeable in the South China Sea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Vietnam is no longer seen as a balancer for China in the region. China's resurgence—especially when there seems to be no regional power to check it—is a depressing preoccupation in an Indian psyche walking the taut economic tightrope between the two end-posts of defence and development. China's emergence as a major arms supplier (especially to a host of Islamic nations, including Pakistan), its recalcitrance as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the recent frosting up of Sino-US relations (The Next Cold War?)1 and the Kargil incident have been additional factors in keeping the region hot, if not boiling.

Economic and technological modernisation endeavours are edging out Communist ideology in China but the pace at which social liberalisation seems to be progressing is not so rapid as to reassure its neighbours on the issue of a move away from totalitarianism. Studied inscrutability and a deliberately oblique approach continue to characterise China's international intercourse; no Chinese dialogue excludes any possibility absolutely and irrevocably. India thus needs to be eternally circumspect in the context of a Chinese threat, the buoyant effusion subsequent to Jaswant Singh's June 1999 visit to China notwithstanding. Some analysts like Major General Ashok Mehta would like to believe that China and India are "no longer a threat to each other".2 With China as its neighbour and with an unresolved border dispute alternating between heat levels of back-burner simmer and hot-spot boiling point, India can never rule out a conflagration involving the two. Should the two neighbours enter into a conflict with each other, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) would be pressed into service by its political masters in support of the national military strategy.

This paper looks at the current nature of the PLAAF threat to India and examines doctrinal and modernisation aspects of the PLAAF's future. It also crystalball-gazes to suggest the time-frame when the PLAAF would become a cause for serious concern to India's security planners.

Military Doctrine of the PLAAF

Military doctrine, the primordial attribute of the national security blueprint of a nation, is—at once—affected by, and contributory to, the behavioural pattern of a state in its international pursuits. In China's context, Mao's concept of "total war" is perceived by some China-watchers to be an aberration in an otherwise unbroken, age old tradition of some sort of "limited war" or the other. With the study of strategic culture becoming a` la mode in recent years, the power corridors of China have been resonant with the constant refrains of "limited war" and "limited war under high-tech conditions". Chinese sapience is lumbersome in its progression, and patience is needed to see tentative conclusions crystallise into declarative military doctrine. Nonetheless, it appears that the favoured backdrop of Chinese military doctrine in the decades to come would be "limited war"—with all its much-debated nuances.

Limited war, in the opinion of some, attempts to reinvent the Confucian past of China. The umbilical connection seems to extend unbroken into the ancient Chinese military ethos of limitation of warfare. The vertebral centrepiece of the evolving doctrine, therefore, seems to be restraint—albeit with a concomitant shift from "passive defence" of the days of "people's war" to "active defence" of "limited war under high-tech conditions". The impetus for this doctrinal shift was provided by the failed Chinese effort to teach a lesson to Vietnam in 1979. Thus, the existent limited war doctrine may be seen to be in a process of evolution that dates back to around two decades. In more recent times during this growth process, in September 1997, Jiang Zemin, in his capacity of Party general secretary, exhorted the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to "implement a strategy of active defence"3 and, wearing his other hat of the chairman, Central Military Commission (CMC), issued a "new operational decree".4 This decree places stress on winning a local war using modern weapon systems, mobility of warfare and offensive action. Clearly then, the term "limited war" does not connote a defensive war. This aspect of offensive action, when translocated to the PLAAF concept of operations may be interpreted to mean the achievement and maintenance of air superiority in the context of localised operations.


Following Deng Xiaoping's full return to power at the Third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress in 1978, the PLAAF embarked on numerous reforms and changes in its operating style.5 Consequently, a distinct process of military modernisation can be discerned in China since around 1979 in consonance with the shift in the doctrinal debate there. The "non-offensive" element of the "limited war" doctrine can in no way be seen to militate with the sure, albeit slow, process of military modernisation that is underway. The current degree of modernisation (in terms of equipment, training and infrastructure) needs to be viewed keeping in mind the very low basal levels that the Chinese military started with at the beginning of the process of modernisation.

The Chinese employed every possible method to beg, borrow or steal new technology in the furtherance of their modernisation process. According to Daniel Klaidman and Mark Hosenball, "The Chinese effort to harvest American technology didn't begin with Bill Clinton. More than two decades ago there were already warning signs that US secrets were vulnerable to spies".6 Although the White House started earnestly addressing the problem of pilferage of US secrets by the Chinese only in the early parts of 1998, the extent of clandestine transfer of technology —now exposed by the Cox Report—is horrendous. The areas of interest seem to have been high explosives, radiochemistry, specialised welding, supercomputers and, in recent years, neutron bomb technology, guidance systems, nuclear warheads, satellites and missiles.

Simultaneously, the PLAAF embarked on a programme of foreign visits by its delegations. In March 1979, Zhang Tingfa became the first PLAAF commander to travel abroad when he visited Pakistan. Direct contact with foreign air forces has, since then, been emphasised and expanded. To date, delegations have been sent to, and received from, over 40 countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand and the United States. Many of these were at the air force commander level. The "limited war" doctrine has unmistakably been accompanied by changing military force structures and weapon system technologies. The PLA has been downsized from 4.1 million personnel to about 2.9 million (a comprehensive picture of this downsizing can only be obtained by juxtaposing it with the corresponding rise in the strength of the People's Armed Police). There has been an increasing emphasis on specialised forces; the PLAAF has been the focus of these specialised forces. Notable improvements specific to the PLAAF have been the acquisition of the Su-27 and the IL 76 in addition to several ongoing aircraft production programmes; interest has also been evinced in force multipliers like aerial refuelling and AWACS/AEW aircraft. Airborne forces have undergone improvement and expansion to division levels (from the erstwhile brigade levels).

Under the transforming doctrinal backdrop there seems to be a shift towards force projection—with the logical attendant factors of quick reaction, enhanced mobility and concentration of force being given their due importance in the training, infrastructure and equipment planning. China's growing assertiveness, as brought out earlier, only serves to underscore the doctrinal shift.

PLAAF: A Brief Overview

The Chinese Communists acquired a considerable amount of equipment left behind by Chiang Kai Shek's retreating forces; this formed the nucleus of the present day PLAAF. Starting from a rather modest strength of just 150 ageing aircraft in poor state of maintenance, the PLAAF received tremendous impetus from the Korean War. At the time of the Sino-Vietnam War (1979), the PLAAF was caught off-guard and did not contribute significantly to the Chinese effort. Today, it is the third largest air force in the world with around 3,740 combat aircraft and a whopping 470,000 personnel.7

The PLAAF is under the CMC through the General Staff Department. In the peculiar Chinese hierarchical system, it is situated just a notch higher than the seven Military Regions (MRs). The PLAAF chain of command is itself organised into four levels starting with Head Quarters Air Force (HQAF) at the top. Each of the seven MRs has a Military Region Air Force Head Quarters (MRAFHQ). The MRAF commander is responsible for flying operations and is also the deputy to the MR commander, a PLA officer. The next rung is the Air Corps/Command Post, below which lie the operational units in the field.

The PLAAF's primary mission is to defend China's land and air space while other missions include assisting socialist construction, providing relief and rescue operations and supporting artificial rainmaking. For the execution of these missions, the PLAAF is organised into the following branches: Aviation (which holds all the PLAAF aircraft), Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA), Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), Radar and Communications. The PLAAF also has the unique feature of possessing its own airborne troops (sometimes listed as a separate, sixth branch). In addition, the PLAAF has several training and research institutes.

The combat elements are apportioned to air divisions, which are further organised as shown below.8

Fig. I. PLAAF Operational Organisation






(((( X2 - 4

The number of aircraft in a flight is given by some sources as 3 to 4 and by others as 2 to 3; the latter figure more readily conforms to the total holding figure for a division, which is around 72.

The Chinese designators for fixed-wing combat aircraft are as given in Table 1.

Table I. Chinese Combat Aircraft Designators

Sl Role Chinese Equivalent

No. Designator Designator

1 Fighter J (Jian) F

2 Ground Q (Qiang) A


3 Bomber H (Hongzha) B

Note: The last column represents designator letters used for aircraft designs produced for export e.g. F-7B is the export version of the J-7 II.

The current holding of the PLAAF according to the IISS Military Balance 1997/98, is as follows.9

Table 2. Current PLAAF Combat Aircraft Holding

Sl No Aircraft Type Numbers Held Role/Remarks

1 J-6 2,000 Fighter;

Marks B/D/E

2 J-7 500 Fighter

3 J-8 200 Fighter

4 Su-27 40 Russian Aircraft;

Chinese Production

Also Planned

5 Su-27B 8 --- do ---

6 Q-5 400 Ground Attack

7 H-5 200 Light Bomber;

8 H-6 100 Medium Bomber

9 HZ-5,JZ-5,JZ-6 290 Recce

10 Total 3,748 Nil

The J-6 is a variant of the Soviet MiG-19 and the J-7 of the Soviet MiG-21; the development of the original (Soviet) versions began in 1951 and 1953 respectively. Chinese production of the J-6 commenced under an arrangement with the USSR in 1959 with the first aircraft entering PLAAF inventory in 1963. A similar arrangement for the production of the J-7 ran into trouble due to political reasons and the Chinese reverse-engineered the aircraft between 1964 and 1967. The J-8 (single seat, twin engine air superiority fighter with a secondary ground attack role) development programme began in 1964 and the first aircraft was validated in 1979. The initial design work on the Q-5 (based on the Soviet IL-10) commenced in 1958; several modified operational versions were subsequently produced. The H-5, based on repair drawings of the Soviet IL-28 (first flown in 1947), began series production in 1967 while the H-6 was based on the Soviet TU-16 (first flown 1952) and entered series production in 1969. These seemingly insignificant details are proffered here to provide the qualitative browning to the quantitative cake presented in Table 2. As can be seen from the vintage of these aircraft designs, the mass of the current holding of the PLAAF is in need of replacement by modern design aircraft of which one good example is the Su-27.

The PLAAF is believed to have 48 Su-27s on its inventory with a licence arrangement with Russia for the production of at least 200 more aircraft in China. Unconfirmed reports put this figure even higher (at almost double that figure).

There are around 50 divisions (a division holds approximately 72 aircraft) operating from two or three airfields—each housing one or two regiments. Generally, a regiment is homogenous in terms of aircraft composition i.e. there is no mix of aircraft within a regiment. At the flight level, each pilot flies only two or three airframes (belonging to his flight only) and the pilot-to-airframe ratio is 2:1; thus, each flight may be expected to have five to six pilots on its strength. Depending on the type of aircraft, each combat pilot flies around 80 to 110 hours in a year—a figure that compares rather poorly with other large professional air forces of the world some of whose combat pilots fly double that number of hours each year during peace time. Another notable feature of the flying training pattern is that almost 80-85 per cent of the flying consists of plain and simple navigation sorties with marginal tactical value. Each pilot takes a three-month vacation each year.

Maintenance of Chinese produced aircraft is a problem area, the root cause being injected into the maintenance activity right at the manufacturing stage itself. This is on account of the fact that the assembly line produces aircraft parts specific to each airframe; most rivet work on aircraft is done manually which means that the placement of rivets on the corresponding parts of two aircraft is not identical.10 The implication is that there is no interchangeability of parts between two unique airframes of the same type of aircraft. This can be a tremendous maintenance headache involving grounding of aircraft in case of even minor unserviceabilities until inoperative parts are repaired or replacements manufactured to tailor-made specifications. A large number of aircraft (war reserves?) are said to be stored in cave-like structures —with attendant problems of moisture and corrosion.

Logistics within the PLAAF organisation is another problem area. Until 1995, almost all movement of spares and supplies was by rail, a small quantity being transported by ferryboats, where possible. However, since then, there have been instances involving the transportation by large transport planes of support personnel and equipment to accompany air fleets in emergency mobile combat support operational exercises. To provide better mobile accompanying support, the PLAAF has established eleven emergency support teams capable of setting out individually to provide support by whatever means are available i.e. air, rail, road or sea. The PLA's General Logistics Department seems to have conducted extensive analysis of the logistical aspects of the Gulf War and gleaned many relevant lessons as applicable to China.

Chinese Combat Aircraft Production Programmes

The Chinese aviation industry was established in 1951 and has, since then, made major advances and innovations in some key technologies related to aircraft and airborne systems leading to the design, development and production of Chinese-made aircraft. The Aviation Industries of China—AVIC—was carved out of the former Ministry of Aerospace Industry in 1993 as an economic entity to develop market economy. It has its design and development centres at several locations, the most important ones being at Shenyang, Beijing and Harbin.11 In the last four decades or so, these centres have produced around 10,000 military aircraft12 and developed at least seven fighter aircraft designs—a major achievement by any standards. A point must be conceded on the slow speed of development (i.e. from the initial design stage to the validation stage) but nonetheless credit is due to AVIC for independent design capability; the poor record of the Indian Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is in sharp and unfavourable contrast. The current ongoing programmes of aircraft development are briefly discussed here for the sake of completing the picture of the PLAAF in the coming years.

First, a few words about the most talked about Chinese aircraft acquisition—the Su-27. The prestigious and technologically significant Sino-Russian contract for the licensed manufacture of the Sukhoi Su-27 was a tremendous boost for the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation in 1996. The first 48 aircraft were to be assembled in Komsomolsk, then dissembled, crated and transported to China for being reassembled. Subsequent aircraft were to be produced under licence in China as mentioned earlier (Chinese produced aircraft are likely to be called J-11); a total of 200 were on order. Notwithstanding the development of new types of aircraft (discussed later), the Su-27 would be the backbone of the PLAAF combat force in the near future. It is generally believed that the Russians are unlikely to part with the whole technological content comprising the Su-27 design; around 25-30 per cent of the aircraft design technology, including the all important power plant technology, is likely to be denied to the Chinese. Meanwhile, we need to address the (minimum of) three air divisions that could be formed out of the Su-27s available to the PLAAF. Some Western analysts iterate that the Chinese would not be able to make optimal use of the Su-27 and, in support of this argument, quote the fact that the Su-27s have not yet been allotted the five-digit divisional identification nose numbers. The absence of five-digit nose numbers is probably on account of the fact that there are not adequate numbers of Su-27s with the PLAAF to form a division; it is only a matter of time, therefore, before this matter is resolved. As far as handling of the high technology is concerned, the Chinese have time and again proved their capability in that regard.

The current development programmes include the F-8 IIM which dates back to 1980 when the PLAAF established its modification requirements for an update to J-8 II—based on tactical and technical considerations—for the then recently validated (1979) J-8. Shenyang's R&D centre finished the basic design in 1983 and development proceeded into the next seven years or so till 1990 when the updating programme with the assistance of the US in the field of avionics was cancelled. Two prototypes given to Grumman under the Peace Pearl Programme were returned to China. Currently the programme is in progress as the domestic F-8 IIM upgrade programme for service entry into the PLAAF and the Chinese Navy.

The Super-7 programme was a follow-up to the Sabre-II joint Sino-Pak F-7 M modification project, which was dropped in 1988. This programme was also a joint Sino-Pak one and is being pursued at Shenyang. With the cooperation of Pakistan's Aviation Integrated Company and the Russian Micoyan Aero-Science Production Group, the FC-1 lightweight, multi-purpose, fighter plane is being developed at Chengdu; this is to be a substitute for the Super-713. Several prototypes have been under construction since 1997 and the production is expected to start at the rate of 50 aircraft per year conditional upon the PLAAF placing adequate orders for the aircraft.

At Chengdu Aircraft Industries Corporation is also being developed the J-10 fighter (Westernised designation F-10) whose PLA pictures showed it to bear a marked resemblance to the Israel Aircraft Industries' cancelled Lavi project. US Naval Intelligence calls it a "dramatic step forward for Chinese military aviation"14 The aircraft is expected to go into service by around 2005; the PLAAF is likely to order 300 of these aircraft depending on the outcome of the Su-27 licensed manufacture programme.

The XXJ is another multi-role fighter apparently in the design concept stage for a possible entry into service in 2015 or so.

From the foregoing, it is easy to discern a pattern of purposeful but plodding progress in Chinese aircraft production programmes. Perhaps one of the problems is of finalising a base line for freezing a particular design. The time taken from design initiation to prototype validation is inordinately long as compared to US and Soviet/Russian programmes. Yet another problem concerns the programmes that involve foreign collaboration/cooperation; the Chinese are immoderately suspicious of their foreign collaborators and this means cumbersome mechanics in the collaboration process. Some Western authors cast a shadow on the Chinese capability to assimilate modern technologies but, in the opinion of this author, the AVIC machinery cannot be underestimated in this regard. Some of the currently employed technologies in China have been imported through Chinese scientists and technologists who worked in the US and Europe and then carried their knowledge back to China to develop similar or identical systems there; if there was any doubt on this count, it should have been dispelled by the Cox Report. It is only logical to surmise that these Chinese brains which have displayed proven capability to handle and develop the most modern technologies outside of China would find it equally easy to harness emerging ideas and technologies in furtherance of the Chinese modernisation programmes.

Chinese combat aircraft development programmes cannot be pooh-poohed at—nor wished away—by India. Of the ongoing projects, at least one or two could be expected to reach serial production stage in the next two to three years. Were that to happen, there would be another modern combat aircraft ready to join ranks with the large number of Su-27s already in the pipeline. By 2005, therefore, the shape of the PLAAF could be radically different from what it is today. While the current PLAAF can be pictured as a bevy of ageing combat aircraft with limited capability, the addition of modern aircraft like the Su-27 (and possibly several other types) to its strength, would mean that India's advantage inherent in the possession of the Su-30, the MiG-29 and the Mirage-2000 would be negated. Even more significantly, when the numbers are chalked up on the tote board, the cause for anxiety would grow exponentially. While all the three modern fleets of the Indian Air Force (IAF) mentioned above total up to only a little over a hundred combat aircraft, the projected figure for the Chinese Su-27s itself is two to three times that number; the sheer arithmetic is daunting.

The elevation of the airfields in Tibet is often cited as preclusive to meaningful strike operations against India in the event of hostilities. The PLAAF may be in a position to overcome this impediment through a Y-8 aerial refuelling capability (Jane's All The World Aircraft 1998-99 is silent on the subject of the aerial refuelling capability but the IISS Military Balance 1997-98 lists some Y-8 tankers in the Chinese transport aircraft holding).15 Thus, a strike aircraft would not be restricted to operating from Tibet but could take off from a lower airfield further away and then could be given aerial refuelling over Tibet for strikes at airfields or other targets in northern India.

Chinese interest in AEW/AWACS aircraft should also be a cause of concern to India. Geography dictates that any Indian strikes over targets in China must necessarily be flown in Hi-Hi-Hi profiles. Thus, the acquisition of AEW/AWACS capability would definitely put a damper on Indian plans for strikes over China and necessitate major alterations to operational strategy.

Chinese Support Aircraft

The PLAAF has a total of over 400 transport aircraft and around 200 helicopters. The modernisation programme and the doctrinal changes discussed earlier have urged the Chinese to cooperate with US aircraft manufacturers in the production of transport aircraft and sub-contract work for those companies. The concept of the Rapid Reaction Forces craves for an ever-increasing and ever-modernising heavy transport capability to conform to the philosophical imperative of active defence; the distended "strategic frontiers" of a resurgent China absolutely demand such an increase in heavy lift capability. In the future, the PLAAF could well be expected to make improvements in this area also to keep pace with the developments in combat capabilities; the ultimate aim would be power projection. The PLAAF is perhaps the world's only air force with airborne troops under its chain of command; three divisions of airborne troops, organisationally under the PLAAF, represent the existing PLAAF capability for airlifting combat troops inter- or intra-theatre into an area requiring reinforcements on a large scale. Of course, the airlift of troops from one MR to another would have to be ordered by none less than the CMC.


The long-standing border dispute between India and China does not encourage visions of peace becoming the dominant feature of the relations between the two in the near future. China has been quite content to maintain inimical relations with India since the 1960s. Given the unresolved border issue, the refusal of China to accord recognition to Sikkim's status as a state of India, China's arms sales and the all-important question of Third World leadership, hostilities between India and China are a real possibility in the future; it is unlikely that China will find it difficult to invent an excuse for starting a "limited war under high-tech conditions" at a time of Chinese choosing.

Meanwhile, smarting from the Vietnamese misadventure, the Chinese have, on the one hand, resorted to military modernisation, while, on the other, indulging in fierce introspection on matters of doctrine. Against this backdrop, we have examined the PLAAF's current capability, ongoing combat aircraft programmes and trends in Chinese thinking on matters related to war-fighting. There is indicated, in the view of this author, a need for a critical look into the PLAAF's capability in the next ten years based on these inputs.

The inescapable verdict of such a critical appraisal has to be that there is a definite trend towards a substantial qualitative improvement in the combat capability of the PLAAF starting from around 2005 onwards by which time the Su-27 fleet would have become effective and at least one more current development programme reached fruition stage. Slippages characteristic of the Chinese aviation industry may delay the achievement of this qualitative ascendancy by a couple of years. The quantitative superiority of the PLAAF vis-a-vis the IAF is also not going to be diminished substantially in the intervenient period. It would be in India's interest to set 2005 as the earliest and 2010 as the latest points in time at which PLAAF modernisation would render it a grave security concern for India. Perspective planning for the IAF must be based on a central agenda directed towards this projected PLAAF capability.



1. Time, June 7, 1999, front page.

2. Major General Ashok K. Mehta, "Chopstick Diplomacy", Sunday, July 4-10, 1999, p. 32.

3. Political Report by Jiang Zemin, Party general secretary, Summary of World Broadcasts, September 13, 1997 (as quoted in M.V. Rappai), "Changes in Chinese Military Doctrine and Their Implications", Strategic Analysis, July 1999.

4. Liberation Army Daily (Jiefangjun Bao), February 25, 1999 (as quoted in Rappai, Ibid.)

5. Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel and Jonathan D. Pollack, China's Air Force Enters the Twentieth Century, (Santa Monica: RAND, 1995) p. 82.

6. Daniel Klaidman and Mark Hosenball, "The Chinese Puzzle", Newsweek, June 7, 1999, p. 17.

7. IISS Military Balance 1997/98 (London: Oxford University Press), pp. 178.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. n. 5, p.176.

11. Srikanth Kondapalli, China's Military: The PLA in Transition, (New Delhi: Knowledge World, 1999) p. 167.

12. Jane's All The World Aircraft 1998-99, (Surrey: Jane's Information Group Limited, 1999) p. 52.

13. Ibid., p. 55.

14. Ibid., p. 57.

15. n. 7, p. 178.