Chinese Air Force: Rise of The Phoenix

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 6 Jan - Feb 2016
Page No.: 
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Size and capabilities of PLAAF, Asia's largest and world's third largest Air Force
Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM (Retd)
Friday, February 19, 2016

Chinese are moving aggressively onto the world centre stage. Their expansion into South China Sea by reclamation of Islands; the construction of US$46 billion Xinjiang-Gwadar corridor connecting the mainland through road and rail to the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of Indian Ocean; the trans-Siberian oil pipeline from Russia; the very active role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and BRICS; domineering role in United Nations; near leader in Cyber-warfare; and a leap in aviation design and production are some of the strategic initiatives.  China has been aggressively marketing its aircraft in Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and many African nations. In September 2015, Chinese Armed Forces conducted a7-week military exercise in Pakistan, transforming the already strong relations to a new high. Fighters, bombers and early warning aircraft of both sides participated. Pakistan showed interest in Chinese aircraft beyond the J-17 Thunder already jointly produced in large numbers. In July 2015 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) did a massive exercise with Chinese Army, simulating a high level modern threat in network-centric environment. Su-30 MKK, J-10A and J-11Bs participated. India of late is becoming strategically closer to USA, Japan and Australia.  Indian PM Narendra Modi’s recent visit to China was to allay fears and harness the great potential of the two markets. Indian media always looks at China with a narrow focus on border dispute. What really needs attention is the burgeoning Chinese defence production capability. Very significant leaps have been made in aviation, the medium of the future. The last major showcase of the China’s emerging aircraft industry was the Zhuhai air show in November 2014.

Aircraft Industry

China has come a long way since Communist colleague Soviet Union initially helped China set up its Aviation industry in the mid-1950s to support Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’. Reformist Deng Xiaoping opened the economy in early 1980s.As a part of the major reforms, China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) gradually became a consortium of many stand-alone aircraft manufacturers of communist era. The main factories now are at Chengdu, Guizhou, Shanghai, Shenyang and Xian. Thrust has been on
self-reliance and also to export arms for dominance. Exports would also amortize the costs. MiG-21 variants, J-7A, F-7IIA, F-7B, F-7M and F-7III were earlier developed and exported to over 10 countries. Make-in-China began about two decades earlier than India. Shanghai plant makes Y-10 airliner, parts and components, including the Boeing 737 tail assembly and Boeing 777 vertical stabilizers. It also handles repairs and overhaul. Guizhou factory makes trainers, turbojets, UAVs, missiles and launchers. Xi’an produces large and medium-sized transport airplanes that meet international airworthiness standards. MA600 turbo-prop airliner version of An-26 is produced here. Xian is also developing the 90-seat MA700 turbo-prop airliner with support of Ukraine. Xian earlier built the JH-7A Flying Leopard twin-engine fighter-bomber with fly-by-wire controls. Chengdu plant makes the most advanced J-10 light-weight multi-role fighter. It also makes the very light FC-1 Xialong (PAF designation JF-17 Thunder) jointly with Pakistan. Shenyang plant produces fighter aircraft. Initial years it produced Chinese variants of Russian MiG-21s; the J-8 indigenous 3rd generation fighter; and J-11, a variant of the Russian Su-27; and FC-31 fifth-generation fighter and Carrier-borne J-15. AVIC employs over 536,000 engineers and workers vis-à-vis India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd 32,100.

World Class Aircraft

In 1995 China began building Russian Sukhoi Su-27 SK air-superiority variant J-11 under a license production agreement for 200 aircraft from Russian-supplied kits. Chinese were reportedly caught by Russians reverse engineering the design. PLAAF later revealed an indigenous J-11B with upgraded airframe and Chinese radar, avionics and weapons. Carrier version of the same was also developed as J-15 which was a copy of the Russian Su-33 and similar to American Boeing F-18E A. J-16 was the Chinese version of Su-30MKK sold to them by Russia earlier. It had minor changes to the vertical stabilizer. J-20 first flew in January 2011. The J-20 presently is equipped with Russian-built AL-31F engines. China thus became the third nation in the world to develop and fly a full-size stealth combat aircraft, after the United States and Russia. J-31is a twin-engine, mid-size fighter with certain stealth features like forward swept intake cowls and first flew in October 2012. This aircraft featured a different radome, speculated to house AESA radar. Like the F-35, the J-31 has two internal weapon bays that can each carry two medium range missiles, plus there are three hard points on each wing. China also claims to have an engine, the Guizhou WS-31, similar to the Russian RD-93 currently installed on the JF-17. They are working on an improved variant named WS-13G with 100KN thrust for use on the J-31. Chinese are touting J-31 to be an equivalent of the Lockheed Martin F-35 and are offering to those who cannot get/afford the expensive F-35.

China’s indigenous Y-20 transport aircraft first flew at Xian in January 2013. The aircraft has some features of the US Boeing C-17 Globemaster and the Russian IL 76. Y-20 carries pay load of 66 tons vis-à-vis 50 tons for IL 76 and 78 tons for C-17. Aircraft is claimed to be using have supercritical aerofoils and composite materials. It can operate from underdeveloped airstrips. The Z-10 and the smaller Z-19 attack helicopters made their first public appearance in 2012. Both are tandem-seat attack helicopters with nose-mounted gyro-stabilized sensor/targeting “ball”-style turret, and stub-wings with weapons pylons. The Z-19 is an advanced version of the Z-9, which was a Chinese clone of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin. On the other hand Z-10 is a brand-new design. Chinese trainer aircraft include Intermediate Jet Trainer CJ-7 jointly developed with Yakovlev of Russia and an Advanced Jet Trainer L-15.ASN Technology Group is the biggest UAV producer in China. Over 40 different types of UAV have been manufactured and over 1,500 delivered by ASN. ‘Anjian’ (Dark Sword) is a Global Hawk class HALE UAV. WZ-2000 is a twin-jet powered delta winged high-altitude long-endurance UAV similar in size to the U.S. General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. China plans to out pace US spending on unmanned systems and plans 11 drone bases on the coastline for marine surveillance in disputed areas of the South China Sea by mid-2016.


PLAAF is the largest Air Force in Asia and third largest in the world and has 330,000 personnel and nearly 2,800 main stream aircraft (1,900 combat aircraft, 600 state-of-the-art).Having come of age, PLAAF now prefers to call itself China Air Force. In the last two decades it has made the great strides in developing air power capability,albeit, it remains work-still-in-progress. The introduction of fourth-generation fighters, bombers, unmanned aircraft and advanced cruise missiles has transformed it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia. PLAAF is formed of Divisions and Regiments spread over various military regions. Its current modern combat aircraft holdings include 73 Su-30 MKI, 75 Su-27, 24 J-16, 205 J-11, and 250 J-10 fighters. They operate 120 H-6 bombers, and 16 Ilyushin IL-76, 69 Shaanxi Y-8/Y-9 transport aircraft among others. When West denied the AWACS, China developed the KJ2000 radar system and avionics, and mounted on IL-76 aircraft. Meanwhile, Russia imposed a significant price hike on all future IL-76s delivered to China and India despite previous contracts. Due to unreliable external supplier sources, China developed a backup known as the KJ-200 by installing a simplified system on board the Shaanxi Y-8. Plans are to modify a Boeing 737-800 to host the radar. KJ-3000, a newer variant with next generation radar is already under development. In 2013, an exercise was conducted using three KJ-2000s to cover NW China, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea and covered entire new Air Defence Identification Zone.. On April 6, 2015, a new Chinese KJ-500 AEW&C based on Y-9 turboprop airframe (An-12 copy) entered service and will eventually replace the eleven KJ-200s in service. There are also four export models of the same (ZDK-03) in Pakistan. Shaanxi Y-9/Y-8 based 20 Electronic warfare aircraft and 4 Tupolev Tu-154 ELINT aircraft are for support roles. 10 Xian H-6 are the main aerial refuellers along with a few IL-78. PLAAF has nearly 150 helicopters include Z-9, Z-18, Mi-8/Mi-17, and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma. PLAAF purchased the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles (SA-10 and SA-20) and produced comparable indigenous the HQ-9. PLAAF has about 192 modern launchers along with 490 legacy launchers. China has upgraded its H-6 bombers, and acquired reasonable airborne early warning capability. Newer variant H-6Kcan carry six DH-10 cruise missiles or eight long-range air-to-air missiles to take on airborne early warning aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS. Currently China has up to 500 DH-10 missiles with a 1500 km range, and part of these is air launched. It has the R-27semi-active radar/infrared; the short-range infrared guided R-73; the active radar homing R-77 and the indigenous variant PL-12 air-to-air missiles. Many PLAAF fighters carry beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles and precision guided munitions. At least 600combat aircraft are close to par with modern Western fighters. Once inducted, Y-20 will be help strategic airlift rapidly to China’s far western territories and offshore locations such as the southern Hainan Island. The Y-20 would also be a key player in any Taiwan invasion. China is reportedly working on a stealth bomber designated H-18.China is all set to capitalize on geographic strengths and budgeted US$ 25 billion for defence research in 2014.

Sino-Pak Aviation Cooperation

China started supplying Pakistan F-6 aircraft (Air Defence version of MiG-19) in 1965. China helped establish Pakistan Aeronautical Complex at Kamra in 1973. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had received A-5Cs (Chinese MiG-19 ground attack variants) and F-7s (Chinese MiG-21). Kamra assembled Chinese F-6s. In 2007, as a part of a joint-venture project, China rolled-out a ‘designed for Pakistan’ Fighter JF-17 ‘Thunder’. Joint production and further development of the JF-17 multi-role fighter is still on. Orders have been placed for at least 36 Chengdu J-10 ‘Vigorous Dragon’ fighters. Aircraft are likely to enter service in 2016. This tail-less delta wing with canards is being compared by the Chinese with Dassault Rafale. Six ZDK-03 Chinese AWACS based on the Shaanxi Y-8F-600 cargo aircraft have been delivered to Pakistan. PAF’s old trainer aircraft are being replaced by Chinese designed K-8 Karakorum intermediate jet trainers. PAF has also received four CH-4 Recce-cum-strike drones which can carry up to 4 PGMs. Chinese SD-10 air-to-air missiles will arm the 250 aircraft JF-17 fleet. Hatf, Shaheen and Anza series of missiles have been built using Chinese assistance.

PLAAF Challenges and Strategy

For past 90 years, China mostly relied on ground forces to fight its wars against USA in Korea, India in 1962, and the Vietnam later. PLAAF was limited to support the PLA’s ground forces. It has since changed. Like other modern air forces, PLAAF’s core missions today are to defend China’s airspace, particularly Capital Beijing and other cities. Defence of its air bases is a close second priority. Chinese now believe that forward edge of the battle must be pushed toward the enemy, and intercepts must occur well beyond. Like the Indian Air Force (IAF), PLAAF has switched to net-centric offensive air defence and greater reliance on integrated attack and defence. PLAAF will coordinate and control joint air defence operations with Army and Navy, and the integrated air and space assets. It is conscious that whoever controls the aerospace controls the planet. China’s ambition is to build the air power like USA for an asymmetric advantage. PLAAF is China’s showcase of its emerging status as a world power and wants it capable of operations in electromagnetic environment. PLAAF is thus targeting to be one of the world’s foremost air forces by 2020, made up of at least 1,000 ‘modern’ combat aircraft. The Pentagon’s annual report on China says that the scale of the PLAAF’s modernization is “unprecedented in history.”

Geo-politically Japan and China have traditional rivalry and claim ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku islands which are currently administered by Japan. Australia, a key US military ally in the Asia Pacific pivot strategy has China as its largest trading partner and requires to calibrate its response. China’s biggest unfinished agenda is to reclaim Taiwan. PLAAF would play a major role to achieve that. China has home advantage of many coastal and inland launch bases for aircraft. USA and its allies would have to reach to project force, making them far more vulnerable. An assault on Taiwan would require air superiority over the island and strait to cover an amphibious landing force. The PLAAF might have to mount an airborne invasion into Taiwan. Unlike in India, Chinese paratroopers are part of the PLAAF, not the Army. PLAAF has been tasked to prepare to project power into the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. PLAAF has already flown several well publicised island patrols over the East China and South China Seas.J-10 with around 550 km combat range requires air refuelling to operate over the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea 1,000 km away. China’s only 8 IL-78 tankers and very few AEW&Cs would be a limitation.

Chinese technology is still 10-15 years behind USA. Lack of combat experience is a factor. Chinese pilots last flew combat in Vietnam. They exercise only with Turkey and Pakistan. China’s 2014 military budget with a 12.2% increase at US$ 131.57 billion is the second largest in the world behind the US, vis-a-vis India’s US$ 40 bn. At least a third goes to new acquisitions. China’s procurement of Su-35 aircraft from Russia, along with its advanced IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array radar system is likely to enter service by 2018, and will significantly enhance China’s ability. As PLAAF, closes the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft, command and control, jammers, electronic warfare, and data links. China has vigorously pursued independence in defence production. Breakthroughs in critical unproven areas, such as aero engines, electronics and avionics are still awaited. The world is watching with concern as the once sleeping Dragon begins to spit fire. India is the most affected regional player.

Implications for India

Synchronisation of equipment and strategy between PLAAF and PAF would force IAF to cater for a two front war and to acquire advanced fighters, sophisticated support platforms and smart long-range weapons. There would be need to eventually increase combat squadrons from hitherto targeted 42, to between 50-55 squadrons. It faces seven Chinese airbases (Kashgar, Hotan, Gongar, Pangta, Linchi, Hoping, and Gar Gunsa) in the TAR region and many more in Chengdu Military region east of Myanmar. Adding 450 aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and the soon to be inducted state-of-the art aircraft carriers, makes a great Air Power for IAF to contend with. India needs to succeed in ‘Make in India’ in defence. IAF has miles to catch up. Time to act is now.