Analysis: China's air force sees shift in strategic mission
China’s shifting focus from traditional security concerns to a global power competition has brought along changes in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) strategic mission.
The PLA as a whole is undergoing a process of transformation to move it away from a quantity-and-scale model to one focused on more quality and technology. In July 2019, China’s government published its Defence White Paper entitled ‘China’s National Defense in the New Era’, which provided an update on Beijing’s military goals.
For the PLAAF this means a move from a focus on territorial air defence to integrated air and space operations with both offensive and defensive missions, enabled by improvements to professionalism through structural changes to smaller, more flexible and more capable deployable units. In 2017 the PLA was reorganised into five theatre commands, in part to aid this process.
China’s modernisation goals are supported by substantial levels of military spending. China’s officially declared defence budget was around 1.3% of GDP in 2018, approximately $170 billion.
This level of spending is enabling the PLAAF to invest in new, advanced capabilities. Aiming to become a ‘world-class strategic air force’, PLAAF is looking to expand its far-reaching operational capabilities with programmes to develop AEW, bomber and fighter aircraft.
Also of ongoing concern to the Communist Party of China is Taiwan, whose previous quality advantage over China was steadily eroded by advances in China’s indigenously manufactured equipment, particularly in aircraft, UAVs and missiles. The US DoD report ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’ notes that China has a large number of aircraft facing the island, which offer ‘significant capability to conduct air superiority and ground attack operations’, without the need for refuelling.
The strategic imperatives of the Taiwan mission will continue to be a factor in China’s aircraft procurements. Taipei is actively seeking to upgrade its air defence capability in the face of growing Chinese power. While the US is reluctant to offer advanced 4th- or 5th-generation capabilities, fearing China’s reaction, China will continue to invest in capabilities to allow it to conduct operations against the island if needed.
China is estimated to have over 1,100 modern fighter aircraft. The J-7, J-10 and J-11 form the backbone of its fighter fleet, which will be supplemented in the future by new J-16 and J-20 platforms.
The PLAAF is thought to operate around 380 J-7, 235 J-10 and 400 J-11 fighters. There are a further 70 JH-7 fighter-bombers.
The J-20 has passed operational evaluation and is being rolled out more widely. As of August 2019, the PLAAF J-20 fleet was estimated to be one squadron comprising around 12 aircraft assigned to the 9th Air Brigade located at Wuhu Air Base.
The high cost of the J-20, estimated to be in the region of $110 million, suggests it is not likely to be procured in high quantities and will instead be complemented by upgraded J-11D air superiority fighters.
China’s J-16, an upgraded variant of the J-11B (itself based on the Su-30MK2) was demonstrated in public for the first time in 2017. However, it is not known how many have been produced so far.
AVIC continues to work on the FC-31 fighter, which was first demonstrated in 2014 but has yet to enter production.
China also has two squadrons of Su-35 fighters acquired from Russia in a 2015 deal.
The PLAAF has eight regiments in the bomber role, and they operate an estimated 160 H-6 variants (including the nuclear-capable H-6K) that have been service since the 1970s. The H-6 is the licenced production of the Tu-16 Russian bomber jet.
These airpower projection efforts will be supported by H-20 long-range strategic bombers that are being developed and which is expected to be in service beginning in around 2025. This is in part a result of a long-term investment by Beijing in its aerospace industry, which can now produce advanced 4th- and 5th-generation fighters, unmanned systems, ISR and transport aircraft. China has long struggled to produce reliable turbofan engines, and addressing this gap was one of the technology focus areas of its 13th Five-Year Plan (which runs from 2016 to 2020).
China's AEW fleet is estimated at 43 aircraft. This includes 13 KJ-500s developed by Shaanxi Aircraft Cooperation, four KJ-2000s derived from the Russian Ilyushin II-76, 15 KJ-200s based on the Y-8 - both types have been in service since 2000 - 9 Ka-31 and one Z-18 helicopters and one A-50I.
As the backbone of AEW operations, the KJ-500’s advanced maritime target detection capability goes along with the KJ-2000’s and KJ-200’s air target detection priority over land.
Two KJ-500s in PLAAF service are routinely deployed at Tibet's Lhasa-Gonggar Airport to support operations near the disputed border with India, and eight more KJ-500 aircraft are going through test processes before delivery to PLAAF and PLA Navy aviation units.
Increased participation of the PLA AEW fleet in diversified training also indicates that Beijing is trying to close operator knowledge gap between their Western counterparts.
Numerous Y-20 strategic transport aircraft are expected to be produced for the PLAAF. The first five entered service in the Western Theatre Command in 2018. Built by the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation, the Y-20 performed its maiden flight in January 2013 and the first aircraft were handed over to the PLAAF in June 2016.
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