A 2016 Assessment of the Growth in PLAAF Capabilities

A 2016 Assessment of the Growth in PLAAF Capabilities

Daniel Urchick


The People’s Liberation Army Airforce (PLAAF) has been the subject of intense modernization efforts since the first Gulf War. After the United States’ military unveiled its paradigm shifting informationalized and deep-strike style of warfare against Saddam Hussein’s similarly equipped forces; the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) became acutely aware of just how wide the capability gap had grown. The overwhelming use of air power in the conflict signaled a dramatic step change in capabilities for the PLAAF due to its critical role in any Taiwan based conflict. The Taiwan Straits crisis in 1996 reinforced the PLAAF’s capability concerns even further. While Taiwan remains the primary mission focus of every branch of the PLA, the rise of China as a modern world power has given the military a plethora of new missions to carry out and capabilities to achieve by 2030. Looking at these capabilities through a mission analysis of a Taiwan invasion, the list includes: an effective air superiority capability (tactical or operational, if not long term strategic), the ability to suppress modern air defenses, modern integrated air defenses themselves, long-range strike capabilities, efficient large-scale medium and heavy airlift capability, and C4ISR through AWEC/AWAC assets, and air tanker capabilities. The deficiencies the PLAAF faces in these categories can be material-based, training-based, or even a mixture of both. It is important to assess the progress of the PLAAF’s degree of progress thus far toward achieving the capabilities it requires by the early 2030s and this paper intends to do so.

PLAAF Missions

The missions of the PLA are definitively laid out in its Military Strategic Guidelines (MSGs), the “core and collected embodiment of military strategy”.[i] These missions serve as important indicators due to the military capabilities necessary for their successful completion. In particular, the PLA’s MSGs contain the program and principles for planning and guiding the overall situation of war in any given military modernization period. The scope of these guidelines includes both general principles about the whole process of military operations, and specific principles for certain types of operations.[ii] The May 2015 Chinese national security strategy white paper further explains what is expected of the PLA in the coming future. The mission list comprises of many traditional, as well as “new historic”, missions which the China’s political leadership, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),expects the PLA forces to be able to carry out efficiently in the coming 15 to 20 years:

1) To resolutely safeguard the unification of the motherland

2) To safeguard China's security and interests in new domains

3) To safeguard the security of China's overseas interests

4) To maintain strategic deterrence and carry out nuclear counterattack

5) To participate in regional and international security cooperation and maintain regional and     world peace

6) To strengthen efforts in operations against infiltration, separatism and terrorism so as to maintain China's    political security and social stability

7) To perform such tasks as emergency rescue and disaster relief, rights and interests protection, guard duties, and support for national economic and social development

The above mission set is broad and intentionally vague in many aspects in order to leave room for future refinement and redirection if needed. However, the missions clearly reflect the diversified and global range of interests of a China as a “rising power” rather than one content with the status quo. While not explicitly mentioned, the primary strategic direction for all PLA force development and mission remains Taiwan (unification of the motherland). The Indian border, South China Sea, and East China Sea are secondary strategic combat directions that must be prepared for. With the introduction of “new historic missions” by Hu Jintao in 2004, the PLAAF found many of its improvements rendered nearly void once again, as it had to account for a brand new set of capabilities not traditionally associated with the military.


Air Superiority:  The PLAAF has made real progress in closing its fighter capability gap with the United States, giving itself an offensive air superiority capability.[iii] The PLAAF considers long term strategic superiority difficult to achieve; instead focusing on being able to achieve tactical or operational superiority capabilities that would be concurrent with larger offensive operations aimed at Taiwan instead. Recent force assessments of the PLAAF have noted the continuous induction of more modern air frames while shedding second and third generation frames from its fleet.[iv] By 2010, modern fourth-generation variants accounted for almost 30 percent of the force.[v] By 2015, the figure was 51 percent, and by 2017 RAND estimates it will reach roughly 62 percent.[vi] Between 2010 and 2015, China’s inventory of fourth-generation fighters increased from 383 to 736, yielding an impressive average of 70 modern fighters added per year.[vii] The J-11 fighter is an example of a strong 4th generation platform brought into service and it is able to effectively contest airspace against U.S. F-15s or F/A-18s. Third generation air frames like the J-7 (MiG-21 variant) still persist throughout the PLAAF and are of limited effectiveness against modern air forces like the United States, Taiwan, and Japan. Almost all Chinese aircraft lack quality engines capable of operating for longer than a few hundred hours. The maintenance requirements for these systems could potentially sideline large numbers of systems at a time in the event of long term operations. Thus the PLAAF’s capability to maintain strategic long term superiority remains diminished moving into the next 15 to 20 years and highlights the focus on short term campaigns.

China is also the only country outside of the United States to have two ongoing stealth fighter programs. The J-20’s frame suggests a stealth interceptor designed around countering an AWAC using air force like the United States. The J-31’s frame suggests a modern air-to-air fighter that may be combat ready in the next 15 years. The true capabilities of the J-20 and the J-31 have yet to be seen but they represent the PLAAFs progression towards a fully modern air force capable of delivering offensive deep strike missions against similar modern air defenses.[viii] The construction of stealth capable airframes means little without the proper doctrine and training to carry out such operations. The PLAAF continues to shy away from conducting sustained (week or longer), large number (in the high hundreds to thousands) air exercises that simulate a conflict over Taiwan.[ix] This continued aversion to realistic training will reduce the effects of any technological modernization efforts and reduce the PLAAF’s capabilities. China is working to close the training gap and as the PLAAF culture evolves training appears likely to become more and more realistic.[x]

Air Lift: The Chinese military’s lack of meaningful air transport capability was apparent in the non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) in Libya and the PLAAF has worked to correct the glaring deficiency since with some progress. The Chinese military is estimated to need at least 100 heavy lift aircraft like the Il-76 and Y-20 but only 20 Il-76s (42 ton capacity) are in service.[xi] Reports have indicated that the PLA’s strategic lift requirement could be as high as 1000 aircraft.[xii] The indigenous development of the Y-20 (60 ton capacity) heavy transport has been China’s long term response to this perceived short fall and it may enter service in late 2016, providing a timely enhancement to the capability moving forward.[xiii] The introduction of the Y-9 (22 ton capacity) and a small (44 unit) Y-8 medium transport fleet signal a strong commitment to fulfilling the much in-demand C-130 class medium-lift capability.[xiv],[xv] Like all Chinese indigenous aircraft, the Y-20 suffers from engine quality control issues that make sustained use of the upcoming fleet difficult in the long term. The training regimen required to effectively carry out large scale air lift operations with extreme ranges and rapid deployment of assets has yet to be fully realized. Training for most capabilities in the PLA is lacking compared to Western standards and air lift is no exception. The glaring training deficiency will remain a weight on the potential of the PLAAF’s airlift capability in high pressure situations thus the potential of the capability may be higher than the real capability.

Mid-air Refueling: Mid-air refueling is another modern air force logistical hallmark the PLAAF has been enhancing steadily. The PLAAF has been capable of preforming mid-air refueling for some time; however, it is not a skill they have mastered. The PLAAF’s mid-air refueling capability is restrained by a lack of aerial tankers. Compounding the numbers issue is a lack of refueling commonality between the two PLAAF tanker types in regards to domestic versus imported planes. This division likely means that the Y-20 transport will only be developed into a tanker type for domestic planes and the hard to maintain, let alone acquire, IL-78 Russian tanker will remain the tanker for imported planes.[xvi] Russian Su-27s Su-30s, and soon Su-35s, form the bulk of the PLAAF’s high end superiority fighter and strike fighter capability. A small number of tankers available for them will remain a large hindrance to improving long range superiority capabilities in areas like the edge of the South China Sea.

Modern Air Defense: Chinese air defenses have improved considerably in the last 20 years and all signs point to the capability continuing to improve even further. The PLAAF has moved from static and short range surface to air missile (SAM) systems of the Cold War to mobile systems with a substantial enough range to cover most of Taiwan when deployed to the Fujian Coast. Since the 1990’s China has relied upon a mix of Russian imported systems like the S-300PMU family series and the indigenous HQ-9. The HQ-9, with a 200km range, represents China’s strongest attempt yet to create a modern indigenous air defense component. Supplementing this is the long stalled acquisition of Russia’s S-400 SAM system, the most modern non-western system in the world with even longer ranges and enhanced tracking capabilities. PLAAF’s SAM systems and their degree of integration with defensive interceptor aircraft are also not fully known at this time. Without constant training, Chinese interceptors and missile will not be able to operate in the same environment without severe risk of friendly fire, giving a sense of mixed progress.

Long Range Strike: The PLAAF’s long range strike capability has lagged behind many of its other capability enhancement initiatives. The PLAAF relies upon the 140 unit strong H-6 family of strategic bombers derived from the Soviet Tu-16 (badger) bomber. The design is over 50 years old and has undergone numerous modernization packages that keeps it a viable, but not truly impressive, standoff strike platform. The H-6K is the most recent iteration and despite modernization it still lacks the range and payload of the U.S. B-52 strategic bomber. Despite its drawbacks, the H-6 is capable of reaching far enough out into the Pacific Ocean to launch standoff cruise missiles on Guam in the case of a large conflict. Recent PLAAF literature has emphasized the need for “super bombers” able to carry out larger volume strike missions with increased survivability and a more global spanning range.[xvii] The literature reflects a requirement in the PLAAF that remains unfulfilled and is unlikely to be fulfilled in the next 15 to 20 years, reducing China’s long range strike capability for decades to come.


The PLAAF has made meaningful progress towards achieving the capabilities needed for its foreseen mission set in the next 15 to 20 years; largely in form of better technologies and systems. From fighters to tankers to SAM systems, China has closed the technology gap. Conflict score cards have noted that the PLAAF has consistently moved from failure assessments to reaching parity levels with the United States in a conflict over Taiwan.[xviii] Doctrine and training issues remain the largest weight on the PLAAF’s capability building initiatives across multiple arenas. The culture of the PLAAF and the PLA at large towards failure has slowed and may continue to slow the PLAAF’s efforts. While recent efforts have been made to rectify this, changing cultures take time and until then, the PLAAF’s capabilities will fail to reach the levels they truly need. There is no substitute for experience.

End Notes

[i] Taylor Fravel, “China’s New Military Strategy: Winning Informationized Local Wars,” Jamestown Foundation, China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 13, June 23, 2015.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Roger Cliff, John Fei, Jeff Hagen, Elizabeth Hague, Eric Heginbotham, John Stillion, “Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century,” RAND Corporation, 2011.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Eric Heginbotham Michael Nixon, Forrest E. Morgan, Jacob L. Heim, Jeff Hagen, Sheng Li, Jeffrey Engstrom, Martin C. Libicki, Paul DeLuca, David A. Shlapak, David R. Frelinger, Burgess Laird, Kyle Brady, Lyle J. Morris, “The U.S. –China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017,” RAND Corporation, 2015. Page 75.

[vi] Ibid. Page 75.

[vii] Ibid. Page 75.

[viii] Roger Cliff, et al., “Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century,” RAND Corporation, 2011.

[ix] Eric Heginbotham, et al., “The U.S. –China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017,” RAND Corporation, 2015. Page 72, 105.

[x] Ibid. Page 80.

[xi] Lonnie Henley, “Lesson 8: Air Warfare,” GWU Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington D.C. March 28, 2016.  

[xii] Richard D Fisher Jr, “China needs 'more than 1,000' Xian Y-20 transport aircraft,” HIS Janes 360, June 07, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/61026/china-needs-more-than-1-000-xian-y-20...

[xiii] Richard Fisher, China's Y-20 transport aircraft may enter service in 2016,” IHS Janes 360, February 29, 2016. “http://www.janes.com/article/58397/china-s-y-20-transport-aircraft-may-enter-service-in-2016

[xiv]  Michael S. Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen A. Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska, Samuel K. Berkowitz, “ China’s Incomplete Military Transition,” RAND Corporation, 2015. Page 105.

[xv] Lonnie Henley, “Lesson 8: Air Warfare,” GWU Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington D.C. March 28, 2016. 

[xvi] Lonnie Henley, “Lesson 8: Air Warfare,” GWU Elliott School of International Affairs, Washington D.C. March 28, 2016. 

[xvii] Roger Cliff, et al., “Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century,” RAND Corporation, 2011.

[xviii] Eric Heginbotham, et al., “The U.S. –China Military Scorecard: Forces, Geography, and the Evolving Balance of Power 1996-2017,” RAND Corporation, 2015.


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