Large numbers of personnel and aircraft are no compensation for the Chinese air force's lack of modern technology.

Paul Lewis/BEIJING

THE PEOPLE'S LIBERATION Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China has attracted considerable international attention in recent years. Reports of large-scale purchases of Russian arms, underwritten by double-digit defence budget hikes and spurred on by heightened tension in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Straits, have all served to cast the world's third-largest air force in a rather sinister light.

More detailed examinations of its organisation and capabilities, however, paint a rather more benign picture. A large fleet of increasingly obsolete fighters and bombers, a bloated force-structure and outdated operational doctrines, have given China's air force more than its fair share of post-Cold War headaches.

The devastating use of modern air power in the 1991 Gulf War and, more recently, the Bosnian conflict has served to highlight the PLAAF's relative backwardness. The PLAAF, having recognised this, faces an expensive and drawn-out game of playing catch-up with its Western counterparts.

The Chinese air force boasts a fleet of 4,500 combat aircraft distributed between 45 air divisions, with a further 700-plus fighters and strike aircraft operated by the PLA navy (PLAN). More than half this force is accounted for, by the rapidly aging, Shenyang J-6 fighter the origins of which, can be traced to the early 1950s and the Mikoyan MiG-19.

The bulk of the PLAAF's remaining 800-strong fighter fleet is made up of slightly more- recent-vintage Chengdu J-7s (MiG-21s) and smaller numbers of Shenyang J-8 Finbacks. The air force's strike element consists of 120 Xian H-6 bombers (Tupolev Tu-16 Badger copies) and 400 Nanchang Q-5 Fantan attack aircraft, developed from the J-6.


A rand study of the plaaf notes: "the net result of more than four decades of external assistance, political upheaval and reverse engineering, is that China has an air force consisting of old aircraft of limited combat utility and very limited quantity of modern aircraft and weapons."

With virtually all of its hardware based on 1950s and 1960s technology, the PLAAF has striven to upgrade its aircraft. The J-7 has evolved into the J-7 II and -III versions, respectively fitted with uprated WP7 and WP13 turbojets. After a stalled start, J-8 series production is now focused on the much redesigned, Finback-B-II.

Protracted development schedules, however, have resulted in aircraft reaching obsolescence before they enter service. Western avionics-upgrade programmes, such as those on the F-7M Airguard and A-5M, have proved more successful, but are primarily intended for export. The more ambitious Peace Pearl Super-7 and J-8 II upgrades, have fallen victim to the USA's post Tianamen Square arms-embargo against China.

It is clearly apparent that further enhancements of what are basic MiG-19 and -21 designs will not bridge the widening technological gap between China and the USA, Europe and Russia. "They need to make a decision to whether to keep pouring money into a black hole, or try to make the leap to modern fourth-generation fighter," says a Western defence source.

China's aircraft industry has struggled to produce a modern replacement fighter for the J-6 and J-7, but with little success. A succession of delta-wing, swing-wing and canard-equipped designs, variously designated F-9, F-11 and F-12, have all failed either to get off the drawing board, or to progress beyond the prototype stage.

More recent efforts by Xian Aircraft to develop a new tandem-seat strike-fighter, the JH-7, appear to going in the same dead-end direction. The aircraft was unveiled to the West in 1988, and was expected to enter service with PLAN by 1992/3. Since then, little has been heard about the programme, and it is understood to have been crippled by lack of a modern power plant (Flight International, 24-30 May, P27).

The PLAAF is now pursuing a twin-track solution to equipment needs - purchasing limited numbers of modern Russian aircraft off the shelf and enlisting foreign assistance to design and produce a new indigenous lightweight fighter.

China's 1991 order for 26 Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers re-established Russia as supplier of arms to the PLAAF, after a break of 30 years. Conflicting and exaggerated reports have since suggested that China will follow up this with additional purchases of Su-27s, Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums, MiG-31 Foxhound fighters and Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bombers.

Aside from a probable second-batch purchase of 24 Su-27s, there is little or no evidence to date to substantiate these reports. According to informed defence sources, the only Russian combat aircraft known to have been delivered to China to date, are the initial batch of Su-27s now in service at Wuhu, in Anhui Provence.

China will certainly require more than 26 aircraft if the type is to play an effective role in the PLAAF. The air force has traditionally shied away from long-term dependence on overseas suppliers, preferring instead to purchase only small amounts of foreign equipment before manufacturing it locally.

Russia is reportedly not opposed to Chinese licence production of the Su-27, but only after supplying additional aircraft directly from its Komsomolsk plant. Russia is also insisting on less barter and a much high percentage of hard currency than the 35% cash agreed for the first deal (Flight International, 22-28 March, P13).

Around the same time, China was concluding its deal for Su-27s, it was also embarking on a collaborative project with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) to develop a single-engine multi-role fighter. Tentatively designated the J-10, the aircraft will incorporate a radar and avionics suite originally developed for the now defunct IAI Lavi fighter (Flight International, 9-15 November 1994, P16).


Estimations, of when the J-10 would enter service, vary from 2000 to 2005. Industry observers suggest that, at least five years of flight-testing will be needed, to fully test and integrate new avionics and digital flight-control systems, before the first aircraft enters operational service.

Production of such an aircraft would present a formidable challenge for China's military aircraft industry. Western inspections of the J-8 II airframe have revealed basic manufacturing flaws, including a high degree of structural non-conformity. Chinese industry access to Western carbonfibre-composite technology has also been restricted in the past.

If successfully developed, the J-10 could be employed by the PLAAF in a low-high mix with the heavier Su-27. Opinion appears divided, however, as to whether China has the intention and financial resources to pursue the J-10 and licence production of the Su-27. Some have suggested that the Russian fighter is only intended as stopgap and perhaps a fallback should the J-10 falter.

China National Import Aero-Industry Import and Export (CATIC) and Chengdu Aircraft in the meantime have teamed with Mikoyan MAPO to develop the FC-1 successor to the cancelled Super-7. The fighter will be powered by a single licence-built Klimov RD-93 turbofan and equipped with Western-source avionics (Flight International, 21-27 June, P13).

The Lockheed Martin F-16-type lightweight fighter is targeted primarily at the Pakistan air force. CATIC also is pushing for state-support from AVIC, with the aim of fitting the FC-1 with local avionics for service with the PLAAF, says CATIC senior engineer director Guo Jingzhou. Air force attention, however, would appear to be more focused on the J-10.

Given the large number of elderly J-6s in service and the relatively low rate of production of replacement J-7 and J-8s, most analysts expect the PLAAF to undergo a drastic downsizing in the years ahead. Rand's recent PLAAF study projects a 45% drop in the size of its fighter fleet by 2005.

The introduction of a new multi-role fighter will help offset this reduction in aircraft numbers. There will also be a much stronger need for China to develop and deploy effective force multipliers, such as air-to-air refuelling tankers and airborne-early-warning (AEW) aircraft.

While there is ample evidence to suggest that China has already acquired a Western-designed probe-and-drogue in-flight refueling system, there is little to suggest that the capability is being widely employed or practised. The Q-5 has nonetheless been fitted with a probe and there is no shortage of suitable tanker platforms available for conversion, either in the form of H-6 bombers or Shaanxi Y-8 transports (locally built Antonov An-12 Cubs).

A major weakness for today's PLAAF is its lack of AEW capability. The country instead relies on a network of ground-based radar to detect and track hostile aircraft. Its Soviet-style system of ground-controlled interception does not allow for pilot initiative and flexibility to respond and adapt to rapidly changing threats.

The PLAAF is pursuing several different solutions to its AEW requirement. China is understood to be conducting trials with a GEC Argus bi-polar radar and processing system, originally developed for the Royal Air Force's now-cancelled Nimrod AEW programme (Flight International, 7-13 December, 1994, P5).

Russia is proposing an alternative system in the form of the Ilyushin A-50 Mainstay, using an Ilyushin Il-76 transport to mount a conventional rotodome. In the light of the Lavi revelations, Western defence sources also strongly suspect Israel of offering China its electronically scanned phased array Phalcon AEW system.

The PLAAF's structure and operational doctrines are largely based on those handed down by the former Soviet Union and, as such, are as outdated as most of its aircraft. Analysts argue that fundamental reform of the military's centrally controlled and inflexible system is vital, if its material modernisation is to prove effective.


Command of the PLAAF rests with the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and it is this, which has largely shaped thinking within the air force. The PLAAF has failed to develop either a fully integrated air-defence system, or to perfect the art of close-air support. The PLAAF represents little more than "extended artillery", for the PLA, suggests one Western military observer.

Many of these shortcomings can be partially attributed to the PLAAF's lack of suitable modern equipment, such as AEW aircraft, laser designators and smart munitions. Criticism, however, can be made of China's cumbersome armed forces' organisation and overlapping functions, which do not encourage good inter-service co-operation and co-ordination.

There is evidence that China's military is now trying to address some of those problems. The PLA's Liberation Army Daily reported in April the completion of the first "air force combined-arms tactical training base" by the Nanjing Military Region, providing "...a realistic battlefield environment for various branches of arms to hold opposing forces training".

The reduction in force size and introduction of fourth-generation fighters will require major changes in PLAAF pilot and technical training. The planned introduction of the Nanchang K-8 jet trainer and the development by Beijing Aviation Simulator of new sophisticated flight simulators, including a Su-27 system, will go part way towards solving this.

New sophisticated aircraft will demand a much higher level of pilot proficiency than can be allowed by the average 100h annual flying time now clocked up by PLAAF crews. The Su-27's operational work up is understood to have been, hampered by a shortage of qualified pilots and inadequate training. "It's a long way from fuse boxes to a 1553 databus," notes one Western defence official.

Source: Flight International