07 November, 2011

The New PLAAF: poser or a real danger?

by Uddipan Mukherjee

The following piece was published in Strategic Affairs in March-April 2011

Whether it was ‘massed manpower’ as the hallmark of Napoleonic Wars or ‘Blitzkrieg’ maneuverability of the Nazi Army in the Second World War, technicalities have manifestly evolved in modern day warfare. Though on the one hand, military theorists postulate a Fourth Generation War (4GW) and the neologism has incidentally nestled itself in strategic jargon because of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the world, on the other hand, is yet not completely bereft of the inherent possibilities of a conventional war. 

Post decolonization, the territorial rearrangement of nation-states has given rise to situations wherein one party or the other has faced arraignment in front of arbitration tribunals. In South AsiaIndia and Pakistan had to digest the dictates and remonstrations of the United Nations on more than one occasion; be it the Kashmir issue or the Nuclear Tests. Since the Cold War did incalculable harm to the concept of ‘comity of nations’, it should have been a natural intellectual derivation to presume an extremely low probabilistic penchant for ‘wars’: either hot or cold, at least among the Third World nation-states after 1991.

However, at present the economic aggrandizement and the concomitant military wherewithal of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) do seem to threaten the geopolitical climate of South and East AsiaChina has miles to tread before it can claim a hegemonic status for itself in Asia and as long as the American ‘hyperpower’ exists, the prospects are unlikely to be bright for it. Nevertheless, the displacement of Japan by the PRC as the second largest economy in the globe (at least for one quarter) along with an imposing People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ready for combat role makes China a formidable state-actor in the world and Asia in particular.

The aura of J-20

The US Air Force’s recently retired intelligence chief warned his fellow countrymen regarding the Chinese stealth fighter that had its first test flight on 11 January this year. Lt. Gen David Deptula said the fifth-generation fighter J-20 “may turn out to be a very, very formidable aircraft.”

According to him, the J-20, like the American F-22, would be able to cruise at supersonic speeds at very high altitudes. And in addition, it also possessed the capability to carry more weapons, including types now under development. One was the air-to-air missile with longer ranges than their U.S. counterparts; whereas the other two were the anti-ship and anti-surface weapons.

He also said that such a plane might be used against US sensor aircrafts such as the E-3 Sentry and E-8 JSTARS. Deptula expressed concern that the emergence of both the J-20 and the Russian fifth-generation fighter PAK-FA indicated that the Americans were losing advantage in the fifth generation domain, which they specifically enjoyed for the last 25 years.

Thus the continued air and naval dominance of the US in the Pacific region may be in jeopardy, at least in the foreseeable future. In fact, Deptula’s observations may not be totally unfounded. Moreover, he is not alone to have cast doubts on the ability of the American air and naval forces vis-à-vis the rising Chinese tempo.

In a RAND Corporation presentation released in August 2008, John Stillion and Scott Perdue predicted an ominous future for the US Air Force (USAF) in an eventuality over Taiwan.

According to that study, Chinese anti-access efforts seek to deny U.S. the ability to operate efficiently over Taiwanfrom nearby bases or seas. Large, sophisticated Chinese air, naval and missile forces can mass against small number ofU.S. carriers and air bases in Asia-Pacific.

Many bases of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) are significantly harder than the US Air base at Kadena inJapan. And some PLAAF bases have super-hard underground hangers. Moreover, Kadena is the only USAF base which is within 500 nautical miles (nm) of the Taiwan strait (460 nm). On the other hand, PLAAF has 27 such bases.

Interestingly, USAF fighter operations are most efficient within 500 nm. Hence, this lack of favourable bases for the USAF may turn out to be a stumbling block. Furthermore, USAF makes about 138 sorties over Taiwan Strait per day compared to 1300 per day by the PLAAF. This is due to the help the PLAAF enjoys because of its geographical proximity to the probable war zone and consequently more number of bases at their disposal.

The best case scenario for the US as predicted by Stillion and Perdue is: the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Missiles and the Stealth Fighters of America work fine whereas that of the Chinese fail. Then only in a likely Taiwan-scenario, a ‘quality’ USAF may defeat a more numerous PLAAF. In addition to that, USAF will very much require secure, close bases. The researchers believe that counter-stealth and counter-BVR technologies are proliferating in a globalized world and thus the classic ‘air superiority’ of the USAF is constantly under threat.

But at present, such a presumption of Stillion and Perdue would hardly hold ground as the Chinese have already flown their first stealth fighter and plan to deploy the first operational J-20 around 2017-19.


To substantiate these arguments, it is worthwhile to mention that the PLAAF has improved considerably in the last decade. In 2000, of the estimated 3,200 fighter aircrafts operated by the PLAAF and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), almost all the “fourth-generation” Su-27s (“Flankers”) were imported from Russia. Barely 20 were domestically designed, but were based on the 1950s-era second-generation MiG-19 and MiG-21.

Further, they were dependent on ground-based radar or their largely outdated onboard sensors to locate and identify enemy aircraft, as China had only one operational Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft. In addition, except for the Flankers, they were limited to within-visual-range engagements, as China’s domestically-produced aircraft were not equipped with BVR missiles. China’s electronic warfare capabilities were minimal as well.

However, 10 years down the lane, the picture seems to be quite different. The PLAAF has lost ‘mass’ to stress on efficiency. In fact, it has cut down approximately 100,000 personnel – roughly a quarter of the force – and has halved the size of its fighter force. A top-heavy organizational structure has also been streamlined, with the PLAAF eliminating one entire organizational level – the corps-level.

The number of second-generation fighters in China’s arsenal has been reduced by two-thirds whereas the number of fourth-generation fighters has more than quadrupled.

There have been improvements in other dimensions as well. Many of China’s fighters are now capable of carrying BVR missiles. Also, many Chinese fighter pilots are now believed to receive roughly the same number of training hours as theirU.S. counterparts. Grossly half of all new officers in China’s air forces are now graduates of China’s rigorous civilian universities.

In 2004, China’s National Defense White paper stated that “the Air Force has gradually shifted from one of territorial air defense to one of both offensive and defensive operations.” This programme got a further fillip in 2007 when the Xinhua News Agency announced that an “air intelligence radar network” covering the entire country had been completed.

There is another aspect of PLAAF’s modernization that is noteworthy. During the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, most of the PLAAF’s hardware were imported, largely from Russia, with some technologies and equipment acquired fromIsrael and other countries. In recent years, however, this equipment has increasingly been domestically produced. In the area of fighter aircraft, for example, China now produces a single-engine fighter, the J-10 that is comparable in performance to the U.S. F-16. The J-11B (a heavy fighter) is an improved version of the Russian Su-27. China also produces early warning aircrafts comparable to the U.S. E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 AWACS.

Along with these, China is developing long-endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) that are comparable in range and endurance to the U.S. Predator and Global Hawk. In the area of munitions, China now produces a BVR active radar-guided air-to-air missile, the PL-12 which is comparable to the U.S. AMRAAM or Russian R-77 (AA-12).

The upshot is that the new PLAAF no longer belongs to that of the third-world. Improvements in China’s air force capabilities, coupled with improvements in the conventional missile capabilities, mean that an air war with China will be increasingly challenging, even for the Americans.

Further, the Chinese missile threat to the USAF base at Kadena and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) base at Iwakuni inOkinawa are similar to that faced by Taiwan’s air bases. Combined with the lack of good bases for land-based fighters in the area around Taiwan, the United States is unlikely to be able to counter the Chinese threat in the Taiwan Strait. And this is basically what the RAND study opines. Interestingly, nearly a decade ago, this same institution had predicted an easy victory for the US over China in a war over Taiwan.

Well, the PLAAF has really progressed.

Now, a PLAAF bubbling with a newly acquired arsenal, including Su-27 and J-10 fighters, AA-12 and PL-12 missiles, and short-range ballistic missiles is assumed to defeat the Americans. Actually, the RAND's analysis "suggests that a credible case can be made that the air war for Taiwan could essentially be over before much of the Blue air force has even fired a shot. Threats to Blue air bases paint a very troubling picture."

Lack of Clarity

However, there are problems for China too. In a possible war over TaiwanChina will have to think twice before striking sovereign Japanese territory in Okinawa, or sovereign US territory in Guam. Nevertheless, the major bottleneck in positing any definite outcome in a Taiwan-like eventuality is the lack of transparency exhibited by the Chinese in their defence preparedness.  

Though China’s white paper provides a reasonably good discussion of military doctrine and the generic types of capabilities needed to execute doctrinal requirements, it however, falls short compared to some other white papers of Asia-Pacific countries. The PRC’s White Paper hardly discusses how current and projected military capabilities will helpChina attain its national security objectives. In fact, this raises doubts about whether China’s stated objectives are congruent with increasing defense spending.

Such a lack of clarity by the Chinese and their concomitant rise in defence capabilities does not portray an amiable nation-state; neither for the Americans nor for any other Asian power, including India. Naturally, PRC’s proclaimed concept of ‘peaceful rise’ turns out to be more of rhetoric than reality.

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