The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the air branch of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PLAAF is the largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world, with a total strength of 398,000 men (as of 2014) and 2,800 aircraft, including 2,100 combat aircraft. The PLAAF operate not only fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and UAVs, its combat forces also include airborne troops, long-range surface-to-air missiles, and ground-based radar systems.
The primary missions of the PLAAF are: Conducting homeland air defence to protect territorial air spaces, and providing air security for key facilities; Conducting independent air offensive operations; Independently or jointly with the Army, the Navy or the Rocket Force, engaging in joint operations against enemy invasion from the air, or conducting air strikes against the enemy.
The PLAAF has long been considered a primarily defensive force tasked with defending China mainland and supporting the ground forces. It has struggled to emerge from the shadow of the greater People’s Liberation Army to develop its own service-specific strategy. In 2004, the PLAAF announced its strategy being “integrated air and space operations, capable of both offensive and defensive operations”. The force’s primary tasks include the transformation from a territorial air defence force to one with both offensive and defensive capabilities; establishing an aerospace defence system that is fit for ‘informationised’ warfare; and enhancing strategic early warning, air strike, air and missile defence, information warfare, airborne operations, strategic power projection, and comprehensive support capabilities.
PLAAF writings have referred to the force’s ongoing transformation as an evolution from a ‘traditional’ air force with primarily defensive missions into a ‘strategic’ air force with global missions such as ISR, long-range precision strike, and strategic airlift. As a result, over the past two decades the PLAAF has retired the bulk of its obsolete combat aircraft based on the 1950s/60s-era Soviet designs, and replaced them with a smaller, but much more capable fleet consisting of both indigenous and Russian-made 4th-generation fighters.
Under the direct leadership of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the PLAAF consists of the aviation, surface-to-air missile, anti-aircraft artillery and airborne units, as well as specialised units including communications, radar, ECM, chemical defence, technical reconnaissance, etc. The PLAAF forces are grouped into five theatre air forces: Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, and Central.
The aviation troops are organised into fighter, attacker, bomber, reconnaissance, transport and support units, usually in the organisational order of division, regiment, group, and squadron. In certain key areas and directions, there are larger formations such as air corps or corps-level air bases.
An aviation division generally has under its command two to three aviation regiments and related stations. The aviation regiment is the basic tactical unit. Due to differences in weaponry and tasks, the number of aircraft in an aviation regiment ranges from 20 to 40. The ratio of aircraft to pilots (aircrew) is usually 1:1.2.
The ground-to-air missile force and anti-aircraft artillery troops are usually organised into divisions/brigades, regiments, battalions and companies. The airborne troops are organised into corps, divisions, regiments, battalions and companies.
See also: List of active military aircraft
The PLAAF is currently equipped with around 600 modern 4th-generation fighters, including the Russian Sukhoi Su-27/30 ‘Flanker’ and their Chinese derivatives, as well as the indigenous Chengdu J-10. These aircraft are augmented by over 1,000 older 2nd and 3rd-generation fighters such as the Shenyang J-8 and Chengdu J-7, as well as 500 bombers and ground attack aircraft including the Xi’an H-6, Xi’an JH-7 and Nanchang Q-5.
The production of the early variant J-10 has now stopped and been replaced by the follow-on J-10B/C variants, which has begun to enter operational service. China is also in talks with Russia on the possible purchase of 24 Su-35S ‘Flanker-E’ multirole fighter aircraft. If the deal goes through, the purchase will allow the Chinese aviation industry to gain insight into the aircraft’s advanced IRBIS-E passive electronically scanned array radar and Saturn 117S turbofan engine technologies.
At the same time, China continues to pursue fifth-generation fighter capabilities, with two concurrent stealth fighter programmes running in parallel. The Chengdu J-20 made its maiden flight in January 2011 and is currently undergoing flight testing at the China Flight Test Establishment (CFTE) in Yanliang, Shaanxi. The aircraft is expected to enter operational test and evaluation in 2016, and achieve IOC before 2018. A second next generation fighter programme, the Shenyang J-31 (or FC-31 in its export name), made the first flight in October 2012. This design is believed to be intended for the international market.
The PLAAF continues upgrading its Xi’an H-6 (Tu-16 ‘Badger’) medium bomber fleet by integrating new precision-guided, stand-off weapons to increase its operational effectiveness and survivability against enemy air defence. The latest variant H-6K features new turbofan engines for extended range, the capability to carry six KD-20 air-launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) under wing pylons, as well as improved avionics including a ‘glass’ cockpit with coloured multifunctional displays (MFD) and advanced electronic warfare and countermeasures suite.
The Chinese aviation industry is currently testing the Y-20 large jet transport aircraft, which will supplement and eventually replace the Russian-made Il-76MD aircraft. The aircraft’s prototype uses the same Russian engines as the Il-76, but the operational variant may be fitted with indigenous jet engines currently under development. The smaller Shaanxi Y-8 and Y-9 turboprop aircraft are employed to provide medium range airlift capabilities as well as to serve as the aerial platform for a range of special purposes aircraft such as AEW&C, electronic intelligence, electronic countermeasures, psychological warfare, and airborne command post. In addition, the PLAAF has received three ex-Ukrainian Air Force Il-78 aerial refuelling tanker aircraft to supplement its small fleet of the indigenous H-6U tanker aircraft.
In addition to manned combat aircraft, the PLAAF has fielded a number of medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) capable of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) as well as ground attack roles. The Chengdu GJ-1 ‘Yilong’ is comparable to the U.S. MQ-1 Predator in size and performance, and can carry up to 200 kg weapon load on its two under-wing pylons. The more advanced jet-powered flying wing UAV with stealth features is also undergoing flight test.