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PLAAF at 60

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • November 12, 2009

    The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), already the third largest air force in the world after the US Air Force and the Russian Air Force, celebrated its 60th anniversary on November 11, 2009. The PLAAF has in recent times proved most Western analysts wrong by adapting, absorbing and operationalising many new technologies in a very short period.

    Until the advent of the Su-27 in 1992, PLAAF had ‘short legs’; in other words, a huge collection of old and obsolescent aircraft most of which did not have the necessary range and/or weapons carrying capability to launch any worthwhile air offensive. The decision to purchase the Su-27 proved momentous. First, because, it gave the Chinese defence industry long sought access to the latest foreign technology. And second, it firmly put China’s aeronautics industry on the path of self reliance that was a clever mix of intense local research, complex reverse engineering and selective imports of foreign designs in aircraft, missiles, AWACS and a host of other technologies.

    In less than a decade thereafter, the PLAAF could boast of a variety of new fighters such as the FB-7, JF-17, J-10, Z-8, Z-9 and Z-10 helicopters and Y-8 and ERJ transports.

    The nearly fifty year old H-6 (Tu-16) bomber continues to remain in service with a modified tanker version for mid-air refuelling and another one carrying the YJ-62C air launched cruise missile that gives it the necessary stand off capability while remaining out of harm’s way.

    The PLAAF also possesses some 1500 Short Range Ballistic Missiles that can effectively deter any Taiwanese misadventure as most of these are reportedly deployed opposite the Taiwan Straits; a capability belatedly acknowledged even by the US think tank, the RAND Corporation. Some of these could well be deployed elsewhere with telling effect.

    According to the IISS Military Balance 2009, the PLAAF today has 1653 combat capable aircraft, more than 300 of which are of the third and fourth generation. These include 504 J-7 (MiG-21) of all types, 432 J-8, 84 J-10 (also known as FC-20 in Pakistan), 116 J-11A and 18 J-11B (locally produced Su-27), 73 Su-30MKK and 72 JH-7 (FB-7) fighter bombers.

    With production in full swing the PLAAF will get some 50 J-10 and 30 Su-30MKK each year. In addition the locally designed L-15 and/or FTC-2000 supersonic trainers would also join the ranks, while China exports the FC1/JF-17 to Pakistan and other client states in large numbers.

    The Chinese aviation industry staged a coup of sorts when it managed to obtain sizeable numbers of the Klimov RD-93, Saturn Lyulka AL-31FN, and 200 refurbished Rolls Royce Spey engines from Russia and the UK respectively. Its efforts to indigenously produce the complex AL-31FN turbofan have reached near fruition. With its huge economic clout China has also managed to arm-twist Russia into allowing the sale of the JF-17 and J-10 fitted with these Russian engines to Pakistan; a winning combination indeed in which both partners enjoy the fruits of Russian and Western technology.

    Not unexpectedly, Pakistan chose the day to announce its USD 1.4 billion deal for the purchase 36 J-10 fighters from China. This was not new since the Pakistan Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Tanvir Mahmood Ahmed, had indicated such a possibility in an interview to Jane’s Defence Weekly on December 10, 2008.

    It is clear that the Chinese and Pakistani air forces will now work in tandem to deter India without any formal treaty arrangement. Pakistan would purchase modern fighters from China at a fraction of the cost that India would incur on its aircraft acquisitions.

    In a clear indication of its burgeoning capabilities, China’s PLA and PLAAF recently staged a major corps/command level strategic mobility exercise (Stride-2009) involving four military regions. The three division-strong 15th airborne corps remains under air force control and although the PLAAF is capable of moving only a division at a time some 840-plus civilian commercial airliners can always be used in an emergency.

    It is reported that the PLA special forces component now has some 4000 plus paratroops that are cross trained to carry out almost any task including flying a plane, parachute jumps, bomb disposal and a variety of cyber warfare operations transforming them into modern ‘James Bonds’ all ready to be used in contingency situations such as natural disasters, counter terrorist operations and civil unrest.

    China has also been developing a variety of UAV/UCAV and a bewildering array of missiles for use in air-to-air, air-to-ground, surface-to-air and cruise role/configuration and the worrying part is that it is producing these in very large numbers.

    With the inclusion of its Commander in the all powerful Central Military Commission (CMC) in the recent past, the PLAAF is well placed to play an ever more important role in the country’s defence apparatus. China’s military doctrine has changed from people’s war to active defence that includes pre-emptive strikes with its commanders having clearly stated that preparations and gathering of forces for a possible offensive would invite a robust Chinese response.