The People’s Liberation Army Air Force

Chinese Tactics > PART ONE: People’s Liberation Army Forces > Chapter 3: People’s Liberation Army Joint Capabilities > The People’s Liberation Army Air Force

3-1. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is one of the world’s largest air forces. Much like the rest of the PLA, the PLAAF is in the midst of a significant reorganization and modernization campaign, moving from employing massive numbers of 1960s-era aircraft with very limited capabilities to employing much smaller numbers of modern 4th-, 4.5th-, and 5th-generation multirole and fighter aircraft. The PLAAF enjoys a suite of capabilities largely comparable to modern Western air forces, including airborne early warning, aerial refueling, heavy and medium transport, and electronic warfare (EW), though relatively few airframes are available for these noncombat missions as compared to the United States Air Force (USAF). The PLAAF also operates a large and advanced ground-based air defense network employing medium- and long-range radar-guided missiles in an integrated, tiered, and layered deployment strategy.

 3-2. For most of the PLAAF’s history, its role has been defending Chinese airspace, with secondary importance given to strike and attack missions and little emphasis on close air support (CAS). This made sense for the period, considering the perceived threats to Chinese territory and the lack of available air-ground communications. As the PLAAF has modernized, greater emphasis has been placed on ground support, but these capabilities are developing and are likely limited in both availability and effectiveness. Although many PLAAF airframes are nominally multirole—meaning they are capable of conducting both air-to-air and air- to-ground missions—few air-to-ground-capable airframes are regularly employed in this mission type.

 3-3. Most PLAAF combat aircraft date from the Cold War era. This status is changing rapidly, however, as newer and far more-capable types are being both purchased and indigenously produced. This creates a wide spectrum of capabilities within the PLAAF. Older aircraft are not capable of all-weather, around-the-clock operations, especially in ground-attack roles, and they employ mostly non-precision munitions with minimal targeting support. Newer aircraft employ precision-guided munitions, some with standoff capability, with targeting enabled by sophisticated onboard sensor suites. In general, more-capable aircraft are assigned to theaters with higher priority assets, while older aircraft are assigned to less important theaters. Nearly all PLAAF aircraft are either Russian-built, Russian-designed, or evolved from Russian designs. However, unique indigenous designs are starting to reach operational status. PLAAF combat aircraft capabilities are largely similar to those of their Russian equivalents, though the capabilities of the newest 5th-generation low- observable aircraft are not well known in the West.

3-4. PLAAF maintenance and logistics capabilities are immature and under-resourced, but they are likely to improve rapidly in the near future. As part of the PLAAF’s modernization efforts, maintenance and logistics were relegated to a secondary role behind acquisitions; this in turn had negative impacts on pilot training and aircraft readiness. In addition, the PLAAF had to modernize the relationship between its maintenance and logistics backbone and China’s state-run industry. Historically, repair and maintenance was largely outsourced to industry, but this relationship has become increasingly unwieldy in the modern age. The PLA’s new expeditionary requirements place further strain on limited maintenance and logistics resources. Solutions to these capability gaps are currently in the conceptual and testing phase, but have yet to be widely implemented.

3-5. PLAAF units are organized into brigades, comparable to USAF groups. Brigades are assigned to PLAAF bases, which are the grade equivalent of the U.S. Army’s corps and are generally at the disposal of the theater commander. Some high-value PLAAF assets, however, are controlled by national-level headquarters, including some of the newest fighter divisions and the airborne corps.

3-6. PLAAF doctrine employs a tiered and layered approach to defending Chinese airspace. Ground-based air defenses in the form of medium- and long-range radar-guided missiles combine with manned aircraft to deny use of airspace to enemy platforms of all types. The PLAAF in general is far less concerned with seizing or maintaining air superiority or air dominance than U.S. forces—it views simply denying the enemy use of airspace to be adequate. PLAAF forces do not have significant capabilities outside of Chinese airspace: excepting a few island airbases off the Chinese coast, neither basing nor aerial refueling capabilities are adequate to project power any significant distance past the Chinese coastline and territorial waters. Expanding power projection across wider areas is a focus of PLAAF training and acquisition. It is likely that the PLAAF can successfully deny use of airspace to any opponent wishing to operate over Chinese territory or ocean areas covered by its surface-to-air missile umbrella.

3-7. PLAAF ground-attack capabilities are immature but improving. Around two decades ago, PLAAF attack aircraft were limited to daytime visual attacks using only unguided munitions. Today, the PLAAF operates hundreds of advanced 4th-generation attack aircraft capable of all-weather operations using precision munitions. The primary ground-attack missions of the PLAAF are strike and interdiction. Both of these missions attack targets some distance away from friendly troops, and both generally support the strategic and operational levels of war. PLAAF CAS capabilities are limited due to a lack of training and integration, but they are seen as critical to developing the combined arms brigade (CA-BDE) as a true combined arms force. Efforts are currently underway to advance CAS capabilities. Gaps in CAS operations include a lack of trained forward air controllers, a lack of air-ground communications, and a lack of developed tactics and guidelines for CAS employment.

3-8. The PLA’s airborne corps is assigned to the PLAAF, and it is the PLA’s strategic airborne unit. It comprises most of the PLA’s Rapid Reaction Unit, a cohort of light, strategically mobile ground forces that can provide a significant military presence anywhere in China in a very short period of time. Though called a corps, the airborne corps mimics the group army in composition, though with fewer support assets. It consists of six maneuver brigades: four airborne infantry, one mechanized airborne infantry, one air assault, and one special operations forces, plus transport and support units. An airborne corps includes—

  • Four airborne infantry brigades (three airborne infantry battalions and one towed light howitzer battalion per brigade).
  • One airborne infantry (mechanized) brigade (three mechanized infantry battalions and one self-propelled howitzer battalion per brigade).
  • One air assault brigade (three air assault battalions and one towed light howitzer battalion per brigade).
  • One service support brigade.
  • One special operations forces brigade. z One air transport brigade (fixed- and rotary-wing transport capability).
  • One headquarters unit. 

 (See figure 3-1 for a graphic depiction of an airborne corps.)

Figure 3-1. Airborne corps (doctrinal)

3-9. The PLAAF has the air transport capacity to deploy either two light brigades simultaneously or half of the mechanized brigade. These units are employed in much the same way as the U.S. Army employs the 82nd Airborne Division: at least one brigade-size unit on very short-term deployment orders, with other units to follow if required.


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