Assessing 70 Years of China’s PLA Air Force

By Mercy A. Kuo

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Cristina Garafola – senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and co-author of “70 Years of China’s PLA Air Force” along with Ken Allen (China Aerospace Institute 2021) – is the 273rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify the top three strategic developments of the PLA Air Force in its 70-plus-year history.

While Western air doctrine has emphasized air forces’ speed, independence, and decisive capability during a conflict, in our book we found that People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) development and operations have often been constrained by domestic political, geopolitical, operational, and other factors. The PLA has historically been very ground-centric; developing the PLAAF’s capability “on the foundation of the ground forces” was the guiding principle leading up to and following its official founding in 1949. Until the 1993 revision of key PLA guidance, the military strategic guidelines, the ground forces were predominant in military strategic thinking, with naval, air, and missile forces relegated to supporting roles.

From 1960 to 1989, the Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution, and political tarnishing of its leaders ushered in a dark age for the PLAAF. PLAAF operations were often restricted to control escalation, due to concerns about the PLAAF’s political reliability, and also due to atrophied capability during the Cultural Revolution.

PLAAF leadership and strategists began to advocate for a more independent and active PLAAF role in the late 1980s but didn’t receive senior leadership buy-in until the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, China’s military high command, the Central Military Commission, endorsed the air force’s first service-specific strategic concept, now known as “strategic air force” – specifically, “integrated air and space capabilities and coordinated offensive and defensive operations.” China’s efforts to build a strategic air force since 2004 span organizational, training, personnel, and educational reforms as well as adjusting air force theory and modernizing the PLAAF’s equipment.

Describe how the PLA Air Force doctrine has evolved from inception to the present.

The PLA first fielded significant quantities of aircraft in conflict during the Korean War. Despite guidance to provide direct support to PLA ground forces, however, the PLAAF was largely unsuccessful in this mission. The role of airpower during the late 1940s through 1950s therefore focused on point air defense of key cities and airfields. The PLAAF was supposed to improve its ability to conduct territorial air defense of mainland China during the 1960s and 1970s, but the PLAAF was not capable of conducting nationwide air defense through at least the end of the Cultural Revolution, and arguably through the 1990s. Even its ability to conduct point air defense was limited by aircraft and ground-based system ranges and focused on defending major cities.

As Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA leaders grew to recognize the importance of airpower for modern warfighting during the 1980s and 1990s, the need for China’s air forces to operate offensively, independently, and beyond China’s borders necessitated an evolution of PLAAF strategy and role within the PLA. The “strategic air force” concept approved in 2004 is the guiding concept for expanding the PLAAF’s role beyond territorial air defense to an important contributor to both offensive and defense joint operations.

What is the impact of China-U.S. competition on modernization of the PLA Air Force?

Aligned with Xi Jinping’s 2017 call for the PLA to become a “world-class” military by the middle of this century, the PLAAF also has a requirement to become a “world-class” air force. Though the specifics of this requirement haven’t been publicly articulated, the PLAAF’s efforts include continuing to adapt its doctrine, training, talent management, and other systems for more sophisticated missions and roles, including long-range precision strikes. We should also expect overwater operations to continue to grow, as PLAAF leadership has advocated for a greater maritime role to support the PLA’s increased focus on the maritime direction since 2014. Of course, force modernization efforts are also under way; inventories of China’s first fifth-generation (Chinese fourth-generation) fighter aircraft, the J-20, are coming online, while older aircraft like the J-7 are leaving the force.

Compare and contrast the force posture of the PLA Air Force with the U.S. Air Force.

As a recent example of U.S. Air Force’s posture and design priorities, its FY21 Congressional posture statement last March included four focus areas: connecting and integrating with the Joint Force, leading in space alongside the Space Force, generating combat power, and conducting logistics under attack.

While a similar document isn’t available for the PLAAF, an authoritative PLA strategy text calls for the PLAAF to build five forces with many applications for PLA joint operations: offensive; air defense; reconnaissance, early-warning, and surveillance; information operations; and strategic transport forces. Like the USAF posture statement, space is part of the PLAAF’s guiding concept of “integrated air and space capabilities and coordinated offensive and defensive operations.” Though the PLAAF ultimately failed to gain authority over space (which went to the Strategic Support Force), its use of space-based systems and assets continues to grow given the PLA-wide focus on leveraging information to both fight and deny information to adversaries. Finally, the USAF emphasis on logistics under attack is in an overseas and global context, but China has no continuous overseas presence for its air force to date. However, we should not be surprised if the PLA pursues overseas locations where the PLAAF could operate either as part of a formal basing presence in the vein of the PLA’s first overseas base in Djibouti (where PLA Navy forces are currently stationed), or via some type of access agreement. The U.S. Department of Defense has indicated a number of overseas locations where China may seek to establish military facilities or access.

Explain how understanding the history of the PLA Air Force can inform U.S. defense policy and decision-making vis-à-vis potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

After decades of little change in its overwater capability, the PLAAF began improving its ability to operate in the Taiwan Strait in the late 1990s, and in recent years increasingly operates in waters surrounding Taiwan as well as the broader Western Pacific. At the same time, however, the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis is PLAAF aviators’ most recent large-scale direct combat experience. Understanding current PLA thinking on how the PLAAF may be called on to operate in the Western Pacific in a potential future conflict, and the associated operational stresses and strains PLAAF air crews, maintenance, logistics, and other elements of the air force may be working to address, is very important. Our book notes that even today, maintenance issues, flying hours, and lingering organizational reforms likely continue to impact PLAAF operations.