Advances in PLA Air Defense Capabilities Challenge Strategic Balance in Asia

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 20

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made considerable progress since the end of the Cold War in constructing a modern integrated air defense system (IADS), using a diverse range of primarily Russian but also domestic technologies. As this system matures over the next decade, it may become impenetrable to all Western combat aircraft currently deployed other than the U.S. built B-2A bomber and F-22A Raptor fighter-bomber.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, China’s air defense system was extensive but largely populated with 1960s- and 1970s-generation technology radars, surface to air missile (SAM) systems and fighter aircraft. As such it was largely ineffective against modern aircraft and cruise missiles developed by the United States.

The primary SAM system in the PLA’s legacy IADS was the Hong Qi 2 (Red Flag) or HQ-2, a Chinese reverse-engineered derivative of the Soviet S-75 Dvina or SA-2 Guideline, supported by reverse-engineered variants of the Soviet P-12 Spoon Rest two-meter band acquisition radar, and the Gin Sling guidance radar, based on the Soviet SNR-75 Fan Song design. Short-range point defense missile capability was provided by the HQ-7, a reverse-engineered variant of the Thales Crotale system, the “Sparrow-like” indigenous HQ-6/HQ-61, and the HQ-64/LY-60 based on the Selenia Aspide, itself based on the U.S. Navy RIM-7 Sparrow missile [1].

The primary interceptor aircraft in the legacy IADS were the Shenyang J-6 series, reverse-engineered from the Soviet MiG-19 Farmer; the Chengdu J-7 series, reverse-engineered from a range of Soviet MiG-21 Fishbed variants; and the Shenyang J-8 Finback series, an indigenous twin-engine design based on the technology in the MiG-21 but much larger. Development programs active during the 1970s and 1980s included a stalled effort to develop an indigenous airborne early warning and control radar system, based on an indigenous radar fitted to a 1950s-era former Soviet Tu-4 Bull airframe, re-engineered with Chinese turboprops, and based on the 1943 U.S. B-29 Superfortress bomber [2].

Since the 1960s the PLA has constructed a formidable network of more than 200 military and dual-use airfields. A large proportion of these are semi-hardened, based on Warsaw Pact designs, with redundant runways, dispersed revetments with berms, and often hardened shelters; fourteen are also “superhardened” with underground hangars buried in hillsides and alert launch runways in addition to the standard runway systems [3].

While the J-6, J-7, J-8, HQ-2, Crotale, Aspide, and HQ-61 systems remain in service, they are progressively being replaced by a new generation of weapons, comprising Russian exports, license-built carbon copies or derivatives of Russian designs, and some wholly indigenous designs. The resulting transformation in basic capabilities will see the PLA in possession of an air defense system which will rival the Soviet PVO-S (Protivo Vozdushnaya Oborona Strany—National Air Defense Force) system both in scale and relative lethality over the next decade [4].

The PLA has exploited the permissive technology export controls system of the post-Cold War period extensively, and it has shopped for technology on the global market. Russia by far has been the principal source of built products and basic technology—although 2007 marked a 62 percent drop in Russian arms sale to China, which at its peak reached $2 billion per annum (Financial Times, March 30; BBC [China], March 5). Loop holes in regulations preventing the sale of dual-use technologies by Israeli and European suppliers have been exploited where opportunities permitted. The infusion of advanced foreign technology since the 1980s has been paralleled by the adoption of new force structure and military doctrinal concepts. The developing force structure of the PLA Air Force is modeled on that of the U.S. Air Force, while the ground based radar and missile network follows Russian practice.

Russia’s defense industry developed a three-pronged technological strategy intended to frustrate, cripple or deny the use of U.S. air power, and this model is being largely adopted by the PLA in its military planning.

The first prong in this strategy is to deny the use of stealth aircraft by the deployment of two meter band and ten meter band radar systems, as well as passive geo-location systems.

The second prong in this strategy is the deployment of advanced short-range missiles and directed-energy weapons, intended to shoot down smart weapons and cruise missiles before they reach their targets.

The third prong in this strategy is the deployment of long-range missiles intended to kill intelligence surveillance reconnaissance systems such as the US E-3 AWACS, E-8 JSTARS, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, U-2, RQ-4 Global Hawk, as well as low- and medium-orbit satellites used for this purpose.

The PLA has been actively developing systems along all three prongs in this strategy since the early 1990s.

The PLA’s Formidable Fighter Force

The centerpiece of the airborne component of China’s new air defense system is a mixed fighter fleet comprising several derivatives of the Russian Sukhoi Flanker fighter and the indigenous Chinese J-10 lightweight fighter, conceptually closest to the European Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen and cancelled Israeli Lavi design.

The Russian Flanker was initially developed as a counter to the U.S. F-15 Eagle series, and has remained in continuous development since the late 1970s. The basic Flanker design is larger, heavier, longer ranging and more agile than the basic F-15C. China procured its first batch of Russian built Su-27SK and Su-27UBK Flankers in 1992, followed by several follow-on purchases. By the late 1990s a deal was struck with the Russians for Shenyang to license and build 200 Su-27SK fighters in two 100 aircraft blocks, as the J-11A. Subsequently the PLA-AF procured several batches of the smart weapons capable Su-30MKK, a dual-seat fighter-bomber variant closest in capability to the U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle, but retaining the full air combat capability of the J-11A interceptor. The PLA Navy air arm followed the PLA-AF by procuring a fleet of the Su-30MK2 with additional weapons capabilities, and negotiating the purchase of 50 Su-33 Flanker D, a navalized variant for its aircraft carrier Shi Lang (aka Varyag), which has been kept ship-docked in Dalian since 2002 [5]. At the same time, a pilot training academy has been recently launched in Dalian, which holds a major training facility for the country’s naval aviation fleets (Flight International, October 3). In 2004, Russian analysts were predicting a PLA fleet of around 500 Flankers, rivaling in size the 600-strong U.S. Air Force fleet of F-15s [6].

Complications have since arisen as a result of the PLA reverse engineering the J-11A airframe and engines without authorization, and producing the indigenous J-11B Flanker. While the J-11B is based on the Su-27SK design, it is fitted with indigenous Chinese systems, including a more capable derivative of the Russian Phazotron Zhuk-MSE radar, a glass cockpit, threat warning systems, and other refinements such as an onboard oxygen generating system, seen only in the most recent Russian Su-35BM variant. A public dispute developed over the J-11B, with considerable Russian media coverage. It remains unclear whether Russia will continue to supply Flankers in the future, and it is entirely conceivable that future construction will comprise indigenous growth variants of the J-11B [7].

The J-10 recently achieved initial operational capability and is in full-rate production. Early estimations were that around 1,000 were to be built to replace the legacy J-6, J-7 and A-5 strike fighter fleets. While integration of ground attack weapons on the J-10 continues, the aircraft have mostly been photographed carrying air-to-air missiles for air defence purposes [8].

The fighter fleet is being armed with a mix of missiles, both of Russian and indigenous design. The Flankers were initially armed with imported standard Russian 1980s technology beyond visual range Vympel R-27 Alamo and short-range thrust-vectoring R-73 Archer dogfight missiles.

These were later supplemented by the imported Vympel R-77 Adder or “AMRAAM-ski”, comparable in capability to the US AIM-120A/B variants. Concurrently China licensed the R-77 seeker and guidance system from Agat in Russia, and incorporated these into the indigenous PL-12/SD-10 missile, which is similar in design to the AIM-120C and credited with more range than the US missile [9].

China continues to manufacture the PL-8 dogfight missile, which resembles the Israeli Python 3 and is similar in capability to the US AIM-9L/M Sidewinder variants, but inferior to the latest AIM-9X. The PL-8 is carried by the J-8, J-10 and J-11B. A more advanced thrust vectoring dogfight missile, the PL-ASR/PL-13 is in development [10].

The latest reports indicate that an effort is under way to develop a very long-range ramjet missile, similar to the European MBDA Meteor which is to arm the Eurofighter Typhoon [11].

The fighter fleet is to be supported by a fleet of Il-78 Midas aerial refuelling tankers, of which eight have been ordered from TAPO in Tashkent. Both the J-8 and J-10 are currently refueled by a fleet of indigenous H-6DU/U tankers, based on a reverse-engineered Tupolev Badger airframe and British FRL aerial refuelling package [12].

China has three active development programs to produce airborne early warning and control aircraft. The foremost of these is the KJ-2000 active phased-array system, based on the Israeli A-50I ordered by China but blocked after U.S. intervention. It employs more advanced antenna technology than the US E-3C AWACS. Two smaller programs based on the C-130 sized Y-8 turboprop transport use antenna designs conceptually similar to the US E-2C Hawkeye system and the Swedish Erieye phased array system, respectively [13].

The PLA’s Air Defense Missile Systems

The PLA’s airborne surveillance radar effort has paralleled the deployment of a range of advanced Eastern European and indigenous air defense radars and passive detection systems, some of which are intended to support interceptors, and some missile batteries.

The indigenous CETC YLC-20 emitter locating system is modeled on the Czech Tamara/Vera and Ukrainian Kolchuga M, several of which were procured by the PLA. The United States has in the past blocked the export of the Czech Vera system. These networked sensors can precisely track aircrafts by exploiting their radar and network terminal radio frequency emissions.

The most prominent counter-stealth radar developed to date is the two meter band CETC JY-27, similar to the Russian NNIRT Nebo SV/SVU series. The Russians are claiming that radars in this class can track stealth aircraft such as the F-117A stealth fighter at ranges of around 200 nautical miles.

The centerpiece of the PLA’s SAM system is the imported variants of the formidable Russian Almaz S-300PMU/PMU1 (SA-10 Grumble / SA-20A Gargoyle) and S-300PMU2 Favorit (SA-20B Gargoyle), which are Russian equivalents to the U.S. Patriot PAC-1 and PAC-2 systems. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the PLA has deployed 32 S-300PMU launch systems, 64 S-300PMU1 launch systems, and 32 new S-300PMU2 launch systems. These numbers amount to 16 to 32 batteries, subject to composition [14].

Russia is now deploying its first Almaz-Antey S-400 (SA-21) batteries, the system formerly known as the S-300PMU3. It incorporates much more powerful radars, the improved 48N6E3 missile, shorter range 9M96E/E2 missiles for self-defense against anti-radar weapons such as the US HARM, and the 200-nautical-mile long-range 40N6E missile. The latter is intended to kill surveillance aircraft like the E-3 AWACS and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, as well as electronic warfare aircraft like the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler. There are claims that China contributed funding to the development of the S-400, as well as claims that the S-400 is now being marketed to the PLA, but no hard evidence has surfaced to date (China Brief, July 17).

Unlike the U.S. Patriot missile system, the Russian S-300P series systems are highly mobile and include a diverse range of supporting radars, including the 30N6 Flap Lid and Tomb Stone phased array engagement radars, the 36D6 Tin Shield acquisition radar, and in the later variants 64N6 Big Bird series phased array acquisition radars. The S-300P series systems were built to engage low-flying cruise missiles and aircraft at all altitudes. The systems include the earlier 5V55 series missiles with ranges of up to 50 nautical miles and the more recent 48N6E series missiles with up to 110 nautical miles of range. The latter missiles allow a coastal battery in the Taiwan Strait to deny the use of airspace above Taiwan. There are claims that the PLA has experimented with the integration of two meter band radars as an acquisition component in these missile batteries [15].

The S-300P systems are supplemented by the HQ-9 missile and associated HT-233 radar, which use technology from the S-300PMU, with 64 launch systems deployed. The FT2000 “counter-AWACS” missile is part of this package. The indigenous mobile HQ-12/KS-1A missile and HT-200 radar are employed as gap fillers [16].

The most capable short-range missile system is the imported Russian 9K331 Tor M/M1 or SA-15 Gauntlet, which would be used to protect targets against smart munitions and cruise missiles. The Crotale has been further developed [17].


China’s air defense system is maturing into the largest, most capable and technically advanced in Asia, and will be capable of inflicting very heavy attrition on any aircraft other than upper tier U.S. stealth systems. Until the U.S. deploys its planned “New Generation Bomber” post-2020, the United States will have only 180 F-22 Raptors and 20 B-2A Spirit bombers capable of penetrating the PLA’s defensive shield. This may not be enough to act as a credible non-nuclear strategic deterrent. The weakness of the U.S. strategic posture relative to China is further exacerbated by a limited number of bases across the West Pacific, with key sites at Kadena AFB on Okinawa and Andersen AFB on Guam unhardened and thus unusable were the PLA to launch DF-21 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, or cruise missiles, against these sites in the event of a conflict [18].

The existing U.S. military posture in Asia with close regional allies such as Japan, Australia and South Korea are predicated on the United States retaining a non-nuclear strategic capability advantage over the PLA. If that advantage continues to erode with improving PLA capabilities and declining United States relative capabilities, a seismic shift may eventually occur in Asia as the strategic balance in the West Pacific swings away from the United States in favor of China. The United States still has strategic options available that will however require the incoming administration depart fundamentally from the policy of ignoring PLA capability growth.


1. Carlo Kopp, “China’s Air Defence Missile Systems”, Defence Today, March/April 2008,

2. James R. Lilley and David L. Shambaugh, ed., China’s Military Faces the Future: Reflections on Technology, Doctrine, Strategy, and Operations, M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

3. Carlo Kopp, “PLA-AF/PLA-N Air Base Infrastructure Reference”, Air Power Australia, January, 2007:

4. Carlo Kopp, “China’s Air Defence Missile Systems.”

5. Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships Vol. 110, 2007-2008. Coulsdon: Jane’s Information Group (2007), p.122.

6. See KnAAPO technical literature on Su-27SK, Su-30MKK/MK2, Su-35,

7. Barrie, Douglas, “Chinese J-11B Presages Quiet Military Revolution”, Aviation Week, Nov 5, 2006,

8. Carlo Kopp, “The PLA-AF’s Aerial Refuelling Programs”, Air Power Australia, July 2007,

9. Fisher, Richard, Jr., “China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles”, The International Assessment and Strategy Center, February 2, 2008,

10. Fisher, Richard, Jr., “China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles.”

11. Fisher, Richard, Jr., “China’s Emerging 5th Generation Air-to-Air Missiles.”

12. Carlo Kopp, “The PLA-AF’s Aerial Refuelling Programs.”

13. James R. Lilley and David L. Shambaugh, ed., China’s Military Faces the Future: Reflections on Technology, Doctrine, Strategy, and Operations.

14. Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, Annual Report to Congress, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2008.

15. S-300PMU2 Favorit SA-20 Gargoyle,

16. Carlo Kopp, “China’s Air Defence Missile Systems.”

17. Carlo Kopp, “Russian / PLA Point Defence Weapons”, Air Power Australia, May, 2008:

18. John Stillion and Scott Perdue, “Air Combat Past, Present and Future”, Project Air Force Presentation, RAND Corporation, August 2008,