Newspaper reports from December 3 noted that in one of its few acts of intimidation before the December 1 Taiwan elections, the People’s Liberation Army Airforce (PLAAF) sent its new Sukhoi Su-30MKK fighter jets out to the midline Taiwan Strait in early November. This move calls attention to the fact that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been investing heavily in building a modern air force. Open reporting tends to confirm U.S. Department of Defense assessments that absent countervailing actions by Taiwan and the United States, by 2005 the PLA Air Force could begin to gain superiority on the Taiwan Strait.
It is important to watch the PLAAF as well as the PLA’s missile forces because in any future conflict, such as over Taiwan, it is the PLAAF that will do the heavy-lifting in terms of strike missions. Missiles have a greater shock value and their political impact is proportionate to the attention given in the media. But a war’s outcome will depend on the PLA’s ability to secure and exploit effective air superiority in the Taiwan theater of operations. A short-range ballistic missile may only carry a 1,000 pound warhead-once. But a strike fighter like the Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKK can carry about 17,000 pounds over scores of missions.
If the PLAAF were to achieve a level of superiority on the Taiwan Strait by 2005 it would be a great accomplishment for a service that has traditionally been secondary to the Army and politically suspect since the early 1970s. Up until the mid-1990s the PLAAF was more ridiculed by Western observers for its lack of modern doctrine, poor training and old equipment. But perhaps dating back to the late 1980s, PLAAF commanders realized that their service was backward and began to press for real reform and modernization. The twin shocks of Tiananmen in 1989 and then the resounding U.S. victory in the Gulf War in 1991 gave further impetus to the PLAAF’s cause.
But the most important driver has been the growing political goal identified by China’s leaders to build a modern PLA capable of playing a key role in forcing unification with Taiwan under Beijing’s terms. The PLAAF is now developing the doctrine, seeking to improve training and is now acquiring modern equipment at an impressive rate. There will always be skeptics who doubt the PLAAF can combine the "software" and the "hardware," but at least an impressive effort is underway.
For the last decade PLAAF doctrine has been shifting from a stress on defensive operations to a new emphasis on "active defense." This term includes a range of operations that can be considered "offensive." Chinese scholar of the PLA You Ji has further listed a range of new tactical operations that stress rapid mobilization, and pre-emptive attacks, and independent operations that all fall under a doctrine of "active defense." The current doctrinal challenge for the PLAAF is to devise tactics and operations that conform to a more recent PLA stress on joint-service operations. All of this points toward the development of a modern vision for the employment of air forces.
In the past PLAAF training was criticized for its lack of realism, an unwillingness to put aircraft at risk, and its stress on following ground control orders. While open source information is limited, it appears that with more advanced aircraft like the Su-27, the PLAAF is exercising harder and is trying to simulate more realistic combat scenarios. There also appears to be a greater emphasis on obtaining modern simulators, which are critical for training multirole fighter operations. The PLA may also be developing it own Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation system, which allows aerial operations to be recorded and analyzed on computer monitors.
Perhaps the most visible manifestation of the new stress on "active defense" is the PLAAF’s current expansion of its attack-capable multirole fighters. It now appears that most new PLAAF fighters will be multirole aircraft. According to recent reports, the total number of modern multirole fighters could reach between 300 and 400 aircraft by 2005. If realized, this would constitute a rapid transformation of PLAAF capabilities.
The most potent multirole fighter now entering PLAAF service is the Su-30MKK, a twin-seat dedicated attack variant of the Su-27. Recent Russian reports suggest that the PLAAF could acquire 100 of these fighters, perhaps by 2005. Comparable to the U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle, the Su-30MKK is the first PLAAF strike fighter capable of all-weather attack missions with modern precision-guided missiles. It is also a very effective air superiority fighter. With aerial refueling its combat radius can exceed 2,500 miles, which allows strikes against Okinawa, Guam and most of the South China Sea.
Recent reports suggest that China may build up to 500 of its long-awaited Chengdu J-10 fighter. After a twenty-year development period, this F-16 size fighter will soon enter production. Having benefited from Israeli design advice and Russian components, the J-10 will likely also be a potent multirole fighter capable of aerial combat and ground-attack missions with precision-guided weapons.
The PLAAF’s urgency in acquiring multirole fighters is demonstrated by its continued acquisition of seemingly obsolete fighters like the Shenyang J-8II and the Xian JH-7. The J-8II is a very old design, yet the PLAAF could build or modify up to 100 with new Russian multimode radar that make this fighter attack capable. The JH-7 is an indigenous Chinese attack fighter that is far less capable than the Su-30MKK, yet China is also persisting with this program by acquiring more British Rolls Royce engines to make more fighters. Though obsolete airframes, the PLAAF understands that with advanced radar and attack munitions, these aircraft can make a valuable contribution to a campaign for Taiwan.
It is also apparent that the PLAAF is following foreign trends and investing more in "smart" long-range munitions that allow the aircraft to avoid enemy air defenses. In the last year the PLAAF has unveiled a new supersonic ramjet-powered attack missile and a new land-attack variant of an older antiship missile. Both were featured on models of the JH-7 attack fighter. The PLAAF is also buying new Russian attack missiles like the Kh-31P anti-radar missile and the Kh-59 television-guided attack missile. At the recent August 2001 Moscow Airshow a new 285km range antiship variant of the Kh-59 was revealed, with strong indications that the PLAAF is its primary customer.
Dedicated radar, tanker and intelligence aircraft are essential for modern air combat, and the PLAAF is investing in all three. Its first capable airborne warning and control system (AWACS), the Russian A-50E, may be delivered in 2002. These will be able to direct both offensive and defensive operations over the Taiwan Strait. The PLAAF is converting old H-6 (Tu-16) bombers to aerial tankers and is reported to have purchased more capable Russian Ilyushin Il-78M aerial tankers. The PLAAF is also acquiring a small number of dedicated electronic reconnaissance aircraft and may be developing new drone aircraft for photo reconnaissance.
Recent reports from Taiwan suggest that the 15th Airborne Army may be substantially expanded to a force that exceeds 50,000 men. This plus recent reports that the PLAAF will acquire thirty to forty more large Il-76 transport aircraft, and many other reports of the development of new light armor vehicles, point the potential for a more capable PLA Airborne force in the future. The danger is that such a force could prove instrumental in either scaring Taiwan into submission, or, if used correctly, could deliver the final blow needed to force Taiwan’s surrender. However, the airborne forces are not at this stage just yet.
Often overlooked, the PLAAF is also investing heavily in new radar and anti-aircraft weapons. The PLA understands that to support modern offensive operations, bases and critical logistic nodes require far greater protection. The PLA’s radar and electronic warfare capabilities are already quite respectable. The last decade has seen the PLA buy new Russian anti-aircraft missiles and possibly seek Russian help in developing new families of Chinese anti-aircraft missiles. The PLA has also place a high priority on defending against U.S. cruise missiles and precision-guided weapons. PLA systems like the "Bodyguard" combine laser dazzlers plus smoke and chaff to confuse U.S. laser-guided bombs. The PLA is also investing in a number of radar technologies to defeat the U.S. advantage in stealth aircraft.
So by 2005 or thereafter the PLAAF will pose a much more formidable threat to Taiwan and to U.S. forces in Asia. When coordinated with massive missile strikes, the PLAAF could help destroy Taiwan’s defenses in a large pre-emptive strike. And should American be able to afford only to station one aircraft carrier with the Japan-based 7th Fleet, it is possible that large PLAAF strikes could overwhelm a single carrier’s defenses, if that is all the United States could send to aid Taiwan. It is therefore correct for the U.S. Department of Defense to call for an increased U.S. military presence the Western Pacific in its September 2001 Quadrennial Review. Ongoing PLAAF modernization makes necessary appropriate U.S. measures to ensure the deterrence of conflict on the Taiwan Strait.
Richard D. Fisher Jr., is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, and the managing editor of Jamestown’s China Brief.
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