China’s Search for a “Strategic Air Force”
Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 19
Note: This piece is based on a longer article published in The Journal of Strategic Studies that is available for download here and will appear in the print version of the journal in early 2016.
On September 10, People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) spokesman Shen Jinke stated that some PLAAF systems displayed to the public during the “9-3” military parade, including the H-6K bomber, the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control plane, and the H-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system testified to the quickening pace of China’s drive to transform the PLAAF into a “strategic service” (战略性军种) (Liberation Daily, September 10). Once dismissed by many outside observers, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has undergone an impressive transformation over the past two decades, emerging as one of the world’s premier air forces. As it continues to modernize, it is focused on becoming a “strategic air force” (战略空军). PLAAF strategists suggest this means the air force should play a decisive role in protecting Chinese national interests, field modern capabilities commensurate with China’s standing as a major power and enjoy the institutional status befitting its role as a “strategic service,” an important consideration given the historical dominance of ground forces in China’s military.
Becoming a “Strategic Air Force”
Through the 1990s, the PLAAF faced daunting obstacles on its path to becoming a more modern and operationally capable air force, including a relatively narrow set of missions and capabilities that lagged behind other regional air forces. By the late 1990s, however, tremendous changes were underway across the Chinese military. The reform of China’s defense industry and dramatic increases in defense spending enabled China to begin developing and deploying the hardware that PLA leaders viewed as essential to building a more modern and operationally capable military, including a more technologically advanced and powerful air force. The PLAAF’s doctrine and force employment concepts also evolved in line with a broader transformation of doctrine across the PLA that followed the issuance of new campaign guidance documents (战略方针) in 1999. Additionally, according to the China Air Force Encyclopedia, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, in a 1999 speech to commemorate the PLAAF’s 50th anniversary, called for the PLAAF to “prepare struggle to build a powerful, modernized air force that is simultaneously prepared for offensive and defensive operations” (攻防兼备).  In 2004, this idea was incorporated into the PLAAF’s first ever service-specific strategic concept, which called on it to “integrate air and space and be simultaneously prepared for offensive and defensive operations.”
Both this phrase and the concept of the PLAAF as a “strategic air force” have been endorsed in official state media as well as by Chinese senior leadership. During a visit to PLAAF Headquarters in April 2014, Chinese leader Xi Jinping emphasized the need to “accelerate the construction of a powerful people’s air force that integrates air and space and is simultaneously prepared for offensive and defensive operations, provides staunch support for the realization of the China dream and the dream of a strong military.” Xi also described the PLAAF as a “strategic service,” one that must be capable of playing a decisive role “in the overall situation of national security and military strategy” (Xinhua, April 14, 2014). Widely publicized in official Chinese media, Xi’s remarks underscored the growing importance that China attaches to the transformation of the PLAAF along “strategic” lines. Although the term “strategic air force” is not defined in authoritative Chinese military publications, a review of publications by a number of PLAAF officers and other Chinese analysts sheds light on what it means for the Chinese air force to realize this goal.  Based on these writings, a “strategic air force” has a clearly defined strategy and an accompanying set of missions that enable it to directly achieve important national security objectives.
Strategy and Rising Status
Chinese sources indicate that the PLAAF began informal work on its strategy in the mid-1990s, presumably after recognizing that the lack of a service-specific strategy and its limited offensive capabilities were preventing it from moving beyond its traditionally subordinate role. The air force’s strategy is intended to guide force modernization and employment. It also emphasizes that the PLAAF is a strategic service—one with a role that goes beyond territorial air defense and supporting the Army—by giving it a leading role in accomplishing national objectives.  This marked an important turning point in terms of the PLAAF’s institutional standing within the Chinese military. Yet in the 1990s, a combination of the ground force-centric organization of the Chinese military and Army opposition to giving the PLAAF its own strategic role hamstrung the air force’s efforts to achieve these goals. Consequently, PLAAF officers view the approval of their service’s strategy in 2004 as a crucial milestone. According to the late Ji Yan, a former professor at the PLAAF Command College and the deputy director of the strategy research office in its military theory research institute, the new service-specific strategy approved for the PLAAF in 2004 marked an important turning point in that it “affirmed the strategic position of [China’s] air force.” 
Accompanying the development of a service-specific strategy, the PLAAF’s status within the PLA has risen as well. In 2004, the PLAAF commander (along with the commanders of the navy and the strategic missile force) was elevated to membership in the Central Military Commission (CMC) in 2004. In 2012, former PLAAF Commander General Xu Qiliang was promoted to Vice Chairman of the CMC, making him the first career air force officer to serve as China’s second-highest ranking military officer. Only senior CMC Vice Chairman General Fan Changlong, a ground force officer, ranks higher.
Evolving Missions and Roles
For PLAAF strategists, a key attribute of a “strategic air force” is the ability to directly support national policy objectives and achieve a wide range of strategic goals. Indeed, according to one Chinese observer writing in the PLAAF’s official newspaper, “the basic criterion for judging whether it is a strategic air force is whether the employment of the air force can directly reflect the will of the state, directly serve national policy objectives, and directly achieve national strategic goals” (Air Force News, January 15, 2009).
As Ji Yan of the PLAAF Command College put it, along with its new strategy and a broader set of missions, the PLAAF is in the midst of transforming itself from a “defensive-type air combat force” that was responsible largely for conducting operations over its own territory into “an important strategic force that has comprehensive roles and functions, is responsible for a wide range of missions and tasks, and will become one of the powerful strategic tools supporting [China’s] national strategy and military strategy.”  Her assessment aligns closely with former PLAAF Commander and current CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang’s statement that the air force is rapidly evolving from a “supporting, subordinate force into a decisive strategic force.” 
In a series of articles in the PLAAF’s official newspaper, Dong Wenxian expounded on this theme by explaining that China’s air force should strive to become “an informatized strategic air and space force, or a strategic air force for short,” one that can directly achieve national goals through combat operations or deterrence.  Moreover, the “strategic air force” concept represents a rejection of the thinking that the air force “is an auxiliary and tactical force.” In addition, some Chinese military officers have suggested that one important reason for the elaboration of the “strategic air force” concept was to ensure that the modernization of the PLAAF would be accompanied by a transformation in terms of “strategic thought,” one that would promote the understanding of and support for the PLAAF’s transition from a territorial air defense force to one with more modern capabilities and a broader range of responsibilities (Global Times, November 11, 2009).
Additionally, Chinese strategists stress the PLAAF’s important role in warfighting, as they assess that air and space power will play a decisive role in future wars. As Ruan Kexiang writes, modern air power “can launch a fierce and sudden attack on the enemy from thousands of kilometers away…quickly destroying the enemy’s operational system, thus reducing the enemy’s war capability and paving the way for accomplishing the objectives of the war or directly achieving the aims of the war.”  As this assessment suggests, offensive capability is a key attribute of a modern strategic air force. Indeed, according to Ruan, “it is impossible for an air force of the ‘territorial defense type’ with limited attack capability to become a modernized strategic air force.”
Importantly, the Chinese Air Force’s new strategy, its growing bureaucratic status, and the “strategic air force” concept all reflect an expansion of the PLAAF’s missions. First and foremost, Chinese leaders called on the PLAAF to move beyond its focus on air defense of Chinese territory by placing greater emphasis on conventional deterrence missions and offensive operations.  Another analyst, Li Chuanxun, writes that the speed, mobility, and firepower of modern air platforms “dictate that offensive power is the essence of the air force.” The implications for the PLAAF are clear: in emphasizing both offense and defense, the focus is on offense. As Li puts it, the PLAAF “should as quickly as possible bid farewell to the old army building concept which places greater stress on the aspect of ‘defense.’” 
Air and Space Power Commensurate with China’s Status and Capable of Protecting its Interests
Finally, Chinese analysts argue that the PLAAF’s capabilities should be commensurate with China’s status as a rising great power. China’s economic development and increasing international influence constitute “a profound change in the position of the country,” and these developments should be accompanied by the building of a “modernized strategic air force.”  Chinese military thinkers also emphasize that the high-tech nature of a “strategic air force” is closely linked to a great power’s status. According to Dong Wenxian, air forces are inherently high-tech services, and their armaments “embody the latest scientific and technological achievements in the aviation and aerospace domains.”  He also notes that major military powers and strong countries all pursue “first-rate air forces” with superior weapons and equipment, personnel, and combat capacity.
As a rising power with increasingly global interests, China also needs an air force that is capable of protecting increasingly complex interests that extend well beyond its borders. According to the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, an authoritative volume produced by the Military Strategy Research Department of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science (AMS), changes in China’s security environment, the expansion of its national interests in the air and space domains, and an intensifying struggle to protect those interests all increase the strategic requirements and importance of the PLAAF and its missions.  The PLAAF must be capable of protecting Chinese interests not only in the air, but also in space and the electromagnetic spectrum.  Chinese analysts state that these goals may be accomplished through deterrence, combat operations, or military operations other than war (MOOTW).
The PLAAF’s Evolving Capabilities
The PLAAF’s strategy has important implications for the modernization of China’s air and space capabilities. Indeed, it requires improvements in the PLAAF’s weapons and equipment, as well as upgraded command and control, early warning, and logistics and support capabilities. In future wars, the PLAAF will need to seize air, space, and information superiority, as well as to successfully defend against a powerful enemy’s air and space threats.  PLAAF authors write that a “strategic air force” thus requires advanced weapons and equipment that enable it to perform a range of strategic functions. According to the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy, these include strategic reconnaissance and warning; air and space deterrence; air and missile defense; air and space attack; strategic air transport; and air and space security cooperation. 
To carry out these missions, the PLAAF has made tremendous progress in modernizing and upgrading its aircraft and ground-based air defense systems over the past two decades, but Chinese military analysts acknowledge that it needs to further improve in certain key areas to become a modern “strategic air force.”  Chinese writers typically highlight the following:
● Strategic transport aircraft
● Early warning and control capabilities
● Advanced fighters, including stealth aircraft
● Modern bombers
● Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Combat Aerial
● Information and electronic warfare
● Space and counter-space capabilities
● Integrated air and missiles defense systems
For example, PLAAF analyst Du Wenlong cautions that “an air force without large transport planes is a short-legged air force that cannot meet the requirements of being a strategic air force.”  PLAAF strategists and other Chinese military writers characterize the Y-20 as major turning point in this regard. Specifically, according to Wang Weishan, the Guangzhou MRAF Deputy Commander at the time of the publishing of Strategic Air Force in 2009, an edited volume including articles by PLAAF researchers and published by the PLAAF’s official publisher, when China begins deploying domestically produced large transport planes, “this will provide a new historic opportunity for the development of the [PLAAF’s] strategic power projection capacity.”  Similarly, Ruan Kexiang cautions that if a country pays attention to building up its kinetic strike capabilities, but not its computer network attack and electronic warfare capabilities, it will be unable to build a modern strategic air force. 
The PLAAF was once widely dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant, but today is modernizing at a steady pace and making major strides in terms of its ability to fulfill its strategy of integrating air and space and being prepared to conduct offensive and defensive operations. As Chinese analysts point out, the PLAAF still faces numerous challenges, including shortcomings in airborne command and control capability, long-range early warning and reconnaissance capability, long-range strike capability, and strategic airlift capability, but it is well on the way to becoming a “strategic air force.”  This theme is echoed in the 2013 edition of The Science of Military Strategy, which states that the PLAAF is accelerating its modernization and transformation “from an aviation force into an integrated air and space force, from a mechanized air force into an informatized air force, and from a supporting air force into a strategic leading force.”  The September 3 announcement of a 300,000 troop reduction and anticipated implementation of organizational reforms aimed at enhancing the PLA’s “jointness” could enhance the PLAAF’s status and support its quest to become a “strategic service” (Xinhua, September 3).
Though some major questions remain unanswered, such as whether a “strategic air force” requires nuclear weapons and what the PLAAF’s future role in space and counter-space operations will look like, the PLAAF is becoming a “strategic air force,” and as such it is rapidly emerging as a much more formidable challenge for the United States and its allies and partners. Indeed, as the PLAAF continues to modernize, it will become an increasingly important consideration for the United States, Japan, and other countries to take into account when making decisions about issues such as defense policy, plans, basing, and force modernization.
Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at RAND, a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and an adjunct professor in the China Studies and Strategic Studies Departments at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.
Cristina Garafola is a Research Assistant-China Specialist at the RAND Corporation. She holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies.
- For example, the term “strategic air force” does not appear in the following texts: People’s Liberation Army (PLA), People’s Liberation Army Military Terminology (Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 2011); People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), China Air Force Encyclopedia (Beijing, China: Aviation Industry Press, 2005); People’s Liberation Army, Chinese Military Encyclopedia (Beijing: Academy of Military Science Press, 1997).
- Although territorial air defense and supporting ground or naval forces could be strategic activities, PLAAF writers indicate that becoming a “strategic air force” requires broader missions and capabilities.
- Ji Yan, “The Strategic Positioning and Overall Transformation of China’s Air Force,” in Zhu Hui, ed., Strategic Air Force (Beijing: Blue Sky Press, 2009), p. 73.
- Ji Yan, “The Strategic Positioning and Overall Transformation of China’s Air Force,” p. 74.
- “Flying with Force and Vigor in the Sky of the New Century: Interview with CMC Member and PLAAF Commander Xu Qiliang,” PLA Daily, November 1, 2009.
- Dong Wenxian, “The Expansion of National Strategic Space Calls for a Strategic Air Force,” Air Force News, February 2, 2008, p. 2.
- Ruan Kexiang, “Several Theoretical Issues Concerning the Strategic Air Force,” in Zhu Hui, Strategic Air Force, pp. 68–9.
- Murray Scot Tanner, “The Missions of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force,” in Hallion, Cliff, and Saunders, ed., The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2012), pp. 133–148.
- Li Chuanxun, “Reflections on Air Force Transformation and Building Strategy,” in Zhu Hui, ed., Strategic Air Force, p. 96.
- Wang Mingliang, Yang Yujie, Wang Xudong, and Guo Jinsuo, “A Few Propositions Concerning the Strategic Air Force,” in Zhu Hui, ed., Strategic Air Force, p. 57.
- Dong Wenxian, “Air Force Culture: Distinctive Characteristic of the Strategic Air Force,” Air Force News, April 19, 2008.
- AMS Military Strategy Research Department (ed.), The Science of Military Strategy (Beijing, China: Military Science Press, 2013), p. 218.
- Wang Mingliang, Yang Yujie, Wang Xudong, and Guo Jinsuo, “A Few Propositions Concerning the Strategic Air Force,” p. 58.
- Dong Wenxian, “Air Force Culture.”
- The Science of Military Strategy, 2013, p. 227.
- See, for example, Ding Budong and Wang Xinghong, eds.,On Building a Strategic Air Force (Beijing: Blue Sky Press, 2010), pp. 274-289. Ding and Wang argue that the “development trends” of a “strategic air force” include stealthy, smart, unmanned, and interchangeable weapons systems and platforms.
- Yang Zhaoqi, “The Inaugural Flight of the Y-20,” Oriental Outlook, February 7, 2013, pp. 34–6.
- Wang Weishan, “Improve the PLA’s Strategic Projection Capability,” in Zhu Hui.,Strategic Air Force, pp. 163–8.
- Ruan, “Several Theoretical Issues Concerning the Strategic Air Force,” p. 69.
- Huang and Zhang, “The Development of the Essential Properties of the U.S. Strategic Air Force and Its Inspiration for China’s Air Force Building,” in Zhu Hui, ed., Strategic Air Force, p. 282.
- The Science of Military Strategy, 2013, p. 218.