Training of troops is one of the weakest links in the modernization of China’s armed forces. This may be changing, however, especially in the power projecting forces like the air (People’s Liberation Army Air Force, PLAAF) and naval forces.
A STRATEGIC ISSUE
A week before the U.S.-PLAAF collision incident near the Hainan Island, on March 26, the Chinese official military newspaper stated that henceforth, military training “should aim at formidable enemies.” In addition, while urging the rank and file to usher in a “revolution in military training at deeper levels,” it called for “innovation in four aspects,” to include military theory, training content, training forms and means and training systems. To enhance the military’s “comprehensive fighting ability structure” the paper advocated the formulation of a “Program for Military Training and Examinations” and its implementation across-the-board from 2002. Given the PLAAF’s recent acquistion of new weapon systems like the multi-role fighters Su-27s, and Su-30MKKs, the S-300 PMU air defense systems, beyond-vision air-to-air (R-73 and R-27R) missiles, the article stressed the need to improve training, and raise “base-oriented, simulated and Internet-oriented military training to a higher level.”
That, however, is a far cry from the previous era of PLAAF training. During this period PLAAF training indicators like per capita flight training of pilots (which was a mere 4 hours and 27 minutes during the Korean War in the early 1950s), training methods and content, all exhibited a lack of sophistication and were hence far below the then world levels. Coming under the overall strategic principles of “people’s air defense” and as an adjunct of the land forces, the PLAAF training program suffered a setback. To compound, the technological level of the PLAAF equipment of that period (the J-5s, J-6s, J-7 fighters, H-5, H-6 bombers, etc) displayed a general lack of offensive features.
The situation began to change under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. In 1974 he identified training as a strategic issue, and for the PLAAF, in 1979, Deng emphasized “obtaining control of the skies.” The 1991 Gulf War further highlighted the low quality of PLAAF training. As a consequence, air superiority, beyond-vision air combat, long-range aviation and surgical strikes became the buzzwords in PLAAF circles producing obvious demands for better training. Additional pressures were forthcoming. In 1995 the General Staff Department, the nodal organ for military training, issued a “Military Training Outline” that broadly revised the armed forces training from “fighting” a local war to “winning” a local war under high tech conditions. These were reiterated by Chinese Army Chief of Staff Fu Quanyou in a speech in October 2000, in which he noted “the ability to win in battle” to be the starting point of the training program.
QUALITY VS QUANTITY
Given these parameters, the PLAAF leadership has stressed the principles of enhancing the quality rather than the quantity of its personnel. Equally important, it has emphasized offensive aspects in its combat missions and has initiated measures to “institutionalize and standardize” its training manuals. Another result is that it focuses its training resources to create specialized units (“Class A” units) instead of the tedious and time-consuming uniform training of the entire force. The PLAAF has also increased simulation methods training, which is also increasingly becoming the dominant mode of training. In addition, it has placed greater emphasis on the “joint” nature of future warfare in its military exercises, meaning greater cooperation with other services.
The PLAAF has enhanced professional trends in the twenty-six aviation schools, has made efforts to establish an noncommissioned officer (NCO) system, and is building linkages to the civilian educational system. It has rephrased its “guiding thought” in training as “persist in reform, increase beneficial results, advance steadily, [and] ensure safety.” An intensive crash course of flight training was launched for those under 25 years for undergoing training in high-altitude and high-speed interception.
The advanced standards of 800 hours flight training, however, seem to have evaded a large section of the PLAAF. The Class A units were also favored in terms of allocating the best training centers and equipment. Reportedly, by the early 1996 about 87 percent of the PLAAF combat regiments attained A-class standards, though one really wonders about the reliability of such crash courses. The traditional anomaly of not having standard operational procedures (SOPs) was also reportedly rectified in the training program. It was said that the number of all-weather pilots, compared to the 1980s, have increased by 20.5 percent by the mid-1990s. And in 1997 it was reported that 76 percent of the pilots have undergone such training. Nevertheless, though the pilots of Guangzhou region flew for long-range airdrop missions and used GPS for long-range reconnaissance mission in July 1999, only 400 pilots were reported to be such “backbone” all-weather pilots.
To enhance training standards the PLAAF has started sending its officers abroad. Two batches of Chinese military experts were trained by 1995 and 2000 respectively at Russia’s Moscow Pilots School and to Orenburg to study the TOR-M1 state-of-the-art surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. According to reports, the PLAAF was also briefed at the U.S. Edwards Air Force Base in 1999 in air traffic control, which would be critical for mounting large air operations.
Anti-aircraft missile and gun units are major elements of the PLAAF and their training is also improving. For SAM units the traditional tasks were battlefield rescue, shooting, tracking and oxidizer filling. New training now stresses the use of multiple air defense systems. The anti-aircraft gun units are being trained in new tactics of attacking cruise missiles. The PLAAF logistics unit training is also improving. An exercise in April 2000 practiced four broad tasks: the rescue of a damaged airfield after attack, restoring the airfield’s capacity to respond to emergencies, ensuring logistics and main battle equipment for ground troops’ mobile warfare, and camouflaged defense of airfields, positions, and oil tanks. The PLA Navy’s aviation has also being trained in sea-air maneuvers for seizing and maintaining “regional air domination” on the sea.
The PLAAF’s recent emphasis on offensive missions is noteworthy. Offensive training aspects include live fire and bombing and interregional long-range maneuvering with air-refueling. There is a proposal to set up an aerial refueling training base at Zhanjiang. Offensive training also includes air-borne troop transport, night-flights (on J-8 and Su-27 fighters), low-altitude flying, flying close to strategic points at sea (such as in the PLAAF training in South China Sea in May 2001), adversarial unit confrontations, surgical strikes, imposing air blockades and applying anti-electronic jamming technologies. Offensive training, however, also includes training defensive forces that will support the offensive forces. In this there has been an increase in the training of ground based air defense missile and gun units, and in holding urban air raid drills.
Another key element in improving training has been the use of adversary units, known as “simulated foreign units” or “Blue vs. Red” forces. While the first adversary unit was established in Nanjing in the 1980s, they have been used extensively for PLAAF training only in the recent period. By 2000 only three full-fledged simulation training bases were established for the PLAAF personnel. However, these reportedly have elevated the tactical training levels of the PLAAF. Likewise, the PLAAF military exercises have evolved from stressing technical to tactical training (such as landing on hilltops and in open country narrow strips, countering cruise missiles, etc), from the use of single aircraft to multiple aircraft (about five), and from single service to operation to multiservice combined arms operations. This sends a clear message to neighboring countries.
Dr. Srikanth Kondapalli is a Research Fellow with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, India, and is writing a book on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.