PLA Airborne Capabilities and Paratrooper Doctrine for Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 11

PLA airborne troops practicing jumps over the desert, source:


In the event of a Taiwan contingency, PLA airborne troops are likely to assume a substantial role. Decapitation strike scenarios and the prospects of an airborne invasion are widely discussed by analysts, scholars, and policy practitioners in both the US and Taiwan. Despite PLA ambitions to rapidly expand their airborne capabilities, there are a growing number voices that downplay the threat or likelihood of an airborne assault across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese security analysts such as Liu Tai-ying (劉泰英), founder of the Taiwan Research Institute, have stated that “if paratroopers were used, the losses for China would be very high” and minimized their threat by stating that there are few landing spots available to PLA airborne forces (Taipei Times, September 26, 2022). Notably, many of these conclusions revolve around the viewpoint held by a growing number of military experts, who contend that “mass airborne operations are a thing of the past” (Modern War Institute, December 10, 2016). These views, however, fail to consider the robust drive on part of the PLA to improve the combat readiness and capabilities of its airborne troops. They also ignore substantial progress the PLA has already made towards that goal, both in terms of the training and preparation of its paratroopers and in decisive factors such as heavy airlift. In short, documenting the progress of PLA airborne troops’ capabilities may play a crucial role in assessing Chinese deployment strategies during a potential Taiwan invasion scenario.

Progress and Improvements in Airborne Capabilities

For a long time, the capabilities of PLA airborne troops have lagged behind those of the US and Russia’s. The PLA faced substantial challenges with heavy airlift and airborne troops lacked adequate firepower and capabilities. The latter was made apparent in 2008, when the PLA dropped 500 soldiers into Sichuan to assist with disaster recovery efforts following the 2008 earthquake (中国事务, July 4, 2008). During the disaster relief mission, only 15 troops managed to hit their drop zones given difficult weather and terrain. However, more recently, Chinese sources have repeatedly emphasized the successful implementation of enhanced capabilities in “remote access” and “systems integration” (China Youth News, September 17, 2020). China Youth News (中青在线), a media outlet affiliated with the Communist Youth League, highlights that Chinese paratroopers have developed “all-weather airborne combat capabilities” through extensive experience training in diverse locales, ranging from Qinghai and Tibet to the South China Sea. Furthermore, systems capabilities have improved in developing light, medium, and large transport aircraft, helicopters, and other airborne technology. All branches of the PLA now regularly practice parachute jumps, with the PLA Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) even conducting parachute drills over the sea (PLA Daily, November 16, 2021). In May 2018, the PLA demonstrated its increasing airborne capabilities when Chinese paratroopers made their inaugural jump from a domestically-manufactured Y-20 transport aircraft (China Military Online, May 10, 2018).

In light of these advancements made in technological capabilities and expertise, the PLA has witnessed a significant improvement in its capacity for heavy airlift. The aggregate number of Chinese military aircraft capable of heavy transport has been bolstered by construction of the Y-20, of which China now has at least 31. This, combined with pre-existing Russian-built IL-76s, of which China has around 20, means that the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has at least 51 aircraft capable of heavy airlift. The PLAAF also has at least 55 aircraft capable of medium airlift, namely 30 Y-8s and at least 25 Y-9s. [1] Lyle Goldstein, a former research professor at the US Naval War College, estimates that using such aircraft and the PLA’s helicopters China would be capable of landing 50,000 soldiers on Taiwan in the first wave of an invasion and 100,000 total soldiers in the first 24 hours. [2]

Heavy transport aircrafts such as the Y-20 play a significant role in military operations and logistics, as they are able to carry more than just troops. At least one PLAAF Airborne Corps brigade has been equipped with the ZBD-03 infantry fighting vehicle which can facilitate the maneuverability of airborne troops during ground operations. Chinese state-media has claimed that the Y-20, which can allegedly carry the weight equivalent to eight international standard shipping containers (CCTV, August 31, 2019), has the ability to carry three ZBD-03s (, January 15) or Type 99A main battle tanks (Global Times, April 8, 2020). [3] Both would improve the firepower and mobility of troops during potential ground operations in Taiwan. Further improvements in heavy airlift have been notable. In February 2022, the PLAAF received new Y-12 light transport aircraft to replace its aging Y-5s. Y-12 aircraft, which Chinese combat pilots state have superior engines and handling abilities compared to other light transport aircraft, could potentially be used for paratrooper and special operations missions (Global Times, February 27, 2022) and have already been used to test Taiwan’s frontline response to airborne incursions (SCMP, February 15, 2022). Reports have further suggested that the PLA has begun serial production of the Y-20U transport aircraft, an air-to-air refueling tanker variant of the Y-20 (Sina News, December 9, 2018). It is worth noting that the PLAAF Airborne Corps has also practiced forward resupply and support of its forces using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (Janes Defence Weekly, December 14, 2021).

Chinese military experts have spoken to the great strides made in the PLAAF’s heavy airlift capabilities, particularly with the Y-20. Experts such as Wang Mingzhi (王明志), Director of Strategy and Teaching at the PLA Air Force Command College, have stated that the “Y-20 already has combat capability” and can independently “shoulder the responsibility of dropping airborne troops and equipment.” [4] Senior Colonel Li Zhenbo (李振波), a prominent engineer at the research institute of the PLA Airborne Corps, has stated that China’s “airborne capabilities have improved quickly” and that China’s “airborne soldiers can drop things that other leading countries can drop” (Phoenix New Media, August 8, 2017). He has touted that “we have much more advanced tactical means than before” and that “before you even see the plane, our people will have already landed.” [5]

Structurally, the PLAAF Airborne Corps has undergone reorganization and institutional reform to bolster combat readiness. In 2018, action was taken to integrate combined arms units within the PLAAF Airborne Corps at the brigade level. Zhao Jinjun (赵进军), the deputy Chief of Staff of the Airborne Corps, stated that “the less command structures there are, the more we can shorten the response time of divisions and troops can be delivered more quickly.” He stated that the reforms were motivated by a desire to “improve the acceleration of response times of paratroopers” (Phoenix New Media, August 28, 2017). Leadership changes have also sought to improve the airborne capabilities of all services in the PLA. Lieutenant General Liu Faqing (刘发庆), former Commander of the PLAAF Airborne Corps, for example, was appointed deputy commander of the PLA Army component in October 2018. This marked the first time a general from the Airborne Corps became a leader in the PLA Army and was significant since the vast majority of inter-service transfers in the PLA have been undertaken by political commissars rather than tactical commanders. Analysts have suggested that his appointment was motivated by a desire to improve the Army’s capabilities related to special airborne operations (The Diplomat, April 20, 2019).

Airborne Operations Against Taiwan

In the context of the rapid improvement of the PLA’s airborne capabilities, it becomes important to examine how Beijing could deploy them in a military offensive against Taiwan. Major PLA textbooks such as Science of Campaign (战役学) state that airborne forces will play a role in two main phases of a joint island landing campaign (JILC). The first is preliminary operations and the second is establishing a target beachhead and then conducting assault and landing operations. In preliminary operations, special operations units could be dropped behind enemy lines to carry out decapitation strikes against Taiwanese leaders and operations that target Taiwanese airfields, radar, command and control, and munitions infrastructure. Next, airborne troops would be transported and dropped at designated landing zones after which they would commence ground operations. When transporting airborne troops, Science of Campaigns emphasizes the importance of protecting the main “campaign transport formation.” This involves the utilization of four other formations, including the reconnaissance formation, the jamming formation, the suppression formation, and the cover formation. The reconnaissance formation would be in charge of providing reports on “developing enemy conditions” and weather conditions on approach, the jamming formation would be tasked with jamming the electronic equipment of the enemy’s air defense system, the suppression formation would be responsible for suppressing the enemy’s radar capabilities and air defense missile and anti-aircraft installations, and the cover formation would be responsible for intercepting attacking enemy aircraft and providing “zone cover” while the main transport formation heads to the landing zone. [6]

Other points are notable from Science of Campaigns. Chapter 29 states that “surprise attack is one of the key ways to airborne campaign victory.” It contends that “in addition to selecting unexposed locations in the rear for secret concentration and preparations, a military strategist should also set up “bogus areas of concentration” and carry out “deceptive ferry exercises,” as well as implement fire preparation at false airlanding sites and electronic diversions to “deceive and confuse the enemy.” Furthermore, “air transport should, as much as possible, take advantage of darkness of the night and inclement weather.” [7]

PLA airborne troops have already conducted drills for an island airdrop scenario aimed at Taiwan. As far back as the 1996 Taiwan Strait exercises, an airborne battalion was parachuted onto Dongshan Island to support a amphibious landing exercise. [8] Between 2018 and 2022, the PLAAF Airborne Corps conducted several training exercises potentially related to a Taiwan contingency. In 2018, it participated in Red Sword exercises oriented around force-to-force confrontation for the first time (The Paper, May 25, 2018). In September 2020, a training exercise saw the Y-20 and other transport aircraft move elements of a brigade together and in April 2021, day and night airborne training was conducted successfully (Sina Military, April 28, 2021; Sina Military, August 13, 2021). In March 2022, an airborne brigade and a PLA Air Force aviation regiment conducted a day and night armed training exercise using Y-20s that involved upwards of 1,000 paratroopers (China Military Online, March 4, 2022). The Airborne Corps’ “Thunder God” (雷神突击队) special operations forces (SOF) brigade has also undergone training for high-altitude jumps and operations to capture high-value targets for intelligence purposes in an island-landing scenario (CCTV, February 25, 2021). Furthermore, Chinese state-media outlets have frequently published images depicting paratroopers firing anti-tank missiles (China Military Online, May 2, 2018). Paratroopers armed with Hongjian-8 anti-tank missiles, among other weapons systems, could leave tanks Taiwan sends to confront landing Chinese airborne forces vulnerable.

Areas in Taoyuan and Hsinchu, given their narrow terrain and close geographical distance to the mainland, have been identified as targets of brigade-level helicopter air assault operations to occupy points of strategic importance and carry out decapitation strikes (, January 15). An exceptionally likely target are the runways at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport. The Y-20 and Y-9 would be used for further targets in Yilan, Hualien, and Taitung, where airborne troops could be dropped to capture strategic installations such as Chiashan Air Force Base in Hualien and “cut off [the] retreat routes of Taiwan authorities” (QQ News, January 15). Chinese sources are confident that airborne troops can be dropped efficiently, with some stating that in a surprise attack scenario the PLA’s airborne troops can land on Taiwan and set up “forward positions” within 30 minutes (QQ News, January 15). These air or airborne assaults will likely occur in the early morning immediately preceding amphibious landings (US Economic and Security Review Commission, April 13, 2017).


Beijing’s increasingly formidable airborne capabilities significantly complicate security and deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. However, notable shortcomings in the PLA’s airborne capabilities remain. Long-standing obstacles associated with the political commissar system pose notable challenges for Chinese forces. In the aforementioned Red Sword exercises conducted in 2018, for example, a simulated combat jump in the western desert of China went wrong amid strong winds (Association of the US Army, August 12, 2021). The breakdown in the chain of command following the loss of the battalion commander severely impacted the operation’s effectiveness. The inefficiencies inherent in the commissar system exacerbated the situation, resulting in a critical delay to carrying out the mission, which in turn enabled the opposing force to inflict significant casualties. Failed military exercises such as these cast doubts in the PLA’s current combat readiness. Despite these limitations, the PLA is nonetheless making rapid strides in the professionalization and capabilities of its military. Among these advancements, China’s airborne capabilities are expected to assume a more pivotal role in its strategic planning.



[1] Garafola, Cristina L. “China Maritime Report No. 19: The PLA Airborne Corps in a Joint Island Landing Campaign.” U.S. Naval War College, Jan. 2022, 11-12.

[2] Goldstein, Lyle. “Stop counting warships. China’s special-operations forces are Taiwan’s real problem.” Business Insider, December 2021,

[3] “Forging an Airborne Army: Exploring the Airborne Forces of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” (锻造空降雄师 走进中国人民解放军空降兵军), CCTV 13, August 3, 2019, 12:10.

[4] Ibid, 14:29-14:53.

[5] “Senior Engineer of the Airborne Corps Research Institute Li Zhenbo and the First Parcahute Jump for Wenchuan Earthquake Relief Li Zhenbo: I Am A Drop of Water in the Sea” (空降兵研究所高级工程师、汶川地震救灾伞降第一跳李振波:我是大海中的一滴水), The Voice (开讲啦) CCTV, November 2, 2019, 34:04.

[6] Zhang Yuliang (张玉良) ed., Science of Campaigns (战役学), (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2006), 680-681. See CASI Translation:

[7] Ibid, 674-675.

[8] Yang, Andrew N.D., and Milton Wen-Chung Liao. PLA Rapid Reaction Forces: Concept, Training, and Preliminary Assessment in Mulvenon, James C. and Richard H. Yang, The People’s Liberation Army in the Information Age. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1999.