Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 15

“The People’s Liberation Army is stepping up preparations for military struggle. While continuing to attach importance to building the Army, the PLA gives priority to building the Navy, Air Force, and Second Artillery Force to seek balanced development of the combat force structure, to strengthen the capabilities for winning both command of the sea and command of the air, and to conduct strategic counter-strikes. The PLA Air Force is responsible for safeguarding China’s airspace security and maintaining a stable air defense posture nationwide. To meet the requirements of informationalized air operations, the Air Force has gradually shifted from one of territorial air defense to one of both offensive and defensive operations. Emphasis is placed on the development of new fighters, air defense and anti-missile weapons, and the means of information operations and automated command systems. Combined arms and multi-role aircraft combat training is intensified to improve the capabilities in operations such as air strikes, air defense, information counter-measures, early warning and reconnaissance, strategic mobility, and integrated support. Efforts are being made to build a defensive air force, which is appropriate in size, sound in organization and structure, advanced in weaponry and equipment, and possesses integrated systems and a complete array of information support and operational means.” China’s National Defense: 2004

This article examines the key reforms that have taken place in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) during China’s current 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). The article briefly looks at reforms in the PLAAF’s leadership, doctrine, organizational structure, weapon systems, personnel and education, and training.


General Qiao Qingchen, born in Henan Province in October 1939, is only the ninth commander since the PLAAF was established in 1949. His appointment as a member of the Communist Party Central Committee’s Military Commission (CMC) in mid-2004 could mean that he will remain the commander until he is in his seventies. Since joining the PLA in July 1956, Qiao has served as a pilot, political commissar, and commander at different levels. In February 1999, he became the PLAAF political commissar and assumed the commander’s position at age 62 in May 2002, when then-commander Liu Shunyao stepped down due to poor health. The only other PLAAF commander to serve on the CMC was Zhang Tingfa from 1977-1982. Zhang was also a member of the Party’s Politburo from 1977 until 1985 when he retired.

As the political commissar and commander, Qiao has led delegations abroad four times, including Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela in 1999, Russia and Italy in 2000, Egypt and Sudan in 2003, and Brazil, Sweden and Spain in 2005.


Three changes in the PLAAF’s doctrinal guidance have occurred since 1999, which have provided the foundation for the rapid shift in training and operational changes taking place.

First, in 1999 the PLAAF revised its “Campaign Gangyao,” which provides the classified doctrinal basis and general guidance for how the PLAAF will fight future campaigns. [1]

Second, in 2001, the PLAAF revised its Training Guidance Concepts. These 16 characters (four sets of four characters) can roughly be translated as “fight the way you train; all training will be opposition force training; discipline is essential; and use science and technology as the basis for all training.” [2]

Third, in 2002, the PLAAF completely revised its Outline for Military Training and Evaluation (Junshi Xunlian yu Kaohe Dagang), known simply as “dagang.” This compilation of classified documents, supported by dozens of regulations, provides the real details of how the PLAAF trains.

Organizational Structure

According to the PRC’s 2000 Defense White Paper, the PLA began reducing its force by 500,000 in 1997, of which 12.6 percent (63,000) came from the PLAAF. The 2004 White Paper states, “In September 2003, the PRC announced further reduction of 200,000 troops by the end of 2005 to maintain the size of the PLA at 2.3 million. The current restructuring, while cutting down the numbers, aims at optimal force structures, smoother internal relations and better quality.” The specific percentage for the PLAAF was not announced, but another 12.6 percent would equate to 25,200 troops.

One of the PLAAF’s most visible methods for reducing the high number of staff officers in various headquarters was to downgrade the five air corps (kongjun jun) and restructure the six corp-level bases (jidi) as command posts (zhihuisuo). As a result, the PLAAF currently has a total of 12 command posts, which includes two in each of six military regions but none in the Jinan Military Region.

The PLAAF currently has four subordinate branches (aviation, surface-to-air missiles, antiaircraft artillery, and airborne forces). All four branches have seen structural changes in the past decade.

According to the 1999 U.S. Defense Department report to Congress on the PLA, “The number of air divisions has gradually been reduced to just over 30” from a high of 50 in the late 1980s. In addition, two of the divisions are equipped with transport aircraft. Each military region also has a division-level training base for pilots transitioning for one year between the time they graduate from a flight academy and the time they are assigned to an operational unit.

The PRC’s 2002 Defense White Paper states, “An air division generally has under its command two to three aviation regiments and related stations. The aviation regiment is the basic tactical unit. Due to differences in weaponry and tasks, the number of aircraft in an aviation regiment ranges from 20 to 40. The ratio of aircraft to pilots is usually 1:1.2.”

Weapon Systems

The most visible changes in the PLAAF have been the acquisition of Russian Su-27/30 multi-role aircraft and the Chinese co-production of the Su-27, known as the J-11. The PLAAF has also purchased several Russian IL-76 transports to support the airborne forces, as well as SA-10 and SA-20 surface-to-air missiles, most of which are stationed in the Beijing area. The PLAAF is also in the process of fielding its first indigenous J-10 multi-role fighters in the Chengdu Military Region. [3]

In late 2004, the PLAAF received its first unit of indigenous JH-7 multi-role aircraft at Hangzhou. [4] Naval Aviation has had the JH-7 for several years. The PLAAF is also expected to purchase the new FC-1, which has been a joint PRC-Pakistan joint venture for over a decade. [5] As a result, the PLAAF’s combat aircraft now have more lethal onboard weapons and longer legs than their predecessors. In addition, these new aircraft can fly in all types of weather and at night.

The PLAAF has made serious efforts since the early 1990s to acquire an airborne early warning aircraft. According to the 2004 Department of Defense report to Congress on the PLA, “By decade’s end, the PLAAF will probably have…several airborne and early warning and control system (AWACS) type aircraft.” According to some sources, the PLAAF currently has at least one deployed AWACS flying, which is a converted IL-76 transport from China United Airlines. [6] The 2004 Defense report also states “China began to develop its air-to-air refueling capability in the 1980s.” The PLAAF has a few H-6 bombers assigned in the Guangzhou Military Region that were refitted as tankers in the 1990s. [7] The tankers currently work with the J-8D fighter from units in the Guangzhou and Nanjing Military Regions. During April 2005, one of the tankers refueled some J-8Ds from the Nanjing Military Region over East China Sea. [8] This was the first time the PLAAF’s tankers conducted refueling over water.

In terms of trainer aircraft, the PLAAF is gradually replacing many of its older trainer aircraft in the flight academies with the indigenous K-8.

Although the PLA is concerned about a conflict over Taiwan, it is important to note that the Sukhoi/J-11 aircraft are currently stationed in all seven military regions, which emphasizes that the PLAAF’s reforms are being implemented countrywide, not just for a Taiwan contingency.

As can be seen, the PLAAF is fielding a wide variety of airframes. To integrate them properly into a cohesive force, the PLAAF also needs to have the right doctrine, as well as trained pilots, maintenance and logistics personnel, and spare parts. To that end, significant changes in the PLAAF’s recruiting and training of its conscripts, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and officers (cadre) have taken place since the late 1990s.

Enlisted Force

Prior to 1999, the PLAAF’s enlisted force conscripts served for four years. At the end of that period, they could remain on active duty as a “volunteer” for an additional 12 years. In 1999, China revised the “Military Service Regulations,” which reduced the conscription period for all of the PLA’s services and branches down to two years. All conscripts report for duty on November 1 and are demobilized two years later on October 31st. During the early 2000s, the PLAAF began recruiting civilian college students who had not yet completed their studies to join as enlisted troops. The goal is to have them remain on active duty as NCOs at the end of their initial two-year service.

The revised regulation also established a formal NCO corps, whose members can now serve until they have 30 years of service or until they reach age 50. The PLAAF must now provide housing for them and their families as well. In terms of education, some PLAAF NCOs can attend an officer academy to receive a technical degree before returning to their unit as an NCO.

Although the PLA does not provide specific figures for the number of troops by rank and specialty, it appears that the number of conscripts has gradually been reduced while the number of NCOs has increased accordingly to provide greater experience and stability to the force as a whole.

Officer Corps

The PLAAF has also begun to reform the way it recruits its officers. Historically, most officers were recruited from high school graduates or the enlisted force. Once they join the PLAAF, they attend a PLAAF academy, where they received a three- or four-year degree and are commissioned as an officer. Today, the PLAAF is recruiting civilian college graduates and sending them to three months of basic training before they are commissioned.

The most significant changes have taken place in recruiting pilots. In 2000, the PLAAF also began to recruit its pilots from graduates who have a four-year bachelor’s degree from a PLA academy. In 2003, the PLAAF extended the program to civilian college graduates with specific bachelor’s degrees. These graduates receive two years of flight training at a PLAAF flight academy and one year of transition training before being assigned to an operational unit. As a result, the first group of pilots selected from PLA college graduate began entering the operational force in 2003.


The PLAAF has closely studied how the U.S. military has fought its wars since the early 1990s. Given the PLAAF’s new doctrinal guidance, new weapon systems, and concerns about having to fight the U.S. military over Taiwan, the PLAAF has seriously begun to shift its overall training with a goal of mobile, offensive operations, which can be conducted during day and night at low and minimum altitudes over water. The defensive aspects of this mobility training, especially for air defense missile, antiaircraft, and radar units, is necessitated by concerns about survival against cruise missile attacks.

The following excerpt from a PLA Daily article on November 26, 2004, illustrates how the PLAAF is training today:

“On the eve of National Day, a three-day aerial confrontational exercise involving new and old types of fighters was staged in an airspace in north China. The purpose of the exercise was to examine the effectiveness of the tactical and operational methods of the new and old fighters and to explore ways for an inferior force to be able to defeat a superior one. To examine the effectiveness of the operational methods, both sides engaged in air battles under completely unknown conditions, plus strong air and ground electromagnetic interference. During the exercise, both sides gave maximum play to the combat performance of their fighters and tested and further improved over 20 sets of air combat methods.” [9]

On September 26, 2004, PLA Daily carried an article with the title “Breakthroughs Made in Night Maritime Flight Training.” [10] The training focuses on “boosting the pilots’ psychological quality and technical and tactical skills.” The article also states, “Pilots conducted repeated exploration of fighting methods in combination with highly difficult flying training subjects, such as low altitude flying and upgraded their training from former simple flight training to comprehensive training which integrates skills and tactics with fighting methods, making training much closer to real air battles.”

It is important to note that the PLAAF did not even begin flying over water until the late 1990s. Prior to that, this mission belonged solely to Naval Aviation. Today, however, the PLAAF conducts routine training over water, to include long-distance flights by bombers. For example, a PLA Daily article on April 20, 2002, discusses a training exercise by eight PLAAF bombers from the Lanzhou Military Region, who launched cruise missiles over the East China Sea for the first time. [11]

Finally, one of the largest unanswered questions concerning PLAAF pilots is, “How many hours do they fly per year, and how good is the training during those hours?” Unfortunately, unlike other countries, the PLAAF does not provide this information for the public. However, it is possible to observe some trends from small pieces of data. For example, the PLAAF’s official magazine, China Air Force (Zhongguo Kongjun), occasionally has personal data about its pilots. Three articles between 2002 and 2005 provide information on three non-Sukhoi fighter pilots, who have averaged 115 to 125 hours of flight time per year. [12] Although the articles do not mention the reason for the lack of flying time, one of the primary factors is concern for the limited number of hours the non-Sukhoi fighter engines can have before they are must be overhauled or scrapped.

Although China Air Force now has lots of articles with information about the PLAAF’s Sukhoi pilot training, they do not provide data about flying hours for the pilots. However, the photos do indicate that the pilots are considerably younger than the pilots who were assigned to the first two PLAAF regiments of Su-27s in 1992 and 1996 and the first J-11 regiment in 2000.


As can be seen, the PLAAF began building the overall foundation during the 9th Five-Year Plan (1996-2000) for an Air Force capable of conducting simultaneous offensive and defensive mobile operations and made significant progress on all fronts during the 10th Five-Year Plan (2001-2005). It will clearly continue to build on all aspects of this foundation during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010).





4. Information on the JH-7 comes from Rick Kamer, who is a former Chinese linguist in the US Air Force and currently independently researches PLA’s aviation issues.

5. “Air Force Summary,” Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment for China and Northeast Asia, January 7, 2005.



8. “Chinese Air Force Successfully Performs Aerial Refueling Over Sea,” Beijing Zhongguo Wang, April 25, 2005.




12. China Air Force, Issue 2, 2002, p. 9; Issue 6, 2002, p. 10; and Issue 2, 2004, p. 25-26.