From late June to early July 2021, it was reported that the Western Theater Air Force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force (PLAAF) had “recently” conducted a combat support exercise in northwestern China. Although much of the exercise resembled other combat support exercises, it is notable because of its unusual stated purposes. Those purposes indicate that the PLAAF lacks the capability to operate outside its network of airbases, but they may also indicate that the PLAAF has set about emulating the U.S. Air Force’s newest operational concept.
As usual, details about the exercise are sparse, but it seems to have been relatively small, involving an air defense element as well as some aircraft (at least one Y-20 transport and at least two J-16 fighters) and their crews in addition to a great variety of combat support elements, from engineering to medical and even food service elements (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22; Chinese Military Online, July 14). The exercise began with the participating combat support elements deploying to an unspecified place in northwestern China by road, rail, and air (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22). After assembling at their destination, the participants unloaded materiel from a train and established a bivouac and a motor pool (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22).
“Several” aircraft then landed at an “unfamiliar” (陌生, mosheng) airfield that was presumably nearby (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22; Military Report, July 8). The PLA refers to an airfield from which a unit does not ordinarily operate as an “unfamiliar” airfield. The term encompasses civilian as well as military airfields. Immediately after the aircraft landed, the airfield was “attacked” from the air (Military Report, July 8). Elements of an engineering and logistics group removed unexploded ordnance and then worked with a local civilian construction company to repair the runway (Xinhua, July 7). The airfield’s fuel tank farm was also “destroyed” in the attack, so a fuel support element established a new “field fuel farm” (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22).
This much of the exercise resembles other combat support exercises that the PLAAF has conducted before and after (Chinese Military Television Online, August 15, 2019; Chinese Military Television Online, August 27). However, two new subjects were added to this exercise. The exercise marked the first time that maintainers worked in the field with employees of aircraft manufacturers to repair aircraft (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22). More important, “hot support” (热保障 re baozhang) was conducted for the aircraft that landed at the airfield, which were apparently unscathed by the “attack” (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22). “Hot support” refers to the refueling and rearming of a just-landed aircraft whose engines are still running (National Defense Stories, June 8). This is a key capability for keeping aircraft aloft longer, thereby sustaining continual air operations and reducing the risk to aircraft from strikes on their airbases.
More anomalous were the stated purposes of the exercise. The first was to explore how combat units could “survive” while conducting operations from “unfamiliar” airfields lacking the materiel and combat support personnel to sustain combat operations (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22; Xinhua, July 7; Military Report, July 8). A second purpose was to study how to organize, deploy, and exercise command and control over various combat support elements sustaining operations from such airfields (Chinese Military Television Online, June 22). The third purpose was to gauge units’ minimum combat support needs in wartime (Xinhua, July 7). Other combat support exercises have focused on deploying units over long distances and practicing various support functions in the field, but they have typically not involved aircraft. This exercise focused on organizing the minimal combat support force to sustain air operations from airfields whose runways may be their only adequacy.
Implications of the Exercise
The exercise is significant for two reasons. First, it suggests that the PLAAF’s capability to employ its combat support units, and to sustain combat operations, outside its current organization and network of airbases is low. The PLAAF does regularly deploy aviation units to participate in large-force employment exercises, but such exercises are conducted at well-appointed airfields like Dingxin (鼎新) Airbase. Throughout the last decade, the PLAAF has worked to reduce the amount of materiel and the number of combat support personnel accompanying aviation units on these deployments (Liberation Army News, November 6, 2019). This recent exercise indicates that the PLAAF is aware of this deficiency and is addressing it. Second, and more important, the exercise indicates that the PLAAF is grappling with the same threat that has prompted the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to devise the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept, which is the potential incapacitation of the PLAAF’s air operations through concentrated strikes on its airbases.
There are likely two reasons as to why the PLAAF is grappling with this threat now, which are not mutually exclusive. First, the PLAAF certainly recognizes how absolutely dependent air power is on airfields, and that it cannot afford to gamble on the efficacy of its air defenses, particularly when it is commonly predicted that current missile defense systems will be ineffective against hypersonic missiles, which are being developed by the PLA’s adversaries. In the future, the PLAAF may be forced to operate from “unfamiliar” airfields that lack the necessary materiel and facilities, so it is prudent to prepare for that contingency.
In fact, in January the PLA reported that the PLAAF had designated at least one “field station” (场站, chang zhan) to develop the techniques and procedures to enable an entire such unit to provide emergency, mobile combat support (Liberation Army News, January 18). A “field station,” also known as an “air station,” is not a station in the common sense of the term; rather, it is the highest-level combat support unit in the PLAAF. It is roughly equivalent to a group in the USAF and likely consists of several hundred personnel.
The other possible reason is that the PLAAF views the increasing dispersal of forces as an ineluctable trend in military tactics, so it has decided that it, too, must become more agile. It is a basic principle of warfare that dispersal increases survivability, but dispersal also complicates command and control. Advances in information technology, however, should enable commanders to coordinate the actions of widely scattered units, thereby enabling those units to fight together even while they are separated. ACE will take advantage of those advances to employ forces across a distributed network of airfields in order to increase units’ survivability. ACE will also increase units’ agility and decrease their discoverability by minimizing combat support at each point of dispersal.
It is notable that in its publicly available assessment of ACE, the PLA never criticized the principle of distributed employment (China Brief, July 16). In fact, just before the exercise, the PLA’s mouthpiece, Liberation Army News, published an article stating that the convergence of strength across dispersed formations is a “basic requirement” for employing forces in future wars in which, due to the application of information technology and artificial intelligence, “exposure means discovery” and “discovery means destruction” (Liberation Army News, May 18). The article and the exercise are probably unconnected; the exercise is likely to have been planned well before the article was published. However, the separate appearance of both suggests the existence in the PLAAF—and in the PLA as a whole—of a prior consensus about how they must adapt to current trends in warfare. The fact that the PLAAF is trying to determine the minimal combat support needs for sustaining combat operations from austere airfields may indicate that the PLAAF has decided to follow the same path as that of the USAF.
If the PLAAF is considering implementing its own version of ACE, then it will face some of the same challenges as the USAF: primarily the challenge of coordinating the actions of dispersed combat units and of sustaining those units with smaller, nimbler combat support elements operating in austere conditions. Having started earlier, the USAF has made more progress toward meeting those challenges.
However, the PLAAF also has advantages. In a regional war, the PLAAF can operate entirely from China’s vast territory. It need not rely on allies for access to the theater of operations. In addition, it can legally commandeer any airstrip and press civilian entities into service (Standing Committee of the 11th National People’s Congress, February 26, 2010). Greater reliance on civilian entities for combat support may be a key difference in how the PLA implements its own version of ACE. The participation in the aforementioned exercise of a local construction company as well as employees of aircraft manufacturers highlights this possibility.
Finally, the PLAAF’s logistics are less vulnerable, not only because the PLA can freely utilize civilian transportation assets, but also because it can convey men and materiel over land by road and rail, so it has more options for transport as well as transshipment and storage. Those road and rail networks are particularly well-developed in China’s coastal provinces. These advantages will not compensate for a lack of agility, but they will significantly augment the PLAAF’s capabilities if it can implement its own version of ACE. The PLAAF’s becoming more agile will not counteract ACE, but it will make the PLAAF a much more resilient force. By adopting the USAF’s own, still developing operational concepts, the PLAAF will force the USAF into a race to implement them so as not to be surpassed. The USAF’s lead over the PLAAF may not last, so the USAF should not become complacent about its progress. Nor should it become sanguine about the advantages that implementation will provide.
Derek Solen is a senior researcher at the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute. He was a civilian intelligence specialist in the U.S. Army. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
 The exercise was characterized as a “support” (保障, baozhang) exercise. This term for “support” is typically used throughout the PLA as “combat service support” is defined in U.S. joint doctrine. The exercise is here described as a “combat support” exercise in accordance with U.S. Air Force doctrine.
 The U.S. armed forces refer to the same as “hot-pit” refueling and rearming.
 It was predicted that hypersonic weapons would have just this effect in an article about the future of air strikes that was published in the PLA’s official newspaper (Liberation Army News, September 3, 2020).
 It is possible that the field station belongs to the Northern Theater Air Force (Xinhua, April 15, 2020).
 The PLA similarly negatively assessed the U.S. military’s ability to implement the Joint All-Domain Operations concept, but it never criticized the logic behind it, and it seems to have even judged that “multi-domain integrated joint operations” (多域一体化联合作战, duoyu yitihua lianhe zuozhan) will be the basic form of warfare in the future (China Aerospace Studies Institute, August 31, 2020; China Brief, May 25). When the PLA does emulate the U.S. military, it does so not out of a copycat impulse, but because it understands and accepts the validity and the effectiveness of the U.S. military’s ideas and methods.