Some Western analysts argue that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) use of the term “command of the air” belies outdated views of control of the air. The term is over a century old, and its original concept has been complicated by technological and tactical innovations since it was coined. Although there is some doubt that the PLA’s use of the term has always adhered strictly to the original concept, some of the PLA’s recent writings suggest that there was previously a tendency in the PLA to regard control of the air in absolute terms. However, these same writings indicate that the PLA is now promoting a more nuanced and modern understanding of control of the air. Consequently, the PLA is unlikely to seek command of the air in future military campaigns, and it is likely to reduce its spatial and temporal requirements for control of the air as its capabilities to conduct multi-domain operations improve.
Command and Control of the Air
“Command of the air” was coined in 1921 by Giulio Douhet after Alfred Mahan’s “command of the sea,” and it was defined as preventing “the enemy from flying or from carrying out any aerial action at all.” He later restated the concept as putting “the enemy in a position where he is unable to fly, while preserving for oneself the ability to do so,” implying the absolute control of the airspace above a certain area. This was much more achievable at the time, when ground-based air defenses were less effective and the greatest threat to airpower was fighter aircraft.
The threats to airpower have since multiplied in type and effectiveness. Consequently, the US Air Force (USAF) does not use “command of the air”; instead, it uses “control of the air,” which comprises three states of relative control: parity, air superiority, and air supremacy, the last of which is almost the same as “command of the air” (Department of the Air Force, July 31, 2017). Unlike air supremacy, “air superiority,” does not imply the almost total elimination of threats to friendly air forces; it only refers to a state of control in which those threats are not “prohibitive” (Department of the Air Force, July 31, 2017). “Parity” of course refers to a state in which neither combatant has achieved air superiority or air supremacy (Department of the Air Force, July 31, 2017).
The PLA has made no such distinctions in its doctrinal publications that are publicly available (China Aerospace Studies Institute, October 19, 2020). The latest available edition of the PLA’s dictionary of military terms contains an entry that it translates into English as “command of the air,” zhikongquan (制空权), along with similar terms for other domains, including the information and cyber domains—but inexplicably excluding the land. However, “zhikongquan” is described much more vaguely than Douhet’s “command of the air.” The dictionary defines it merely as “control over a particular airspace at a particular time during an operation.” Because this definition fails to indicate any degree of control, one could conclude that zhikongquan comprises states of less control than its usual English translation implies, states like the USAF’s “air superiority.” After all, “zhikongquan” itself does not intrinsically indicate absolute control, which is why “zhikongquan” is also the usual Chinese translation of “control of the air.” (Henceforth, in order to avoid the ambiguity of “zhikongquan,” “control of the air” will be used to translate “zhikongquan” except in cases in which “command of the air” is more appropriate.) However, evidence that “zhikongquan” has generally been regarded in the PLA in absolute terms comes from the very sources that indicate that the PLA is promoting an explicitly nuanced view of “zhikongquan” that more closely aligns with that of the USAF than that of Douhet.
Reconceptualizing Control of the Air
In May and June 2022 PLA Daily published a series of articles about dominance in different domains, from the land to the cyber domain. The series was published in the “Military Forum” section of the newspaper. PLA Daily is the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), which is equivalent to the US Department of Defense. Unlike traditional newspapers, the primary purpose of PLA Daily is to indoctrinate the troops, not to inform them. The Military Forum section is where the PLA conveys rather scholarly ideas about warfare and military science. While the section’s content cannot definitively be regarded as doctrine, it does represent orthodoxy because “wrong” ideas would never be published in PLA Daily. It is, therefore, an excellent window on the most current ideas carrying the CMC’s imprimatur. The series in question was published in a special column within Military Forum, the “Special Column for Researching Military Affairs, Researching War, and Researching the Conduct of War,” indicating the importance of the series and the CMC’s desire that the series be studied.
The article about dominance in the air is only remarkable because it breaks with Douhet, not because it breaks new ground. It was written by Chai Shan, a frequent contributor to Military Forum whose affiliation is unclear. The article makes five points. First, Chai argues that control of the air still “occupies an important position” in “informationized wars” and will still do so in the “intelligentized wars of the future” (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). He writes that control of the air is the “foundation” upon which overall dominance in all domains is built (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). Second, Chai argues that because the struggle for control of the air is no longer one that is exclusively conducted with aircraft, one must also control the “formless” electromagnetic and cognitive domains “before it can be said that one has really seized control of the air” (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). Chai’s fifth point is actually quite similar to his second point. He states that one can only seize control of the air by converging capabilities across multiple domains, including the other physical domains of the land and the sea (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022).
Third, Chai states that the air is no longer a single space because more effective air defenses and new types of aircraft, including helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, pose threats at or from different altitudes and distances (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). Therefore, control of the air is something that one “cannot hope to completely accomplish in one go,” Chai remarks (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). “One can only really seize control of the air” with phased and targeted efforts that consider the airspace at all altitudes as well as the characteristics of the enemy’s air defenses, he writes (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022).
Chai’s fourth point concerns Douhet’s “command of the air.” He characterizes it as the “absolute control of the air” (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). However, subsequent experience with operations to achieve command of the air has caused people to recognize that “seizing absolute control of the air is both difficult to realize and unnecessary; gaining control of the air over several key battlefields and during important stages is more feasible and reliable than gaining command of the air for the entire duration of a war,” he remarks (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). Chai writes that “through a great deal of practical application in war, foreign militaries” therefore divide control of the air into three levels of increasing control: air superiority, air dominance, and air supremacy (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022). Chai thus defines these three terms:
Air superiority usually refers to having a relative advantage over an enemy and possessing the operational initiative; air dominance usually refers to having a greater advantage over the enemy and possessing the operational initiative. However, air supremacy refers to having an overwhelming advantage over the enemy as well as absolute control of the air (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022).
He remarks that such differentiation makes it possible for one to employ forces “scientifically and economically” according to the adversary and operational goals (PLA Daily, May 12, 2022).
Of course, Chai is not merely reporting how “foreign militaries” regard control of the air. Again, the article was intended to be educational, and Chai’s definitions of the levels of control of the air were not cribbed from those of the world’s most experienced air power, at least. Instead, Chai is refuting command of the air and providing a new, more practical concept of control of the air for the PLA, citing unspecified foreign militaries’ greater experience to validate it. This, in turn, could be interpreted as evidence that there was a tendency in the PLA to regard zhikongquan as the “absolute control of the air,” i.e., command of the air.
Even more recently, command of the air was refuted in one of the two subsequent articles about airpower to appear in Military Forum. The article was published in April 2023 in the “Special Column for Researching Military Affairs, Researching War, and Researching the Conduct of War,” and its authors were all identified as being affiliated with the Air Force Command College, which is the PLA Air Force’s highest institution of learning, akin to the USAF’s Air War College. It is possible that the identification of the authors’ affiliation indicates that their article represents the views of the college and perhaps the PLA Air Force as a whole.
The authors write that battles between large formations of aircraft and “close-range dogfights” are becoming things of the past (PLA Daily, April 11). “Air battles beyond visual range, strikes from outside defensive perimeters, ultra-long-range air defense, etc., are becoming the primary form of air operations,” they remark (PLA Daily, April 11). When combatants possess an equal amount of long-range offensive weapons, control of the air will be mutually denied, making it “all the more difficult” to “seize absolute control of the air in the traditional sense” (PLA Daily, April 11). Consequently, the authors conclude that “control of the air will transform from [being something sought for] all times over all areas to the pursuit of air superiority for key tasks at key times and over key areas” (PLA Daily, April 11).
The PLA is thus promoting an explicitly nuanced concept of control of the air. Chai’s levels of control and their definitions may not be final, but the PLA is clearly refuting the feasibility and the necessity of achieving command of the air as Douhet originally conceived it. This conceptual change has two implications. First, it is unlikely that the PLA will seek absolute control of the air in future campaigns such as an invasion of Taiwan. Second, the PLA will likely reduce its spatial and temporal requirements for control of the air as its capabilities to conduct multi-domain operations improve.
Given the ineluctability of the trends that the PLA has identified as forcing the conceptual change, it is unlikely that the PLA believes it can do otherwise. These would be necessary adaptations to the proliferation of threats to airpower, and the same logic underlies the PLA’s promotion of penetrating counterair operations à la the USAF’s Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan (PLA Daily, July 19, 2022; Guangming Daily, November 21, 2021). Chai and others are paving the way for the PLA to employ airpower in the kind of high-threat environment that some believe has defeated the Russian air force over Ukraine: suppressing enemy air defenses by converging capabilities across domains and only seeking air superiority over limited spaces for brief periods of time. This would offset the advantages of a strategy of air denial for the defense of Taiwan or any other place that the PLA attacks.
 Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2019), accessed June 8, 2023, airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/AUPress/Books/B_0160_DOUHET_THE_COMMAND_OF_THE_AIR.PDF, 17.
 Ibid., 94.
 中国人民解放军军语 [Military Terminology of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army], 2nd ed., s.v. “制空权” [command of the air] (Beijing: 军事科学出版社 [Junshi kexue chubanshe], 2011).