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5.5   Modernization of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF)

1 April 2018

Since its inception, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has focused its efforts on territorial defence with only limited concern for issues beyond China’s mainland. After the turn of the century, however, the nature of China threat from external environment has decidedly gravitated from land-based to predominantly coming from the sea. With Xi calls for the PLA efforts to defend China’s maritime interests within the region, PLAAF capabilities in carrying out maritime power projection and maritime strike became all the more important. Xi renewed impetus in 2015 to reform the military, in particular, has accentuated the roles of the PLAAF along with that of the PLAN in carrying out A2/AD operations in the China Seas.

In respond, the PLAAF’s embarked on modernization initiatives which include developing its long-distance maritime power projection capabilities, improving strategic conventional deterrence, building maritime strike capabilities, and training for integrated joint operations (IJO).


Given its lack of technology, PLAAF started in the 1950s by importing and reverse-engineering Soviet-made aircrafts. One of the early Chinese-manufactured types was the J-6, a clone of the supersonic MiG-19, which has a jet intake in the nose. Though China built thousands of J-6s between 1958 and 1986, all but a few have been retired.


By 1962, the Soviets offered China a dozen new MiG-21 fighters but when the Soviets failed to delivered all technical documents with the planes due to deteriorating relations between the two countries, the Chinese reverse-engineered it and came up with the sturdier but heavier Chengdu J-7 which became operational in 1967. In the years that followed, China came up with several variants, often incorporating advanced avionics and weapons from the West. They were produced not only for the PLAAF but also for exportsto more than 30 countries. Due to its excellent performance, the J-7 fighter is hailed as the “F-16 fighter of small countries”.  A total of more than 4,000 J-7 had been built over four years by the time its production ceased around 2008.[1] These aircraft would struggle against modern fourth-generation fighters that can detect and engage adversaries at much greater ranges, though hypothetically mass formations could attempt to overwhelm defenders with swarm attacks. Still, the J-7s allow China to maintain a larger force of trained pilots and support personnel until new designs come into service.[2]


The J-7 was succeeded by the J-8 which was billed as the first PLAAF aircraft of domestic design though the overall configuration is more a straightforward enlargement of the MiG-21/J-7 layout to accommodate two engines. Even though design works started in the mid-1960s, its production was delayed until 1979 because of the Cultural Revolution. Initial version lacked modern avionics and manoeuvrability  but the succeeding J-8II variant (about 150 currently serving) improved on the former with an Israeli radar in a new pointy-nose cone, making it a fast but heavy weapons platform a bit like the F-4 Phantom.[3] In 1996, China and Russia co-developed the J-8IIM. The high-altitude high-speed performance of the J-8-IIM is reportedly superior to the F-16A/C, F/A-18 and Mirage 2000; and its radar and electronic equipment are better than the F-16A and similar to the F-16C, F/A-18 and Mirage 2000-5.[4]


Another project that ran in parallel with the J-8 in the 1960s was the J-9 which used a new single-engine airframe. Development was delayed also by the Cultural Revolution and only resumed in 1975. It was finally terminated in 1980 because of problems developing the new turbofan engine. Funding priority went to J-8 instead.[5]


China began with the development of J-10 “Vigorous Dragon” (猛龙) in 1988 in response to threat posed by the Soviet fourth-generation fighters - the MiG-29 and Su-27. It made its maiden flight in 1998 but entered service only in 2004. The highly manoeuvrable, lightweight multirole fighter represents an important milestone for China's industry as the first Chinese-developed combat aircraft that approaches Western fighters in terms of performance and capabilities. Just like the Su-27/MiG-29 which blended the best ideas in the teen series types, the J-10 blends the best ideas from the Eurocanard series and the F-16 to produce a high performance low cost mass production fighter. It excels in providing local air superiority over land forces and close air support though it lacks the strategic impact of the long range Sukhois. A US Congressional report cites J-10 as being now comparable with the US F-15 even though in the 1980s F-15 was vastly superior to J-10. With the J-10 China has finally joined the club of nations capable of designing a modern agile combat aircraft. Currently around 240 of these aircraft are in service. In 2014, China came up with an improved version J-10B powered by Chinese WS-10 turbofan engine. The most important upgrade in the J-10B is its active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which features frequency hopping to foil enemy jamming and higher power to track stealth aircraft at long range. The J-10B also possesses a strong multirole capability-- it can carry both 100km ranged PL-12 air to air missiles and LS-500J laser guided bombs on the same mission. These advanced "4.5+ generation" features places the J-10B in the same class as the F-16, French Rafale, and Eurofighter Typhoon. At least 14 aircraft were delivered during the same year. The J-10B is likely to become a standard production model.[6]


The next Chinese fighter upgrade was J-11 which China produced under license after it imported in 1996 the initial batch of then state-of-the-art Russian Sukhoi Su-27s fighters which was billed as comparable to the F-15 Eagle. After producing 100, however, production was halted in 2003 because the basic J-11 variant was no more meeting the PLAAF requirements. The Chinese then rejected Russian offer of Su-27SKM fighter, an upgraded multirole variant of the Su-27 capable of firing the active radar-homing missile and a range of precision-guided weapons. Much to the dismay of the Russian, the Chinese began independently building more advanced models and in 2004 introduced J-11B which incorporated Su-27 airframe with Chinese-made avionics and weapon systems.[7] In 2015, the Chinese made its first flight J-11D. In addition to using radar absorbent materials in order to "reduce the jet's signature", J-11D is equipped with an AESA radar, an air refueling system, and carries the fifth-generation PL-10 air-to-air missiles. According to the expert, the J-11D "is very comparable" in a lot of respects with the Russian Su-35S.[8]


In 2013, the Chinese also introduced the J-15 “Flying Shark”, a carrier-based fighter based on a Russian Su-33 prototype acquired from Ukraine in 2001 after initial attempts to buy 14 SU-33 shipborne fighters from Russia was rejected in 2006 when the Russian found out that J-11 was a knockoff of the Su-27 planes. Around twenty J-15s now serve on China’s Type 001 aircraft carrier Liaoning. In 2016, a significantly upgraded version J-15A made its appearance. Its reinforced landing gear on the nosewheel allows it to operate on future Chinese carriers with catapults.[9]


In 2013, China also unveiled the J-16 “Red Eagle”, a fighter/bomber with beyond-visual-range air-to-air and air-to-ship strike capabilities. Based largely on the J-11BS model, J-16 features increased operational range, improved avionics suite and a multirole capability, a concept similar to F-15E Strike Eagle. In 2015, the upgraded J-16D (the ‘D’ is for Dianzi 电子 in Chinese, meaning electronic) variant made its maiden flight. In addition to a full range of indigenous Chinese equipment including super and subsonic anti-ship missiles, air to air missiles, satellite guided bombs, cruise missiles as well as new antennas and conformal electronic-warfare arrays along the fuselage and new electronic-warfare pods mounted on the wingtips. At that point in time, China already flies another fighter bomber with electronic warfare capabilities, the domestically designed two-seat JH-7 “Flying Leopard”, around 240 of which serve in the PLA Air Force and Naval Air Force. However, the JH-7 lacks electronic warfare equipment integrated in the airframe, and is thus more limited as an electronic-warfare platform than a purpose-designed aircraft.[10]


Finally, in a remarkably short timeframe, China developed two distinct stealth fighter designs: J-20 and J-31.


Unlike the F-22 Raptor, designed to be the ultimate air superiority fighter, or the single-engine multirole F-35 Lightning, the J-20 is a huge twin-engine beast optimized for speed, range and heavy weapons loads at the expense of manoeuvrability. The J-20 might be suitable for surprise raids on land or sea targets (such as a carrier) or to sneak past enemy fighters to take out vulnerable support tankers or AWACs radar planes. In September 2017, twenty Chengdu J-20s entered PLAAF service, making China only the third country in the world with its own domestically built stealth fighter, after the US and Russia.[11] Further reports in February 2018 confirmed that the J-20 fourth-generation stealth fighter was indeed combat-ready. [12]

The smaller privately developed Shenyang J-31 Gyrfalcon (or FC-31), on the other hand, is basically a twin-engine multipurpose medium fighter featuring helmet-mounted sights, holographic cockpit displays and a high-tech stealth coating. It is touted as a direct competitor to the US F-35 Lightning II. Currently, the J-31 appears intended for service on upcoming Type 002 aircraft carriers, and for export as a cut-price alternative to countries prohibited from purchasing F-35 planes. Chinese designers may have developed an aerodynamically superior airframe by ditching elements supporting vertical-takeoff-or-landing engines. However, the J-31 probably will not boast the fancy sensors and data fusion capabilities of the Lightning. Prototypes of J-31 are equipped with Russian engines. Production may only begin when sufficiently reliable Chinese WS-13 turbofans are perfected.


Twenty years ago, a high-tech US F-15, F-16 or F/A-18 would be vastly superior to a Chinese J-6 aircraft. Today, China’s J-10 and J-11 fighter jet aircraft would be roughly equivalent in capability to an upgraded US F-15. In addition, China also owns Russian-built SU-27s and SU-30s. It is also in process of bringing in twenty-four new Russian SU-35 which is the most sophisticated and manoeuvrable variant of the Flanker so far. The new aircraft would offer significantly improved range and fuel capacity over China’s current fighters, thus strengthening China’s ability to conduct air superiority missions in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and South China Sea.  At the same time, it will provide China with the opportunity to reverse engineer the fighter’s component parts, particularly its AL-41F turbofans engines, for an area of technology where China is quite possibly still struggling to perfect.




China started with Soviet-built Il-28s from 1952. When the Sino-Soviet split occurred in the late 1950s, China decided to place the Il-28 into production, despite no manufacturing license being obtained. The result was the H-5 (轰 – 5) bomber with a payload of 1,000 kg. Several variants were also produced following that. They include H-5A, a nuclear capable bomber, and H-5R (HZ-5), a long range reconnaissance aircraft.

In 1968, China completed the domestic production of another Soviet-era clone the Xi’an H-6 (轰 – 6), a twin-engine free-fall strategic bomber based on the early-1950s era Tu-16 Badger. By the 1970s, however, it became clear that strategic bombers were unlikely to get close enough to a modern adversary to drop bombs on top of them. PLAAF began to look for ways to extend the H-6’s reach and several variants emerged. They include "H-6A" a nuclear bomber,  "H-6B" a reconnaissance variant, "H-6C" a conventional bomber, "H-6D" an anti-ship missile carrier, "H-6E" nuclear bomber with improved countermeasures, “H6-F” a updated version of H-6A and H-6C combined, "H-6G", a director providing targeting data for ground-launched cruise missiles to support maritime missions, "H-6H", which carries two land-attack cruise missiles, “H-6K” with turbofan engines and refuel capability to extend range and capability to carry six air-launched land-attack cruise missiles (LACM), giving the PLA a long-range standoff precision strike capability that can hit naval or ground targets as far as 4,000 miles from China without entering the range of air defenses, and "H-6M" cruise missile carrier, which has four pylons for improved cruise missiles and is fitted with a terrain-following system.[13] Thanks to its long-range missiles, H-6s today can fire at targets a thousand miles away, giving it a total striking distance of 4,500 miles away from base when supported by inflight refueling.[14]

In 1973, PLAAF also began looking for a new aircraft to replace the Harbin H-5 which was then the mainstay of all Chinese medium bomber units. Operational analysis showed that the new aircraft needed to possess long range and be able to fly at low altitudes at near sonic speeds in all weathers and at night, and would need a dedicated Weapons System Operator on-board to handle the final attack phase of the mission. Hence the requirement called for a fast two-seater fighter-bomber similar in concept to the F-111 or Su-24. Moreover, the Chinese military took careful notice of the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, paying considerable attention to the Argentine use of French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles against British vessels. Chinese maritime war planning was revised to focus on anti-ship missiles, and that implied obtaining an air platform that could carry and launch them.[15]


In 1988, a prototype of JH-7 “Flying Leopard” naval-attack fighter-bombers was rolled out for testing. In 1992, twenty JH-7 entered service. The beefy two-seater can lug up to twenty thousand pounds of missiles and have a top speed of Mach 1.75. In addition to carrying air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles, and anti-radiation missiles, JH-7 can also carry unguided, laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs. Notably, the JH-7 is not made for dogfight especially with contemporary fighters. Their main focus is still on the delivery of long-range missiles that they carry. As for the H-5s, it is unclear whether they are still in service. They were reportedly withdrawn from service though sources maintained that H-5s remain in the PLAAF inventory.[16]

In 2004, to meet future need for precision air-to-surface capability, the PLAAF introduced the JH-7A which was designed with new avionics system that enables it to carry a wider range of weapons. Its lighter and stronger airframe also allows it to carry a maximum ordnance load of 9000 kg. Instead of the two YJ-82 anti-ship missiles that JH-7 can carry, JH-7A can carry four. This was then followed by JH-7B in 2011 which has stealthier features, a new radar and mission computer, an inflight refuelling probe, an improved WS-7B engine as well as some composite assemblies to reduce weight.[17] The improved aircraft is said to increase the combat radius to as far as 1,800 km and even out to 4,500 km since it has the aerial refuelling capability that its predecessor lacked.[18]


Meanwhile, the PLAAF continues developing long-range strategic bombers. Xi’an is reportedly developing a new H-20 strategic bomber, a speculation confirmed in September 2016 by General Ma Xiaotian’s announcement that China was developing a new generation of long-range bombers which observers expected to debut sometime around 2025. Though there’s little information available so far, these new Chinese bombers will almost certainly be aimed at enhancing PLA’s capability to executing its "anti-access, area denial" (A2AD) strategy against American aircraft carriers and other major assets in the Western Pacific. The new bomber is thus likely to carry air-to-ground missiles, particularly anti-ship cruise missiles to attack aircraft carriers and their escorts. China will use them in conjunction with its "carrier killer" ballistic missiles and attack submarines to create a triple threat that would overwhelm a carrier battle group's defences.[19]


Notably, there is no talk by PLAAF about fielding nuclear air-launched cruise missiles. There are reportedly also no nuclear aerial bombs in the China's nuclear stockpile.[20] This may be because China has a nuclear "No First Use" policy. It is thus oriented towards defensive use of nuclear weapons, a strategy that prioritizes platforms that are more likely to survive an adversary’s nuclear first strike, such as ground-based and submarine-launched strategic missiles and not bombers which are more vulnerable to surprise attack in the air.[21]


Based on estimates in December 2017 by US DoD, excluding unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the PLAAF had more than 2,700 total aircraft of which about 2,100 combat aircraft (including fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers, multi-mission tactical and attack aircraft).[22]


Broadly, about 33 percent of the PLAAF and PLANAF’s combat aircraft are old second-generation fighters of limited combat value against peer opponents, save perhaps in swarming attacks. Another 28 percent include strategic bombers and more capable but dated third-generation designs. Finally, 38 percent are fourth-generation fighters that can theoretically hold their own against peers like the F-15 and F-16. Stealth fighters account for 1 percent. The PLAAF continues to field fourth-generation aircraft (now about 600) and probably will become a majority fourth-generation force within the next several years. The PLAAF is still developing fifth-generation fighters, including the J-20 and FC-31.

At any rate, Beijing seems in no rush to replace all its older jets with new ones. Major new acquisitions may wait until the Chinese aviation industry has smoothed out the kinks in its fourth-generation and stealth aircraft.


China’s Long-Range Aerial Maritime Strike Forces

During the 1974 battle with Vietnam for the Paracels, for example, China’s could manage only a rather weak naval air strike force comprising of the stubby Q-5 attack aircraft, as well as the low-performing H-6 bomber and J-7 fighter-bomber. The Q-5 could hardly muster a combat radius of 300 km, the H-6 was too expensive, and the J-7 suffered from a weak radar, low survivability, and backward electronic systems.

A turning point in Beijing’s quest to develop a credible “air-sea battle” strategy occurred in 2004 with the arrival of 24 Su-30MK2s from Russia. For the first time ever, the Chinese Navy possessed a modern, capable strike platform. Not only could this aircraft fly well beyond the first island chain to a radius of about 1,300 km, but these imported planes came equipped with the highly prized Mach 3 KH31 ASCM.


The Chinese military leaders, however, were not content to rely on imported weaponry. By the late 1990s, they began to pursue extensive upgrades for both the H-6 bomber and the J-7 fighterIn 2003-04, the PLAN introduced the H-6 M/G that featured an advanced search radar, fire control, navigation, communications, and electronic countermeasures systems. J-7 also underwent similar improvements and a new engine culminating in JH-7A which became a major focal point of Chinese naval strike aviation for the last decade.


Together, the 24 Su-30 MKK2 multi-role fighters, H-6 M/G bombers and JH-7A bomber fighter form the foundation of the PLAN’s tactical strike force against sea targets after the turn of the century.


The ability for China to strike naval surface targets from the air also increased radically with the widespread use of the YJ83 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) with a 150 km range. The ASCM made headlines when one struck and achieved a mission kill against an Israeli corvette in 2006. It has been pointed out, however, that in the scenario of a multi-axial attack, the YJ83 is “less than ideal” against a carrier battle group or large-size air defense destroyer. Hence, it was concluded that China’s first generation aerial maritime strike forces would hardly have any use against USN carrier battle groups or against Japanese forces.


Over the past decade, however, China has made impressive progress in designing and producing indigenously fighters and bombers after a steep learning curve since the 1990s reverse engineering the Soviet aircrafts. To constitute China’s second generation long-range aerial maritime strike forces, the upgraded JH-7B bomber fighter was introduced in 2012. It has a combat radius of 1,800 km and even out to 4,500 km with refuelling, a capability that its predecessor lacked. Another more high performance strike aircraft which the PLAN unveiled was the J-16, which seems to be an indigenized version of the Su-30MKK2 and was said to be even superior to the Russian aircraft in several respects, including its sensors. Furthermore, instead of continuing with improvements to the H-6 bomber, the PLAN is also looking into designing an aircraft intended to carry 8-10 long-range anti-ship missiles out to ranges of 3,000 km or more.


But maritime strike is more than just about the aircraft. Equally, if not more, important is the missile. In that regard, China has made remarkable progress over the past decade. In addition to stealth technology, high-tech fighter aircraft and improved avionics, the Chinese have massively increased their ability with air-to-air missiles over the last 15-years. All of China’s fighters in 2000, with the potential exception of a few modified SU-27s, were limited to within-visual-range missiles. But over the last 15 years, China has acquired a number of sophisticated short and medium-range air-to-air missiles; precision-guided munitions including all-weather, satellite-guided bombs, anti-radiation missiles, and laser-guided bombs; and long-range, advanced air-launched land-attack cruise missiles and anti-ship cruise missiles.


Today, China’s large fleet of land-based aircrafts are increasingly being equipped with some of the world’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. Two new and potent arrows in the Chinese Navy’s quiver are the YJ-12 (鹰击-12) and YJ-100 (鹰击-100). The Mach 3 YJ-12 is a supersonic ASCM with a range up to 300 km. YJ-100, on the other hand, is a sub-sonic ASCM with a range of up to 800 km.


Hence, technological progress in both aircraft and weapon systems over the past decade has allowed China to progressively put in place a second generation of long-range aerial maritime strike forces that hold great promise in satisfying PLAN’s strategic combat requirements for the new century. China’s large fleet of land-based aircraft are now not only equipped with more sophisticated search radars and electronic countermeasures but also armed with some of the world’s most advanced anti-ship cruise missiles. This rather mature capability might be described as “air-sea battle” with Chinese characteristics.[23]


Other Air Force Assets


To support PLA objective to protect China’s regional maritime interests, the PLAAF is also working hard to improve its capabilities in airborne early warning and control (AEW&C); aerial refuelling; strategic transport; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR).


The service is integrating airborne early warning and control aircraft—such as KJ-2000 MAINRING (KJ for aerial warning 空警, short for 空中预警), KJ-200 MOTH, and KJ-500—amplifying PLAAF capabilities to detect, track, and target threats in varying conditions, in larger volumes, and at greater distances. These aircraft help to extend the range of China’s integrated air defense system (IADS) network.

At the moment, the Chinese do not have a sizeable or modern fleet of tankers, and many of their current aircraft are not engineered for aerial refueling, a scenario which limits their reach. China uses a modified version of the H-6 bomber, known as the H-6U (H for 轰 Chinese for bomber; U for 油, Chinese for fuel), as well as a small number of IL-78 MIDAS purchased from Ukraine, to conduct aerial refueling operations for some of its indigenous fighter aircraft, thereby increasing their operational ranges. Still, China’s current fleet of air refueling aircraft, which consists of only about 12 1950s-era H–6U tankers, is thought to be too small to support sustained, large-scale, long-distance air combat.

China’s aviation industry continues to advance with the initial delivery of its domestic Y-20 (Y for 运, Chinese for transport) large military transport aircraft, which entered service in 2016, and completion of the world’s largest four-turboprop seaplane, the AG600 amphibian (code named Kunlong 鲲龙, also known as JL-600, JL 蛟龙 for Jialong) which made its maiden flight on 24 December 2017. Y-20 aircraft, which has three times the cargo-carrying capacity of the US Air Force’s C-130, could be configured into tanker aircraft, allowing the Chinese to massively increase their reach and ability to project air power over longer distances.[24] The new transports will supplement and eventually replace China’s small fleet of strategic airlift assets, which currently consists of a limited number of Russian-made IL-76 aircraft. The large transports are intended to support airborne C2, logistics, paradrop, aerial refueling, and strategic reconnaissance operations, as well as humanitarian assistance disaster relief (HADR) missions.


At the same time, it is developing a wide variety of UAVs. At the 2016 Zhuhai Airshow, China displayed five airframes: the Wing Loong I (翼龙-1), Wing Loong II, WJ-600A/D, Yunying (云影 for Cloud Shadow), and the CH-5 (Rainbow 5). The CH-5 (CH 彩虹, Chinese for rainbow) is China’s most heavily armed UAV to date, with the capacity to carry 16 air-to-surface munitions. In the last two years, the PLA has also unveiled Gongji 1 (攻击, Chinese for attack) an armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) UAV and has deployed UAVs to the South China Sea.


Finally, the PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air (SAM) systems in the world, consisting of a combination of Russian-sourced SA-20 (S-300PMU1/2) battalions and domestically produced CSA-9 battalions. Russia has also approved the sale of its new, next-generation S-400 SAM to China. Such a sale has been under negotiation since at least 2012. The S–400, slated to be delivered before 2020, would more than double the range of China’s air defenses from approximately 125 to 250 miles—enough to cover all of Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and parts of the South China Sea. China will use the system as a follow-on to the SA-20 and CSA-9 to improve strategic long-range air defenses.[25]


In short, the PLAAF is thus rapidly closing the gap with western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft and command-and-control (C2) to jammers, and electronic warfare (EW). This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the US.

Training for Integrated Joint Operations


Over the past decades, there is no doubt that the PLAAF has emerged as one of the largest and most capable forces in the world in terms of quantity and technology. However, an aircraft is only as good as the pilot flying it. The growing emphasis on integrated joint operations, in particular, presents the PLAAF with the urgent needs to overcome pilots’ lack of experience in carrying out missions with ground and naval forces. For example, China has the intel resources, aircraft and missiles to hunt aircraft carriers. However, the doctrine and experience to link these elements together to form a kill chain is no simple matter. The problem is exacerbated by the rigid, outdated approach to pilot training which results in pilots relying heavily on ground control and scripted environments to achieve training objectives.

Fortunately, that narrative may be changing. PLAAF is fully aware of its shortcomings in pilot combat skills and is taking steps to rectify many of these deficiencies.[26] A 2016 Rand report, for example, alleges Chinese aviation units are scrambling to reverse a lack of training under realistic conditions and develop experience in joint operations with ground and naval forces. PLAAF has also initiated system-wide reform to train fighter pilots in the skills necessary to “fight and win” against potentially superior military competitors like the US. At the heart of this reform is an effort to train officers under what Chinese military leaders refer to as “actual combat conditions,” which include, among other things, night-time battle training, complex electromagnetic conditions, special geographical environments and extreme weather conditions.


Since 2015, the PLAAF has also carried out groundbreaking flights often involving bombers, fighter jets, and early warning aircrafts, flying in formation into the Pacific Ocean through the first island chain going as far as the Guam in the second island chain as well as into the South China Sea, East China Sea, Sea of Japan and around Taiwan.

In March 2015, for example, the PLAAF entered the Western Pacific for the first time when H-6K long-range strategic bombers flew over the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines. The Air Force touted this flight as marking an important “breakthrough” of the First Island Chain for projecting power farther into the Pacific. In May 2015, another H-6K unit for the first time overflew the Miyako Strait, near Okinawa, Japan, establishing a second route into the Pacific. In July 2016, the PLAAF began “air combat patrols” in the South China Sea, prominently featuring H-6Ks. Finally, H-6Ks and other support aircraft circumnavigated Taiwan in November and December 2016.


All in all, from March 2015 through December 2016, the PLAAF has conducted eight flights past the First Island Chain, including three patrols of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), two flights around Taiwan, and five flights into the South China Sea.


These operations mark a training progression toward increasingly frequent and complex flights. It suggests that the PLAAF is transitioning from the experimental phase to regularizing these long-range power-projection activities as PLAAF capabilities mature. Reflecting this, the PLAAF announced in July 2016 that it had “regularized” flights into the South China Sea, and in September 2016 it similarly said that it had “regularized” flights past the First Island Chain.


In addition, the PLAAF has also stepped up joint training with the PLA Navy Air Force (PLANAF) since 2015, as its ability to coordinate with the PLAN is one of the central challenges in the PLA new emphasis on integrated operations. This cooperation is most evident in the “Sharp Sword-2015”.


Although the PLAAF’s conceptual development in the maritime arena is in its early stages, PLAAF long-range flight activity in the Pacific will become increasingly common. In addition, as Chinese leaders become more confident in PLAAF capabilities, the service’s support to other strategically important initiatives will increase accordingly.

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[1] Zhang Tao. (2015). “China-made J-7 fighters still play roles in world.” China Military Online. February 6, 2015.

[2] See Sebastien Roblin. (2017).

[3] See Sebastien Roblin. (2017).

[4] See Aeroflight. (2016). “Shenyang J-8 ‘Finback’.” June 26, 2016.

[5] See Wikipedia. “Chengdu J-9”. Aviatia. “Chengdu J-9”.

[6] See Air Power Australia. (2014). “Chengdu J-10”. January 27, 2014;  See Kris Osborn. (2017B). “China's J-10 Fighter Now "Roughly Comparable" to America's Lethal F-15 in Battle.” National Interest. February 20, 2017;  See Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer  (2014). “J-10B “Vigorous Dragon” Fighter Jets are a Full Set, Soon to be a Regiment.” Popular Science. October 2, 2014; Military Today. “Chengdu J-10”.

[7] See Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer. (2015). “The J-11D Surprise: China Upgrades Russian Flanker Fighters On Its Own.” Popular Science. May 4, 2015; SinoDefence (2017). “Shenyang J-11B”. August 15, 2017; Sputnik News. “Thorn in Pentagon's Side: China's New J-11D Jets Boast Advanced Features.” September 18, 2015.

[8] See Dave Majumdar. (2015). “Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter vs. China's J-11: Who Wins?” National Interest. October 29, 2015; Zachary Keck. (2015). “The Chinese Air Force's Super Weapon: Beware the J-11D Fighter.” National Interest. April 30, 2015.

[9] See Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer. (2016).

[10] See Sebastien Roblin. (2017). “China's New J-16D Aircraft Might Have a Terrifying New Military Capability.” National Interest. November 30, 2017.

[11] See Sebastien Roblin. (2017). "China’s Air Force — 1,700 Combat Aircraft Ready for War." National Interest. October 28, 2017; Franz-Stefan Gady. (2017). "China’s First 5th Generation Fighter Jet Is Operational." Diplomat. October 2, 2017.

[12]  See Indo Asian News Service. "Chinese stealth fighters are combat-ready: Beijing." February 12, 2018.


[13] See Sebastien Roblin. (2017). “China's Air Force: 1,700 Combat Aircraft Ready for War.” National Interest. October 28, 2017

[14] See Sebastien Roblin. (2016). “China's H-6 Bomber: Everything You Want to Know about Beijing's 'B-52' Circling Taiwan.” National Interest. December 18, 2016.

[15] See Greg Goebel. (2017). “Chinese Jet Fighters: JH-7, J-10, & J-20.” AirVectors. August 1, 2017.

[16] See FAS. (2000). “H-5 [Il-28 BEAGLE (ILYUSHIN)].” Federation of American Scientists.

[17] See Greg Goebel. (2017).

[18] See Lyle J. GoIdstein. (2015B). “The Real Military Threat from China: Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles.” National Interest. January 26, 2015.

[19] See Kule Mizokami. (2016). “What We Know About China's New Bomber.” Popular Mechanics. September 7, 2016.

[20] See See Kyle Mizokami. (2016). “China's Flyover Message to Trump Wasn't Quite What It Seemed.” Popular Mechanics. December 13, 2016.

[21] See Sebastien Roblin. (2016). “China's H-6 Bomber: Everything You Want to Know about Beijing's 'B-52' Circling Taiwan.” National Interest. December 18, 2016.

[22] See DOD. (2017). Pg 28.

[23] See Lyle J. GoIdstein. (2015B); See Birdysh. (2017). “中国的空基对海打击力量发展.” March 29, 2017.

[24] See Kris Osborn. (2017A).

[25] See Kris Osborn. (2017A).

[26] See Lyle J. Morris. (2016). “China's Air Force Is Fixing Its Shortcomings.” RAND. October 14, 2016.

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