Peter Layton’s series on other peoples’ air power has included an examination of Islamic State’s use of unmanned aircraft and the employment of air power in the Ukraine campaign. In this third post, Dr Layton considers the varied influences on China’s approach to air power and it’s focus on multi-domain ‘firepower warfare’. 

In late October President Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was written into the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution.  In some respects Chinese airpower follows a similar dictum. Ideas from beyond China are considered, modified and adapted to meet Chinese needs.   

In this, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) long-term development owes much to Soviet and later Russian support, doctrine and arms sales.  In some decades though such assistance has vanished initially through ideological differences and more lately over fighter aircraft intellectual property theft (the J-11 saga). In these periods, the PLAAF has needed to develop primarily using indigenous resources and in broad terms, this is where the Service finds itself today – albeit a contract for 24 Su-35s was signed with Russia in November 2015 with deliveries now underway.   

Having only limited access to the latest technical innovations within the global arms market puts the Chinese military aerospace industry and its PLAAF customer at some disadvantage.  Even the US finds being able to obtain foreign advanced technology important in the design and manufacture of new aircraft – the F-35 being the latest example.  China’s isolation is however eased somewhat by access to global commercial aviation developments and by cyber espionage.

‘August 1st’ Aerobatic Team, People’s Liberation Army Air Force [Image credit: cityofzhuhai.com]

American thinking has also been highly influential even if more indirectly than Soviet and Russian assistance. In early 2000, after various American-led air operations in Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia, USAF-style airpower appeared the sine qua non of victory. Accordingly, the Chinese government – in reality the Communist Party – determined that an extensive but focussed long-term modernisation of the by-then almost obsolete PLAAF was essential. Supported by breathtaking national economic growth, this modernisation program continues apace aiming to make the PLAAF into a ‘strategic air force’. Indeed in 2014 President Xi Jinping declared that the country must “accelerate [its] construction of a powerful people’s air force… in order to support the realization of the China dream and the dream of a strong military”.   

Today’s newly “powerful people’s air force” has a well-defined mission articulated in China’s 2015 Military Strategy White Paper, a document broadly similar to Australian Defence White Papers but considerably shorter and without detail on force structure development plans. China’s White Paper determined that major wars were unlikely however, localized conflicts were possible with the most worrying being any occurring on China’s periphery.  

Both sides in these local wars were assumed to employ high technology systems and extensive information warfare over an extended, non-linear battlefield of considerable depth. The big buzzword was the rather clunky ‘informationization’, a term to stress that modern wars involved the extensive use of information technology. For “winning informationized local wars”, the White Paper directed that military operations should be based on active defence concepts that integrated defensive and offensive means.  

To fight the anticipated short-duration, high-intensity local conflicts, the PLAAF has acquired a multi-role air combat fighter force, airborne early warning and control aircraft, an extensive land-based radar network, a modern surface to air missile force, and an appropriate communications infrastructure. This may sound a rather American-like mirror-image force structure. There are however, some noteworthy differences that combine Soviet influences, modern Russian thinking and shrewd Chinese assessments.  

Firstly, the PLAAF’s land-based Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) systems are an important element in the extended air superiority battle, rather than just being for home airbase defence.  China has acquired Russian SA-10 and SA-20 SAMs and developed the indigenous HQ-9; these have a range of some 200km with work underway to extend the HQ-9’s engagement envelope.  In late 2014, China purchased Russia’s new S-400 system for delivery by 2020; this leading edge system has a range of some 400 km.  Such long range SAM systems allow engaging aircraft flying at high altitude well offshore, including those operating above 10,000ft across Taiwan 

In this it seems curious that Russia’s marked reticence on military aircraft sales since the mid-2000 has not extended to selling advanced SAM systems.  Some hold that that by the time China copies the complex S-400 system, Russia will already have the more advanced S-500 model in service. The implication is that China remains committed to building a numerically large, very-long-range SAM force with an indigenous system appearing in the late 2020s.

Secondly, an important target set for the long range SAMs is the combat support aircraft that USAF and other coalition air packages rely upon.  These combat support aircraft include the ‘Iron Triad’ aircraft (E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System, E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft) as well as the tankers without which shorter-range fast jets could not join the battle.   In this regard, China’s new long-range J-20 stealth fighters now entering service are considered to have engaging hostile combat support aircraft as a primary mission.  The aim of the long-range SAMs and J-20 fleet is not so much to shoot hostile combat support aircraft down as much as to push them so far away from where Chinese forces are operating that they cannot undertake their normal support functions.  

Thirdly, in Chinese thinking ballistic rockets and cruise missiles are important to helping achieve air superiority through being used to suppress enemy air defences by attacking air battle command centres, air defence radars, SAM systems and parked fighter aircraft.  Such missiles are considered very hard to defend against, especially if used in large numbers, and offering a higher likelihood of success in the early stages of a campaign than manned aircraft raids. Automation then substitutes in a way for needing to field highly trained aircrew. In this, the importance China places on missile warfare is evident in having a dedicated Service: the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF).

Lastly, Chinese airpower is an integral element of joint “firepower warfare”.  Under this rubric, coordinated manned aircraft, ballistic rocket, cruise missile and information (EW and cyber) attacks would be undertaken in a closely timed sequence that overwhelms the defences.  The primary aim is to create favourable battlespace conditions and in particular realise the “Three Superiorities”: information dominance, air superiority, and sea superiority. Achievement of the three superiorities will, it is thought, lead directly to war termination on China’s terms as the adversary will realise the futility of continuing the fight.  Victory will be achieved to a significant degree through air power. Douhet and Trenchard would be pleased that in East Asia their aspirations remain in play albeit with Chinese characteristics. 

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.