The Evolution of PRC Air Power


An Overview from (retired) LTG Deptula

01/04/2011 – Recently at an air power conference hosted by RAND Corporation in Taiwan, the former head of Air Force intelligence provided a wide-ranging overview on the evolution of Chinese military power, focusing on the air element. Second Line of Defense is providing a slideshow of his slides, and conducted an interview with him to provide a basic narrative concerning the presentation. In this piece, the General provides his explanation of the evolution of Chinese programs and capabilities, and in a second piece, a dialogue with Second Line of Defense’s Robbin Laird with the General discusses the question of the nature of the Chinese challenge.

As General Deptula summarized:

The PRC used to have many more airplanes than they have today, but they were not qualitatively that good. Well now they’re transitioning very rapidly from just quantity to a qualitative force with sufficient quantities that will pose very complex and significant combat challenges for the U.S. and its allies.

Follows General Deptula’s narrative of his presentation.

  • Chart 1: Today China is focusing on developing key technologies while it buys, borrows and steals the technology that it needs to integrate into its own defense industrial base.  That set of facts is no more evident than in the PLA Air Force, and the PLA Naval Air Forces. This briefing is a summary of what the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) are up to in these two critical organizations as they work toward their goal of major world power status. To put these services in perspective, the PLA Air Force currently consists of about 330,000 personnel, and over 2500 aircraft, of which about 1600 are combat aircraft. That makes the PLA Air Force the largest air force in Asia, and the third largest in the world behind the U.S. Air Force and the Russian Air Force. The PLA Naval Air Force, by contrast, has about 26,000 personnel, and almost 600 aircraft. About half of those—300—are combat aircraft. In the arena of aerospace, China’s catching up with us in many areas and exceeding us in others—leveraging stolen U.S. technology, along with technology purchased from Israel, Russia, and Europe. They remain comparable to us in what might be termed their “mainstream fighter force.” For example, the Chinese F-10 is basically comparable to a Block 40 F-16 or an F-18 CD. But they’re building sufficient numbers of the aircraft, with sufficient advanced capabilities, to counter the U.S. in the event of any kind of Western Pacific confrontation. There’s a growing emphasis on offensive in the PLA Air Force—growing recognition that the PLA Air Force is a strategic force—and that dominance in air and space forces is required to be decisive in any kind of a conflict.
  • Chart 2: This is an overview of what we will be addressing today.
  • Chart 3: The PLA Air Force is undergoing a real transformation. They’re moving from a force that historically relied on quantitative advantage alone, to one that aspires to achieve a qualitative advantage; but with sufficient quantity to dominate in their immediate region. They are accomplishing that objective rapidly, and they’re doing it in a smart fashion, because they’re not just chunking these old aircraft, but rather as it indicates on the chart, they’re transitioning many of them into remotely piloted aircraft. They are doing this not in just a traditional “Okay, we’ll just make modern aircraft and throw out the old ones,” but they’re adapting their old aircraft to complicate any challenge they might face. This the quantity piece in their strategy. They are building a fleet development strategy that combines both manned and remotely piloted approaches. They know that in a nominal conflict situation that their adversary will have challenges trying to pick out the wheat from the chaff. For example, using manned aircraft with their advanced technologies and electronic attack capabilities, and intermingling them with remotely piloted aircraft that are easily seen. That kind of a concept of operations might be used to distract the relatively few 5th generation aircraft that could be put up against this kind of a force within the next decade. It’s a simple strategy, but it has the potential of being very effective. In this transition from old to new, it was agreed at the Taiwan conference on the PLA Air Force that they have achieved essentially four to five decades of progress in less than 20 years. So they’re modernizing at a very rapid rate.
  • Chart 4: The F-10 is the first real indigenously designed and produced fighter by the PRC. Although its existence was reported both inside and outside of China for many, years, the Chinese government didn’t officially admit its existence until January of 2007 when the first photographs of it were allowed to be published. The first aircraft were delivered to the PLA Air Force in February 2003, and it was given operational status December that same year. There has been discussion over whether it was based on working with Israel or not, and quite frankly, that’s history. The PRC manufacturers would tell you “no,” it was a completely indigenousness design. Regardless of where it came in terms of concept and design, today it’s got an advanced radar missile and electronic attack capability onboard, and they’re populating their Air Force with it rapidly. They’ve got five bases today, they’re expecting ten more bases by 2015, and they’re continuing to improve on the aircraft’s capabilities—both in terms of airframe and avionics.
  • Chart 5: The next series of charts briefly address the Flanker Variants in China. The Chinese have been on an evolutionary path since they were sold the original SU-27s built by the Russians. They modified the different variants, transitioned to a kit-built F-11, which had some limited Chinese avionics.
  • Chart 6: The newest Flanker variants are being built by the Chinese with Chinese produced engines, missiles and indigenously produced avionics. It is a Russian-designed aircraft; however, more and more of the F-11s are being built with components that are purely Chinese. They have grown in terms of capability and knowledge as a result of the evolutionary transition to this aircraft.
  • Chart 7: This map displays the growth of SU-27, F-11, and F-10 bases between 1995 and 2009. It emphasizes the change in the PLA Air Force from its former defensive posture to one much more capable of power projection.
  • Chart 8: The newest FB-7 airframe is a big improvement over their original FB-7. It’s maximum armament load is about 9,000 kilograms. In comparison the Su-24, and Su-30 payloads are about 8,000 kilograms, and the old F-111 is about 11,000 kilograms. So it’s lighter and it’s less complex than a Su-24 or the F-111, but it’s also considerably cheaper to produce and operate. It doesn’t have the air-to-air performance of the Su-30, but its range is greater. It doesn’t have any significant aerial combat role, but it does represent a significant strike capability for the PLA Naval Air Forces, and its load capacity allows it to carry four domestically made YJ-82 anti-ship missiles in a maritime strike ops role. It also has the potential of being upgraded to an electronic combat aircraft. It already carries advanced jammers; and one can expect them to be building more of these in the future, particularly for the Navy because it will allow them to increase their power projection capability.

Chart 9


  • Chart 9: Regarding the XXJ 5th Gen Fighter concept, competition is ongoing between the two principal design bureaus. We believe a final design has been chosen, and work on an initial prototype is ongoing today. As I mentioned earlier, the PLA Air Chief has stated the maiden flight will occur relatively soon. People are prognosticating 2012, with an initial operational capability (IOC) projected around the 2018 timeframe. Most aviation experts would tell you that this is not going to be an aircraft better than an F-22, but it will aim to achieve similar kinds of capabilities, and here’s where the importance of quantity becomes a significant factor. What we have to watch is while it might not be absolutely as good in many of the particular performance areas, is it good enough to pose the US planned aircraft fleet significant challenges? Will the quantities in which it will be produced compensate for any weak areas in performance? It is doubtful that the PRC will limit XXJ production at less than half their requirement as did the US with the F-22. A part of this discussion space that is larger than the types of airplanes, is the marginal availability of resources to continue to expand the capabilities in quality sense, as well as in quantity.
  • Chart 10: The JF-17 Thunder Dragon is also designated the FC-1 and is a single engine lightweight multirole combat aircraft. It was developed jointly by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry’s Corporation of China, the Pakistani Air Force, and the Pakistani Aeronautical Complex. It was designated JF-17 by Pakistan, which is short for Joint Fighter 17, and was developed primarily to meet the requirements of the Pakistani Air Force for a low-cost, medium technology, multirole combat aircraft as a cost-effective replacement for their aging fleet of A-5s, F-7s, and Mirage 3s and 5s. It was also intended to have export potential to air forces of other developing countries as a cost-effective alternative to high-tech, but expensive Western fighters.
  • Chart 11: The Chinese bomber fleet is based on the old Russian B-6—the Badger baseline. They are old, however newer versions have been upgraded to allow the carriage of extended range cruise missiles. They’ve got new engines enabling increased payload. The newer variants are listed here on the chart. For the PLA Air Force, the B-6 is an aircraft with regional reach. When you combine it with the array of PLA AF cruise missiles, it provides a capable platform. The analogy can be drawn to our B-52—not in the context of weight, size, or range—but how we could employ it. The Chinese are doing that with the B-6 by making it a standoff platform.

Chart 12
  • Chart 12: In the realm of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), the PRC is moving rapidly into an area of vast potential with dedicated exploitation and investment. One of the classic unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) that the Chinese are already exploiting is the Harpy. They appear to have built an indigenous version. This is a persistent electronic attack UCAV that is designed to overwhelm Taiwan’s integrated air defense system. It is becoming a force to be reckoned with as well as a competitor in International Arms Markets.
  • Chart 13: The PRC is committed to investment in RPA technology.
  • Chart 14:In the arena of support aircraft the PLAAF uses the Y-8 as a common platform to perform a variety of missions. Not unlike the venerable C-130, the Y-8 has multiple variants.
  • Chart 15: Like western powers, the PLAAF has adopted aircraft originally designed for other specific missions, into variants for intelligence collection, airborne warning and control, air-to-air refueling, etc.
  • Chart 16: The PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) is a reflection of what the PLA Air Force possesses, but adapted for maritime operations. They really are a stepchild to the PLA Air Force in terms of size. If you recall from the introduction, the PLANAF is a much smaller force than the PLAAF. The PLA Navy has three fleets; north, east and south. They have adapted their aircraft organization in a similar fashion and basically acquire aircraft types in parallel with the development of the PLA Air Force. They have recently developed and acquired a carrier variant of the Flanker shown in the bottom photo.
  • Chart 17: The PLA Naval Air Force is developing a combination of fighters and bombers to expand their influence beyond the first island chain out to the second island chain. With their extensive and growing complement of cruise missiles, they’ll be able to increasingly project power and move closer to their objective of extending their range of influence.
  • Chart 18: The PLA Naval Air Force support aircraft mimic the PLAAF with Y-8 based systems. They also have a small number of B-6 tankers that are used to refuel the F-8 and F-10.
  • Chart 19: Here we see the panoply of air launched air to surface missiles—both land-attack cruise missile variants; as well as anti-ship cruise missiles. If you think about the strategy we talked about earlier—the combination of the old, but in large quantities, and the new, in terms of electronic attack capability, and you add into that mix a large number of cruise missiles—that makes the challenge facing allied forces in a potential WESTPAC conflict very, very challenging. Bottom line—this is not your father’s PLA Air Force or Navy.
  • Chart 20: Looking at this chart it becomes evident that China is experiencing a surge in aircraft production—particularly for their fighter and fighter-bomber fleets. No worries about maintaining a warm aerospace industrial base in China.They are also expanding into the co-production market building the JF-17 fighter with Pakistan. The PRC currently have nine active military aircraft production lines open. To put that into perspective—recent Department of Defense decisions have put US defense plans on a path toward maintaining only one active military production line for bomber, fighter, and long-range transport aircraft combined in the next five years—the F-35. So while the Chinese are very active in aircraft research, development, and production, the United States is headed in the other direction.

Chart 21
  • Chart 21: China is set on regaining what it believes is its rightful place as one of the world’s great powers. They believe that a time will soon come when the major global institutions are no longer dominated by the United States. The growth of their economy has fueled China’s reemergence on the world stage. They’re seeking the other necessary elements of comprehensive national power that include a world-class military. In order to make this happen, the PRC air forces have undergone a transformation of historic proportions. Changes that took the United States and Europe half a century occurred over the course of the last 20 years in China. The PLA has undergone a similar transformation. Over the course of the past 20 years, they have gone from a massive peasant army – something a noted China scholar referred to as the “Junkyard Army” – into an military with aspirations to develop global capabilities. Finally, it is important to note that the PLA’s perception of the US military has also changed over the course of the past 20 years. Once viewed as the “gold standard” which should be emulated—the US military is now viewed as a potential adversary who’s strengths and weaknesses are analyzed, and capabilities are developed specifically to counter US capabilities.

Chart 22
  • Chart 22: What is the optimal counter to this impressive advancement? An asymmetric approach—embracing distributed air operations; leveraging fifth generation aircraft to shape a new combat approach; and investing in capabilities that capitalize on rapidly developing information technologies. We need to pay more attention to the future, and shed the assumption that since we have dominated the aerospace environment the last quarter of a century, we will dominate the next. We need to embrace a new dynamic of how we lash together systems designed for each domain—air space, sea, sub-sea, and ground—into an integrated, distributed network to be able to accomplish what potential adversaries do not expect us to be able to accomplish. We need to present them with such a degree of complexity and uncertainty that they wouldn’t even contemplate using military force because they’re too uncertain of the outcome.