Leadership: October 26, 2003

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The Chinese Air Force (officially the PLAAF, or People's Liberation Army Air Force) is slowly making it's way towards the 21st century. While the Chinese have several thousand warplanes, most are not only obsolete, but flown by poorly trained pilots. Be wary of any reports touting the awesome power of the PLAAF, and keep in mind that the Chinese didn't start building a modern air force until the 1980s. When the Chinese communists took over in 1948, they had no real air force. During the Korean war, they received hundreds of warplanes from the Soviet Union, along with training for pilots and ground crews. But this support was gone by the end of the 1950s, and for the next two decades, a series of revolutions and disastrous reforms stalled any air force developments. When the reformers took over in the late 1970s, they found the air force a collection of 1950s warplanes and pilots who rarely flew them. Training was rigid and unsuited to modern combat. The only impact Chinese troops had on air operations was from the ground, through the use of many anti-aircraft guns and missiles. But even these weapons were becoming obsolete, as the United States was introducing more smart bombs, thus keeping their aircraft out of range of the Chinese guns. American electronic warfare equipment made most Chinese missiles useless. 

 

Money for rebuilding the air force was not available until the early 1980s. So, two decades later, what do the Chinese have to show for all that effort? Not much, but not nothing either. Until the 1990s, China concentrated on building a better version of the air force they had in the 1970. That meant improved versions of the old Russian designs, better missiles and more training for their pilots. Entering the 1990s, it was obvious that this approach was not going to be worth the expense. The Americans demonstrated this during the 1991 Gulf War, where the Iraqi air force (in many ways similar to China's) was quickly taken apart and rendered ineffective. The decision was made to match the American air force with similar technology, training and tactics. But ten years later, less than ten percent of Chinese warplanes are in the same class with American aircraft, and fewer pilots are trained to anything close to American standards. Moreover, satellite and other observation of PLAAF training exercises indicates that the Chinese are not yet able to carry out the high intensity air operations the U.S. demonstrated in 1991 and 2003. PLAAF tactics are still built around the old, rigid, Soviet tactics (pilots were closely controlled from the ground.) But China's neighbors, and the United States, are concerned. The Chinese do talk the talk, and eventually they will be able to walk the walk. As the Chinese economy continues to improve, more money goes to the air force. There appears to be an effort to create a portion of the PLAAF that can operate "in the American style." This small (a few hundred warplanes), elite force would be a threat to China's neighbors, particularly Taiwan. Once the Chinese had upgraded their entire air force (in 20-30 years), they would have one of the most formidable air forces on the planet. But until then, the PLAAF is more potential than power. 

 


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