Despite a tightly controlled mass media and local Internet, China has to respond to events that cannot be hidden. Two such items recently collided in the Chinese media and provoked a scary response. There has been a noticeable increase in Chinese warplane losses during training or regular operations. At first most Chinese attributed this to the traditional (and currently epic) corruption in the Chinese military. That corruption is played down in the mass media but the growing number of senior military officers accused and convicted of corruption is also big news. When senior Chinese leaders were asked about all the aircraft losses the Chinese president responded that the only way to develop world class combat pilots was to train hard, fly often and treat the losses as a cost of combat success.
The implication was that the growing number of senior military personnel prosecuted for corruption was a positive thing as it would eliminate a lot of the bad behavior (cutting corners in development and maintenance of aircraft by stealing money) by making it obvious that these corrupt generals and admirals were not just stealing money but putting the lives of aircrew in danger. This made it more difficult for corrupt military officials to hide their activities because it was seen as patriotic to find and expose these crimes. All this sent a message to the nations that have adopted Western style training and the resulting technically proficient and well trained pilots. The message was that China was determined to overcome its traditional corruption in the military and do what has to be done to produce a world class air force. This effort has been going on since the late 1980s and progress was slow at first but by 2000 the impact was obvious and efforts accellerated.
The Chinese also had a sense of humor about what they were up to. Thus in 2013 Chinese TV coverage of Chinese Air Force training it was revealed that the code word for the main Chinese training base is “Area 52”. This is an interesting shout-out to the U.S. Air Force Tonopah Test Range (also known as Area 52) in Nevada. This has long been the site for testing new aircraft and providing advanced training for fighter pilots. Nearby is Area 51, an even more secretive base used for experimental aircraft and, according to local lore, UFO activity.
What this shows is how much China understands that the only way to achieve victory in the air is to adopt Western pilot training methods. China is doing this in a big way. China is already getting rid of its thousands of old Cold War era warplanes. These were copies of Russian designs and Chinese air force experts noted that no one ever won a war with these aircraft. Since the 1990s China has been acquiring Western-style designs (MiG-29, Su-27/30) from Russia and developing similar aircraft. But these aircraft are only effective if operated by highly trained and experienced pilots. So China has provided the large quantities of fuel and spare parts needed to keep their several hundred modern fighters in the air a lot. Actually, the number of modern (late or post-Cold War designs) aircraft has reached about 700, up from less than a hundred in the late 1990s. The older Russian type aircraft (like MiG-21s and MiG-23s) could not handle the large number of training flights that Western aircraft were built for. But the new MiG-29, Su-27/30 designs were and as more of those were available more pilots were spending more time in the air and there were more accidents.
This, however, was not enough. The pilots who started out on the old Cold War style aircraft did not become much better when moved to modern fighters, even after a lot of time in the air. Something was missing, and that turned out to be technical education and specialized training in the intricacies of modern air combat. That meant greater use of realistic flight simulators (so very dangerous maneuvers could be practiced). So the Chinese are taking care of all this, including establishing a “pilot university” that provides a four year academic and flight training program. All this closely follows methods and techniques pioneered by the United States.
The Chinese Air Force now has a training unit that will accurately (as possible) portray enemy (especially American and Indian) aircraft and combat tactics. Thus, there are three Blue-Army Aggressor Squadrons (Blue is the bad guys in Chinese training, Red is the good guys) for this. One is equipped with Su-30s, to represent American F-15s or Indian or Vietnamese Su-30s. Another has the J-10A, which is similar to the F-16. The third squadron has J-7s (Chinese copies of the MiG-21), which represent low end threats, like the many MiG-21s India, until recently, still used and other nations in the region still have.
Then there necessary electronic accessories for all this training. By 2012 China had developed an ACMI (Air combat maneuvering instrumentation) system for training pilots. Development began in 2000, and two generations of ACMI pods have been developed for the aircraft undergoing this training. The current Chinese ACMI system can track a hundred aircraft at once and record all their activities. The ACMI pods record information of individual aircraft and that provides a very complete record of who did what and when. This was essential to get the most out of using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training". This involved trainees flying against Chinese pilots trained in the tactics used by potential foes, flying aircraft similar in capabilities of enemy warplanes and then carefully going over how the trainees responded. The ACMI system allowed for trainee pilots to get detailed descriptions of what they did right and wrong and how to fix their mistakes. This sort of thing not only creates better combat pilots but also identifies who the “naturals” (potential aces) are.
These dissimilar training innovations began in the 1969, when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese flying Russian made fighters and using Russian tactics, with some Vietnamese innovations added. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated, thus the term "dissimilar training".
Before the 1969 innovations American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The U.S. Air Force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.
The U.S. developed the ACMI pods in the 1970s, and they have undergone continuous improvement ever since. The pods collect and transmit to the ground ACMI station aircraft information, which includes speed, altitude, attitude, current G-forces, ascent/descent rate, turn rate, yaw rate, roll rate, engine power, missile cue, rocket cue, gun cue, bomb cue, and weapons release points. This last item allows the ACMI to calculate the range, trail, and heading of each weapon. In air combat this would mean simulated gunfire or use of air-air missiles. About the time the Chinese began developing their ACMI, the U.S. began developing methods to do away with the ACMI pod and use the internal data systems on the aircraft to do what the pods had been doing.
Using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training" began in 1969, when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on-the-job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school (and began building Western style fighters), and the Chinese followed in 1987.
Since the 1970s the two American training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare).
After the Cold War ended in 1991, it became increasingly obvious that none of our potential enemies, except China, was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not as crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR led to cuts in flying time. During that period American pilots were actually increasing their flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value. But now, with China aggressively doing all they can to improve pilot quality, the U.S. has to pay more attention to staying ahead.