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The Growing Threat From China’s Air Force

August 24, 2011



Two advanced Su-27 fighters recently chased an American reconnaissance plane over the Taiwan Strait.

China watchers have been fixated on the maiden voyage of Beijing’s first aircraft carrier this month. However, U.S. and Asian defense planners should take care not to ignore another aspect of China’s growing military might. The Chinese Air Force may one day play the most significant role in challenging America’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, looming cuts to the U.S. Air Force may wind up reducing its ability to protect American interests.

As the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center put it in a report last year, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or Plaaf, has been “transforming itself from a poorly equipped and trained organization into an increasingly capable fighting force. Dramatic changes have occurred, and continue to occur, in the areas of mission, organizational structure, personnel, education, training, and equipment.”

Today, the Plaaf remains years behind the U.S. Air Force in experience, training and operational planning. But it is emphasizing those areas in an attempt to catch up.

Analysts of China’s Air Force warn against focusing solely on the planes it has, or “tail counting.” An appreciation of its capabilities instead begins with what it can fly. The leading edge of its air power is the advanced Russian Su-27/30 fighter, of which it has 150 planes, followed by more than 100 indigenously produced J-11s, based on the Su-27 model, and nearly 200 multirole J-10s, which have both air-combat and ground-attack capabilities.

The Su-27/30 compares with any U.S. fighter, save the stealthy F-22, and China plans on adding nearly 100 more related J-11s. Overall, the Plaaf has more than 1,600 combat aircraft, which does not count the nearly 300 combat aircraft of the separate PLA Navy air forces. China’s Navy, with its own combat air arm, is also flying advanced fighters and has been training its pilots to get ready for carrier operations.

The Plaaf is also looking to the next generation of weapons. Earlier this year, it flew the first prototype of a fifth-generation stealth fighter, the J-20, ostentatiously doing so while then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was on a visit to China to repair military relations.

While the J-20 is at least a decade away from being operational, even Mr. Gates was forced to shorten his predictions of when American pilots would face Chinese stealth fighters. As Chinese pilots begin to engage in joint operations, night exercises and longer-range missions from its dozens of bases in coastal regions, the specter of a Chinese air umbrella over eastern Asia begins to look less far-fetched.

China has moved beyond simply buying more planes and improving its training. In 2004, it came up with its first specific Plaaf strategy, focusing on “integrated air and space operations, both defensive and offensive.” Using cyberwarfare, space assets and quick offensive strikes, the Plaaf is trying to become a high-tech, high-tempo aerospace force.

Not surprisingly, this doctrine is designed to negate the strengths of U.S. air and naval forces in the region, which would be fighting along extended lines, without immediately accessible bases for repair and resupply. China’s military leadership, moreover, is building the missile capacity to try to destroy those vulnerable bases in Japan, Guam and elsewhere.

All this development may be emboldening China’s Air Force. This June, two Su-27s chased a U.S. reconnaissance plane flying over the Taiwan Strait. According to press reports, one of the Chinese fighter planes crossed the median line of the Strait, which has served as a de facto border between Chinese and Taiwanese territory for decades.

Earlier this year, Manila complained that Chinese jets flew into Philippine airspace during a dispute over maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Not forgotten in either Washington or Beijing is the March 2001 incident in which an aggressive Chinese pilot collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane, killing himself and causing the Americans to crash-land on Hainan Island, where they were held for 11 days.

In the face of this Chinese buildup, Washington needs to do more to maintain its air-power superiority. In any conflict with China, the U.S. would rely on U.S. air power from the outbreak of hostilities. However, its aging F-15s and F-16s increasingly will be unable to match more modern Chinese counterparts, and even the far superior skills of U.S. pilots can’t make up for outdated aircraft.

China’s development of a carrier-killer missile means that U.S. naval air power may be pushed farther out into the Pacific. The rash decision to cancel the F-22 means the U.S. is dramatically limited in the numbers of the one aircraft that could assure command of the skies, while the F-35 is becoming increasingly expensive and is still behind development schedule. The Pentagon must resist any temptation to cut the number of F-35s, lest it become permanently outnumbered by Chinese fighters whose pilots will get better and more experienced over time.

Large numbers of Air Force tankers, with escort, will be needed to keep American birds in the fight. Moreover, hardening key bases at Kadena in Okinawa and Andersen on Guam is needed to assure the survivability of the U.S. forces that may be able to limit hostilities early on.

Given the dispersal of China’s bases and its bomber fleet, the U.S. must develop a credible long-range strike bomber, in part as a way to ensure escalation control in any conflict with China. Relying solely on land- or sea-launched missiles for mainland strikes may prove to be destabilizing in a crisis, whereas stealthy manned bombers that can be recalled can serve to hold major targets at risk while preserving operational flexibility.

Finally, the U.S. needs to ensure that its allies have up-to-date air capabilities. The Obama administration is wrong to deny Taiwan the more advanced F-16s that it has requested, and it should do everything possible to help Japan and South Korea choose the F-35 for their next-generation combat aircraft. Without all these measures, the skies of East Asia may one day become as turbulent as the seas below.

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