This is the first in a series of articles looking at recent developments in China’s military.
The formal retirement ceremony this June for the last People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6 / MiG-19 Farmer fighter marks an important milestone for China’s air power, as it transitions from a Cold War era, Soviet-style force to a modern and technologically sophisticated air force with a fleet of high performance aircraft.
Sadly, far too many analysts and senior bureaucrats in the United States remain tethered to the idea that the PLA fighter force still comprises fleets of thousands of cloned 1955 Soviet technology MiG-19 fighters, and is thus incapable of protecting China’s areas of interest from regional or US military forces. Yet although this perception remains appealing in Washington, it ceased to be true almost a decade ago, and today reflects more than anything what Huxley described as ‘vincible ignorance’—not knowing because you don’t want to.
For those that are interested though, a more accurate picture can be gleaned from the fact that about 5 years ago, China planned to field well in excess of 500 Russian designed Sukhoi Flanker fighters, a size comparable to the now declining United States Air Force fleet of around 600 Boeing F-15 Eagle fighters. The Flanker was designed to be a direct equivalent (in some respects superior) to the F-15, which is also the backbone of the Japanese and Singaporean fighter fleets.
Indeed, with an ongoing modernisation plan that will see all legacy aircraft types replaced by modern and much longer ranging replacements, the PLAAF will in numerical terms become the strongest air force in Asia, with the largest fleet of ‘tier one’ fighter aircraft globally, should the United States pursue its current plan to downsize and reduce the capabilities of its tactical air forces. In terms of air power alone, this will result in the single largest swing in the strategic balance in Asia since the 1940s.
The PLAAF has existed since the late 1940s, initially equipped with a mix of foreign—at that time Japanese, American and Soviet—aircraft. Through the 1950s the PLAAF acquired a wide range of then state-of-the-art Soviet planes and the first (and to date only) air war in which the PLAAF participated was in Korea, where Chinese pilots performed well in Soviet supplied MiG-15 Fagot fighters.
But a key juncture in the development of the PLAAF fighter force was the Khrushchev era collapse of relations between the Chinese and Soviet leaderships. Denied the ongoing supply of advanced Soviet aircraft, China resorted to the only choice it had, which was reverse engineering Soviet designs. Numerous Soviet types were built, the most significant being the MiG-19S Farmer, or Shenyang J-6, and the MiG-21F Fishbed, or Chengdu J-7 fighters. These cloned Soviet designs formed the backbone of the PLAAF and PLAN fighter regiments, until the next major evolutionary transition point—the fall of the Soviet Union.