China Air Force Steps it Up
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

China Air Force Steps it Up


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.

November 30, 2013 at 05:27

Utter rubbish.

No tankers, no transport, Russian clones, cannot build a modern jet engine. Nothing to worry about for 15 years

March 16, 2012 at 08:50

Your site is fantastic, this is just what i was looking for!

December 1, 2011 at 07:49


I totally agree with you. China has the Ace on hand.
I have already dump all my US dollars fixed deposit and put my savings in Yuan.

@Jun Soyar,

Too bad. You refused to believe this will happen when China and US relation get worst.

November 29, 2011 at 23:44

Reading al those American cowboys’ comments reminds me of fascist Nazis boasting about choking off Britain and Russia sea supply routes. These warlike Americans seeking and hoping for a confrontation at China’s doors brings to question the mentality and intentions of Washington. Mother Teresa these Washingtonites aren’t.

Long Duk Dong
November 29, 2013 at 04:23

lol , funny

Herb O'Fallon
November 19, 2011 at 08:18

The Chinese can survive their economy going into a tailspin better than we can. They’ve had hard times before. China has been around a long time for a reason. They’ve made more progress economically, militarily, etc. in the past 30 years than any other country. Their people are together. American arrogance can only last so long. Because of Washington’s stupidity in how it spends the taxpayers’ money, the U.S. can’t afford to do as much as it used to. It might be well for the U.S. to sit on the bench for a while. Think about things.

mohammad amjad
October 24, 2011 at 16:19

China has made great progress in the field of aviation,and in the construction of new airports.wishing good luck and lot of earning to workers in aviation industries.

July 12, 2011 at 17:41

the chinese successfully produced the INDIGENOUS WS-10 and WS-10A turbofan engines and implemented them on the j-11B fighters. they are also in the late stages of developing the WS-15, an engine with planned maximum thrust of 180kn, more than the AL-31Fs that currently equip su-27s by 50kns. please do some research before you publish your jingoist comments online.

jun soyar
June 26, 2011 at 20:35

i disagree with you brother. You better come up with something believable.

June 15, 2011 at 08:17

I think the Chinese leadership is smart enough to realize that China is a huge beneficiary from a strong US military presence in the Western Pacific. A strong US presence prevents Japan from re-militarize and starting a regional arms race.

More importantly, China, as a country with vast economic interests all over the world, is a huge beneficiary from US military presence around the world, just like America was a huge beneficiary from British and French military presence around the world. If the look back at history, the worst strategic mistake the US ever made was during the Suez Crises, by taking the control of the Suez Canal away from the British and the French you basically take away their capability and desire to help policing the world, and as a result what was primary the British and the French’s problems in the Middle East and SE Asia becomes primary America’s problems.

Does China wants to police the world (which is both costly and unpopular)? If not, who else can police the world? Russia no longer has the Soviet industrial/ economic base, Europe turned pacifist, India has to feed its people first…

Therefore the trick for China is to build a military powerful enough that its core interests will be fully respected by the American, but not powerful enough that the rest of the world will expect China to solve the world’s problems. The trick for the US is to expose/ exaggerate China’s strength and to diplomatically force China to shoulder some of America’s costly mistakes.

June 15, 2011 at 07:19

Speaking of education, China is catching up fast and the US is tanking just as fast, if the trend continues within a generation an average Chinese will be as educated as an average American, and there are 4.5 Chinese for every American.

In terms of political stability, China is just as stable as the US (if not more so), because the CPC is no longer Communist (its more like a Singaporean style one-party Democracy), and the Chinese people love it. According to surveys conducted by Washington based PEW Research Center, Chinese has higher (by a wide margin) level of satisfaction towards the way their country is governed than any other countries. And among Western academicians the consensus is that if there is a completely free and fair election tomorrow in China, the CPC will win by a land slide.

June 15, 2011 at 06:59

Even the cheapest new fighter cost at least 100x as much as a fully loaded Audi A8, so when you think about it Audis and Mercedes are very cost effective way to keep the troops’ morale high, not to mention stimulate the economy and reduce trade friction caused by massive Chinese trade surpluses.

For the same reasons the PLA is known to operate hotels and massage parlors near PLA bases, and the PLA has long standing endorsement deals with various lifestyle companies (such as the 110 proof Maotai wine).

In China, joining the PLA is considered such a nice career prospect that parents often pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to get their sons enlisted.

Of course none of the Chinese soldiers have any battlefield experience since China hasn’t entered a war in over 30 years but the sheer size (and rapidly increasing budget) of the PLA plus China’s trade relationship with potential adversaries should discourage any kind of conflict.

June 15, 2011 at 06:36

Severe lack of hardened air bases within range of Taiwan Strait compounds the refueling issue. Until that issue is resolved the F-22s are basically very expensive manned missiles (aka Kamikaze fighters).

Even if the basing issue is resolved, the extremely complicated and extensive maintenance requirements of the F-22 makes it unsuitable for forward basing in small remote islands.

Ideally F-22s should be navalized and carried by stealthy submersible carriers. But then its far more economical to just build unmanned stealth fighters and use them as disposable missile carriers (if it doesn’t have to return you’ll get twice the range).

June 15, 2011 at 03:57

But where are you going to land your F-22 if those bases are destroyed by missiles.

Bill TH
April 7, 2011 at 05:59


Longer Wave Lengths with wider bandwidth pulsed harmonic radar only works against F-22s on the Discovery Channel (I saw that episode). The old F-117 shot down was NOT due to employment of this type radar. Cannot go into details, but suffice to say, Investigations found it was “the F-117 pilots fault” for inadvertently exposing himself (to detection) and also had to do with a limitation of a “mechanical door” on the F-117 which thankfully, the F-22 has completely overcome. Your fearful assessment of F-22′s being shot out of the sky by SAMs using multiple and Longer Wave Length – wider bandwidth pulsed harmonic SAM radars has been “studied” and we are prepared for that. Thank you anyway.

The Author is biased towards SU-27s which are really not quite on par with the newest versions of F-15s, which are more tried and battle tested (very successfully)than SU-27s anyway. As far as the f-22 goes. Truth be told, Even 10…yes ten SU 27s against ONE F-22 is unfair. For all the SU- 27 Flankers. or 10 J-20s, or 10 of anything else. If I were a Flanker pilot, I’d eject out of my SU-27, or just turn and run…
The F-22 has a kill ratio projected at “thousands” to one… not 10 to one, not 100 to one…. hmmm. Here’s something else, cannot go into exact details, but once upon a test in the West, ONE junior F-22 pilot (new Captain) with only 20 hours actual seat time in an F-22 went up against Three F-16s and Three F-15s at the same time… F-15 and F-16 pilots all Majors and Lt. Colonels with thousands of hours and some with MIG combat kills… plus the lone Junior F-22 pilot flying his one F-22 had SAMS trying to pave him also… This lone single F-22 with a relatively junior pilot WAXed all six enemy jets (with much more experienced pilots) and evaded the SAMS. I can tell you from experience that even Euro-Fighter pilots that have gone up against the F-22 in “test” have had LIKE experiences. Hell, F-18, F-15, and F-16 pilots in “multiples packs” don’t even like to play.. against ONE F-22. It’s like placing a Siberian Tiger or a Kodiak bear (SELECT WHICH EVER ONE YOU LIKE) in a fight ring against sheep, OK for the Eurofighter… in the phone booth upgrade from sheep to a German Sheppard. Of course the Eurofighter to date has not had the phone booth chance. BVR, Eurofighters gone. In the phone booth, the Eurofighter upgrades to a German Sheppard… against a Kodiak bear. Most everything else, F 16s, 18′s SU 35s are still sheep. Good luck Rin Tin Tin !!! And you and many others all thought it was “THE PILOT”. Not anymore. With the F-22, IT’S NOW THE PLANE WAY, WAY MORE THAN THE PILOT…WAY MORE. All it takes is a competent pilot.

Keeping the F-22′s fueled is the only issue.

March 19, 2011 at 04:09

I understand that we are out numbered but u have to understand that 1 f-22 is as good as 20 to 30 of the su 27s I am an f-22 pilot and i assure u that we have nothing to worry about from the su 27s Etc.

December 14, 2010 at 11:49

China will not respond to a USA engineered false flag incident militarily, as she knows, the USA has all the advantaged.

If the irritant becomes unbearable, there are other preferable options.
China can wreak the USA economically by dumping a 100 billions US dollar denominated bonds in one hit! This is the equivalent of administering an electro magnetic pulse on the US Dollar.

Wall Streets will tanked overnight. The US treasuries bond market will suffered and buyers will rush for the exit doors. In essence, if the USA cannot sell its bonds or IOU, it will not have the means to pay for its oils, its imports, its infrastructures maintenance, its salaries, its pensions, its medicare….

Sure, China will suffer too, but as they say, some suffering is better when your adversary suffered more then you.The USA economy will be in a complete shambles.

So, China needs not pick a fight with the USA militarily. She has all the aces.

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