China’s Air Force Comes of Age

Recent Features


China’s Air Force Comes of Age

Long subordinate to the army, the PLAAF is gaining greater autonomy while still cooperating admirably with other services.

A recent Andrew Erickson report detailed the constellation of institutional interest and cooperation behind the PLAN’s ongoing deployment to the Gulf of Aden. As Erickson notes, the deployment has required a substantial degree of interagency cooperation, and seems, by and large, to be meeting the needs of those institutions.

Of all the institutional challenges that modern militaries face, however, none compares to complexity of managing the need for and provision of airpower. On that metric, how is the People’s Liberation Army Air Force doing?

Historically, the pursuit of air force institutional autonomy has focused on providing space for the air force to procure appropriate equipment, manage doctrine and training, and create independent plans for warfighting. Airpower advocates have typically argued that tying air forces to armies or navies produces hamstrung forces that cannot realize the full, independent potential of airpower. However, independence has often put air forces at odds with already existing services. The histories of airpower in the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, are replete with nasty conflicts over equipment, missions and warfighting preferences.

But of course, the PLAAF is *not* an independent service. Indeed, there is a good case to be made that the PLAAF has suffered, historically, as much as any air force from the parochial interests of ground forces. A combination of poor doctrine, mismatched equipment, inadequate training and outdated technology made the PLAAF a non-factor in the Sino-Vietnamese War. Not all of this was the fault of the Air Force, as the tumultuous ideology of the Maoist period and China’s international isolation contributed to constraining the PLAAF’s development.

A combination of China’s changing strategic environment and the death of the PLA’s old guard have transformed the PLAAF’s situation. The PLAAF and the PLAN have enjoyed several autonomy enhancing reforms over the past decade, putting each on much more equal footing with respect to the Second Artillery and the ground forces of the PLA. The PLAAF also appears to have acquired considerably greater responsibility for planning and organizing air campaigns, and has also acquired a significant amount of modern equipment. However, although the autonomy and prestige of the PLAAF has grown, it remains under the umbrella of the People’s Liberation Army.

Whatever the drawbacks of this system, it has produced the appearance of inter-service comity. The system-of-systems that constitutes China’s A2/AD capabilities depends on tight integration between the PLAAF, the PLAN, and the Second Artillery. There is little open indication of any dispute or friction between the three branches, although serious problems of cooperation often only emerge in the context of real wars. Similarly, there is little indication that the procurement policies of the PLAAF have displayed the sort of service parochialism found in the United States or the United Kingdom.

In the U.S. and British systems, much of the responsibility for procurement lies with the independent services, which have direct access to civilian policymakers. Historically, the biggest incidences of inter-service conflict in the United States have involved fights over equipment. As yet, despite the increasing autonomy of the PLAAF, it is not clear that any serious disputes over mission prioritization (say, air superiority vs. close air support vs. long range strike) or procurement have developed between the different branches of the PLA.

Just as the first half century of the PLAAF demanded close cooperation between ground and air elements, the second half century will likely demand tight integration between air and sea forces. The institutional arrangement of the PLA hasn’t always been a success, but with the increasing strategic focus towards the sea, and the increased civilian interest in seapower and airpower, Chinese military power seems to be developing as it should. There is little indication at this time that China needs to embark on serious reform of its military institutions, at least where airpower is concerned.