The first decade of the 21st century has seen the Chinese military (People’s Liberation Army or PLA) undergo a number of major changes, which many observers around the world have kept a keen eye on. Indeed, among the world’s major military forces, the breadth and speed with which the PLA and the Chinese military industry have changed from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2019 is quite remarkable.
Sometimes it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees; therefore as we enter the 2020s, it seems an opportune time to take a step back and review the most major and visible developments the PLA and Chinese military industry have experienced in the 2010s. For the sake of brevity, these are not wholly exhaustive. Part I will cover the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF), and the Chinese Army (PLAA/GF) and institutional and organizational domains, and Part II will review the Chinese Navy (PLAN) and Chinese Strike (PLARF).
J-20 and the introduction of stealth – By far the most headline grabbing development for the PLAAF this decade was the J-20 stealth fighter. The first prototype emerged in late 2010 and made its first flight in early 2011. Since then the J-20 has completed the major development milestones in its current form and entered service with combat units in 2018.
However, in the mid to late 2000s, J-20 was still known as J-XX and even among the PLA watching community there was prevailing skepticism as to what form the J-XX might take. It was not uncommon to observe dismissals that J-XX might be only a semi-stealth aircraft lacking internal weapon bays, or perhaps using older F-117 style faceted stealth shaping rather than more modern blended shaping. Even as recently as 2009, some individuals in the community considered the idea of a Chinese fifth generation fighter as a fanboy dream.
The emergence of J-20 in a form that met – and in some ways exceeded – the PLA watching community’s expectations of J-XX was a rare instance of “catching” an elusive white whale. In many ways, the J-20 revelation caused a sea change in the way the PLA watching community evaluated subsequent PLA developments that would emerge in the rest of the 2010s, where rumors that would have seemed outlandish before J-20 were instead considered with more deliberation.
Of course, the introduction of a fifth generation fighter and the PLA fielding its first stealth aircraft is also monumental milestone as well, both in terms of material military capabilities as well as military industrial advancement.
Fourth generation consolidation – As of late 2019 it may be easy to look at the hundreds of J-10 and Flanker family aircraft the PLA has in service and assume it was always this way. However at the beginning of the decade, fourth generation aircraft like the J-10A, J-11B, and Russia-procured Su-27s and Su-30s made up a much smaller proportion of the PLA’s overall fighter fleet. At the time, perhaps only 400-odd fourth generation fighter aircraft were in service, and only half to two-thirds of them could be said to field mature, modern beyond visual range (BVR) capabilities.
The 2010s saw robust production of the J-10A and J-11B families, followed by a shift partway through the decade to the improved fourth-plus generation J-10B/C and J-16 families, which offered more modern avionics and further enhanced BVR weapons. In the 2010s the PLA also began to retire some of its earliest and most heavily flown fourth generation fighters procured from Russia (specifically, some early build Su-27/J-11A Flankers), but the scale of production saw the PLA’s fourth and fourth-plus generation fleet size grow to at least 900-1,000 aircraft, crossing a symbolic milestone where more than half of their fighter fleet can be considered to be fourth generation or above.
The scale of this change catapults the PLA’s modern fighter fleet (if defined as fourth generation and above) to be the second or third largest in the world by some measures, and easily the largest for an Asian country. The fleet size of fourth and fourth-plus generation fighters also means that BVR capability – once a semi-scarce commodity – is now a routine capability for PLA combat aviation. Indeed, today the PLA is considered to be among the world’s boundary pushers in terms of BVR weapons technology with systems such as PL-15 and the PL-X.
The saga of WS-10 – Many PLA watchers and foreign observers rightfully note high performance turbofans to be a technological bottleneck where the Chinese military industry remains significantly behind other leading military powers. WS-10 has been cited as an example of this, being an engine that has suffered many delays and resulted in a product that is at best comparable to older variants of Western and Russian engines.
However, it is also an undeniable fact that WS-10s have equipped all newly produced Chinese land-based Flankers that were built and entered service since 2010. The exact number of WS-10s this amounts to is unknown as we are unsure of the exact count of Flankers built in this period, but it is likely to approach some 1,000 engines as of the end of 2019.
More recently, pictures have emerged seemingly showing newly built J-10Cs and J-20s powered with their own WS-10 variants, whereas before these aircraft were using Al-31 family engines. If future production of J-10C and J-20 fighters can be satisfied with WS-10 family engines as well, then the Chinese aerospace industry will claim another important milestone in terms of self sufficiency.
Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) – The PLAAF and China’s naval air force (PLANAF) entered the 2010s with a respectable fleet of AEW&C aircraft, in the form of four KJ-2000s for the PLAAF, and a handful of KJ-200s for the PLAAF and PLANAF each. Equipped with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars on respectably performing airframes, this fleet provided an important core of AEW&C capability.
However, the 2010s saw the PLA’s AEW&C fleet reach globally impressive standards. KJ-200 production reached about two dozen aircraft split evenly between the PLAAF and PLANAF. The mid 2010s saw KJ-500 aircraft emerge, which use the same Y-9 airframe as platforms like the KJ-200 but field substantially more capable radar with 360 degree coverage and enjoy more recent technological advances. At the end of 2019, 14 such aircraft have been confirmed to have entered service, split evenly between the PLAAF and PLANAF, with more in production.
Much like the PLA’s experience with fourth generation aircraft and BVR capability, the growth of AEW&C platforms has caused this capability to transition from being a semi-scarce commodity to now being accepted as a routine and normal part of the PLA combat aviation repertoire.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – Chinese military UAVs saw significant progress on two fronts in the 2010s. First, the 2010s saw advancement of domestic UAV technology including medium altitude long endurance (MALE) and high altitude long endurance (HALE) UAVs, the former including a number of prop driven UAVs for surveillance and hunter-killer purposes and the latter particularly for surveillance and reconnaissance. UAVs of both categories have entered service with the PLA, particularly in the second half of the decade, in the form of the GJ-1/2 and WZ-7 types, respectively.
Testing and development of more advanced stealthy UAVs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), specifically the GJ-11 (also known as Lijian/Sharp Sword) was also ongoing, occurring in the second half of the decade. A number of other leading aerospace nations including the U.S., U.K., Europe, and Russia have pursued similar projects in this time; however, the presence of GJ-11 at the National Day parade in 2019 suggests it may be the first UCAV of its type to enter service in some form.
The second domain of progress on the UAV front was found in the export success of Chinese UAVs on the international arms market. A number of Chinese UAV types, including the Wing Loong I and II (in PLA service as the GJ-1 and GJ-2, respectively), as well as the CH-3 and CH-4 (not observed to be in PLA service), have found enthusiastic buyers in the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Eastern Europe. The proliferation of Chinese drones on the international market has been well documented and thus will not be greatly explored here, but is worth mentioning as a significant development that was largely unforeseen at the beginning of the decade.
A strategic transport shift – PLA strategic and tactical transport aircraft have always been among its major deficits. During the 2000s, about 14 Il-76MDs were procured from Russia, and there were plans to buy an additional 34 such aircraft around 2005, but manufacturer issues caused the contract to be aborted. Therefore, the PLAAF entered the 2010s with a concerningly small fleet of 14 strategic transport aircraft of an aging (albeit reliable) design. During the 2010s, the PLA started to rectify this deficiency by procuring a number of refurbished Il-76s from Russia, and it is estimated during the decade to have purchased about 10 total such aircraft.
However, it was the emergence of the Y-20 in late 2012 that truly signaled PLAAF ambitions for its strategic transport capabilities. The aircraft began to enter service in mid-2016, and as of late 2019 at least 10 aircraft are in service, with more to be commissioned each year going forwards. The Y-20 at present uses stopgap D-30K engines of the same type as older Il-76 variants; however it features a more modern airframe than the Il-76, in particularly offering a wider cargo bay allowing for wider oversize loads. Going forwards, Y-20’s D-30K engines will be replaced by the higher performance domestic WS-20 engine, though WS-20 remains a few years away yet.
In terms of overall capability and physical performance, the Y-20 sits in a similar category to older Il-76 variants. However, the ability to sustain production from a domestic source over multiple years means the overall strategic transport fleet will likely enjoy significant growth in the foreseeable future.
Ground Forces and PLA Organization
A paced army modernization – The PLAGF (also called the PLAA) enjoyed far less advancements compared to the PLA’s other branches. The strategic demands placed on the modern PLA emphasize the importance of aerial, naval, and missile warfare; therefore finite resources should naturally be applied toward the most demanding requirements first. This is not to say that the PLAGF has not seen advancements in technology and systems, as there are a number of new main battle tanks, guided missile systems, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery systems, and ground based electronic warfare and combined arms subsystems and integration efforts that make the PLAGF of late 2019 very different from the one of 2010.
However, it cannot be denied that the scale of change the PLAGF has seen during the 2010s is less monumental than what the PLAAF and PLAN enjoyed. The deliberate, paced modernization of the PLAGF this decade is therefore considered as much of an important development as the more rapid modernization seen in the PLA’s other branches.
Training for intensity – Gradually increased training intensity, complexity, and realism has been one of the less well-covered aspects of PLA advancements this decade. PLA writings across all services this decade have noted an increased emphasis on more realistic and demanding exercises, as part of the overall effort to modernize the PLA at large.
The nebulous nature of regular training and exercises makes it difficult to judge the degree of qualitative advancement in this domain. However, some of the more high profile exercises – such as the Stride series from the PLAGF, or the large scale Red Sword exercises from the PLAAF – have produced a consistent commentary of greater exercise demand and complexity via both official and non-official information streams.
The 2015 reform – A large scale, institutional reorganization of the entire PLA was announced in 2015. This reform delegated the PLAGF to a service equal to the Navy and Air Force, while the Second Artillery Corps was raised as an equal service of its own (the PLA Rocket Force, or PLARF). This reform changed the PLA’s seven “military regions” into five “theater commands” under a different command structure, which would produce a force with higher readiness and greater ability to operate jointly as well.
The PLA’s overall chain of authority was restructured, with the Central Military Commission now enjoying both a clear administrative chain of command as well as a clear operational chain of command to its services. The old bloated General Departments of the PLA were also dismantled and reorganized. A reduction in troop strength by 300,000 was also announced, said to widely come from the PLAGF as well as political troops and non-combat auxiliaries.
Needless to say, the scale of this reform cannot be done justice within a few paragraphs; however, it arguably has produced the most consequential changes and advancements among all the developments mentioned in this piece.
This is part one of a two part series. Next month’s article will cover the experience of the PLAN and PLARF and strike systems during the 2010s.