Both India and China began their march towards progress almost at the same time and have had an unwholesome antagonism towards each other since the 1962 War. The boundary dispute between the two nations continues to simmer and tense episodes along the border show a steady growth pattern. Against this backdrop, Chinese ascent as a global aerospace power is no longer just a cause for India to envy but also reason for concern and indeed a clarion call for us to harness ‘Make in India’ into an impelling force to capitalise on the excellent work done by ISRO in the space domain while enticing private enterprise to reverse the immense injury caused to our aerospace industry in the years gone past by public sector ineptitude.
China’s impressive emergence as an aerospace power deserves attention…
In May last year, China unveiled the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan focusing on promoting manufacturing. One of the ten key sectors identified in the plan is aerospace equipment. More recently, addressing a press conference in Beijing recently, Xu Dazhe, Director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), acknowledging that US and Russia were ahead of China. He said that China aims to become a true aerospace power in 15 years and alluded to the 13th Five Year Plan as the guiding light for aerospace growth. China’s impressive gains in the aerospace sector have added to its national power in recent years. Be it in its modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Navy aviation, PLA Rocket Force, PLA Strategic Support Force, its space capabilities (civilian and military) or its maturing commercial aircraft manufacturing capability, its growing prowess in aerospace, is a matter of grudging envy in the economic arena, as also a cause for concern in the military-strategic domain. On both counts, China’s impressive emergence as an aerospace power deserves attention.
Military Strategy Dimensions
In the military strategic domain, there are two evaluations Chinese aerospace prowess needs to be subjected to. The first one is qualitative and defines the doctrinal aspects of deployment of air power, while the second is the quantitative facet of numbers. Chinese military strategy and related doctrinal strands flow from its Defence White Papers (DWP) which are in the public domain and Military Strategic Guidelines (MSG) which are classified documents circulated internally on a need-to-know basis until it is deemed prudent by the establishment to de-classify them.
The last DWP, published in May 2015, was called ‘China’s Military Strategy’ and has been described by some China watchers as more of an MSG than a DWP due to its content. The document brings to maturity some thought processes discernible in Chinese strategic thinking over the last few years. The Chinese have a propensity for using some ‘catch phrases’ like mantras to be repeated ad nauseum in official iterations. Since the turn of this century, Chinese leadership has stressed on the first two decades of the 21st century to be a ‘period of strategic opportunity’ for the development of ‘comprehensive national power’. One of the stated objectives sub-serving this concept is to secure China’s status as a Great Power.
Chinese leadership has stressed on the first two decades of the 21st century to be a ‘period of strategic opportunity’…
Shortly after Xi Jinping came to power, he defined his concept of a ‘Chinese Dream’ an inspirational idea quoted in the preface of the 2015 ‘China’s Military Strategy’ document which also talks of ‘active defence’ as its military strategy, a concept styled as strategically defensive, but operationally proactive. The strategic concept of ‘active defence’ is the essence of the Communist Party of China’s military strategic thought. Implicit to ‘active defence’ is a commitment not to attack, but to respond aggressively once an adversary decides to attack, a defence that counter-attacks in order to disrupt an adversary’s preparations or offensive rather than a defence that reacts passively.
In the 2015 document, there is also an exhortation to the PLA by the leadership to be capable of fighting and winning ‘informationalised local wars’ and make major progress in that direction by 2020. Thus, the current expansion and modernisation of air power ingredients of the PLA draw inspiration from ‘active defence’ and ‘informationalised local wars’. The 2015 Military Strategy also speaks of ‘Preparation for Military Struggle’ (PMS) as an important guarantee for safeguarding peace, containing crises and winning wars. To expand and intensify PMS, China’s armed forces have been directed to meet the requirement of being capable of fighting and winning as also to enhance their overall capabilities for deterrence and war fighting. All the strands briefly mentioned above are indicators of the impetus for developing air power assets that can exploit cyberspace, defend Chinese territories and interests and, if required, carry the war to the enemy’s territory through the medium of air and space.
The PLAAF, China’s main instrument of air power, is a fairly modern force whose modernisation process started albeit at a slow pace, in 1978 with Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernisations which included defence modernisation. During Jiang Zemin’s tenure, modernisation process got a fillip in consonance with China’s strategic ambitions of modelling PLAAF into a modern air force with a strategic role and reach, capable of projecting air power by executing classic offensive missions. The impetus for modernisation is evident from the pace at which PLAAF is closing the technology gap with US and European counterparts in terms of aircraft, electronic warfare and communications. In terms of force structure, the PLAAF is developing advanced weaponry and equipment such as new generation fighters and new types of surface-to-air missiles and radar systems, improving its early warning, command and communications networks and raising its strategic early warning, strategic deterrence and long distance air strike capabilities. The focus is on the strategic requirement of conducting both offensive and defensive operations.
The PLAAF, China’s main instrument of air power, is a fairly modern force whose modernisation process started albeit at a slow pace, in 1978…
As far as size is concerned, the PLAAF is the third largest air force in the world and largest in Asia with 3,98,000 personnel and over 28001 aircraft, around three-fourths of which are combat aircraft including around 600 of fourth generation aircraft. Having been push-started with Soviet help, it further benefitted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 due to immigration of scientists and experienced workers. At the beginning of this century, it had 3,500 combat aircraft but most of these were J-6/J-7 types (equivalent of MiG-19/21 respectively) and not very potent as fighting machines. Induction of Russian Su-27SK/UBK in two batches in 1992 and 1996 and Su-30 MKK/ Su-30 MKK2 in 2002-2003 represented a quantum jump over the J-6/J-7.
From 2002 onwards, China produced the J-10 and the J-11 (variant of Su27). J-10 production started in 2003 and China is now working on a J-10B version with a J11B already operational since 2004. All four could be classified as fourth generation aircraft. China is also working on two fifth generation aircraft, the J-20 and the J-31, expected to enter service in the next two to four years. China is the only country besides US which is pursuing two fifth generation designs simultaneously. The J-20 that resembles the F-22 Raptor, first flew in January 2011. In October 2012, China flight tested the J-31 which is the size of an F-35 fighter and appears to incorporate design characteristics similar to the J-20. Thus, over the next few years, PLAAF can be expected to pursue ‘active defence’ with a substantially fourth generation air force with the J-10/ J-11 in air superiority roles complementing the fleet of Su-27/ Su-30, JF-17 in interceptor role and the fifth generation J-20/ J-31 as stealth multi-role fighters.
In addition, it is in the process of procuring 24 Su-35 fighters from Russia along with an unspecified number of spare 117S engines which could be used to power the J-20 which is currently being tested with the much inferior AL31 engine. Both these engines are Russian and China’s progress in the power plant regime has been rather slack. As far as bombers are concerned, China is producing three versions of H-6 developed from the Soviet Tu-16. The H6K version can carry CJ-10 Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) and thus has a long range stand-off offensive capability with Precision Guided Missiles (PGMs). The PLAAF has air-to-air refuelling capability with 30 IL-78s ordered from Ukraine, but none of the H-6 variants can be refuelled in the air. Reportedly, China is developing a new large delta-wing bomber.
The impetus for modernisation is evident from the pace at which PLAAF is closing the technology gap with US and European counterparts…
In the strategic transport arena, China has IL-76 since 2005 and has ordered 70 more. In addition, it is developing the Y-20, a heavy-lift military transport aircraft in keeping with the changed strategic perceptions over the last few years. It can carry a payload of 65 tonne as compared to 40 tonne for IL-76 and 77 tonne for the Globemaster C17. The Y-30 is another Chinese design that is expected to follow Y-20 into service, possibly by 2020. These heavy lift transport aircraft are needed to support airborne command and control, logistics (troop movement and resupply), para drop, aerial refuelling, strategic reconnaissance operations, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions. China is also developing an AWACS capability on the IL76 airframe while the Y-8 is being modified for Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) roles.
Other Chinese military transport aircraft of importance are the Y-5 (a Chinese version of Soviet An-2), the Y-7 (designed and built in China but based on the Soviet An-24, later developed into the civil MA-60), the Y-8 (based on the Soviet An-12) and the Y-9 (developed as a stretched version of the Y-8). Helicopters have been omitted as inessential to this discussion.
As far as the ‘defence’ component of ‘active defence’ is concerned, the PLAAF possibly has the largest number of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world, consisting of a combination of Russian-sourced SA-20 (S-300 PMU1/2) battalions (PMU2 range is up to 195 km) and domestically produced CSA9 (HQ9) battalions (200-km range). In an effort to improve its strategic air defence systems even further, China plans to import Russia’s S400/Triumf SAM system (400-km range) as a follow on to the SA20, and may simultaneously develop its indigenous CSA-X-19 (HQ19), a dual purpose exosphere kinetic-kill vehicle warhead designed against ballistic missile warheads or satellites with range over 200 km, akin to US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD).
Ongoing development of long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including the BZK-005, and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) will provide capability to conduct long-range reconnaissance and strike operations. In the area of air defence capabilities, the PLAAF is focussing on long range UAV systems designed against aircraft and cruise missiles. For intelligence and reconnaissance purposes it has the Wing Long and the Yaoying UAVs capable of flying at 19,685 and 24,600 ft altitude respectively. There is also a Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) version of UAV named the Harrier III.
The PLAAF possibly has the largest number of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world…
Although it still operates a large number of older second and third generation fighters, it will probably become a majority fourth generation force within the next several years. Thus, the PLAAF would be a large force containing technological advanced aircraft and equipment and with a formidable offensive and defensive capability.
On January 01 this year, the Second Artillery Force responsible for China’s nuclear and conventional ballistic missile arsenals, so far an independent branch of the PLA was reorganised into the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) elevating it to a service fully on par with the PLA’s Navy, Army and Air Force. The Rocket Force is being modernised to act as a deterrent force in potential conflicts in the South China Sea and East China Sea, et al and is equipped with Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM), Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM), Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) and Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) some of them with Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRV).
China is the only country besides the US and Russia to have Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) capability in the form of the DFZF, designed to glide after re-entry. With speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10, it travels longer distances than ballistic missiles and can be fitted on existing missiles like the DF-21 or the DF-31. Existence of DF-41, a 12,000-km range missile with ten warheads, is yet to be officially acknowledged by China. To summarise, the newly organised PLARF is on the way to further enhance its formidable status as an instrument of Chinese aerospace power.
The PLAN’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, which is in service since 2012, represents an element, howsoever insignificant, of air power. It is just about making its presence felt but, despite its impressive weapon systems, it is best viewed as a stepping stone towards bigger and brawnier carriers capable of global reach.