Rise of the PLAAF: Implications for India
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Issue Vol. 28.4 Oct-Dec 2013 | Date : 06 Oct , 2015

Chinese Su-27

The ‘inscrutable’ sobriquet for the Chinese is not so much because of their unsmiling faces but on account of their unpredictable actions. Military action against India may not come in the form of a full-fledged war. Small pin pricks in ‘disputed territories’ may keep increasing in magnitude and frequency until even the submissive and cautious Indian government is constrained to react. Should that happen and a larger military confrontation become inevitable, the PLAAF would be a major instrument of damage to our forces, assets and national pride. Some writings on the 1962 conflict include views that the IAF could have done considerable damage to the Chinese as the PLAAF had outdated aircraft and equipment then. The same is not true about the PLAAF today. The continuing delays in updating capabilities of the IAF relentlessly bring us closer to the possibility of a humiliating experience at the hands of the PLAAF.

The PLAAF was kick-started with Soviet help and its initial acquisitions were all from the Soviet Union…

India’s tremulous caution in dealing with China, and the latter’s inexorable and escalating use of its military machinery to apparently test India’s resolve, have combined in recent months to form a binary tinderbox. The territorial dispute between Indian and China (recent Chinese actions suggest that ‘territorial’ dispute may be a better description than ‘border’ dispute) continues to simmer since 1962, the Dalai Lama’s presence in India irks China incessantly and the politico-economic rivalry of the two emergent powers, provides a high level of animosity that does not look likely to fade. This is especially so as China does not appear to be in a hurry to resolve issues that afflict the India-China relationship.

Indeed, the strategic design is blatantly one of encircling India through a variety of machinations. India, in response, has not displayed a matching spirit of machismo and has permitted itself to be pushed around. However, if the push became a shove, a retaliatory conflict situation may become inevitable on account of domestic politics. If the tenor and texture of India-China relations continue its present trend of evolution, a military confrontation between the two is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’. In that context, China’s armed forces that are composed of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Armed Police Force (PAPF) and the militia, play a significant role in China’s overall strategies of security and development according to ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’, China’s Defence White Paper 2013. The PLA is the world’s largest military force with a strength of approximately 2,250,000 personnel.

Su-30MKK China

It consists of five main services – the PLA Army, the PLA Navy (PLAN), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), the Second Artillery Corps (strategic missile force) and the PLA Reserve Force. This paper is confined to the rise of the PLAAF and its implications for India.


The PLAAF was officially formed on November 11, 1949, but the first three decades are insignificant to this discourse. When Deng Xiaoping introduced the Four Modernisations strategy in 1978, defence modernisation was – for the first time ever – formally identified as a priority sector in China’s reconstruction albeit listed fourth in precedence amongst the four ‘modernisations’. The associated importance accorded to defence R&D got conjoined with national economic progress in one plane and growth in science and technology in the other.

The PLAAF is on a focussed course to have an essentially fourth generation air force with the J-10/J-11 in air superiority roles…

It was during Jiang Zemin’s time that the modernisation really received impetus. By 2003, China’s defence sector became profitable and by the beginning of the current year, having overtaken the UK, China was the fifth largest arms exporter of the world. This piece of information is significant in conjunction with the Chinese iterations on strategic aspirations to transform the PLAAF into a modernised force with a strategic role and reach, capable of, inter alia, classic offensive missions associated with projection of air power. Towards the consummation of this objective, China is inexorably marching towards development and deployment of aircraft, equipment and technologies which are surprisingly close to the leading edge of technological advances in the world, with the gap narrowing steadily.

China’s Defence White Paper 2013 entitled ‘The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces’, disseminated in April this year declared that the PLAAF is China’s mainstay for air operations, responsible for its territorial air security and for maintaining a stable air defence posture nationwide. According to the paper, the PLAAF has a total strength of 398,000 personnel and is organised into seven Military Area Commands (MACs) located at Shenyang, Beijing, Lanzhou, Jinan, Nanjing, Guangzhou and Chengdu. Recent development of several airfields in Tibet and adjoining Lanzhou and Chengdu MACs are of special concern to India. In addition, it commands one airborne corps representing strategic airlift. To meet strategic requirements of conducting both offensive and defensive operations, the PLAAF is strengthening the development of a combat force structure that focuses on reconnaissance and early warning, air strike, air and missile defence and strategic projection. It is developing such advanced weaponry and equipment as new generation fighters and new types of ground-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. Some of the salient modernisation programmes of the PLAAF that impinge on India’s near future security concerns are discussed below.

Chinese J-11 Multirole Fighter Aircraft

The letter designators used for PLAAF aircraft are J for fighter, Q for ground attack, H for bomber, JH for fighter-bomber, Y for transport, JZ for reconnaissance aircraft and Z for helicopters. The PLAAF was kick-started with Soviet help and its initial acquisitions were all from the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a change in the technological level of the PLAAF as Chinese R&D effort benefitted from the immigration of erstwhile scientists and experienced workers. Even so, until the end of the last century, the PLAAF still remained straddled with old and operationally vintage aircraft. Although it had more than 3,500 combat aircraft at the beginning of 2000, most were J-6/J-7 types (equivalents of MiG 19/ 21 respectively). Thereafter, it acquired the Su-27 SK/UBK, Su-30 MKK and Su-30 MKK2 aircraft from Russia which were a quantum jump over the earlier holdings. From 2002 onwards, China produced the J-10 and the J-11 which could be classified as fourth generation aircraft.

The PLA is the world’s largest military force with a strength of approximately 2,250,000 personnel…

The PLAAF is on a focussed course to have an essentially fourth generation air force with the J-10/J-11 in air superiority roles complementing the Su-27/Su-30 fleets, JF-17 in interceptor role and the J-20/J-31 as fifth generation stealth multi-role types. The J-20 first flew in January 2011 and bears a resemblance to the F-22 Raptor. In October 2012, China flight tested the second next generation fighter prototype, the J-31 which is the size of the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter produced by Lockheed Martin of the US and appears to incorporate design characteristics similar to the J-20. Regarded as fifth generation aircraft, the J-20 and the J-31 are expected to join the PLAAF between 2017 and the end of this decade. Whether these aircraft actually emerge with fifth generation characteristics is for time to reveal as the power plant and leading edge stealth technology appear to be out of reach for the Chinese as yet. The power plant problem may be solved through the stratagem of buying more Su-35 from Russia. Deliveries of 24 Su-35 and an unknown number of spare engines are expected to begin in 2015, while the J-20 is slated to be operational in 2017. Some experts feel that the J-20 would finally be powered by the 117S engine that powers the Su-35. This engine is a derivative of the Russian AL-31 which is fitted on one of the J-20 prototypes. If that be the case, the J-20 would be a formidable aircraft.

In 2005, China ordered 70 IL-76 transport aircraft and 30 IL-78 aerial tanker aircraft. In addition, China continues to upgrade its H-6 bomber fleet (originally adapted from the late 1950s Soviet Tu-16 design) with a new variant that possesses greater range and is armed with a long-range cruise missile. China has converted some of its old H-6 bombers as aerial tankers for several of its indigenous aircraft, increasing their combat range. China is also developing an AWACS capability on the IL-76 airframe while the Y-8 is being modified for Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) roles. China’s aviation industry is developing a large transport aircraft likely referred to as the Y-20, to supplement China’s small fleet of strategic airlift assets, which currently consists of a limited number of Russian-made IL-76 aircraft. These heavy lift transports are needed to support airborne Command and Control (C2), logistics, para-drop, aerial refuelling and reconnaissance operations as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

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Ongoing development of long range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including the BZK-005, and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) will provide the capability to conduct long range reconnaissance and strike operations. In the area of air defence, the PLAAF is focussing on long range systems designed against aircraft and cruise missiles. Currently, it holds the Russian S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system (400km range) and is indigenously working on the domestic HQ-9 SAM (200km plus range). Thus, the PLAAF would be a large force containing technologically advanced aircraft and equipment and with a formidable offensive and defensive capability.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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8 thoughts on “Rise of the PLAAF: Implications for India

  1. The Chinese are spreading their wings and testing the waters with all the countries in the region. The first country they tested was India, one of the strongest powers in Asia and having the third largest Army in the world. Remember DBO; they intruded nearly 30 kms, while our response was whining about peaceful solutions. Why ? Because the civilian government doesn’t have balls and the armed forces aren’t prepared; they are ill equipped as of date. The end result was a squabble between the Army and the ITBP. That was all that we were capable of doing. Now as far as the Airforce is concerned it’s far behind the PLAAF now. It’s about time one of the Air Chiefs resigned over the dismal state in which the Air Force is in. We are down to 30 + squadrons against a projected 40 + squadrons. A question to the Air Force; whats the Operational capability of these 30 + Squadrons. Is it 100%? Sadly I don’t think so. So that’s where we stand. About the transport fleet less said the better. What’s a few C-130s and C-17 ? They in reality do not add any strategic advantage to Air Borne or Air Transport operations. All An-32s have lived out their life. Why is the Air Force is such a state of affairs – somebody has to answer. HAL is the sad boy in the whole game? Typical DRDO stuff; to produce a piece of equipment that was out dated at least 15 years back. Why doesn’t the Air force make noise about it? Like the Army was dumped with an out dated weapon called the INSAS the Air Force will get the Tejas. We need at least 60 Squadrons of Fighter Aircraft with 70 % oriented towards Air Superiority Role and 30 % as FGA and over lap of 20 % multi role aircraft. And as part of modernisation we need an Air Defence and Aero Space Command to keep our sky’s monitored and clear 365 days. Its a wake up call for everybody or else 62!!

  2. Quite an eye opening article. Secially with the names and designations of new Chinese fighter jets. The Chinese have copied almost every kind of aircraft available in the Soviet amd the US inventory. Definitely agreed that the Indian government needs to take a tougher stand for the well being of our Air-Force.
    That said, China is definitely up to something big. The way its expaning the armed forces is alarming.
    India’s national security is threatened and lest we act, 1962 may be repeated.

  3. The group captain and his colleagues from the IAF should tell the government that they cannot manage the responsibilities expected of them especially regarding tackling of the PLAAF. The GoI that they should disband the IAF and handover the responsibility to the Army and Navy who I am sure will rise to the occasion. I am sure the navy at least knows that India cannot fight the chinese based on imported equipment . I am hereby expressing my lack of confidence in the IAF managing their role properly. The IAF has done enough damage already to the country by sabotaging indigenous efforts.

    • Your writing is woefully off the point. The author has just presented his views. What makes you think that IAF has never risen or performed their duties properly? Instead of focussing on the mostrous, useless HAL, NAL and ADA located out of Bangalore where so-called engineers go only as a 2 year training school and then go abroad, you are attacking the IAF. How much more dumb can it get man? IAF is better managed than Indian Navy who keeps on blowing the most expensive submarine in dock and grounding their fighting ships every now and then. He is dot on the mark and hs said what Indian babus and those in the useless companies HAL, NAL and ADA have never heard: Shut it down!

  4. Capt Suchdeve’s comments are well researched, however, debatable on specifics. The lesson for India is to get back to the basics, meaning, accelerated application of latest technologies in the indigenous military hardware and the science of theatre command and control. It is pointless to worry about man to man or gun to gun comparison. There will remain budgetary constraints and India cannot match the numbers with China, at least for several decades. India’s focus must remain on building quality in hardware and delivery system superior to China so that command and control can strike the right punch when and where ordered by a civilian authority. India’s response must remain stealthy in intensity and magnitude to extract maximum deterrent impact. If this seems like a tall order, take a lesson from the Israeli defense forces. A tiny nation that destroyed the military muscle of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon within few days of the war with resources a fraction of the Arab adversaries.

  5. Do not get carried away by the propaganda which the Chinese put out. They have stolen technologies or reverse engineered hardware. These are half as good as the real stuff. The irony is that Chinese political system does not permit questioning of the huge propaganda about their successes is put out. Take for example J-15 naval version of the Russian origin fighter. The latter dumped it in favor of Mig 29K. Chinese bought one copy in Ukraine and reverse engineered. Its published statics are impressive. In reality it cannot take off the Carrier with more than 2 tons of load. The published data by the Chinese in 8 tons. Like this there are numerous examples including some in the above write up.

    • Look up the attack helicopters manufactured by the Chinese aircraft companies before making such a stupid comment. The important thing is they have capability to reverse engineer an entire aircraft of Mig-21 or Su-30 MKK level with few airframes instead of HAL who needs a detailed manual for screw by screw assembly called as license production. Sycophant.

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