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on the 1962 conflict include views that the IAF could have done considerable damage to the Chinese as the PLAAF had outdated aircraft and equipment then.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.
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.
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.
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.