China a Threat or a Challenge: Its Air Power Potential
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Issue Book Excerpt: China: Threat or Challenge? | Date : 08 Mar , 2017

From the time People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into being in 1949, its rise has been phenomenal. It has outperformed its contemporaries including India in almost all spheres. The reasons lie in its visionary leadership that set and pursued national goals with single minded determination and doggedness. Agriculture growth, industrial output and military prowess have remained its prime concern throughout. The Chinese leadership including President Xi Jinping view the current phase of 21st century as a “Period of Strategic Opportunity”1 that will facilitate expansion of China’s Comprehensive National Power. It has therefore remained focused on2 overriding objectives such as domestic stability, peace along the periphery, economic growth and development, defence of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Regional preeminence and great power status are other inherent strategic objectives. Notwithstanding, ability to fight short and intense wars beyond the national frontiers, if necessary, also remains its core objectives.

China aims to secure these objectives without jeopardizing the regional peace that has been primarily responsible for its massive military modernization and economic development. With economy that could enable massive defence outlays year after year for competitive rearmament and structural development, China soon began to be seen as a challenge by some and a threat by others. Its propensity for illogical assertions, hegemonistic tendencies and proclivity for disregarding risks has become a cause for serious concern. It shows no hesitation in confronting the mightiest and cajoling the weakest.

Besides, the Chinese political leadership also kept pace with the latest developments by continuously reforming and adapting the new concepts. The Chinese are greatly influenced by US/NATO operations in the Gulf, Afghanistan and the Balkans. They are quick to emulate. China has thus come a long way from the days of people’s war to the modern times of technological, cyber and space war.


China’s economy is second only to that of the USA. Its defence budget is around 5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The military is about two and a half times larger than that of India’s. Ready availability of requisite financial resources has enabled it to undertake modernization of its Army, Navy and the Air Force on regular basis. It has huge foreign exchange reserves that it uses for investment the world over. It is this economic prowess that it flaunts in meeting its strategic ends. Lately, it has also reorganized its command and control structure in order to ensure unity of command for enhanced joint operation capabilities.

For obvious reasons, China has been paying special attention to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and has developed its road, rail and air communication network extensively. As much as 400,000 troops can be mustered in mere two to three weeks time and redeployed anywhere in TAR. In fact, PLA can now amass more than two divisions at their designated locations in just 20 days as against 90 days in the past. Assembly of forces of this magnitude enables China to mount major offensives anywhere in the region.

In contrast, India is not too well placed in this regard. Gradually mounting obsolescence in all the three services and heavy reliance on the foreign vendors for 70 percent of its equipment is India’s Achilles heel. Inadequate infrastructure development all along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a major weakness that needs urgent attention.

China’s, People’s Liberation Army Air force (PLAAF) is the third largest air force in the world and the largest in Asia. The PLAAF is however fast closing the gap across the spectrum with other modern air forces in areas of 4th and 5th generation aircrafts, electronic warfare, data link and jammers etc. The Indian air force in comparison is much smaller though technologically better placed. However, unlike India, its indigenous aircraft industry capable of producing latest generation aircrafts is its greatest asset.

The Chinese navy is also coming up in a big way in keeping with its major power commitments far from home. Lately, China has been showing lot of interest in Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is fast emerging as a true maritime power that raises possibilities of conflict of interest in Indian Ocean. China has been trying to secure its sea lines for long. It started with construction of strategic ports in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and other countries in India’s neighbourhood with a view to expand its naval presence and create maritime infrastructure along the Indian Ocean periphery.

The Indian navy though better off as compared to the other two services has also major shortcomings. Its submarine component is rather old and needs replacement. At long last, India seemed to have started paying some attention to the Chinese machinations in its maritime neighbourhood. Recent deal in regard to Chabahar port is apparently a step in the right direction for countering the Chinese so called ‘String of Pearls” strategy. Presently, 3India is hardly able to assert itself beyond the Arabian Sea to Suez canal in the west and Bay of Bengal to Malacca in the east.

China’s strategic tie up with Pakistan is another dimension to Chinese threat that cannot be taken lightly. India is constrained on account of its limitations of resources to manage two front war simultaneously. Pakistan is quite capable of tying a large chunk of Indian army and the air force in the western sector itself.

Potential Areas of Conflict

China’s aspiration to be the sole Asian power, unchallenged by India or any other power is at the root of Sino Indian discord. In fact, it wants the US too to leave Asia to it. It is in this context that China has been keeping the relations with India in abeyance without making any genuine effort to find solution. On the contrary, its diplomatic actions in international arena are often inimical to India’s long term interest. Its sole aim is to prevent India’s rise.

Rising Powers with global aspirations like China are bound to have clash of interest with others. That’s how China is presently deeply embroiled in crisis situations with a number of big and small countries in Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS). Whilst it would like to avoid direct confrontation with any of these countries as far as possible, it would however not hesitate if necessary to assert its rights by resorting to politico military means. Despite the risk involved, China seems to be going ahead and declaring the air space above the SCS and the ECS as its Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ) that would necessitate all foreign aircraft to seek permission before entering the air space. Obviously, it does not hesitate to challenge the international community where its own interest are involved. As far as India is concerned, it is Tibet which is the crux of the matter. Although India is in no position to threaten China in Tibet Autonomous Region for decades to come, all preparatory actions and infrastructure development there are perhaps a part of its back up plans in case of an eventuality requiring a major offensive against India.

Realizing the importance of Tibet as a likely scene of future conflict with India, the Chinese felt the need of developing this hitherto undeveloped country comprehensively. Since the PLA and the PLAAF would be critical factors in any conflict scenario here, the Chinese went in for a large scale infrastructure development in keeping with the requirements of the PLA and the PLAAF. China also undertook modernization of these two services simultaneously in a big way.

Rise of Chinese Air Force (PLAAF)

It is surprising how a primitive air force whose origin lies in the aviation element of the communist party of China in 1920s grew into a formidable modern service in a matter of few decades only. These young Chinese pilots trained by Soviet Union in late twenties were in fact the pioneers who laid the foundation of the PLAAF. The Soviets set up a number of schools and provided a large number of aircrafts and the flying instructors. By 1956, China started to assemble F-4s (Mig-15s). Less than a decade later, China started to produce other Mig variants like F-5 (Mig-17s) and F-6s (Mig-19s). All through, the Soviet pilots continued to train the Chinese pilots.

But with the split that came about between the two comrades in 1960, the Chinese aviation industry was literally crippled.4 However, it was the Korean war that had brought about significant improvement in PLAAF.5 Korean war led Chinese to mass produce Soviet derivatives under license. Starting with Mig-17 (J-5) in 1956, Mig-19 (J-6) in 1959, and Mig-21 (J-7) in 1967, the Chinese gained substantial experience in aircraft production. This encouraged them to develop their first indigenous fighter aircraft (J-8) in 60s. Ignoring allegations of reverse engineering by the Soviets and the west, the Chinese continued with their so called indigenous effort. Interestingly, India too was flying and producing Mig-21s under license at that very time but made no effort to go beyond.

Presently, the PLAAF comprises 3,98,000 personnel with 1700 fighters, 400 bombers and 475 transport aircrafts. It has a large number of 2nd and 3rd generation aircraft along with a fair number of 4th generation aircrafts. Besides, China is pursuing 5th generation capability since 2009. Its J-20 stealth fighter is already being tested. Is has been followed up with a lighter J-31 China is also acquiring SU-35s from the Russians which will be inducted wef 2018.

Role of Chinese Air Force (PLAAF)

Primary task of Chinese air force is to defend main land China including TAR and other territories claimed by it such as South China Sea islands etc. It is also to support PLA ground forces and control air space to deny advantage to the adversary. Protection of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) vital for China’s trade and energy imports, defending of Chinese equities in cyber space and outer space are some of the other equally vital roles for the PLAAF. As far as air defence is concerned, the Chinese rely heavily on missiles. Chinese air fields are heavily defended by a variety of missiles supported by fighters. Air defence strategic assets are controlled by the PLAAF whilst the tactical ones are operated by the PLA.

Inter Service Integration

The Chinese armed forces function directly under the Central Military Commission. It has recently reorganized the command structure to ensure the unity of command and also reduced the military Regions from seven to five. Western Theatre Command (WTC) with head quarters at Chengdu is poised against India.

The second in command (Deputy Commander) of the WTC is an air force officer who controls the air operation in the WTC. This pattern of chain of command is followed right down to the lowest level. These synergy oriented reforms were brought about after the Gulf war.

The largest PLAAF unit is a Division which consists of three regiments, each with three squadrons of three flights with three to four aircrafts in each. Each Air Division will thus have 75 to 100 aircrafts.

Modernisation of PLAAF

Modernization is a dynamic process to keep abreast with the latest. China has been able to do so primarily due to ready availability of funds for its armed forces. China’s focus on time bound modernization and building indigenous military industrial complex has paid rich dividends. The PLAAF has thus emerged as a modern aerospace power in a matter of few decades.

By 1985, major changes had been brought about in the air force that included raising of education standards, improving ground and air combat training, logistic procedures and last but not the least pruning of redundant manpower and phasing out the obsolete aircrafts.

Collapse of Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in big boost for the PLAAF. Aircraft designers, scientists and technicians rendered surplus and unemployed in CIS countries were readily employed by China. The Chinese learnt from their vast and varied experience. Russia’s compulsion to open its arms market due to its frail economy also provided great opportunities to Chinese military. The PLAAF was thus able to acquire wherewithal like SU-27, SU-30, S-300 surface to air missiles and the latest technology for it to modernize. With the acquisition of these aircrafts, it also went in for the development of 4th and 5th generation aircraft. China is also currently developing J-20 and J-31 indigenously.

If China’s effort to acquire SU-35 from Russia fructify, PLAAF will emerge as a dominant factor in power projection in South China Sea and elsewhere.6 Though China has been acquiring a large number of modern aircraft, bulk of its stock pertains to 2nd and 3rd generation aircrafts only. However, if the Chinese air force continues to develop at the current pace, it is likely to become a 4th generation air force soon.

China is also developing Russian IL-76 based AWACS. H-6 (TU-16)7 bombers have also been modified for enhanced range and fitted with long range cruise missiles that give it a standoff capability. Besides, China has a fairly good strategic air lift capability comprising aircrafts like IL-76, AN-12, AN-26 and AN-30. The rotary wing support is however largely limited to Mi-8 and Mi-17s.

The Indian modernization or lack of it keeps the Indian armed forces permanently obsolescent or even obsolete. Politico bureaucratic leadership lacks an understanding that modernization is a dynamic process and requires constant indulgence. Also, the leadership’s propensity to limit the armed forces around two percent of GDP constraints any meaningful long term modernisation.

Nearly 70 percent of India’s military wherewithal is imported. Hence the need to continuously update the weapon systems and stock stores in order to avoid getting in critical situations. The IAF is already down from 42 to 33 squadrons because of MOD’s snail paced decision making process.

Operations from High Altitude Air fields in Tibet

As per the available information, China has constructed 14 major air bases from where it can launch air operations. Some of the important bases facing India are Hoping, Pangta, Linchi, Gar Gunsa, Shiquanhe, and Konka. There are two airfields at Lhasa itself. Besides, there are at least 20 air strips in the region which can be upgraded if required. Some of these bases are fully operational to host the latest aircrafts in Chinese inventory like SU-27, SU-30 and J-10. These fighters operate regularly from these bases in small detachments, perhaps due to logistic constraints.

As per the available information, the Chinese airfields lack requisite protective measures like hangers, blast pens and other safety provisions.8 Also, in most cases there is only one link taxi track that connects the runway. In other words survivability measures are literally nonexistent on Tibetan airfields. This has a direct bearing on logistic support to run sustained operations.

Most of the Tibetan airfields are situated at an altitude of around 4,500 meters which is higher than Leh and Thoise in India. The performance of their aircrafts will understandable be lower than those of Indian aircrafts. As it is, operations from the Tibetan plateau are extremely challenging because of high mountain peaks, snow storms, heavy turbulence which requires high level of professionalism. High mountains clouds and low density are a deadly combination for any pilot. Unpredictable weather conditions, limited airfield infra structure and logistic problems render sustained operations rather difficult. Since both the aircraft and the pilot suffer from infirmities of this nature, it is not possible to get the best out of them.

Extra long runways of 4000 to 5000 meters length along with in flight refueling can compensate this to some extent. Taking off from rear bases with maximum weapons load and minimum fuel and refueling in flight requires resources which the Chinese may not have presently. For this purpose, they are trying to procure Russian IL-78 tankers. Other than SU-27, SU-30 and J-10, the Chinese fighters have limited capabilities. Strategic targets in main land India such as airfields and industrial complexes in the east are nearly 500 km away from PLAAF bases in TAR. Radar cover is also literally nonexistent for PLAAF aircrafts. Air lift capability of PLAAF is also severely restricted. Similarly, Heliborne operations would be extremely difficult to execute.

PLAAF’S Air Defence Operations

PLAAF strategy is to defend air bases with a combination of weapons. It comprises both long and short range radars, medium range surface to air missiles and the fighters with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) and short range air to air missiles. With a variety of short, medium and long range missiles, China’s missile force is regarded as one of the biggest in the world.

For the purpose of surveillance in Tibet and south Xinjiang region, China has deployed a couple of radar regiments there. These radars monitor IAF’s activities all along the Sino-Indian border. Medium and high level cover is fairly good in Tibet despite vintage radars. Notwithstanding, these radars may pick up IAF’s in-coming strike aircrafts before they enter Tibetan air space because of their elevated deployment. Since these radars would be looking downwards, severe clutter will make matters difficult. Low level cover is literally nonexistent because of the nature of terrain and the non availability of such radars. Large numbers of Vulnerable Area’s (VA’s) and Vulnerable Points (VP’s) are thus left unprotected.

Deployment of Air Power in Tibet

China has deployed a mix of aircrafts, particularly its SU-27, SU-30 and indigenous J-10 at several air bases opposite different Indian sectors. J-10s are being used for both ground attack as well as air defence roles (Combat Air Patrol). Beside these fighter Divisions, bomber and transport Divisions are also variously deployed. The bombers (H-6) are apparently located outside Tibet. Lately, the Chinese have been paying special attention to Ladakh sector where they have built as many as six air fields at lower heights facing India.

PLAAF holds regular exercises from various bases in TAR during different seasons in order to hone aircrew skills and also assess their ability to cope with adverse environment conditions. The PLA and the PLAAF have been conducting joint army air force exercises on Tibetan plateau since 2010. Beside the integrated exercises at different levels, PLAAF has also recently conducted a ground attack exercise just north of the LAC. PLAAF also conducts war games regularly wherein it supports its ground forces against adversary’s advancing forces.9

India’s Response

India’s response to Chinese strategy of multi-faceted development of Tibet was rather inadequate to say the least. Even when it started ramping up the defences, the lackadaisical approach with snail paced decision making did not help matters.

However, the armed forces at their level have taken some concrete measures to improve their posture. The IAF has relocated SU-30 MKI fighters at Tezpur and Chhabua in Assam, The IAF is also upgrading Advance Landing Ground’s (ALGs) in the eastern sector. A number of helipads are also being upgraded. Similar measures were undertaken earlier in the Ladakh sector also. After a gap of 44 years, an AN-32 landed at Daulat Beg Oldie in Eastern Ladakh at a height of 18,038 feet on 31 May 2008. This was followed by landings at Fukche (14200 feet) and Nyoma (13400 feet) respectively. In order to dissuade China from provoking India, it has to hasten up its modernization and infrastructure build up to bridge the yawning gap that exists today.

Comparative Status of Air Power

China aims to fight wars that are short but decisive in political and strategic terms. It therefore plans to employ high tech, high lethality smart munitions that would leave the adversary crippled. Also, China’s policy of area/regional dominance by ensuring numerical superiority in manpower and equipment is debilitating to say the least. It weighs heavily on Indian mind, for numbers can be overwhelming. Indigenous design and production capabilities of China are an additional advantage that it enjoys.

In all likelihood, China may rely heavily on ground based weapons due to limitations of fighter operations from Tibet. China is likely to use Non Line of Sight Battle Field Support Missiles and tactical ballistic missiles to neutralize the IAF bases and other strategic targets. For interdiction of supply lines aircraft like J-10 along with SU-27s being used for defensive counter air missions will be used extensively. It is understood that these weapons have been stockpiled in Aksai Chin and Xinjiang in tunnels dug deep into the mountains.

Unlike 1962, when PLAAF had hardly any air power potential in Tibet, today it stands well prepared and well equipped with 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation aircraft. It has a large number of bases all along the LAC to mount operations against India, the limitations notwithstanding.

The IAF, no doubt lacks Chinese type of numerical superiority in manpower, equipment and financial resources. It has however a technological edge over the PLAAF as far as the type of aircraft and the associated wherewithal is concerned. Aircraft like the SU-30 MKI deployed in the eastern sector together with other aircraft of similar genre deployed all along the LAC constitute a far superior force structure than the Chinese 2nd and 3rd generation aircraft in Tibet. Induction of French Rafael in near future will alter the technological balance further in India’s favour. Also, Indian bases are very close to Chinese territory. The border is just under 200 km from some of our bases.

Unfortunately, IAF’s fighter inventory is currently depleting rather fast on account of government’s inability to keep pace with progressive obsolescence. Whilst the situation in the high endurance, long range, air dominance fighter like the SU-30 MKI is good, same however can’t be said of other categories that are depleting very fast. Tejas is nowhere on the scene as a force. 5th generation fighter continues to remain mired in negotiations with the Russians. The dwindling IAF resources are certainly a cause of serious concern as far as the comparative air powers are concerned. Also, numbers would be a serious constraint in implementing a two front war if imposed.

Nowhere in near future will India be able to match PLAAF’s numerical superiority if the budgetary constraints continue to operate as hitherto. India’s defence budget is rather meager at nearly one fourth that of China’s. Unless India sets aside a larger piece of national budget for the armed forces, India will not be able to develop any dissuasive capabilities whatsoever.

Buy Now: This book is sequel to “Threat from China”.

In any future conflict with China, air power will be a critical factor. China will not be able to optimize its air power potential for reasons discussed earlier. PLAAF will find itself severely handicapped in carrying out large scale sustained offensive operations. The Chinese air force is quite aware of the threat posed by an array of IAF air bases along the Sino-Indian border. The Chinese will therefore try to neutralize these bases early in the conflict, by employing missiles rather than the aircraft. The IAF must anticipate this and build requisite active as well as passive air defence measures.

There are innumerable other measures that India needs to undertake for it to be able to deter an adversary like China from provoking unnecessarily. India however cannot afford to go in a match for air craft for air craft, gun for gun or tank for tank, but it must however concentrate on the core issue of capacity build up all the time to reduce threat differential. It is important for India to keep the Chinese engaged politically and diplomatically in order to avoid major conflict situations. Potential to take on an adversary is an instrument of deterrence.


1. Pentagon’s annual report (2016) on China to the Congress.

2. Ibid.

3. “China keeps the pot boiling”, by Air Marshal R.S. Bedi, Tribune Chandigarh, 10 august 2015.

4. Global security, military, PLAAF www. Global

5. PLAAF synopsis, edited by Col. Sanjay Thakran, Centre for joint warfare Studies, New Delhi.

6. Pentagon’s Annual report to Congress , military and security developments involving PRC 2014.

7. The Diplomat. China’s Air Force modernization unprecedented in history by Zachary keck. June 2015.

8. Chinese airfields , Overview, airfield-overview.htm

9. The Flying Dragon bares. Chinese Air Exercises in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, www.vayu 1.

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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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Air Marshal RS Bedi

Former Director General Defence Planning Staff.

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9 thoughts on “China a Threat or a Challenge: Its Air Power Potential

  1. @Arjun,
    Your analysis of Chinese J-20 primarily based on “stealth” characteristics (and hence “undetectable” – I am assuming that is what you mean here by this terminology) can not be shared by any modern Air Force. A presence of any aircraft in the environment is picked up by its physical signature. Even if for the sake of argument we assume that the pilot has switched off its navigational radar or any other transmission to remain silent, he cannot switch off its engine, and that creates its infra-red signature. This is a give away for the defender deploying adequate surveillance equipment. RWRs were developed when the radar was developed and they will be there in the operational inventory as long as radar technology is used. The only modern trend has been towards fusion of RWRs with radar receivers for compactification which does not mean RWR is passe. Even then that fusion has not been successful due to power supply issues although the same antenna can be used for both. I read your reference to ‘ausairpower’ which I could not make sense since it is based on so many unreliable assumptions. Here the modern approach is to develop SEAD (suppression of enemy air defence) capability which involves developments of electronic countermeasures etc etc. I doubt China is capable for that. I think IAF is technologically more advanced in its knowledge base than China at present. Thank you..

  2. Good analysis sir. Thanks for the article. I would like to mention the following point here:

    (1) China’s stealth fighter j-20 fighter may be a deadly threat for us. Japan is set to acquire four Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes airborne early warning aircraft that would nullify the threat of Chinese stealth fighters and afford it a potent missile defense capability. The new aircraft is equipped with a powerful hybrid mechanical/electronically scanned UHF-band radar that will be able sense the J-20 in the sky.

    (2) As indicated in your article in case of war China will definitely try to destroy our Air defense system through missile strike. I think IAF has taken appropriate measure to counter this.

    • Please try to analyse technically what you mean by “stealth”. You cannot take its naïve implication as an ordinary English word as in the dictionary and draw conclusion. In military technological world unfortunately such naïve interpretation looses its significance. If you can absorb how a radar warning receiver (RWRs as mounted in AWACS) operates from the point of view of electronic engineering, you will find that “stealth” is a red herring. Unfortunately, I will be sounding arrogant and offensive in my post here for which I apologise.

      • RWR mounted in AWACS not a new system and being deployed decades ago.

        The developers of Stealth technology knows the limitations of the AWACS system very well and implements their strategy to evade AWACS and land based systems.

        J-20 is a new generation of stealth aircraft. As per the reports from West, J 20 is superior to F-35 its counter part from US. J-20 has longer range, more internal fuel capacity, and larger internal weapons capability.

        As per the Air Power Australia think tank, the J-20 could be employed offensively, to punch holes through opposing air defenses by engaging and destroying defending fighter combat air patrols, AWACS aircraft and supporting aerial refueling tankers.

        Western built Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) rely primarily on S-band, and to a lesser extent, L-band and UHF-band acquisition radars for land based, and shipboard use. Airborne Early Warning capabilities are similarly constrained.

        As a result of the introduction of robust stealth capability, the detection of stealth air craft in the sky will be severely reduced and therefore stealth air craft can penetrate the air defense system and strike air defense assets.

        Chinese seem to be planning to use their stealth fighters to supplement conventional forces, to be used for highly specific missions such as AWACS hunting, tanker destruction and strikes against heavily defended targets (especially air bases and command and control facilities)- in other words, all those vital systems that comprise high-tech back-end in any air campaign., while other aircraft establish air superiority.

        I think that we have to build strategy to counter the threat of J 20 and hope that appropriate measures have been taken by IAF. I feel that underestimating enemy’s capability is not a wise full thinking, rather preparing for worst cases will provide our forces the ability to face any surprise from our enemies.

        • Could you please define what you mean by “stealth technology”? And besides where did you get this opinion “Western built Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) rely primarily on S-band, …”? The rest of your post speaks for itself.

          • Sir,

            Here we are not in a debate for who is right or wrong, neither we are writing a book on Stealth Air Craft. You may have more knowledge in this field.

            Please see the following web sites for the information you have asked for.


            If you feel that J-20 is not a threat for us and present air defense system is sufficient then it is OK.

            I am not disputing it. I apologies if I unknowingly heart anybody.

            But, I feel that it is always better to have preparedness than to ignore it for any future warfare.


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