China's Air Force decoded: How PLAAF is evolving its tactical strategy

 | Updated: Oct 31, 2021, 05:18 PM IST

China has built three new airfields in the Spratly Islands and has been improving airfields in the South China Sea.

China's PLAAF

A US Department of Defence report in 2016 had indicated that China's PLAAF is the "largest Air Force in Asia and the third-largest in the world with more than 2,800 total aircraft (not including UAVs) and 2,100 combat aircraft (including fighters, bombers, fighter-attack and attack aircraft)."

The report further added that the PLAAF is rapidly closing the gap with western Air Forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities from aircraft and command-and-control (C2) to jammers, electronic warfare (EW), and datalinks.

The US report said that the Chinese Air Force has been adding "fourth-generation aircraft" which was predicted to be around 600 in 2016 while adding that it continues to  "operates a large number of older second-and third-generation fighters".


China pursuing fifth-generation fighter capabilities

The US report said, "China has been pursuing fifth-generation fighter capabilities since at least 2009 and is the only country other than the United States to have two concurrent stealth fighter programs."

Amid the South China Sea row, the report five years ago stated that the Xi regime has built three new airfields in the Spratly Islands and has been improving airfields in the South China Sea with the availability of Woody Island Airfield in the Paracel Islands.

The PLAAF possesses one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world, the report said.


China's rocket force

Also its indigenous radars, JL-1A and JY-27A were designed to address the "ballistic missile threat".

The “fifth-generation aircraft, which could enter service as early as 2018, will significantly improve China’s existing fleet of fourth-generation aircraft,” the report stated.

China's UAV programme was also highlighted in the report with Chinese media reporting the development of the Shendiao UAV as a long-endurance vehicle.

A report last year by the US department of defence stated, that the "People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) is responsible for the PRC’s strategic land-based nuclear and conventional missile forces."


China's ICBM

China is developing new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will significantly improve its nuclear-capable missile forces, the US report said.

China's ICBMs have been designated a "threat" to the United States with the report stating that is set to grow to nearly 200 in the next five years.

The report said: "The PLA’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities are currently the most robust within the First Island Chain, although the PRC aims to strengthen its capabilities to reach farther into the Pacific Ocean."

China is also developing capability to deter and defeat "third-party intervention during a large-scale" campaign such as Taiwan, the US Department of Defence stated.


J-20 fighter jet

It is now a well-known fact that the PLAAF is rapidly catching up with Wester Air Forces in technological advancement which was also highlighted in the DOD report capable of carrying out “offensive and defensive operations.”

The Chinese Air Force currently has 800 of 1,500 operational fighters with the fifth-generation fighter being the new J-20 stealth fighter jet.

China had displayed the J-20, and J-16 and J-10C advanced fourth-generation fighters during its national day parade in 2019. The jets are armed with air-to-air missiles (AAMs).


Chinese Air Force

China had received delivery of all 24 Su-35 advanced fourth-generation fighters from Russia in 2016.

The PLAAF is preparing upgrades for the J-20 which may include increasing the number of AAMs the fighter can carry in its "low-observable configuration, installing thrust-vectoring engine nozzles, and adding supercruise capability by installing higher-thrust indigenous WS-15 engines", the report said.

China’s bomber force is composed of H-6 Badger variants, which is produced indigenously and is a version of the former Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 (Badger) bomber.

However, China hasn't sat still, it has modernised the H-6 variant that integrates standoff weapons and features more-efficient turbofan engines for extended range.


J-20 stealth fighter jet

NATO calls the J-20 aircraft "Black Eagle", reports say the front portion resembles the F-22 Raptor and the rear section Sukhoi T-50. A Russian company has denied reports that it has given stealth technology to Chengdu J-20 fighter aircraft.

China's fighter jet has PL-12C/D and PL-21 air to air missiles (AAM) including PL-10 short-range AAM.

China has begun deploying its Xianglong high altitude reconnaissance UAV in airfields in western China and to Hainan island.

The country displayed its confidence as it unveiled the rocket-powered, high-speed Wuzhen-8 and the Gongji11 stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle during the 70th-anniversary parade.



Xi's plan

China also possesses the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world, composed of Russian-sourced SA-20 (S-300) battalions and domestically produced CSA-9 (HQ-9) battalions.

China is also developing its indigenous CH-AB-X-02 (HQ-19), which will likely have a ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability and has also been developing "kinetic-kill vehicle technology"  to field mid-course interceptors.