China Focuses on Fighter Training
By Wendell Minnick
Taipei - China’s Air Force has been improving the quantity and quality of fighter training over the past five years, including training time and the percentage of tactics per sortie.
“Prior to 2002 there was no difference; all the services were the same,” said a former U.S. defense officer who served in Beijing.
“Prior to 2002, you were given a single training subject. Now the trend is two or more training subjects per sortie. They combine navigation, combat training, etc. during one sortie. And training sorties are increased two or three times. Now you train the way you fight.”
The 2008 edition of the annual U.S. Department of Defense report on China’s military modernization highlighted for the first time plans by the People’s Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF) to focus on “informatized” conditions under wartime conditions.
“The PLA is compiling and validating a new Outline for Military Training and Evaluation for Military Training and Evaluation … will emphasize realistic training conditions,” said the report.
China’s fighter training and capabilities have struggled over the past 20 years. Efforts to build and procure a fourth-generation fighter aircraft, as well as Taiwan’s response to upgrade its air defense and fighter aircraft capabilities, has forced the PLAAF to improve training.
Taiwan’s F-16 pilots train under U.S. oversight at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., where they learn tactics that give them an edge over their cross-strait counterparts. Taiwan is also pushing the United States to release new F-16 Block 50/52 fighters.
China also has to contend with the recent U.S. release of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) system and an upgrade to Taiwan’s older PAC-2 Plus batteries surrounding Taipei. Taiwan is also upgrading its Po Sheng command-and-control program, and building a phased-array early warning radar in central Taiwan.
China suffered an embarrassing performance during the U.S. EP-3 incident in 2001, when a Shenyang F-8 Finback fighter collided with a U.S. surveillance aircraft in international airspace.
“What all of this means to me in a nutshell is that the PLA as a whole is focusing on becoming a more educated and better trained force, but like other militaries around the world, has certain personnel, equipment, logistics and maintenance limitations,” the former U.S. officer said.
But past problems make it difficult for the PLAAF to improve training.
“For example, Jiang Zemin in the 1990s determined that the PLA was not training its new cadets to be able to fight future high-tech wars, so he began pushing to recruit civilian college students and graduates,” the former U.S. defense officer said.
“As a result, the number of PLA academies has been cut by almost half over the past 15 years. The PLA is trying to deal with some of its equipment limitations by using simulators, but one has to ask how good are the simulators and are they being used in a way to make the operators more proficient during live-maneuver training.”
It remains unclear how long it will take China’s Air Force to meet training goals. Sources noted that a fourth-generation fighter in the hands of a third-generation pilot would spell doom for China against U.S. and Taiwan fighter pilots. However, China appears to be more confident in the air.
“What would an increase in training for U.S. and Taiwan mean? It means a better PLA Air Force,” said Mark Stokes, who is the executive director of Washington-based Project 2049, and was the country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1997-2004.
“Specific implications would depend upon training objectives, as well as type of and level of training and aircraft involved. More training, especially combat mission training, means a higher degree of readiness.”
Sources in Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense have said Chinese fighter sorties over Taiwan Strait have increased over the past five years. Chinese pilots have also engaged Taiwanese pilots with radar locks more frequently. Taiwan pilots are not allowed to return radar locks and are allowed to fire only after being fired upon.