Chinese Air Power Focuses on Taiwan, U.S. Scenarios
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s air power modernization efforts are largely focused on overpowering Taiwan’s Air Force and destroying high-value ground targets. However, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is also preparing for the possible intervention of U.S. forces on Taiwan’s behalf.
The PLAAF trains for four types of air campaigns: air offensive campaigns, air defense, air blockade and airborne. All four are focused on a Taiwan campaign with possible U.S. involvement.
“When fighting enemy air forces, there is a strong preference for attacking them on the ground, as opposed to fighting them in the air, presumably because they recognize that their fighters and pilots are still largely inferior to those of the United States and Taiwan,” said Roger Cliff, a China military specialist at the RAND Corp.
Strategies in dealing with the U.S. military focus largely on access denial, but the Chinese are more than familiar with U.S. capabilities, as demonstrated during the invasion of Iraq. If the United States commits to Taiwan’s defense, the PLAAF is likely to shift to a defensive strategy that protects key aircraft assets.
“If there were a conflict with Taiwan, it would clearly begin by using its aircraft in an offensive campaign,” a former U.S. defense official said. However, if U.S. airpower engaged China and “began attacking China’s airfields, SAM [surfaceto-air missile] and radar sites along the coast as it did in the gulf wars, the PLAAF would have to quickly shift to a defensive campaign. It would also have to move its aircraft farther back from the coast, which would impact its offensive sortie generation capability.”
Mixed Training Reviews
“Everything boils down to training,” the former U.S. defense official said. The PLAAF is expected to continue expanding its air combat fleet, including more J-10s and J-11s, he said, but for what mission are the pilots training?
“Where have you read what the real role of these aircraft are? Are the J-10s and Su-30s air-to-air or airto-ground aircraft? I don’t know,” he said. “You can’t be 100 percent proficient if you don’t train in a specific role.
“The real question is, what is the PLAAF doing in terms of its own training and joint training at the tactical level?” the former official said. China wants to build joint operational capabilities, which has given the PLAAF the green light to increase training, he said. But “if you look at what the PLAAF calls joint training (i.e., two services working together), almost all of it is really opposition force training,” meaning the PLAAF attacking Navy or Army forces, or vice versa.
There is also debate on whether the PLAAF plans to project force beyond the Taiwan Strait against Guam or Hawaii. It has been attempting to procure more Ukrainian Il-76 refueling aircraft, but efforts have stalled after squabbling over price.
The Chinese have released photos of a Chengdu J-10 fighter refueling in flight, “so it certainly wants the world to believe that it is equipping its Air Force to project power,” said Thomas Kane, author of “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power.” “I keep hearing people talk about the PLAAF beyond Taiwan, but it is all fluff,” the former U.S. defense official said.
“The argument goes something like this: The PLAAF is building up its tanker fleet, so it can now fly farther,” he said. “So what? Give me one example of how the PLAAF would use that fleet and give me one good target and the circumstances where they would attack that target given a much larger diplomatic environment and the chance of going to war in the region.”
UAV and AEW
In the past, the PLAAF was largely uninterested in UAVs, but there have been signs it is developing a UAV capacity.
“We did not see much in their writings that specifically mentioned UAVs, although they are clearly interested in them, as evidenced by the amount of effort being spent developing new types in recent years,” Cliff said.
China has been showing off a small conceptual model of a stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle, dubbed Anjian (Dark Sword), at different international air shows and exhibitions like the Zhuhai Air Show in China in 2006. Designed by the Shenyang Aircraft Design Institute, Dark Sword is not believed to be technically possible given China’s current aviation manufacturing aptitude.
During the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, 10 UAV models and mock-ups were displayed, including the Tianyi (Sky Wing) UAV and Soar Dragon highaltitude unmanned scout.
However, beyond the UAV models on display, there was virtually no company literature on China’s UAVs, except for the “PW UAV” built by the China National Precision Machinery Corp. Models and mock-ups are little evidence to support a strong interest by PLAAF in UAVs. And the PLAAF has shown little interest in UAV surveillance operations.
“Surveillance or command information is definitely not seen as the primary mission of the Air Force,” Cliff said. “I don’t recall anything about the Air Force providing surveillance or command-and-control information to the other services. This is consistent with previous observations that joint thinking and practice are still underdeveloped in China.”
China is attempting to expand its airborne early warning aircraft inventory, but research and development on several programs has been ongoing for more than 10 years and there are few signs the indigenous KJ200 airborne early warning and control aircraft will be operational any time soon.
Numerous sources indicate the trial test flights of the KJ200 have been disappointing, with numerous flight stability problems with the so-called “balance beam” phased-array radar.