China’s Air Power Faces Challenges
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — A premier international military conference on China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) here underscored China’s expanding air power, but also the obstacles imposed by the Army’s continued dominance of the air arm.
Sponsored and run by the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, based here, the threeday conference examined the everexpanding role the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has in China’s military modernization. The U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rand and the National Defense University co-sponsored the event.
Conference speakers also looked closely at the workings of the Second Artillery Corps, responsible for China’s ballistic missile force, and the PLA Navy’s air power requirements, including plans to build an aircraft carrier.
Despite improvements in China’s ability to dominate the airspace in and around Taiwan and project air power into the South China Sea, the PLAAF faces challenges from Army-led leaders that often inhibit air power.
“The Army has always and will most likely continue to dominate the PLA’s joint leadership and structure,” said Kenneth Allen, a China military specialist at the Defense Group of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analyst, Washington.
All the uniformed vice chairmen of the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC), which has total authority over the military, have been Army officers, he said. This includes the head of each of the four General Departments and the commander of each military region. “In my opinion, there are no indications this situation will change,” Allen said.
Integration of air command and control has also been a challenge. There is still no single national air command system, said Zhuang Xiaoming, a China military specialist at the U.S. Air War College. Though there have been suggestions within China’s defense community to create a “Chinese NORAD,” there has been no visible progress on the issue.
Additional problems arise in China’s military culture, he said. The PLA’s political structure, service tradition and an outdated organizational system all “formulate relentless constraints” that continue to undermine the PLAAF’s modernization efforts.
Despite these issues, the PLAAF’s war-fighting capability has grown in tandem with China’s economy in many areas, particularly in efforts to push into “near space” — 65,000 to 328,000 feet — and an obsession with defending China from long-range precision air strikes from the U.S., said Mark Stokes, a China analyst at the Project 2049 Institute.
China has compensated for its many weaknesses by expanding its conventional ballistic and groundlaunched cruise missile force, he said. In addition, the Air Force is accelerating its transition from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations that will target U.S. air bases in the region, including at Okinawa and Guam.
In 2004, the CMC approved the PLAAF’s first service-specific strategic concept, said Murray Scot Tanner, a China studies analyst at the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses. “This concept clearly suggested a much broader mission than in the past, with a greater emphasis on offense,” he said.