Experts: China Looks To Expand Air Power, Take on U.S. in Region
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — By 2020, China’s air power capabilities will allow it to project force beyond the first island chain and begin challenging the dominance of U.S. air power in the region — according to a recent academic conference here on China’s air power, attended by many top experts on China’s military in Taiwan and from the United States.
Sponsored and run by the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, based here, the threeday conference — “The PLA Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles and Capabilities” — was co-sponsored by the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rand and the National Defense University.
Though hindered by an armyminded leadership, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been expanding its influence in China’s military modernization efforts.
This makes many regional players nervous, including the U.S. military.
Part of the problem is China’s recent aggressive language, said one U.S. attendee with close ties to the Pentagon. Threats against U.S. aircraft carrier deployment in the Yellow Sea and problems with Japan over the Senkaku Islands demonstrate a new cockiness by Beijing.
“They are full of piss and vinegar now. They really believe they are taking charge of the region,” the attendee said. “They are looking for a fight.”
But the conference members said China is not quite ready to engage the U.S. successfully in a war. They generally agreed that PLAAF still has a decade of development and training before it has the power capabilities needed to challenge U.S. air forces in the region.
Grim Predictions for Taiwan
But most also agreed that Taiwan has already seen or will soon see the end to its ability to fend off a Chinese air force and ballistic/cruise missile campaign.
Though Taiwan is pushing the U.S. to sell it new F-16 fighter jets to meet that challenge, most at the conference expressed doubts that Taiwan’s air bases would survive an attack by the roughly 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at the island. Some attendees suggested a vertical/short takeoff and landing aircraft, such as the AV-8B Harrier, that would allow Taiwan’s Air Force to operate without runways.
By 2015, weapons and platforms China is acquiring may enable it to implement four types of PLAAF air campaigns: air offensive, air defense, air blockade and airborne, said Roger Cliff, a China military specialist at Rand in Washington.
By then, fighter aircraft, surfaceto-air missiles and early warning radar, “coupled with the hardening and camouflage measures China has already taken, would make a Chinese air defense campaign ... highly challenging for U.S. air forces,” he said.
In 2020, China could begin flying prototypes of its fifth-generation fighter, then retire older Chengdu J-7 and Shenyang J-8 fighters.
“It seems unlikely that China will choose to replace its own legacy fighters on a one-for-one basis, so the PLAAF will probably continue to shrink,” said David Shlapak, another Rand analyst.
China is expected to expand upon its indigenous development of aircraft and weapons, including more advanced airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, electronic warfare gear, and air-to-air weapons that can hit U.S. E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft. It also will improve its smart weapons, use more UAVs, and continue to deploy long-range HQ-9 SAMs and buy Russian S-400 SAMs, Shlapak said.
Despite China’s advancements in technology, PLAAF still needs to straighten out its education and training regime. Though China has made progress in this area in recent years, “it has not yet achieved the development goals it seeks for officers and NCOs,” said Kevin Lanzit, a senior analyst with Alion Science and Technology.
PLAAF’s primary focus will be developing the midlevel and senior noncommissioned officer curriculums, with education and training for junior NCOs remaining secondary, he said.
Future PLAAF officers are likely to be “universally educated at the university level, adept in the employment of modern technologies, and competent in multiservice joint operations,” Lanzit said.
Conference attendees largely agreed that PLAAF’s biggest challenge would be interoperability with not just the other branches of the military, but within PLAAF itself. Education is likely to be the key driver in China’s overall effort to attain a level of interoperability that allows it to directly challenge the U.S. military in the region. All key indicators point to no earlier then 2020 before China is capable of standing its ground against U.S. air power in the region, the conferees said.