This is the second part in my series to talk about what I gathered from the recent readings. Since last year, there have been increased amount of noise from ASEAN countries about China's increased assertiveness in the area. The most vocal of those countries is Vietnam. That really is not surprising given that China's most recent major conflict was with Vietnam in 1979. This entry will attempt to look back on the role of the air force in security situations between the 2 countries.
By the late 70s, the Chinese regime was feeling increasingly encircled by Soviet Union and its allies. After Vietnam defeated the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia (China's only remaining ally in the region), China decided that it had to teach Vietnam a lesson. I won't go through the actual conflict here, since others would know about it much better than I do. However, I will use this conflict to demonstrate the inadequacy of PLAAF at that time.
After the Soviet-China split in the 50s, the Chinese aerospace industry basically had no advancement until well into the 80s, when it started cooperation with the West. The majority of its air force at the time of conflict were J-6 (Mig-19C). A crashed J-6 from this conflict showed that it had very little difference from the original variant of Mig-19C. At the same time, the radar on the J-5/6 were so poor that they were less capable than civilian aircraft radar, which were design for the purpose of avoiding collision. In many cases, human eyes could see targets before the radar could pick them up. On top of that, China was still using the extremely archaic PL-1 (K-5 copy) and PL-2 (K-13 copy) at the time of the conflict. Soviet AF had already found that PL-1 is completely ineffective in battle and PL-2 could not be used in cloud. So PLAAF was basically sending out a 1950s era fighter jet that could not pick out any enemy fighter jet. And even if it managed to pick out an enemy fighter jet, it had no way of shooting it down by missiles.
Another major factor against PLAAF was the decline in training as a result of cultural revolution. Back in 1964, PLAAF pilots were averaging around 122 hours of flight per year, which was comparable to the countries under Warsaw Pact. By 1966, they were only averaging 23 hours 45 minutes a year of training. Much of the training manual was also destroyed as part of the cultural revolution, so the pilots were not getting proper training even when they had flight time. According to the writer of the book, only 1% of PLAAF pilots were capable of night flight under complex weather condition by the end of the cultural revolution. So at the time of the conflict, PLAAF was sending out unqualified pilots who did not get adequate training and who could not fly during bad weather condition or at night time.
At that time, PLAAF simply could not support the ground troops in the ways that we now envision an air force would do. PLA used a combination of the air force and its SAM/AAA units to prevent VNAF from establishing air dominance. Throughout the entire conflict, PLAAF fighter jets were ordered to stay within China's boundary to stay out of VN SAMs. While some small transports and helicopter were used to move troops/goods into the battlefield, the J-6/7 just stuck with doing patrols along the border. The army never got any kind of close air support from its air force. This conflict pushed PLAAF to re-emphasize training programs that had been neglected for too long. And despite a few successful cooperation projects, the majority of PLAAF modernization did not start until the 90s.
Since 1979, most of the arguments between China and Vietnam have taken place over the Spratlys. There was a minor skirmish between the two navies in 1988. After which, China started its aerial refueling program and developed the H-6U tankers in order to support J-8 to gain air superiority over South China Sea. And over the past 20 years, the balance of air power has really shifted toward PLAAF. Due to modernization during these years, PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types of to South China Sea with the support of aerial refueling and AEWC&C. According to the author, PLAAF can now be used to apply pressure on neighbouring countries like Vietnam to not get out of hand. For example, VNAF decided to order Su-30s from Russia, because its aircraft were repeatedly getting locked on by J-10s during exercises. I don't know if that's completely true, but there has been a lot of rumours recently flying around Chinese forums that J-10s were locking onto VNAF Su-30s in Vietnam's most recent military exercise.
So as we look back on the performance of PLAAF in the 1979 vs now, it is easy to see how much things have changed. Back then, PLAAF could even provide air denial for PLA, because it was kept within the borders. Now, PLAAF can be quietly used as a tool apart from the army to show hard power. I'm not here to advocate this kind of behaviour or another, but to show the change in philosophy within PLA.