Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Evolution of PLAAF doctrine/training

This is the part 4 in the series of reviewing the content of the recent book that I read. I will be looking at the evolution of PLAAF training and doctrine. This is one area that is hard to write about, because we simply don't have many English based sources and the Chinese sources often seem like propaganda pieces. The recent book by CMSI really did a good job on this topic and I hope that this piece will provide even more for PLAAF watchers.

In October of 1949, USSR sent 878 experts to China to build a flight academy and supply 434 training aircraft. Eventually, 6 fighter academy and 2 bomber academies were built. Due to Korean War, they rushed 350 pilots through the first academy in one year and did not even train in night combat or complex weather conditions. By May 1951, PLAAF had 17 aircraft divisions and 34 regiments. They served mostly in secondary role to Soviet Air Force in confrontation against USAF. As USSR was withdrawing from its former base in Lushun to return to China, it provided valuable training to 105 PLAAF pilots from 1954 to 1955. Soviet instructors provided PLAAF pilots with night training, advanced combat maneuvers and training in adverse weather conditions. In a defensive cooperation agreement signed in 1957, USSR agreed to increase cooperation in aerospace tactics training and theater level exercises. By that year, PLAAF had developed its first flight training manual based on the Soviet training manual plus experiences from Korean war and past training. From this point until 1964, PLAAF pilots regularly had about 122 hours of training a year, which matches Warsaw Pact standard. Even though PLAAF can see the importance of training, the ideological types in PRC leadership thought it was capitalistic to train. PLA has historically adopted a "people army" motto that relies on the large Chinese population and land mass and the ideological types wanted PLA to go back to that and to spend more time on communism ideology. Once the Cultural Revolution started, the ideological types won out in PLAAF's development. By 1966, PLAAF pilots were averaging less than 24 hours of training a year. From 1968 to 1971, they only averaged 37 hours 16 min a year. Most J-6 pilots in charge of night missions had never fired out of aircraft gun let alone launched an AAM. Due to high accident rate from low training hours, the training program became more and more simple. Even the pilot selection program for PLAAF changed from selection based on performance to based on their obedience of Mao's communist ideologies. Mao even gave orders to compress flight school program from 2 years and 4 months to 1 year. Much of the flight training and aircraft related manuals were destroyed as part of the Cultural Revolution, because that's what happened to anything book or cultural related at that period. A a result of thse changes, new pilots had to return to flight school starting from 1973, because they couldn't handle the PLAAF training. Only 6.2% of PLAAF could operate at night time and only 1% could operate during adverse weather conditions during night time.

The training programs and flight school recovered after Cultural Revolution and was back to normal by 1983. However, PLAAF doctrine, tactics and training did not change from 1964 to 1983. Even in early 90s, a visiting Russian Air Marshall commented that PLAAF doctrine and training had not changed much since the Korean War. Although PLAAF was a separate air force on paper, but it was just a tactical support for the army. Organizationally, PLAAF's military regions are the same as that of the army, because they were originally formed to support the army through air denial and CAS missions. PLAAF did not contain any kind organizational structure like long range aviation or Frontal aviation of VVS to carry out strategic tasks or offensive tasks independent of the army. In all of PLA's conflict since its formation, PLAAF has never attacked or defended on its own. The most number of sorties it had per day was only a few hundreds and done mostly during daytime. In the conflict against Vietnam in 1979, PLAAF never even provided CAP for its ground troops. This ground supportive mentality was not just a function of equipment limitations, but also part of the general doctrine/mindset within PLA.

Back in 1992, PLAAF was stuck with 1950s era training procedure of spending 160 hours on basic trainer before switching to jet trainer compared to 60 hours for Soviet AF. China still did not have even one AF training research book. When they first received Su-27s from Russia, PLAAF had many problems using this new aircraft even though the first converts had over 1000 hours of flight experience on J-6/7s. Russian flight instructor found that PLAAF was treating Su-27 like Mig-21 and were not utilizing all of the potential of Su-27. During 3rd division's training in Russia, they were found to be overly nervous in flight training and afraid of crashing their planes. PLAAF faced a dilemma of developing training that strikes balance between maintaining safety while increasing difficulty level. At the same time, PLAAF also did not have modern tactics to utilize Su-27. This was shown in exercises involving J-7 and Su-27, where a J-7E squadron was able to penetrate Su-27 defense on over 90% of confrontations. In the cat & mouse game between ROCAF and PLAAF, Su-27s faced strong EM pressure from Taiwanese ground based and aerial based ECM equipments. In fact, Taiwanese EW was able to cut off communication between PLAAF aircraft and ground base. ROCAF reconnaissance aircraft, ECM aircraft posed great risk to the UHF radio communication system of Su-27. Even with relatively weaker radiation, ROCAF fighter jets can seriously disrupt PLA communication when its comes within short distance of PLA units. Clearly, PLAAF needed to learn to operate 4th generation aircraft with new tactics under heavy EM pressure.

On top of the backwardness in doctrine and training, PLAAF also proved to be woefully inadequate in large scale exercises. In 1996 Taiwan exercises, PLAAF could not find a ground command that can direct different aircraft types, because PLAAF rarely had integrated training at that point. In most cases, a PLAAF command post can direct at most 12 aircraft n the air space around airport. When AF and naval aviation have exercises, AF controller is only in charge with giving instructions to AF and does not even know the movement or the goal of the navy. PLAAF was simply not capable of having large scale or joint operations prior to this decade.

Even with USAF's overwhelming display of power in the Operation Desert Storm and Kosovo, some members of PLA brass still did not understand the importance of a modern air force. When PLAAF was first showing off Su-27s to PLA brass, they were not showcasing its maneuverability or its ability to conduct BVR strikes. Rather, they were using Su-27s to launch rockets and dumb bombs. The Russians and most oversea China watchers have often wondered why Su-27s were used in this manner in PLAAF exercise when it was not designed for ground strikes (until later upgrades). It seemed that PLAAF impressed the heads of PLA with by the sheer large payload of Su-27s and its capability to destroy ground targets. Previous PLAAF aircraft like J-7/8 and Q-5 simply did not have the capacity to carry this much ground ammunition. I think that's also why PLAAF bought Su-30MKK. They wanted a platform that could show PLA that the air force could be used to launch large quantity precision strikes on targets far away from its base. I think Su-27/30 was used to transform the mindset of PLA so that PLAAF can become a more independent force that can conduct offensive operations by itself. Flankers were chosen over Fulcrum series because fulcrum did not have the payload and range to transform the role of PLAAF in PLA.

As early as 1987, PLA Daily had an article about a new flight center in Northern China that simulated an invading force. That flight test center is the FTTC base at CangZhou. It currently has three aggressor regiments (J-10, Su-30MKK and J-7E). They are tasked with developing combat tactics, flight techniques, training programs for new aircraft and conducting certification of new equipments. They are also tasked with defending Beijing. After the establishment of FTTC, the best pilots were sent here to conduct flight testing of new aircraft and equipments, while developing new techniques and tactics. In the 90s, FTTC spent more time on tactics training than trying out new flying techniques due to its lack of experience in modern tactics. Starting from 1988, FTTC received Project Grindstone to create blue army to simulate invader. This squadron simulated Soviet AF prior to 1990 and ROCAF/USAF afterward. Interestingly enough, they started off by simulating F-16s using Su-27s. FTTC also a had a cooperation agreement with Lipetsk Air Base in Russia to send their best pilots and controller to improve training and tactics. For example, FTTC pilots and 3rd division pilots were sent to train with Lipetsk's red flag Composite Training and Research Unit. The Russians found that FTTC and 2nd division pilots to be the most well trained pilots in PLAAF.

Chinese Flight Test Establishment (CFTE) has a flight test center in Xian-Yanling and a weapons integration testing (AAM, SAM & AGM) at DingXin. The next important part to the transformation of PLAAF was the establishment of a new air force test training test base in Dingxin that was built in June of 1999. As USAF shows every year in its red flag exercises and subsequent successes in conflicts, realistic arial war games are important for improving combat capability. Dingxin would be used to test out the tactics and flight techniques developed at FTTC. Since its establishment, the number of aircraft and the complexity of simulated war scenarios have increased every year. The simulations have really showed the disparity in the training level and intensity of different forces around the country. These exercises also showed which part of PLAAF's tactics and training manual are out dated and need to be changed. They have also given PLAAF a much clearer viewing of which regiments are better trained than others. The better trained regiments are also often rewarded with newer aircraft. Using new tactics from FTTC and simulations at CFTE, PLAAF have learnt to better utilize Su-27s and conduct different aerial combat missions.

Since 1999, Dingxin has also undergone three large scale expansion to double its size and allow the training for an entire aviation corp. Back in 1999, this base could only handle up to 20 aircraft performing test flight and training of a single tactics. Due to its small size, only pilots and command/controllers from elite units were allowed to come to train. After US's demonstration of its air power in Iraq n December of 2003, 3 different test training base and center combined to form the current AF test & training base. This is the only large scale aviation & air defense integrate training base in the country. It has a command and control center, air and ground tactical ranges, SAM base, AA positions, radars, simulated enemy command posts, a mockup of a Taiwanese air base, ammunition depots and oil depots. PLA also established China's first integrated EW training ground in Dingxin. This base was also the first to get a fiber-optic network and thousands of measuring/monitoring equipments (including telemetry, EO) to provide information for one of PLA's most digitized command posts. This allows for real time quantitative assessment of ECM pressure faced by different units. Over the past few years, over 95% of PLAAF and most of SAM units have come to Dingxin for simulated realistic training under intensive EM environment. Training in such environment has allowed PLAAF to gain the upper hand in its cat & mouse game with ROCAF. Many aircraft (including old aircraft like J-8 and Q-5) have received modern ECM pods and have increased confidence to operate over the Taiwan theater. In 2008, PLAAF made over 1700 flights to but not past the middle line of the Taiwan straits. RF-16 used to occasionally go past middle line to get more intelligence on PLA installations, but is now getting locked on before even getting there. In some cases, PLAAF takes off in response before RF-16 even does so. It shows improved reaction time and professionalism in PLAAF. Taiwanese air defense is now under very heavy pressure facing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and air launched anti-radiation missiles from PLAAF and the Second Artillery.

Since 2005, PLAAF has been doing red sword/blue sword integrated tactics exercises to copy USAF's red flag/blue flag. Red Sword includes interdiction, CAS, SEAD, C3ISR, OCA (offensive counter air) training whereas Blue Sword is mainly revolved around air combat. It starts in January or March of every year and lasts several months to over half a year. By Red Sword 2008, exercises at Dingxin had progressed to complex division level or even military region level confrontations. Over 100+ aircraft of different types, radar units, communication units and ECM units were involved in these exercises. As one can see, PLAAF is training and developing tactics as a whole rather than just within individual military region. In this exercise, Su-30MKK, JH-7 and H-6 performed long range strikes with KD-88, KH-59ME, KH-31P and penetration of layers of opposing defense and launched bunker buster KAB-1500 and LGB-250. In fact, PLAAF fired more Russian A2G missiles in this exercise than Russia did in its 2008 Georgia conflict. This shows that PLAAF's role has changed from just serving for ground units to being able to operate independently to carry out attacks. The induction of AWACS also allows PLAAF to command & control over 100 aircraft. PLAAF can now send 30 aircraft of different types to South China Sea with aerial tankers and AWACS in possible disputes with Vietnam. PLAAF aims to form several AF strike group under the direction of Beijing MR for offensive missions. Each individual military region will simply exist for training and logistics.

PLAAF watchers, such as myself, have often fallen victim to being overly focused on the modernization of its hardware, because it is far easier to concentrate on new fighter projects or UAV projects. However, PLAAF tactics and training have also been undergoing a rapid transformation. The exercises over Dingxin are now frequently shown on CCTV7, China's military channel. This shows increased confidence in PLAAF over its improving training conditions. At the same time, a recent article talks about an experimental flight school programs that will shorten the pilot training including academic study and combat training to 5 to 7 years. If this move succeeds, it will put PLAAF roughly inline with US training programs. PLAAF is actively trying to learn better training programs and flight school programs from the West. It has increased training with other air forces in the recent years. In Peace Mission 2007, a JH-7A regiment performed better than a Russian Su-25 in a ground attack exercise. During the past year, PLAAF has held exercises with Turkey and Pakistan. According to rumours online, PLAAF actually did pretty badly in its exercise with Turkish Air Force, but learnt some lessons in the process. These are all growing pains it must experience to become a modern air force. So instead of just focusing on J-20 and J-15, we should spend more time on the evolution in PLAAF training programs. For naval followers out there, PLAN is also undergoing a similar transformation. Although, it seems like PLAN's training hasn't evolved as much as PLAAF training.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

China/Russia military cooperation

This is the part 3 in the series of reviewing the content of the recent book that I read. In the past, I have often been harsh toward the recent China/Russia military cooperation. I have frequently stated that the Russians have limited military technology that it can interest China with. I have also read many cases of bad quality and servicing & support of export Russian weapons. However, it is important to state clearly that China would not be where it is today without its military cooperation with Russia. In fact, this article will look at all of the areas that USSR and Russia have assisted in China military industrial complex. Although sometimes unwillingly, USSR/Russia has assisted China's military industry than any other nation. In fact, I would say that this military relationship has yielded more benefit for China than any other military relationship has yielded for any nation.

Back when PRC first founded, Chinese leaders went to their big brother in Soviet Union to learn everything it can from USSR. At that time, China was a very backward society ravaged by a century of war. China had not gone through the industrial revolution and had very few industries. In the 1950s, USSR provided China $300 million loan and used this to provide technical aid in 156 industries (including many militarily related ones) to China. I can't think of another example in the history where one country provided that much assistance in the industrialization of another country.

During the civil war, the communist side could not produce weapons on its own and had to rely on capturing equipments from the nationalist to be replenished. Clearly, this could not be sustained after the civil war was over. PLA received 60 divisions of equipment from USSR and formed its first motorized divisions with T-34, T-54 and IS-2 tanks. During Korean War, General Peng, the leader of PLA forces, saw the power of modern military technology and air power from the Americans. He realized that China could not win in modern battlefield with just ground troops. With limited resources after the war, he indicated to USSR that China only wants to buy high tech equipments like Mig-17/19, S-75 SAM and some AAA equipments. In 1949, USSR helped China build 6 flight academies, sold China 434 training aircraft and provided many experts to teach those flight academies. With the help of Soviet Union, PLAAF had expanded to 17 divisions and 34 regiments by May of 1951. USSR also provided China with complete blueprints, materials, production equipment and manuals on many of its latest aircraft and their subsystems like engines and missiles. In fact, USSR provided China with so much help, that PRC leadership mistakenly believed that it was easy to develop modern combat aircraft. It did not realize the amount of time and resources required to develop an aircraft until years of failed efforts by the Chinese aerospace industry. By the time of China-Soviet split in 1962, the Chinese aerospace industry could independently produce many aircraft as a result of Soviet assistance.

Even so, the Chinese aerospace industry was still very much in its infancy and had to deal with unrealistic expectations from PRC leaders. They did not know the amount of testing and work that Mikoyan had to before they arrived at the final certified design, so they gave very unrealistic timelines to Chinese aerospace industry to develop aircraft with really high requirements (like the failed J-9, J-12 and J-13 projects). The Chinese aerospace industry did not have the technology, resource or the experience to carry out those projects. Even after China received kits, parts and most documentations for Mig-21 prior to its split with the Soviet Union in 1962, it was not able to master the technology to mass produce it until the 80s. Through the turbulent days of Cultural Revolution and the budget cuts of the 80s, the only project that got completed was J-8. Even though it was a more conservative design than the abandoned projects, China still could not develop the avionics, missiles and engines to match the requirements until this century. In the late 70s and 80s, the Chinese aerospace industry did have some improvements from cooperation projects with the West (including the famous Peace Pearl project), but still did not have a successful indigenous design. After military embargoes were imposed in 1989, the future looked quite bleak for Chinese military aviation and PLAAF. J-8II aircraft still did not have BVR capability after the Peace Pearl project was canceled. The J-10 project was still years from completion and did not have an adequate engine choice. Worse still, Operation Desert Storm really showed China how far it was behind World leading air powers. PLAAF was so weak at that time that a Soviet backfire could've flown into China without escort, bombed Beijing and flown back without been threatened by J-8s. Without more aircraft, PLAAF was simply incapable of handling threats from USSR or Taiwan straits.

Even as China was enjoying a period of honeymoon with America in the 1980s, its relationship with the much hated USSR was also improving. By 1983, USSR approved export to China for parts to Mig and Illyushin aircraft. By 1986, China and Soviet relationship recovered to such a point that USSR was willing to sell Mig-23MLD and MIg-29. USSR understood from past experiences that China was looking to improve its domestic military industry rather than just buy some aircraft. They were even willing to offer licensed production of Mig-29 and RD-33s in China. I think only the Peace Pearl project prevented China from fully jumping on board with it. In most aspect, the Peace Pearl project was a complete failure, but it did allow Chinese aerospace technicians to interact with Americans. This experience gave China a more updated view of modern air warfare and aerospace development path. After it was canceled, China was left to turn back to Soviet Union. Although many had expected China to go for Mig-29, PLAAF started to inquire about the more powerful and expensive Su-27. At that time, USSR was already starting to reduce its military size under Gorbachev, so Sukhoi was really looking to get export order from China to replace the reduced domestic order. Given the history between the two countries, USSR's decision to allow the export of Su-27 to China (first non-CIS country to receive flankers) is quite astonishing.

The dissolution of USSR put the entire order in jeopardy. The new Russian government led by Yeltsin was enjoying a honeymoon period with the West. The reformist group of Andrey Kozyrev, Yegor Gaidar, Pyotr Aven and Alexander Shokhin was very keen on carrying out the Western model and did not want much to do with China. Not only was China in danger of not receiving Su-27, it had also received numerous reports that Russia was offering Su-27s to Taiwan. Here is where Chinese diplomats really went to work to try to get its relationship with Russia back on order. Sukhoi and the rest of the Russian military industrial complex were really hurting from a total collapse in orders. At the same time, Yegor Gaidar's shock therapy resulted in runaway inflation and much economic hardship in Russia. Russia was also not receiving the help it expected from the West for its economy. In my opinion, it is not surprising that loans from the IMF and World Bank did not help out Russia when one looks at their performance in the 97 Asian economic crisis. All of these weakened the influence that the pro-West group of Kozyrev and Gaidar had on Yeltsin, whereas more conservative members like Yevgeny Primakov pushed for more engagements with China. All of these factors led Yeltsin to not only allow the original Su-27 order to be carried out but also permit further military cooperation between the 2 countries. Yeltsin believed that Russia can stay ahead of China in aerospace, so did not worry about such cooperation with China. I think Yeltsin also saw the benefits of having a more balanced foreign policy from its trade deals with China in 1992. He was also intrigued by the success of China's economic reforms when similar Russian reforms were experiencing much pain. That will be a topic left for another day.

At this point, there were still internal disagreements on whether China should be purchasing technology from Russia/Ukraine or try to buy technology from the West or ignore what happened in the Gulf War. It's at this point that Liu Huaqing and others pushed to go the Russian route. Prime Minister Li Peng believed that China had a once in a lifetime opportunity to purchase technology and recruit scientists/engineers from Russia/Ukraine. Throughout all of its year of cooperation with the West, China had found that Western companies guarded its secrets much more closely. In projects like the Peace Pearl project and the MD-90 project, Chinese aerospace companies really were disappointed at how little transfer of technology they had received from the West. In comparison, it was truly amazing what the Russians were offering. China pushed for and signed on a deal for licensed production of 200 Su-27s along with transfer of technology. Although it did not receive ToT and license production to AL-31, it did receive high level of technology transfer, documentation, tooling and machinery for maintenance and repairs on AL-31F. China was able to build the largest AL-31F MRO facility and perform all of the maintenance and repairs on AL-31F by itself. You guys might have read the recent news that China was able to extend the life of AL-31 from 900 to 1500 hours. China also received a lot of cooperations from the Russians on its own aerospace projects. Yeltsin gave China permission to send aerospace engineers to Mikoyan and the famous TsAGI in Russia to study. They were even allowed to look through highly secretive projects. In the F-8IIM project, China participated in the co-development of Zhuk-8II with NIIR, which allowed its engineers to be involved in the development, testing and certification stage. The Russians also participated in the J-10 project and the Super-7 project with CAC. China was also able to leverage Ukraine and Belarus defense firms to receive help from them in missile technology, Su-27 upgrade/overhaul, carrier project and other things. And even though I have often been critical of Su-30MKK, it was always over MKK's avionics performance and weapon package. Having seen the advancement in Chinese avionics and weaponry, I think PLAAF made the right decision to pursue a platform that had improved payload and range compared the original Su-27. MKK is already quite an advanced 4th generation airframe in terms of its range and multirole potential. Any future fighter bomber from SAC should draw a lot of inspiration from MKK.

In the 20 years since the collapse of USSR, PLAAF and the Chinese aerospace industry have both transformed. Although a large part of Chinese aerospace industry's advancement have resulted from its own R&D and cooperation with the West, China's military aviation industry would not be where it is today without the high level of technology transfer between China and Russia. When all of this started 20 years ago, China was looking for cutting edge space, aviation, material, communication, electronics and weapons technology from Russia. Even though Russia was not the world leader in many of those areas, China was able to obtain those technology more easily and cheaply than from any other countries. That is not to say Russia got ripped off in the process. Chinese orders allowed Russian military industrial complex to survive through its darkest times. From all of the stories I read, it really did sound like many Russian military companies would not have survived without Chinese orders. And even with the reduced military cooperation between the two sides, Russia still stands to gain from all of the aircraft and subsystems that it sold to China. Even on the J-11 deal, I think it only backfired on the Russians because most people could not have predicted how fast the Chinese aerospace industry was going to be able to completely absorb its technology and create its own version with much better avionics and weaponry. Russia signed the deal with the expectation that they would be able to stay far ahead of China, but the combination of their stagnation + Chinese advancement have leveled the playing field. So as I look back on things, the Russians/Soviets really came to help China in two very critical point in its history. The first was when it first helped China to establish an aerospace industry after its founding and the second was when China faced military embargo from the West. It's hard to imagine Western countries offering the same level of assistance to China that Russia/USSR did.

I will also explore in a later blog entry on how China and India approached military cooperation with Russia. I will look at the differences and why I think the Chinese approach have worked out better.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

China and Vietnam

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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The legacy of Liu Huaqing

Recently, I've read a couple of books regarding the development of Chinese air force. More than anything else, this one book by a well known poster on Chinese bbs has really changed many perceptions I've had regarding the modernization of PLAAF doctrine and training. I would say that anyone who has frequented top Chinese language forums would know who I'm referring to. Over the next few weeks, I plan to write several entries on different aspects of PLAAF modernization. The first topic that I decided to make is the legacy of Liu Huaqing, since he is forever linked to the Chinese Aircraft Carrier program.

If you do a search of Liu Huaqing, you are most likely going to see articles describing him as the father of modern Chinese navy. His following quote has accompanied him everywhere
“Without an aircraft carrier, I will die with my eyelids open; the Chinese Navy needs to build an aircraft carrier,”

Liu served as the commander of the Chinese Navy from 1982 to 1987. After that, he served as the deputy chairman of the powerful CMC from 1989 to 1997. During his time as the commander of PLAN, Liu advocated acquiring a medium-sized and conventional-power carrier for operations over the Spratlys. At that time, Jiang Zemin's administration supported soft power in dealing with neighbours, so PLAN development concentrated mostly on the Taiwan scenario. More importantly, PLA budget simply could not support the cost of an aircraft carrier and associated air wing. At the same time, PLAN surface ship build up did not start until 2002, so having a carrier group was not possible. However, I think Liu did get PLAN thinking about expanding its reach from just the shores. Up to that point, PLA was stuck in the Mao era mindset of "people's army". The role of the AF was to achieve air denial rather than air dominance. The role of the navy was just to provide coastal defense. Even up to the start of this century, some in the army still thought that no nation can establish continued air dominance. That really is an astonishing thought when one thinks about how much US air dominance had determined Operation Desert Storm and over Kosovo.

What most people don't know is Liu's influence in the modernization of PLAAF after he became the deputy chairman of CMC. Liu was not only pushing for the modernization and increased power projection for PLAN, but he was also doing so for the air force. When Liu first got to his position in 1989, he was probably surrounded by many army generals in the upper echelon of PLA. Even though China's relationship with Soviet Union had warmed since Gorbachev took over, the army was still gripped with the threat of Soviet encirclement. After the dissolution of Soviet Union, the majority of advanced Soviet equipment became available for China. China had previously been offered Su-27 by Gorbachev's regime, but more weapons became available as the Russian military industrial complex faced the threat of collapse. In fact, the Russians brought T-72 MBTs, T-80U MBTs, SPH systems, SAMs, IFVs to display to PLA. PLA was probably 20 years behind Russia in ground weapon technology at that time. Considering these PLA generals spent the past 10 years developing plans against those front line T-80U tanks, it must have been a godsend for them to be able to buy these weapons. However, China had a limited military budget at that time, so they had to be picky about which system to get from the Russians.

Liu showed his foresight at this point. He believed that the gap between China and the leading standards in the world was the smallest in the army. He also got support from China's industrial complex, who did not believe China needed to import whole systems from Russia. Liu received support from Li Peng and Jiang Zemin to go for fighter jets, SAMs and Smerch MLRS instead of tanks and IFVs. Liu and others also realized that China's aerospace industry needed advancement. So instead of just buying Su-27s, he pushed for licensed local production and transfer of technology.

Looking back on it now, Liu was absolutely right in his vision. The Chinese industrial complex managed to advance to the point where it can produce numerous world class weapon systems despite not reaching ToT for T-80U, BMP-3 and numerous other systems. On the other had, the Chinese military aerospace industry has advanced quite far. Not only was PLAAF able to obtain the rights to produce a 4th generation fighter locally, but it has obtained experience in developing heavy fighter jet. I would say that China would not be able to develop a heavy fighter jet like J-20, if it did not first learn how to locally build Su-27s. At the same time, SAC have been able to develop J-15 based on the Su-27 platform. So Liu's push not only produced tremendous benefit for the air force but also naval aviation. Of all of the military leaders of his generation, Liu stands alone in his role in not only the modernization of PLAN, but also PLAAF.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review of Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles

I recently had a chance to read "Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles". This book is the fifth instalment in the series “Studies in Chinese Maritime Development” and can be found here on Amazon

In the past, I have found works by Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein and the good folks at China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) to be of the highest quality and this book was no exception. This book not only includes contributions from professors at CMSI, but also serving/retired commander/officers, military attaché to China, policy makers and numerous China contributors from different think tanks. It does a great job of understanding China's motivations/intentions, while fairly examining PLA's capabilities and training. For those seeking for a greater understanding of China's air force, space development and Second Artillery Command, I think this is a must read. More than anything else, it drew from a wide range of primary research and Chinese sources which have not appeared in any other unclassified Western publications. I believe that this book shows that we can all learn a lot more about PLA and its intentions by going through thousands of Chinese publications and news articles.

I want to point out several sections that really stood out to be me. In part 1, this book took at really good look at the existing Chinese doctrine in gaining air dominance over Taiwan straits through PLAAF and 2nd artillery. In particular, Wayne Ulman's section on PLAAF strategy, training and modernization is extremely well done. I though Kevin Pollpeter and Anthony Mastalir both have very informative sections on PLA's desire to have stronger space presence and limit American space dominance. Garth Hekler's piece on Chinese EW effort was very well researched, because it really looked at all of China's open sources and summarized the parts that Chinese researchers have focused on. It really talked about what Chinese researchers think have contributed to US success and China's own research on those areas. Dennis Belasko's piece on helicopter provided a lot of solid information on PLA helicopter training. It is a very detailed piece on the areas that PLA helicopter force has grown in and also the areas that PLA still need more training/improvement. I also appreciated the extensiveness that Lanzit and Chen talked about the join operational training and exercises between naval aviation and PLAAF with PLAN ships. While we have seen a lot of pictures of such cooperation, the authors do a good job of describing the kind of maritime strike missions conducted in these joint operations. Ron Christman's section of China's Second Artillery Corps is simply excellent. The most interesting part describes SAC's operational doctrine, preparation and training facing an overwhelming opposition (US) in the Taiwan scenario.

On top of that, I was pleasantly surprised by all of the new information/analysis that I found in this book regarding to China's ASBM program. I have read many differently analysis on ASBM (including several by CMSI), but this book really provided a much more comprehensive look than anything else I have read. The discussions on subjects like conflict escalation of ASBM, hard kill vs soft kill and non-carrier targets were very refreshing.

So, for all those who are interested in learning more about China's Air Force, space development and Second Artillery, I think this book would be an excellent read.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What Varyag means

As I'm sure everyone have heard by now, Varyag began sea trials 2 days ago. We have not seen pictures of its sea trial, but have seen pictures of the empty dock and the no fly/sail zone that China has established (seen below). Before continuing, I do apologize if this piece becomes a little nonsensical, because I wrote this at quite a late hour.

When I look at this moment, I see this as a representation of China's growing affluence and power. Back when WWII just finished, the Nationalists had plans to build aircraft carriers to reflect its new found status as one of the members of the Permanent Five in the United Nations. Due to their corruption and incompetence, they lost out to the far smaller and less well equipped Communist forces. When the Communists took over, China was a country that had been pillaged for over 100 years by outside forces. Back then, China was poor and did not have any modern industry to speak of. In the 50s, Soviets provided technical aid in 156 industries for China. For all of the follies of China's adoption of communism, that was probably the second most significant event in China's modernisation. From that point onward until the death of Mao, the Chinese society was stuck in a constant period of ideological struggle, war and famine. By the time Deng Xiaoping came to power, China was completely broke. And despite the Soviet encirclement of China at that time and its desire to "teach Vietnam a lesson", Deng cut back on military expenditure year after year. Deng had been a member of PLA since 1927. And despite been exiled twice by Mao, PLA's support for Deng allowed him to grab power ahead of Mao's appointed successor Hua Guofeng. The war against Vietnam in 1979 showed the inadequacies in PLA. Even so, Deng recognized that economical development and modernization through engaging the leading world economies were the only way out. Years of putting communist ideology and militarism on top did not make China a stronger country. Deng's method of humble/pragmatic foreign policy, reduced diplomatic footprint and emphasis in joining the world economy have resulted in over 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth and national power.

And now that we get to 2011, China has the money, the will, the shipbuilding prowess and naval technology to not only refit Varyag, but also build a few aircraft carriers. I think when one looks at China, it can support a large enough military budget to have a couple of aircraft carriers groups without been a burden to the economy. It can build such a fleet relatively cheaply, because it has a very competitive shipbuilding industry and can procure most of the subsystem locally.

Militarily speaking, it already has enough modern ships to form the escorts of a carrier group. It will also have domestic naval fighter, trainers and helicopters that it can operate on a carrier. Everything is in place for PLAN to start the formation of its first carrier group.

And contrary to some claims, China does have many reasons to have aircraft carriers. It is the second largest economy in the world and will probably become the largest in the next 25 years. It has soft power to influence near every country, but does not have the hard power to get to most of those countries. It is humiliating for some Chinese people that China still does not have a carrier when even a small country like Thailand has one. It has learnt from USN that aircraft carrier could be a sign of soft power. PLAN has already been parading the new Type 920 hospital ship and the Type 071 LPD around the countries in Indian Ocean. Aircraft carrier will be the ultimate display of power that China can deploy in humanitarian crisis. And obviously, I have also talked the military hard power needs like protecting its sea lanes and overseas investments.

I do have certain caution for China as it moves forward into carrier age. Deng Xiaoping's policies have paved ways for years of development, but China is still a poor country when one looks at its average income level. As the world's economy is teetering on entering another economic downturn, China's overly investment dependent economy will suffer. China should develop a blue water fleet with the goal of protect its economic interest and citizens around the world rather than trying to take control from America. It has already seen the strong reactions from ASEAN countries to its more aggressive foreign policy. Although I do think that China will be eventually accepted by these countries as the top dog in this region, it should not fall in the trap of using military power to interfere with other countries' policies.

So as Varyag starts its sea trials, I hope that China will continue Deng's policy of putting its people first. The emergence of the first Chinese carrier is a demonstration of China's growing economic strength and industrial base. While this is a good time for the Chinese leadership and Chinese people to celebrate, China should continue to focus on economical development above all.