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.

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