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Thursday, May 2, 2013

China's Anti Access Strategy Part II: Air Power

Image credit: Department of Defense

The anti-access strategy discussed in Part I was largely created in response to the overwhelming defeat of the Iraqis by the Coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War. The Iraqis had used many of the same Soviet and Chinese built weapon systems employed by the Chinese military at the time. Many of these weapon systems used by the Iraqis (e.g. J-7, Type 69, etc.) were minimally effective in combat against Collation forces. The extent of the Iraqi defeat caught China's military establishment off guard.

“The 1991 Persian Gulf War sent shockwaves throughout China’s military community and accelerated the PLA’s modernization and shifts in strategy. The United States’ overwhelming dominance in that conflict led Chinese military leaders to push for advanced military technologies.” - RAND, 2011

The People's Army Liberation Air Force (PLAAF) was a major beneficiary of China's new anti-access strategy. Since the Gulf War, the PLAAF has made major revisions and improvements to its pilot training programs, acquired several hundred capable 4th generation fighter aircraft, hardened its base infrastructure and procured much more capable munitions. Despite the incredible increase in capabilities since the early 1990s, the PLAAF still be incapable of global power projection. The PLAAF has neglected the development of air assets that assist in beyond regional power projection (e.g. tanker aircraft, new long range strategic bombers, securing forward deployed bases for aircraft in other countries, etc.). As stated in Part I, the PLAAF has been tasked with the goal of projecting power out to the second island chain by 2020 with the intent of denying a foreign military force from intervening on behalf of Taiwan. The PLAANAF and PLAAF would seek to establish regional air superiority, deny US sortie generation/basing, and destroy hostile surface vessels (RAND, 2008). This article will explain the role of the PLAAF and the People's Army Liberation Navy Air Force (PLANAF) in China's anti-access strategy and the changes two forces will undergo up to 2020.


Image 2: J-10A

Despite the recent media attention about China's stealth fighter programs, the bulk of China's air superiority capability will consist of non-stealthy 4th fighter generation aircraft for at least another decade. The majority of China's 3rd generation fighter and attack aircraft (e.g. J-7, J-8, J-8II) will be phased out by 2020. China acquired Su-30MKK, Su-30MKK2 and Su-27SK aircraft from Russia during the 1990s. Since the early 2000s, the PLAAF and PLANAF have procured hundreds of 4th generation indigenous fighter aircraft (e.g. J-10, J-11, J-15). The J-10 is the PLAAF's main light fighter aircraft and delivers comparable performance to the F-16C. The J-11A is a domestically produced Su-27SK built by Shenyang from Sukhoi supplied kits.   The Su-27SK (and J-11A) are comparable to the F-15C. Both the J-10A and J-11A will receive an assortment of upgrades to keep them viable into the 2020s.

"By the year 2011 China was the operator of the world's second largest fleet of Flankers, with about 73 Su-30MKK and 24 J-11B attack aircraft, 43 Su-17SK and 95 J-11A fighters, 40 Su-27UBK trainers in service with the PLAAF [for a total of 275], and at least 24 in service with the PLAN, for a grand total of about 300 airframes." - Global Security, 2013

In regards to the 5th generation J-20, the Department of Defense predicts the first J-20s to enter service in early 2018. Judging from the F-22 Raptor's production and deliveries schedule, I estimate that, at the very most, two full operational fighter squadrons will be in service by 2020 (48 aircraft). The Raptor production schedule should provide some indication as to how many aircraft can feasibly be produced a year but estimate should not be taken to be definitive. There is no officially released production schedule for the J-20 and its unclear how many J-20's China wants to procure in total.

Estimated J-20 Timeline

2011 – 2014(?) Tests
Production 2014-(?)
If: IOC 2018-2019
-          Late 2011 to 2014 (2015) Testing and development  ~3 years
-          2015 first lot order
-          2017 first deliveries
-          2018 IOC fleet size ~30 jets with 1 operational FS and ~8 T&E aircraft 
-          2020 fleet size  50-60 aircraft total with 36-48 operational aircraft 

Note: Not all aircraft will enter service as some aircraft will serve in a test and evaluation role while other airframes will be stored for attrition reserve. The role of the J-20 in China's anti-access strategy will be its own article for the sake of brevity. A link will be posted once it is completed.

In regards to the J-31: According to Avic, a Chinese aerospace consortium, the J-31 is an export only aircraft and will not serve the Chinese military (Aviation Week, 2013).

The PLAAF will continue to lack a sufficient number of dedicated tanker aircraft. The current PLAAF tanker fleet consists of a few modified H-6 bombers. The majority of these aircraft operate from Leiyang air base. Although the Chinese strategy focuses on regional power projection, the lack of tanker aircraft will limit China's ability to project power out to the second island chain. The only PLAAF asset that can engage targets in the second island chain is the H-6. The H-6 a Cold War relic that would probably not survive a conventional bombing mission over enemy territory unless complete air superiority was achieved. China has subsequently upgraded the H-6 to carry a series of powerful indigenous and Russian cruise missiles. These missiles will make the H-6 an effective standoff weapon platform and significantly augments the PLAAF's anti-ship capabilities.

China is also struggling to develop a capable airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft. Currently, the KJ-2000 is the only capable AWACS aircraft fielded by the PLAAF.

The list below is from Global Security and shows the complete PLAAF aircraft inventory. The chart has not been modified since the debut of the J-31 hence the use of the J-21 designation. Also, please note that China classifies its generation of aircraft differently from the West. The Chinese classification system is a generation behind the West. For example,  a third generation aircraft by the Chinese system is a fourth generation aircraft by the Western system and a fifth generation aircraft by the Western system is a fourth generation aircraft by Chinese standards.


Image 4: H-6 Bomber with a YJ-63 cruise missile. 

Note: The following is the best possible case scenario for China. There are a number of options the US and its allies can pursue to defeat China's anti-access strategy which I can discuss in another article provided there is interest.  

Although the PLAAF will lack a significant number of 5th generation aircraft until the mid to late 2020s, the sheer number of 4th generation aircraft deployed by the PLAAF (and PLANAF) is enough to deter any potential regional adversary. In order to achieve air superiority in the region, the PLAAF and PLANAF must disable or destroy both US regional bases and US carriers. The United States only maintains one airbase within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwanese strait (Kadena). Comparatively, China operates 27 airbases within 500 nautical miles of the Taiwanese strait. Chinese strategic planners know American carrier groups will inevitably attempt to bolster Taiwanese and regional US forces in the event of large scale hostilities. Its reasonable to assume the US would deploy three to four carrier strike groups which would partially erode China's numerical superiority provided they survive a gauntlet of several hundred medium range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and cruise missiles. Forward deployed Flankers armed with cruise missiles could target US vessels 1350 km (729 nautical miles) away from mainland China (RAND, 2008). H-6 Bombers armed with DH-10 cruise missiles could strike targets more than 3,000 km or 1620 nautical miles away from mainland China (Department of Defense, 2011). China's strategic missile force will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent articles but the PLA Second Artillery Corps would preform a pivotal role in the conflict. The much touted DF-21D "carrier killer" MRBM could threaten US carrier strike groups 2,000 km or 1080 nautical miles from China (Department of Defense, 2011). 

In regards to land bases further than 500 nautical miles from China, the United States has several bases in South Korea and Japan. With the use of tanker aircraft, USAF aircraft operating from Misawa (J), Yakota (J), Iwakuni (J), Osan (SK), Kunsan (SK), and Anderson air force base could reach the Taiwanese strait or attack mainland China. However, Chinese short range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and MRBMs would pose a significant threat to all the bases listed above except Anderson AFB in Guam. Chinese strategic planers know the US currently maintains a qualitative advantage in terms of aircraft. Consequently, the easiest way to deal with the qualitatively superior US force is to destroy the aircraft on the ground before they become a threat in the air. The majority of US bases in the region are "soft" or are only semi-hardened which makes them vulnerable to a SRBM or MRBM strike with cluster munition warheads. In a scenario created by RAND, 144/243 aircraft operating at Kadena would be destroyed in a SRBM cluster munition strike. See Air Combat Past, Present and Future by John Stillion and Scott Perdue for more details. The remaining US forces will experience a massive hit to sortie generation as their runways will be damaged and the debris make operations hazardous (to aircraft engines). In the meantime, PLAAF and PLANAF aircraft can engage and destroy the remaining aircraft.

The PLAAF and PLANAF will play a pivotal role in implementing China's anti-access strategy. Chinese aircraft can easily project power out to the first island chain and are well on their way to achieving second island chain power projection by 2020. Although China's fighter aircraft are technologically inferior to their US counterparts, the sheer number of deployed Chinese forces will pose a serious threat to the United States and its allies in the event of hostilities.

Further Reading


  1. Avic Promotes J-31 As An Export Fighter, Bradley Perrett, Robert Hewson, Reuben Johnson, Bill Sweetman, 2013
  2. A Question of Balance Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute, David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson, 2009
  3. Jian-10 Multirole Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  4. Jian-11 Multirole Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  5. Su-27SK/UBK Air Superiority Fighter Aircraft, Sinodefense, 2009
  6. Soviet/Russian Cruise Missiles, Kopp, 2009
  7. Chengdu J-20 could enter service by 2018, Majumdar, 2012
  8. The F-22 Raptor: Program & Events, Defense Industry Daily, 2013
  9. China's Flankers, Global Security, 2013 
  10. Chinese Airborne Early Warning (AEW), Global Security, 2013 
  11. China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, Ronald O'Rourke, 2013  
  12. ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2011, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2011 
  13. ANNUAL REPORT TO CONGRESS Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2012, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2012 
  14. Hong-6 Bomber, Sinodefense, 2009
  15. XAC (Xian) H-6 Badger, Kopp, 2007

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