How recent wars shaped the PLA Air Force

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 November, 2009, 12:00am

The People's Liberation Army Air Force has grown in leaps and bounds since it was set up with a handful of planes seized from the defeated Kuomintang force.

As the PLAAF celebrated its 60th anniversary yesterday, it boasted a full range of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems. Its role in the military is becoming increasingly important, and it enjoys priority in receiving resources.

However, for most of its history, the air force played a secondary role to the large land-based army. Its development did not really take off until the 1990s.

The catalysts that sparked a profound change in strategic thinking and prompted the PLA to shift its priorities to the air force were the 1990-91 Gulf war and, more importantly, the 1998-99 Kosovo war - the first conflict won exclusively by air power. Both wars demonstrated how powerful air forces were in relation to concentrated ground troops, and shocked Chinese military leaders into rethinking their general strategy.

'The PLA was shocked by the Gulf war after seeing how the Iraqi army, which was equipped with many Chinese-made weapons, was wiped out by the United States Air Force,' Anthony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said.

'During the 38-day war, the US Air Force played a dominant role. The sort of penetration and firepower it demonstrated was something the PLAAF could not hope to equal.'

Until then, most PLA generals were sticking to the outdated Soviet doctrine, which relied on large, mechanised ground forces to overwhelm enemies. Air power was used mainly as support.

Despite boasting thousands of jet fighters and bombers, most of the planes in the PLAAF were obsolete or cheap copies of Soviet technology.

Liu Dingping, a researcher at the PLA Military Planning and Strategic Research Centre, wrote: 'The PLA initially still believed that the US would follow the former Soviet Union's step [in the Afghanistan war] by sending a large land force to invade Iraq. But we soon realised we were wrong.

'The wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan further reinforced these lessons and taught us that we must put more resources into high-tech weapons research and development.'

A remarkable effort began to transform the air force. Resources were increasingly allocated to air and naval forces, and the PLA reduced its land-based force, retiring more than a million soldiers.

The Taiwan Strait crisis of 1996 was another incident which underlined the importance of having a modern air force to the PLA. Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's president at the time, advocated the 'two countries' theory. Beijing perceived this as a step towards seeking full independence and responded by staging a huge military exercise in and around the strait as a warning.

The PLAAF deployed about 1,300 aircraft along the coast, but soon realised most of these planes were so outdated that they could not operate effectively in any possible conflict with Taiwan, which kept a smaller but more advanced air force.

Dr Arthur Ding, a PLA expert at National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said: 'The Taiwanese air force had all these advanced weapons systems, such as the E-2 Airborne Early Warning Aircraft, from the US. Our pilots were well trained by the US air force. The PLAAF at the time had nothing to compare.'

The balance of power since then has changed tremendously, as today the PLAAF has the upper hand over its Taiwanese counterpart.

It has developed its own Airborne Warning and Control System, aerial refuellers and advanced jet fighters.

Professor Bernard Cole, of the Washington-based National War College, said the PLAAF's advance had been largely due to the nation's soaring economic development.

'China is acting just as other rising powers have acted throughout history, taking advantage of economic growth to invest in a modernised military,' he said. 'Hence, we should expect to see the PLAAF continue to acquire state-of-the-art aircraft.'