China’s new air force commander said the military must build up strength in long-range missions to realise its goal of becoming a “strategic” airborne unit, state media reported on Sunday. Speaking publicly for the first time since taking over as chief of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, Lieutenant General Ding Laihang said the military wing had to be strong in attack and defence both in the air and in space, moving on from its previous focus on homeland defence, China National Radio reported. Ding made the comments during an inspection of the PLA Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, Jilin province, on Friday. He was widely tipped last month to become head of the 420,000-strong air force, and his appointment was finally confirmed on the weekend when the defence ministry posted a report online about the inspection. Addressing about 1,000 new trainee pilots on the university’s orientation day, Ding said the Chinese air force was undergoing “an unprecedented deep reform”. China to appoint new air force commander, sources say He later said the force’s strategic mission relied on being able to “go out” further than before. “This requires the ability to project power and make strikes over long distances. Exercises on the open seas will become a regular part of training,” Ding said. He said that as China’s power grew, it had to face more security threats. “The PLA must provide full, all-out and absolute protection to wherever our national interests extend,” he said. “The air force is gradually expanding its blue-water training, and its weapons and equipment, communication systems, supplies and aviation search-and-rescue skills must catch up with the mission.” Ding said the air force had already secured some air corridors for long-distance missions. Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the Chinese air force still had many weaknesses to overcome before it could project power over big distances. The biggest needs were more heavy aircraft and a new strategic bomber to replace the H-6K, an outmoded design. PLA air force vows to continue training and patrols over East and South China seas Ding also stressed the need for pilots and aircraft to be able to operate throughout the country. “From the islands to the plateaus, from the fringes to the extremes of cold and heat, our pilots must be capable of any urgent missions in all sorts of conditions to meet President Xi Jinping’s expectations of the air force,” he said. Ding was formerly air force commander of the Shenyang Military Region from 2012. His career overlapped with Xi’s in Fujian province in the early 2000s after he was named chief of staff of the Eighth Corps based in Fuzhou in 2001 and went on that year to lead the air force in the city. Xi was governor of the province from 2000 to 2002. Ding graduated from the PLA Air Force Command College. He became president of the college in 2007 and a year later took over as air force chief of staff of the then Chengdu Military Command.