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RAND's Latest Assessment of China's Air Forces Modernization

The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing today on Chinese airpower. RAND’s Roger Cliff provided an assessment of China’s air forces modernization over the past decade.

There is no PLA “air force,” there are multiple air forces spread across the military, including air and naval aviation, ballistic missiles and surface-to-air missiles.

Way back in 2000, of the estimated 3,200 fighters in the PLA inventory, all but some 75 “4th generation” Su-27 Flankers, were 1950s era MiG 19s and 21s; China had one airborne early warning aircraft; PLA strike aircraft carried only dumb gravity bombs; and Chinese pilot training was considered poor. All of which meant that if the U.S. and China had gotten into a shooting war back in 2000, U.S. pilots would have enjoyed air-to-air dominance similar to 1991s Gulf War when they flayed Iraq’s air force, RAND says.

Ten years later, the picture is very different and China’s air armada is no longer that of a third world country, RAND says. In this part of the report, it pays to carefully read what the assessment is saying.

The PLA’s ability to fight in and strike from the air has greatly improved, but that increased combat power is due to more than China building modern fighter aircraft.

In fact, at around 1,600 aircraft, China’s fighter force is half what it was ten years ago. Which is why RAND says the number of 1950s era aircraft has been reduced by two-thirds; yet, two-thirds of the remaining total are “still based on” the MiG-19 and 21. RAND says the number of fourth generation aircraft in the PLA inventory has more than quadrupled, yet, that still is less than a quarter of China’s total fighter inventory.

Significantly, China now builds a single-engine fighter, the J-10, that RAND says is equivalent to the F-16, and a twin engine heavy fighter, the J-11B (pictured above), considered better than the F-15. Yet, rumors of a Chinese built fifth generation fighter remain just that, RAND says, the only available evidence of such a build being a “full-scale mockup photo” suggesting an aircraft with a reduced radar cross section, though not in the class of the F-22 and F-35.

The PLA air forces have added precision munitions to the inventory, including beyond visual range, radar guided air-to-air missiles, and laser and TV guided bombs. China now builds airborne early warning and control aircraft comparable to the E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 AWACS.

There is no evidence of an aerial refueling tanker or a long range heavy bomber, RAND says. The PLA bomber force remains a short range arm designed for naval strike. It consists of 80 JH-7 fighter bombers and 40 H-6D bombers (based on the 1950s Tu-16) armed with the Exocet like C-803K anti-ship missile.

The real boost in PLA strike has come through increases in the ballistic missile force; the PLA’s 2nd Artillery Force inventory of ballistic missiles has grown considerably over the past decade. As ballistic missile defense is exceedingly difficult, especially against large numbers of incoming missiles, and they reach their targets within minutes of launch, China’s missile force provides it with weapons of similar effects as stealth aircraft: reduced warning time and assured penetration.

While large, China’s missile force must be placed in the context of actual deliverables. Because they are one-off weapons, China’s entire ballistic missile inventory could deliver on the order of a thousand tons of explosives, Cliff writes. The U.S. Air Force, by contrast, could deliver that much every day for an indefinite period of time. Moreover, ballistic missiles are still not as accurate as precision guided weapons such as JDAMs.

-- Greg Grant

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