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The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF; Chinese: 中国人民解放军空军; pinyin: Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Kōngjūn), also known as the Chinese Air Force (中国空军) or the People's Air Force (人民空军), is an aerial service branch of the People's Liberation Army, the regular armed forces of the People's Republic of China. The PLAAF was officially established on 11 November 1949 and it is composed of 5 branches which are aviation, anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAM), radar, and Airborne Corps.
The PLAAF first faced combat in the Korean War against the United States using primarily the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter aircraft, aircraft provided by the Soviet Union, which also assisted with the expansion of the Chinese aerospace industry. Changes in the organization of the PLAAF followed by modernization programs in the 1990s and increased technology development in the 21st century has created the J-20 stealth multirole fighter, the first of its kind for China.
Korean War to the Sino-Soviet SplitEdit
The PLA's first organized air unit, was formed in July 1949 at Beijing Nanyuan Airport. It consisted of six P-51s, two Mosquitoes, and two PT-19s. On 25 October 1949, Liu Yalou was appointed as the chief of air force in the People's Liberation Army. By 11 November, the air force command was officially formed from the headquarters of Liu Yalou's 14th bingtuan (which Witson translates as "Army"). The process was aided by significant Soviet assistance.
The air force expanded rapidly during the Korean War. Two brigades were created in 1950, but disbanded in the early 1950s and replaced by division; both had subordinate regiments. During the war, 26 divisions and a smaller number of independent regiments and schools were created by personnel transfers from the army; the air force inherited the army's organization and was commanded by army officers. By early 1954, there were 28 divisions, with 70 regiments, and five independent regiments operating 3000 aircraft. The Soviets provided Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 aircraft (J-2 in Chinese service), training, and support for developing the domestic aviation industry. Shenyang Aircraft Corporation built the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer as the JJ-2, and during the war manufactured various components to maintain the Soviet-built fighters. By 1956 the People's Republic was assembling copies of MiG-15s and eight years later was producing both the Shenyang J-5 (MiG-17) and the Shenyang J-6 (MiG-19) under license.
The PLAAF emerged from the war as an air defence force. The main role was to support the army by achieving air superiority using fighters, radar, and ground-based weapons. This was reinforced through the 1950s and 1960s when the PLAAF's main activities were skirmishing with the Republic of China Air Force near the Taiwan Strait, and intercepting American aircraft. The bombing role was neglected due to the underestimation of the significant of air power during the war; the Chinese were impressed that they had suffered more casualties from ground fire rather than from bombing. From the Korean to the Sino-Vietnamese War, PLAAF bombing missions were restrained by technical capability and political concerns over escalation.
The 1960s were a difficult time for the PLAAF. Modernization and development was severely impacted by political and economic chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the Sino-Soviet split. The prioritization of missile and nuclear weapon programs crippled the aviation industry, which markedly declined through 1963. A recovery began around 1965 as J-2s, J-5s, and some J-6s were provided to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Development of the Shenyang J-8, China's first indigenous fighter, was also initiated during the 1960s.
Between January 1954 and 1971, 22 divisions were created for a total of 50.
Force reductions led to reorganization and streamlining starting in 1985. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches: air defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments. In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through headquarters located with, or in communication with, each of the seven military region headquarters. In war, control of the Air Force probably reverted to the regional commanders. In 1987 it was not clear how the reorganization and the incorporation of air support elements into the group armies affected air force organization. The largest Air Force organizational unit was the division, which consisted of 17,000 personnel in three regiments. A typical air defense regiment had three squadrons of three flights; each flight had three or four aircraft. The Air Force also had 220,000 air defense personnel who controlled about 100 surface-to-air missile sites and over 16,000 AA guns. In addition, it had a large number of early-warning, ground-control-intercept, and air-base radars operated by specialized troops organized into at least twenty-two independent regiments.
In the 1980s the Air Force made serious efforts to raise the educational level and improve the training of its pilots. Superannuated pilots were retired or assigned to other duties. All new pilots were at least middle-school graduates. The time it took to train a qualified pilot capable of performing combat missions reportedly was reduced from four or five years to two years. Training emphasized raising technical and tactical skills in individual pilots and participation in combined-arms operations. Flight safety also increased.
In 1987 the Air Force had serious technological deficiencies — especially when compared with its principal threat, the Soviet Armed Forces — and had many needs that it could not satisfy. It needed more advanced aircraft, better avionics, electronic countermeasures equipment, more powerful aircraft weaponry, a low-altitude surface-to-air missile, and better controlled antiaircraft artillery guns. Some progress was made in aircraft design with the incorporation of Western avionics into the Chengdu J-7 and Shenyang J-8, the development of refueling capabilities for the B-6D bomber and the A-5 attack fighter, increased aircraft all-weather capabilities, and the production of the HQ-2J high-altitude surface-to-air missile and the C-601 air-to-ship missile.
Although the PLAAF received significant support from Western nations in the 1980s when China was seen as a counterweight to Soviet power, this support ended in 1989 as a result of the Chinese crackdown on the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and the later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the fall of the USSR, the Russian Federation became China's principal arms supplier, to the extent that Chinese economic growth allowed Russia to sustain its aerospace industry.
In the late 1980s, the primary mission of the PLAAF was the defense of the mainland, and most aircraft were assigned to this role. A smaller number of ground attack and bomber units were assigned to Air interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited military airlift and aerial reconnaissance capabilities.
In the early 1990s, the PLAAF began a program of modernization, motivated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the possibility of military conflict with the Republic of China and perhaps also involving the United States. This process began with the acquisition of Su-27s in the early 1990s and the development of various fourth-generation aircraft, including the domestic J-10, and the FC-1 . The PLAAF also strove to improve its pilot training and continued to retire obsolete aircraft. This resulted in a reduction of the overall number of aircraft in the PLAAF with a concurrent increase in quality of its air fleet.
In the 2000s, there were approximately 30 combat divisions, and 2 transport divisions.
The 21st century has seen the continuation of the modernization program with China's huge economic growth. It acquired 76 Su-30MKK's from 2000 to 2003, and 24 upgraded Su-30MK2's in 2004. It also produced around 200 J-11s from 2002 onwards and bought 3 batches (at a total of 76) of the Su-27SK/UBK. Production of the J-10 fighter began in 2002 with an estimated 200 aircraft in service currently. The PLAAF also began developing its own tanker aircraft, which it previously lacked, by modifying old H-6 bomber (Tupolev Tu-16). In 2005 it announced plans to buy approximately 30 IL-76 transport planes and 8 Il-78 tanker planes, which would greatly increase its troop airlift capability and offer extended range to many aircraft, though as of 2009 this deal is still on hold.
Predictions of the PLAAF's future aircraft fleet indicate that it will consist of large quantities of Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 as its main force, with J-16 and JH-7A as the PLAAF backbone precision strike fighters. Future stealth fighter projects such as the Chengdu J-20 will be inducted into the air fleet in small numbers, assigned to elite PLAAF selected pilots. The transport fleet will comprise Y-9 medium range transport aircraft, along with the Soviet Ilyushin Il-76, and domestic Y-20 heavy transport aircraft. Its helicopter fleet will comprise Z-20, Z-15 and Mi-17 troop transporters, and the WZ-10 attack helicopter for its ground forces. AWACS/AEW will be refined variants of existing service fleet of KJ-2000 and KJ-200, with UAV/UCAV in early stages of service in the PLAAF.
According to a 2015 Pentagon report, PLAAF has around 600 modern aircraft.
Lt Gen Xu Anxiang, PLAAF Deputy Commander, revealed the PLAAF has a multiphase roadmap for building a strong, modern air force. He said the building of a strategic force by 2020 would integrate aviation, space power, strike and defense capabilities.
When this goal is achieved, the PLAAF's fourth-generation jet fighters will make up the backbone of the Air Force's arsenal and J-16 along with J-10 would be main stay of PLAAF. Gen Xu also said information-based combat capabilities will be enhanced.
- Liu Yalou (October 1949 – May 1965)
- Wu Faxian (May 1965 – September 1971)
- Ma Ning (May 1973 – February 1977)
- Zhang Tingfa (April 1977 – July 1985)
- Wang Hai (July 1985 – November 1992)
- Cao Shuangming (November 1992 – October 1994)
- Yu Zhenwu (October 1994 – November 1996)
- Liu Shunyao (November 1996 – May 2002)
- Qiao Qingchen (May 2002 – September 2007)
- Xu Qiliang (September 2007 – October 2012)
- Ma Xiaotian (October 2012 – August 2017)
- Ding Laihang (August 2017 – September 2021)
- Chang Dingqiu (September 2021 – present)
Ranks and insigniaEdit
The ranks in the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force are similar to those of the Chinese Army, formally known as the People's Liberation Army Ground Force, except that those of the PLA Air Force are prefixed by 空军 (Kong Jun) meaning Air Force. See Ranks of the People's Liberation Army or the article on an individual rank for details on the evolution of rank and insignia in the PLAAF. This article primarily covers the existing ranks and insignia.
The markings of the PLAAF are a red star in front of a red band, it is very similar to the insignia of the Russian Air Force. The Red star contains the Chinese characters for eight and one, representing August 1, 1927, the date of the formation of the PLA. PLAAF aircraft carry these markings on the fins as well.
Aerobatic display teamEdit
The August 1st (aerobatic team) is the first PLAAF aerobatics team. It was formed in 1962. Aircraft inventory of PLAAF August 1st Aerobatic Team includes the J-10 and it has previously flown the JJ-5 and J-7. The Sky Wing and Red Falcon air demonstration teams, which operate Nanchang CJ-6 and Hongdu JL-8 respectively, were established in 2011.
Command and unit tiersEdit
The highest leadership organization is PLAAF Headquarters (PLAAF HQ). PLAAF HQ's peacetime responsibilities are force generation, modernization, and operational control of some units like the Airborne Corps and the 34th Air Transport Division. PLAAF HQ contains four first-level departments: Headquarters, Political, Logistics, and Equipment.
Below PLAAF HQ are the Theater Command Air Forces (TCAF); they succeeded the Military Region Air Forces (MRAF) in 2016.
Before 2003, MRAF had subordinate air corps and Bases which exercised direct control over units in their area of responsibility (AOR); MRAF only directly controlled fighter and ground attack divisions in the same province as MRAF headquarters (MRAF HQ). From 2004, leadership of units was consolidated in MRAF HQ, with air corps and Bases downgraded to command posts that acted on behalf of MRAF HQ. From 2012 onwards, the command posts were mostly replaced by Bases that exercised command and control over units (brigades) in their AOR and conducted joint exercises.
Below TCAF/MRAF and the air corps/command posts/Bases are corps, division, brigade, and regimental level units (部队).
The first divisions in the 1950s was organized into a HQ and two or three regiments. In 1953, this was standardized to three regiments per division, including one training regiment. Regiments had three or four flight groups, each in turn made of three or four squadrons. Between 1964 and 1970, regiments were called groups. In the late 1980s, operational squadrons lost their training regiments. By 2010, many divisions had only two regiments. In 2019, the bomber, transport, and specialized divisions had not been reorganized into brigades and remained under the control of PLAAF HQ and TCAF headquarters.
New multifunction brigades were formed starting in 2011. Brigades contain several subordinate flight groups; a flight group has one type of aircraft. All fighter and ground attack divisions and regiments were reorganized into air force brigades, organized into a brigade HQ and the flight groups organized under it.
Everything from battalions to squads are considered subunits (分队).
Order of battleEdit
26th Ftr Div with one regiment previously at Shanghai-Chongming Island;
The PLAAF has over 150 air bases.
The People's Liberation Army Air Force operates a large and varied fleet of some 3,010+ aircraft, of which around 2,100 are combat aircraft (fighter, attack and bombers). According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, PLAAF combat pilots acquire an average of 100-150 flying hours per year. For a list of aircraft no-longer flown by the People's Liberation Army Air Force see; List of historic aircraft of the People's Liberation Army Air Force.
|Xian H-6||China||strategic bomber||176+||licensed variant of the Tupolev Tu-16.|
|Xian JH-7||China||fighter bomber||140|
|Chengdu J-7||China||fighter||340||licensed variant of the MiG-21.|
|Chengdu J-10||China||multirole||548+[circular reference]|
|Chengdu J-20||China||multirole||50||stealth capable aircraft.|
|Shenyang J-11||China||air superiority||440[circular reference]||licensed variant of the Su-27.|
|Shenyang J-16||China||strike fighter||172+|
|Sukhoi Su-27||Russia||air superiority||Su-27UBK||32|
|Sukhoi Su-30||Russia||air superiority||Su-30MKK||73|
|Sukhoi Su-35||Russia||air superiority||Su-35S||24|
|Ilyushin Il-76||Russia||AEW||KJ-2000||4||Chinese radar installed on a Ilyushin Il-76 airframe|
|Shaanxi Y-8||China||electronic jamming||Y-8EW||17|
|Antonov An-30||Ukraine||electronic warfare||3|
|Tupolev Tu-154||Russia||electronic warfare||8|
|Boeing 737||United States||patrol / transport||2|
|Ilyushin Il-78||Russia||aerial refueling||Il-78MP||3|
|Xian Y-20||China||strategic airlifter||31|
|Ilyushin Il-76||Russia||strategic airlifter||25|
|Harbin Z-9||China||utility / CSAR||15||licensed built variant of the AS365 Dauphin|
|Changhe Z-8||China||transport / utility||34||licensed built variant of the Aérospatiale SA 321|
|Chengdu J-7||China||conversion trainer||JJ-7||35|
|Hongdu JL-8||China||jet trainer||K-8||170|
|Hongdu L-15||China||jet trainer||2|
|Xian Y-7||China||multi-engine trainer||13|
|Guimbal Cabri G2||France||rotorcraft trainer||2|
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