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People's Liberation Army Air Force

  • PLAAF Equipment
  • PLAAF Modernization
  • PLAAF Airbases
  • PLAAF Uniforms
  • PLAAF Insignia
  • PLAAF History

  • PLAAF References
  • Military Region Air Forces

    The primary mission of the PLA Air Force is the defense of the mainland, and most aircraft are assigned to this role. A smaller number of ground attack and bomber units are assigned to interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force has only limited military airlift and reconnaissance capabilities.

    The PLA's overall concept of operations is "Peoples War under Modern Conditions," which consists of tactical offensive actions in support of a basically defensive strategy. The primary land component strategy is forward presence and perimeter defense, with offensive operations intended to wear down an enemy which is on the offensive and attacking.

    In this context, the role of the PLAAF is to provide homeland air defense, to direct support to the PLA ground forces. Air defense operations are primarily focused on surface to air missiles, with additional emphasis on counterattacks against enemy bases. The PLAAF's primary objectives would be to prevent the enemy from interfering in the PLA ground forces, with second objectives to conduct Close Air Support (CAS) and Interdiction operations.

    The Soviet Union helped to establish the Air Force in 1949. The PLA Air Force was founded on 11 November 1949, and it was soon engaged in the war to resist U.S. and aid Korea, in the Korean War in the 1950s. On 19 June 1950, the first aeronautical unit of the People's Liberation Army -- the 4th Mixed Brigade -- was established, with Nie Fengzhi as the top commander. The Soviets began to provide aircraft in late 1951. Production technology came two years later. By 1956 China was assembling F-4s (copies of MiG-15s) and eight years later was producing both the F-5 (MiG-17) and the F-6 (MiG-19) under license. Meanwhile, Soviet instructors were training the new pilots in Soviet tactics. The withdrawal of Soviet aid in 1960 crippled China's aircraft industry. The industry declined markedly through 1963, further hindered by the high priority accorded to the competing missile and nuclear weapons program. The aircraft industry began to recover in about 1965, however, when China began providing F-4s and F-5s to North Vietnam.

    Chinese pilots saw considerable action in the Korean War and, to a lesser extent, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958. During the China-Vietnam border conflict of 1979, the Chinese avoided air battles, probably at least partly because they lacked the confidence to challenge Vietnam's air force, which though far smaller was better armed and trained. Chinese sources claim that the PLAAF achieved a 97.5 percent readiness rate and a 99.7 percent takeoff rate for its aircraft during the Sino-Vietnamese conflict in 1979. However, this was not a difficult feat, given low sortie rate.

    Overall, the PLAAF launched some 8,500 sorties [including area familiarization, flights during the 30-day conflict, and postconflict sorties] over a period of two to three months. With some 700 aircraft deployed to the Vietnamese border, that suggests only a dozen sorties per aircraft over sixty-plus days. PLAAF fighter engines require a major overhaul after 300 to 350 hours of flying time, while the F100 engines on the F-16 require a substantial overhaul every 1300 hours. The PLAAF's "light front, heavy rear" strategy denies frontline air bases extensive maintenance and repair facilities. [Felix K. Chang "Beijing's reach in the South China Sea"]

    The PLAAF has developed new training programs for the Air Force Academy and flight school, as well as short-term training courses, which are trained up to 60 percent of military personnel. In accordance with these programs increased time, the outlet to flight training and tactical exercises duration during a single flight. Number of training and trainer aircraft in 2005 increased by approximately 2.5 times. During flight training became actively use the new combat training aircraft L-15, developed with the participation of Russian specialists. Annual flight pilots combat units fighter, fighter-bomber and bomber aircraft reached 150 hours, and military transport - more than 200 hours.

    At the same time the PLAAF increased the number of procedures during a flight training exercises. If previously posed only one - two learning tasks, it is now three - four. For example, the testing of long-range air missile elements of combat and combat air passing maneuver using missile and gun armament; testing of skills of fire, interference and countering maneuverable air defenses; working out how to identify, detect ground (sea) moving and stationary targets, performance targeting and use of guided and unguided aircraft weapons. interests in training and education is actively used and joint exercises of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as training and exercises on a bilateral basis.


    The PLA Air Force underwent reorganization and streamlining as part of the general reduction in military forces begun in 1985. The PLAAF is organized into air corps, ground-to-air missile corps, anti-aircraft artillery corps, radar corps, parachute corps and other professional forces. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches: air defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments. The air corps consists of fighter plane units, bomber units, attack plane units, reconnaissance plane units and air transport units.

    In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA General Staff Department, controls the Air Force through Air Army headquarters located with, or in communication with, each of the seven military region headquarters. It is unclear how the 1985 reorganization and the incorporation of air support elements into the Group Armies affected air force organization. The army Aviation Corps was established in 1988 by the transfer of utility helicopters from the Air Force to support ground troops as transport a force. In war, control of the Air Force probably reverts to the regional commanders.

    The largest Air Force organizational unit is the Division, which consisted of 17,000 personnel in three regiments. A typical air defense regiment had three squadrons of three flights; each flight has three or four aircraft. Each air division has 70 to 124 fighter planes or 70 to 90 bombers. As of 1996 Class-A combat regiments accounted for 95 percent of the total number of combat regiments, with 74% of pilots trained in all-weather flight. About half of all flight and air defense units are Category B units, equipped with old armaments and not receiving much training.

    As of 1997 the PLA Air Force had a total strength of approximately 370,000, organized into 45 air divisions. Among them are five bomber divisions, 32 fighter divisions, six attack divisions, two transport divisions, 17 air defense divisions [with 220,000 troops], and one airborne army comprising three airborne divisions with 20,000 airborne troops.

    During the period from 1995 to 2012 the number of personnel of the Air Force declined from 400 to 330 thousand people. The total number of combat aircraft decreased from 5300 to 1700. The number of bombers was reduced from 630 to abot 80. Significant changes in quantitative and qualitative terms occurred in fighter-bomber and ground attack aircraft. Of its composition were derived aircraft aviation support troops (close air support) Q-5, which in 1995 were 500 units, and modifications to Q-5C/D/E 2005 remained up to 300 units. In 2012 there were about 100 reconnaissance aircraft JZ-8F. Frontline fighter aircraft in the period from 1985 to 2012 were reduced from 4000 to abot 900 aircraft. In terms of the number of fourth generation fighters, China ranked second in the world after the US, ahead of Russia, which had no more than 230 of these machines. Out of service aircraft were withdrawn and the second part of the third generation. The total Air Force was composed of 33 air divisions: three bomber, four fighter-bomber, and 24 fighter divisions.

    Detailed information concerning the PLA order of battle is not readily available in the unclassified literature. The single most authoritative source, of such information is the Directory of PRC Military Personalities, produced for many years under the sponsoship of the US Military Liasion Office at the US Consulate in Hong Kong now compiled by Serold Hawaii Inc. This estimable work lists thousands of PLA military officers and their associated posts and units. Although unique reference work provides a reasonably illuminating depiction of the PLA ground forces order of battle, coverage of the PLA Air Force is rather more fragmentary. At the Division level, only 29 of the reported 45 Air Divisions are even alluded to in the Directory, and of these only half a dozen are identified with any specificity.

    Other sources of information include former military or intelligence officers that have watched the PLAAF for several years. For example, the collected works of Kenneth Allen, including his publication on the PLAAF for the Defense Intelligence Agency are of significant value as it sheds light on the organizational history of many of the divisions that have been active at some point in the PLAAF history., maintained and written by Rick Kamer, is an extremely valuable resource, that tracks the current status of PLAAF units and deployments, including tail numbers and types of aircraft.


    In the 1980s the Air Force made serious efforts to raise the education 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.

    The PLAAF combat potential remained constrained by the notoriously poor training of Chinese pilots. Bomber pilots typically fly approximately 80 hours a year; fighter pilots 100-110 hours; and ground attack pilots 150 hours. In the United States, flight hours per Primary Authorized Aircraft are consistently in excess of 300 hours per year. Pilots in operational units do not get enough flying practice to maintain a high state of readiness, nor do they have adequate opportunity to practice new tactics demanded by advanced aircraft. All-weather and over-ocean navigation skills required of pilots in advanced countries are poorly developed in the PLAAF. Although pilots use simulators, these are of very basic design and do not compare to those used by modern Air Forces. The PLAAF's training of logistics personnel remains a shortcoming, and weak logistics contributed to the limited utilization of air power in the Sino-Vietnamese conflict of 1979.

    Logistics within the PLAAF remains a challenge, and through the mid-1990s almost all movement of spares and supplies was by rail. More recently, in some instances large transport planes have been used to move support personnel and equipment in operational exercises. The Air Force Oil Research Institute has contributed to the development of a multifunctional aviation petroleum, oil and lubricant storage, supply and maintenance system.

    In 2001 the traditional training formations were reformed in accordance with the principle of consistency between war and training. Fighter pilots, flight commanders and ground support personnel such as maintenance workers all showed extreme inability to adapt to the unprecedented strong confrontations and highly intensive training. This was followed by flight incidents as a result. In 2002, plane crashes involving primary and advanced trainer aircraft, Chinese-made Jian-7 [J-7, F-7], Jian-8 [J-8, F-8], Hong-6 [H-6, B-6], Qiang-5 [Q-5, A-5], transport planes, and even the imported Sukhoi-27s, occurred one after another within one year. The most serious of them was the crash of a Sukhoi-30 MKK from the Air Force's Third Division due to the violation of operational rules during flight.

    That was the price the air force had to pay to make the great leap from laxity to preparedness for military struggles. After a one-year adaptation period, flight incidents were basically kept under 0.1 per 10,000 flight hours. By 2004 the third-generation aircraft wings and Hong-6 wings are now all capable of operations in all territories. The Jian-7, Jian-8, and Qiang-5 wings in all military regions except Lanzhou and Chengdu are capable of over water operations.

    Air Defense

    The Air Force was merged with the Air Defense Force in May 1957. The Air Force has 220,000 air defense personnel who control about 100 surface-to-air missile sites and over 16,000 antiaircraft guns. In addition, it has a large number of early-warning, ground-control-intercept, and air-base radars manned by specialized troops organized into at least twenty-two independent regiments. By the end of the 1980's, the radars used by the Air Force's radar corps contained over 20 varieties.

    China lacked a coherent, national, strategic-level integrated air defense system (IADS). It has a variety of major defensive weapon systems; however, the bulk of China's air defense system is based on obsolete weapon systems, which, when combined with an antiquated and inefficient C3 system, allow for routine operations, such as providing point air defense for major cities and other high-value assets, but does not allow for an in-depth or flexible air defense throughout the country.

    China's air defenses consist of strategic assets operated by the PLAAF and tactical assets operated by the PLA's ground forces. Historically, Beijing relied upon its large inventory of interceptors along with PLA anti-aircraft artillery units to defend the country. However, the acquisition of modern SAMs may be precipitating a change to the historical strategy in which SAMs had not been the primary choice of engagement. Modern SAMs are primary weapons against cruise missiles, SRBMs and tactical aircraft at close range. PLAAF aircraft would be primary weapons for engaging tactical aircraft at a greater distance. Until additional SAM units become operational, China will only be able to defend effectively against isolated intrusions and small-scale attacks.

    The ground-to-air missile corps was formed in 1958-59. On 7 October 1959, it shot down a Taiwanese reconnaissance aircraft over Beijing, the combat use of surface-to-air missiles anywhere in the world. In the 10 ensuing years, the missile force shot down six US-made U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and three US-made pilotless aircraft. As of 1996 there were 600 air defense missile battalions, equipped with HQ-2 air defense missiles; HQ-3 air defense missiles; HQ-61 air defense missiles; HQ-7 air defense missiles; LY-60 (Lieying) air defense missiles; PL-9 air defense missiles; HY-5 shoulder-launched air defense missiles; QW-1 shoulder-launched air defense missiles; and three sets of advanced Russian-made C-300 missiles.

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