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PLAAF Modernization

The "Century Series" with Chinse characteristics, "20" is a code used for China's new-generation aviation equipment and also implies these equipment's combat capability will be formed around 2020. From J-20 to Y-20 and to Z-20, the continuous appearance of China's "20 series" has shown the world the PLA Air Force's historical breakthroughs in weapon and equipment development and marked that the Chinese aviation industry has entered the "Age 20".

The PLA Air Force has been upgraded in the five years 2012-2017, with the "20" series aircraft. The J-20, a stealth fighter jet independently developed by China, was officially commissioned into military service on 28 September 2017. The Y-20, a versatile plane with a maximum takeoff weight of about 200 tons, is designed to carry cargo and personnel over long distances in hazardous terrain. It officially entered military service in July 2016. On September 2, 2016, PLA Air Force Commander Ma Xiaotian said that China is developing a new generation long-range strategic bomber. Chinese military enthusiasts and analysts call it the H-20, which they believe could match the US B-2 stealth bomber. The Z-20 utility helicopter, which China considers a match for the UH-60 Blackhawk, is also undergoing tests in plateau regions in China.

The People Liberation Army Air Forces (PLAAF) ongoing modernization is taking place at a rate unprecedented in history. By the dawn of the new century the PLA had approximately 3,000 fighter and ground attack aircraft, but only about 100 were considered modern, 3rd generation [by Chinese reckoning, 4th-generation by the Russian scheme] fighters. By the year 2011, China had 1,400 fighter and ground attack aircraft, and about 300 were of modern vintage. By comparison, not only did the United States have more than twice as many such combat aircraft, all 3,700 American fighter and ground attack aircraft were of modern design. Nuff said.

Development and acquisition efforts have been aimed primarily at defeating the regional air forces, defending against aircraft at long ranges from China's coast, defeating high-value air assets, denying U.S. naval operations, and striking other targets such as airbases and air defense sites. A force-wide modernization focused on the acquisition of advanced systems, improved training realism, new tactics to complement modern technology, and technically proficient personnel is intended to improve combat capability over the next decade and help to extend operations farther beyond land and sea borders. By the end of the decade, China is expected to have a more robust fleet of 4th generation fighters augmented by modern missiles, electronic countermeasures, and several AWACS-type aircraft. Although PRC pilot capabilities will remain poor by Western standards, improvements across the board will increase their potential.

From 26-29 January 2004, President Hu Jintao paid an official state visit to France. While in Paris, Hu increased support for the repeal of 15-year-old European bans on weapons sales to China (imposed after the Tiananmen Square incident). China was eager to acquire advanced weaponry to fulfill force modernization goals in order to surpass Taiwanese and regional capabilities as well as to create a military whose strength is commensurate with the economic and political power emanating from Beijing. A lifting of the ban should not be expected in the near term, though, as U.S. pressure and discord among EU nations will cause delay.

As of mid-2011, although Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign affairs chief, had recommended reform of Europe's embargo on selling arms to China, the UK remained firmly opposed. "The current arms embargo is a major impediment for developing stronger EU-China co-operation on foreign policy and security matters. The EU should assess its practical implication and design a way forward," she said in a 19-page strategy paper preented at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday morning (17 December 2010).

By the year 2010 PLAAF modernization had not proceeded with nearly the rapidity that might have been anticipated a decade earlier. The total number of fighters appeared to have stabilized at about 1,100 aircraft, following the precipitous plunge from 4,000 aircraft in 1995 to 1,100 in 2003, as the PLAAF rid itself of thousands of entirely obsolete aircraft. Bomber inventories demonstrated a similar trend, following the retirement of the elderly H-5 [Il-18] inventory.

Despite reports and rumors, no new bomber has emerged to replace the aging H-6, which has to the contrary resumed production around the year 2006, after about a 15 year gap. As of mid-2011 a rumored stealthy attack aircraft remained just a rumor, and non-stealthy attack aircraft modernization had been only a fraction of what might have been anticipated five or ten years earlier. Rather than hundreds of J-11 / Su-30MKK and JH-7 aircraft [as many 350 of the former and 150 of the later], fewer than 100 of the former and 75 of the later was in service. The elderly but often modernized Q-5 Fantan soldiered on in significant numbers, though its complete elimination by 2010 might have been anticipated.

The long-rumored J-20 stealth fighter finally made a public appearance at the end of 2010, but was not expected to enter service until after the year 2020. Amazingly, the J-7G Fishbed, the latest derivative of the MiG-21, remains in production, with as many as 96 were in PLAAF service by the end of 2010. In the USSR this aircraft was manufactured between the late 1950s and the middle 1970s. Production of the American F-4 Phantom II, the MiG-21's long-time adversary in Vietnam and the Middle East, ended in 1979, and the last Phantom was withdrawn from service in the United States in 1996. Production of the more advanced J-8 appears to have ended, with slightly more than 250 examples entering service by 2010, fewer than half the number that might have been anticipated a decade earlier. The J-10 [China's equivalent of the American F-16] has maintained a brisk production pace, with about two dozen entering service each year.

In January 2004 the inevitable Richard D. Fisher wrote that " By 2005 to 2006 the PLA could have about 400 Sukhoi fighters of the Su-27SK, Su-27UBK, Su-30MKK, Su-30MKK2 and J-11 versions. ... the PLA is on its way to creating the largest fleet of Sukhoi Su-27/30 fighters in the world. By 2006 it at least possible that the PLAAF will have about 50 Su-27SKs, 42 Su-27UBKs, about 116 Su30MKK/MKK2s, and as many as 200 J-11s. .... But when considering a second co-production contract, by 2010 the total number of Sukhois in the PLA could grow by another one to two hundred. This compares to about 400 credited to the Russian Air Force, of which a much smaller number could be considered operational."

By the year 2011 China was the operator of the world's second largest fleet of Flankers, with about 73 Su-30MKK and 24 J-11B attack aircraft, 43 Su-17SK and 95 J-11A fighters, 40 Su-27UBK trainers in service with the PLAAF [for a total of 275], and at least 24 in service with the PLAN, for a grand total of about 300 airframes. Production of the J-11B attack aircraft appeared to be running at about 6 per year, while the J-11A fighter production rate appeared to be a bit less than 24 per year. If this production continues unabated, but the year 2020 China could operate as many as 600 Flanker variants.

The PLAAF on a path towards being upgraded for operating well beyond China's borders. Development of the Y-XX and C-919 transport aircraft for strategic airlift are indicators in this direction. The maiden flight of China's first large transporter aircraft may come as soon as 2012, The large passenger aircraft C919, developed by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, is scheduled to make its median flight in 2014. The large transporters will be capable of holding oversized payloads and taking off from temporary runways, greatly enhancing the air force's power project capability. It would also prove to be an invaluable asset for civil applications, such as disaster relief.

Peter W. Singer and Jeffrey Lin reported 02 April 2014 in their Eastern Arsenal blog that China would soon receive three IL-78 Midas tankers from Russia. China originally purchased eight tankers from Russia in 2005, but the deal has been on hold for nearly a decade due to Russian inability to source new airframes. The tankers had been refurbished from Ukrainian Air Force surplus. The acquisition will give China the ability to refuel aircraft such as the Su-30 strike fighters and KJ-2000 Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEWC) system during extended missions over disputed maritime areas.

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Page last modified: 22-02-2018 18:47:53 ZULU