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The Chinese Air Force’s Advancements in Military Theory, Strategy, and Equipment

November 11, 2009, was the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Air Force. In early November, the CCP’s official media published many reports on the Air Force. On November 9, Study Times, the Central Communist Party School’s
official media, published a November 1, 2009, interview with Xu Qiliang
on its website. He is a member of the Central Military Commission and
an Air Force commander. During the interview Xu Qiliang spoke about the
process of developing Air Force military theory and its shift toward
information technology.

The following is a comprehensive summary of the relevant reports.

Over the course of 60 years of development, the People’s Air Force has built an air combat system with a backbone of third-generation battle equipment; its combat skills improved in a measurable leap forward. [1]

1.  Guiding a powerful Air Force with scientific military theory  

Military theory for the Air Force has gone through four climactic research stages, moving from tactical guidance to strategic command. The first stage was creating a theory for the Korean War. The second stage was developing a theoretical system for the modernization of air-defense operations. The third stage was the jump to campaign theory in preparation to repel an invasion. The fourth stage was developing strategic theory during the transformation period. [1]

In the 1990s, along with the development of information technology, the Air Force has significantly broadened its strategic vision, continued research for Air Force strategy and Air Force development strategy, formally established the strategy of “integrating air and space, and is capable of both offensive and defensive combat.” . . . The People’s Air Force has paid close attention to the new development of local wars with new information technology, and carried out comprehensive combat tactics training including long-range precision strikes, air defense operations, and information protection. It has taken a solid step on the journey toward adapting to new global challenges of military transformation and learning the new air combat rules with information technology. In 2004, the People’s Air Force clearly established the strategy of “integrating air and space, capable of both offensive and defensive combat,” emphasizing the integration of air and space as the development direction for the Air Force, making full use of space-based information resources to improve Air Force combat effectiveness, and actively supporting the implementation of space-based platforms for offensive and defensive combat operations in the air and in space. [1]

2. Using advanced weapons and equipment to forge a powerful Air Force 

The 1991 Gulf War began a transformation in the military sphere led by Europe and the United States. A key aspect of the transformation was information technology and a significant sign was the integration of air and space. The U.S.-led Western countries, represented by the U.S., developed a new generation of combat systems supported by space-based systems, relying on third-generation battle planes, stealth aircraft, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The U.S. also actively promoted the integration of aviation and space weapon systems, thus achieving a new leap in combat capability. Facing the severe challenges brought by this transformation in military capability, the People’s Air Force began its historic leap of developing an information technology capable air force on an undeveloped industrial base. [1]  Moving from a focus on defense to a combination of offense and defense. . . . Since the 1990s, the Air Force has been transforming from a land-based air defense force into one that is capable for both offensive and defensive combat. In this year’s National Day parade, the formation of precision-guided munitions, mid-air refuel tankers, and three generations of aircrafts marked further improvement of the Air Force’s the long-range combat capability. [1]

Moving from platform-based to Web-based. . . . From the beginning of the 1990s, learning from local information technology wars and focusing on the trend of systematizing, the Air Force sped up the pace of establishing a command network. [1]

Moving from importing to independently researching and developing new weapons and equipment. . . . In the 1990s, domestic research and development of new weapons and equipment achieved substantial breakthroughs. . . . China-made weapons and equipment types expanded rapidly with systematic accessories. These weapons are close to or reach the world standard of advanced weaponry. [1]

3. Building a powerful Air Force with a high standard of military training

During the Korean War, the Air Force implemented the principle of "fight when there is a battle, train when there is no battle." It has used the time between battles to intensify training, trained while in battle, and created a record that has shocked those at home and abroad. . . . [1]
They moved from training in an ordinary environment to training in a complicated electromagnetic environment. In the 1990s, when the world’s Air Forces accelerated the transformation of information warfare, the People’s Air Force equipped multiple models with multiple types of information weaponry. Now the air force faces a profound change in military training. First, we need to highlight specific training in combat confrontation. Second, we must emphasize precision-guided weapon live-fire training. Third, we should strengthen electronic warfare training. [1]

Moving from training in a single element to systematic training. . . From 2004 on, at the Air Force Tactical Training Center, the Air Force organized its command team and tactical air units to conduct combat assessments. The command team and the tactical air units, ground air defense forces, radar and electronic combat troops, and other troops formed a complete battle system relying on the electromagnetic environment, with multiple soldiers and plane models, and carried out all elements of attack and defense under unknown conditions, thus preparing the troops to be familiar with the battlefield environment. The style of air combat command went through fundamental changes also, from the ‘nanny-style’ command to independent air warfare."[1]

In another similar report, Xu Qiliang said, "The 21st century is the century of information technology, and also the century of air and space. The fields of information and space have become two new high grounds for international strategic competition. From the revolution in the military field around the world, military competition is transferring to the field of aerospace, and military development has been continuously expanding in the direction of air and space. This ‘shift’ is a general trend. This ‘expansion’ is a historic necessity, and it is irreversible. In a certain sense, control of space means control of the land, sea and electromagnetic space, and control of the strategic initiative. Now, not only are the world’s major powers adjusting Air Force strategy, a number of developing countries are also introducing new strategic initiatives, and actively seizing this new strategic high ground in the military revolution." "The militarization of space is a challenge to peace. Facing this challenge, there is no right to speak if one does not have enough power." [2]

On November 9, 2009, Study Times published another article entitled "The People’s Air Force needs three major changes." Its main comments were about the transformation from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive combat; from mechanization to information technology based combat, and from a traditional air force to an air and space integrated force for the Chinese Communist Air Force. [3] 
1. Fundamental change from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive operations   

On one hand, the Air Force is transforming into a multi-functional force with both offensive and defensive capabilities. The traditional fighters, attack planes and bombers are gradually being reduced, while multi-functional, multi-purpose third generation fighters, tankers, and early warning aircraft are equipping the troops. Forming a systematic operational capability, the air offensive forces and the corresponding support development have been strengthened significantly. On the other hand, the ground air defense forces are transforming into air and space defense integrated forces. The combat range for new air missiles has become longer and longer, the reaction speed has become faster and faster, the anti-saturation and anti-radiation ability has become stronger and stronger, and the precision has become more and more accurate. Our Air Force is transforming from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive type operations. The People’s Air Force will focus on active defense, forming systematic mechanisms in both offensive and defensive directions, to complete the preparations for carrying out campaigns and achieve strategic transformation. [3]

2. Complete transformation from mechanization to information technology based combat

Facing the fact that future wars will be confrontations between systems, the People’s Air Force will firmly focus on the key of information technology development, and gradually establish a comprehensive system integrating all combat forces. The Air Force will equip existing aircraft, radar, and command automation equipment with new information technology. … [We need to] move from ‘consuming’ to ‘performance-based,’ from ‘weapons platform-centric warfare’ to ‘network-centric warfare,’ and from traditional air combat to air and space integrated operations. [3] 

3. Strategic transformation from a traditional air force to an air and space integrated force    

Compared to the world’s most advanced equipment, the People’s Air Force is still behind. The core is the lack of support for space-based platforms. . . . In the new period of the new century, the People’s Air Force will follow the strategy of “integrating air and space, being capable of both offensive and defensive combat,” clearly define the functioning position of air and space, establish strategic guidance for “shaping the space situation, controlling space crises, and winning the space war” ideology, highlight the control of space, enhance the strategic initiative, flexibility and effectiveness, and accelerate the transformation into an air and space integrated force. [3]

We should speed up building a national air and space defense system. We must develop a modern air missile defense system, expand the scope of space activities, ensure effective monitoring of territorial space and air, minimize the possibility of a sudden air and space crisis, and be able to rapidly and effectively respond to crisis events, to ensure the safety of national core objectives from any fatal damage. [3]

We need to create and maintain an air and space strategic posture. We must develop monitoring and control of land surfaces to form an “air to land” and “air to sea” control power, maintain effective monitoring and control of national interests on land and sea, develop necessary air offensive forces for a strong attack, deter any damage attempts and actions, and promote regional and global air and space stability."[3]

Also on November 9, 2009, Learning Times Network published an article on the characteristics of Air Force equipment buildup. [4] The article said, "Throughout the 60 years’ history of the Air Force, the Air Force equipment buildup has the following features under the CCP’s core leadership.

1. Strategically equip the Air Force 

Throughout all the historic periods since the start of the Air Force, CCP core leadership always closely connected the Air Force and its equipment development with the CCP’s military strategy. The type of equipment, size, quantity and schedule are all based on the needs of the CCP’s military strategic tasks. This is the top priority of Air Force equipment development and buildup. [4]

2. We must have what our rivals have 

Since our technology and power are relatively weak compared to our rivals, we cannot be engaged in a comprehensive arms race, but we should focus on the development of “asymmetric warfare” and “skillful positioning.” We must master key advanced technology that our rivals have or even the ones our rivals do not have. According to Deng Xiaoping, “we must have what our rivals have.” We may not have a lot, but we must also have that. [4]

3. The type of equipment must be appropriate for the forces 

[The Air Force] must strengthen the supporting equipment for air offensive forces, gradually transform from territorial air defense to both offensive and defensive type forces, and establish ‘offensive defensive’ strategic thinking. [4]

4. Emphasize both the quantity and quality 

CCP leaders emphasize the importance of the quality of equipment. First, we must strive to continuously enhance the modernization of Air Force equipment by constantly upgrading main battle weaponry and equipment. Second, we should have stringent quality requirements for air force weapons and equipment manufacturing and maintenance. Third, we should allow the Air Force to be involved in the early research and development process of the most cutting-edge weapons and equipment. [4]

5. Always viewed as a priority 

The Air Force has always been the priority of national armed forces building. . . . During the 1970s and 1980s, the position and role of the Air Force during war became even more prominent; Deng Xiaoping asserted, "The Air Force should be a top priority.” He also repeatedly pointed out, "I think in the future we should focus on the Air Force’s development. The priority of our investments should be placed on the aviation industry and the Air Force’s development. Foreign currencies allocated to military use should focus on the aviation industry and equipment.” [4]

6. Pay attention to equipment purchase and manufacturing at the same time
In the 1950s, the CCP established the guidance to, “Pay attention to equipment purchase and manufacturing at the same time,” while relying on self-made equipment. In October 1956, Nie Rongzhen, who was responsible for military equipment research, called meetings, and proposed a strategy of “mainly self-reliance, while striving to obtain foreign aid and take advantage of existing research results of capitalist countries.” . . . In February 1966, Marshal Nie proposed the idea of “three steps” for military equipment development. His scientific management method of pre-research, development, and small-batch production at the same time greatly promoted the development of aviation equipment in a planned way. [4]

7. Guiding breakthroughs in person

The CCP’s core leadership is often involved in the Air Force weapons and equipment research process in person. Sometimes they work on the front line for days and nights without sleep. "[4]