By 2015 or so, the weapon systems and platforms China is acquiring will potentially enable it to effectively implement the four types of air force campaigns described in the next section. The significant numbers of modern fighter aircraft and SAMs, as well as the long range early warning radars and secure data and voice communication links China is likely to have by 2015, for example, coupled with the hardening and camouflage measures China has already taken, would make a Chinese air defense campaign, if conducted according to the principles described in Chinese military publications, highly challenging for U.S. air forces. Similarly, those same modern fighters, along with ground-launched conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, cruise missile–carrying medium bombers, and aerial refueling aircraft, will enable China to conduct offensive operations far into the western Pacific. Whether China will actually be able to fully exploit its air force doctrine and capabilities, however, is less clear. Much will depend on the quality of the training and leadership of China’s air force, and it should be pointed out that the PLAAF last engaged in major combat operations in the Jinmen campaign of 1958, more than 50 years ago.
Types of Air Campaigns
Air defense campaigns are said to entail three types of operations: resistance, counterattack, and close protection.
* Resistance operations are actions to intercept, disrupt, and destroy attacking aircraft.
* Counterattack operations are attacks on enemy air bases (including aircraft carriers).
* Close protection operations are passive defense measures, such as fortification, concealment, camouflage, and mobility. China’s overall approach to air defense is to combine the early interception of enemy attacks with full-depth, layered resistance to protect targets and forces while gradually increasing the tempo of
counter attacks on enemy bases
* Air blockade campaigns are operations to prevent an adversary from conducting air operations and to cut off its economic and military links with the outside world. Some Chinese sources describe them as simply a special variety of air offensive campaign, but most authoritative sources regard them as a distinct type of campaign
Although any of these four types of air force campaigns can be conducted as an independent single-service campaign, they are more likely to be conducted as part of a broader joint campaign, such as an island-landing campaign or a joint blockade campaign.
Rand recommends – The United States should nonetheless deploy active missile defenses, construct aircraft shelters, harden runways and facilities, and increase rapid runway repair capabilities at these bases. In either case, the USAF will need to continue to invest in fighter aircraft technology and pilot skill to ensure that it maintains its advantage in the face of rapid Chinese improvements in these areas
China Today and to 2020
As of 2010, the PLAAF has retired many of its older aircraft and is operating more than 300 modern fighter aircraft, with more in production. These include Russian-designed Su-27s and Su-30s but also China’s own domestically developed J-10, which is assessed to be comparable in capability to the U.S. F-16. Many PLAAF fighters now carry beyond–visual range air-to-air missiles and PGMs, and the PLAAF possesses a first generation air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), carried on the H-6 medium bomber. Chinese pilots now average well over 100 hours of flight time per year, and the pilots of the most-advanced fighters are believed to receive close to 200 hours per year. China is experimenting with domestically produced airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and PLAAF aircraft now routinely operate at low level, over water, in bad weather, and at night (sometimes all at once).
Meanwhile, the PLAAF’s SAM forces have purchased the modern S-300 series of SAMs (North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] designators SA-10 and SA-20) from Russia and have fielded a domestic system (the HQ-9) of comparable capability.
Based on recent trends, these changes are likely to accelerate in the future, so that, within another decade, the capabilities of China’s air force could begin to approach those of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) today. USAF capabilities will continue to improve as well, of course, so that it will still enjoy a significant qualitative advantage, but a conflict with China might not be the lopsided contest it likely would have been in the late 1990s. And, even today, the emerging capabilities of the PLAAF are such that, combined with the geographic and other advantages China would enjoy in the most likely conflict scenario—a war over Taiwan—the USAF could find itself challenged in its ability to achieve air dominance over its adversary, a prospect that the USAF has not had to seriously consider for nearly two decades
Aviation Week – Sizing Up China’s military
•Information exploitation. Digital connectivity, now available from troops to top command levels, has helped implement and refine new joint force operations, especially between the second artillery missile force, the PLA air force and the PLA navy (PLAN). Networks of optical, radar and electronic surveillance satellites, new over-the-horizon (OTH) radar, AWACS and electronic intelligence aircraft plus new passive counter-stealth radar and soon, a 30-plus navigation satellite constellation, enable precision targeting at increasing distances.
•Information attack. In the mid-2000s, U.S. intelligence agencies identified the Advanced Persistent Threat (APT), a pattern of cyberespionage largely traceable to China and aimed mainly at the U.S. defense industry and armed forces.
•Precision air and missile attack. China is developing (and offering for export) an expanding range of guided rockets conforming to the range limits of the Missile Technology Control Regime, while domestically producing guided air-launched weapons—bombs and cruise missiles—and ballistic missiles capable of threatening U.S. bases and naval forces.
•Growing sea denial. PLAN has Asia’s most formidable sea-denial capability built around a growing force of 50-80 conventional submarines (SSKs). Soviet-era boats are being replaced by the Song and Yuan classes and imported Russian Kilos. A yet-undesignated new SSK similar in shape to the Kilo was revealed in September. The Songs and Kilos carry sub-launched YJ-82 antiship cruise missiles and the Kilos carry the formidable Novator 3M-54 Club cruise missile family.
If it is indeed the case that China’s technology is advancing more quickly than the West expects, there is a chance of technological surprise.
Chinese sources have referred to future DF-25/26/27 missiles: One may be the new 4,000-km missile. Future PLA medium- and short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles will be faster and more maneuverable to counter defenses. A new air- and missile-defense interceptor family, sometimes called the HQ-19 (HHQ-26 for the naval version), reportedly has performance goals similar to the 400-km Russian S-400.
By the 2020s the U.S. hopes to resolve technology challenges for deployment of energy weapons. Indicators point to the possibility that the PLA is not far behind in development of tactical lasers, high-power microwave weapons and rail guns. There is also heavy Chinese investment in research centers for electromagnetic launch technology, the basis for rail guns, electromagnetic aircraft catapults and spacecraft launchers.
China is working on counter-stealth and counter-network technology. At IDEX in February, China released details of the meter-wave (VHF) HK-JM and HK-JM2 radars, both mobile and with detection ranges of 330 and 500 km, respectively. The radars could cue more accurate tracking systems. China also unveiled the DWL002 ground-based electronic surveillance measure system, which could be deployed as a passive coherent-location radar, using long-range broadcast signals to detect non-emitting targets.
But these newer trends in Chinese power are not sufficiently reflected in U.S. government documents—like the annual China Military Power report—that influence debate over strategy and spending priorities. One possible result is that U.S. weapons timelines will increasingly trail rather than lead PLA developments.