People's Liberation Army Air Force

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People's Liberation Army Air Force
Flag of the People's Liberation Army Air Force
Founded November 11, 1949
Country China
Branch Air Force
Size 330,000 active personnel
2,500+ aircraft
Engagements Korean War, Vietnam War, Sino-Vietnamese War
General Ma Xiaotian
Roundel of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force.svg
Aircraft flown
Attack Q-5, JH-7
Bomber JH-7, H-6
KJ-200, KJ-2000.
Fighter J-11, J-10, J-8II, J-7, Su-27, Su-30MKK
Interceptor J-8II
Trainer L-15, JL-8, JL-9
Transport Y-9, Y-8, Y-7, Il-76

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) (simplified Chinese: 中国人民解放军空军; traditional Chinese: 中國人民解放軍空軍; pinyin: Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Kōngjūn) is the aerial warfare service branch of the People's Liberation Army, the military of the People's Republic of China. The PLAAF was officially established on 11 November 1949. As of 2010, the PLAAF has a strength of around 330,000 personnel[1] and is the largest air force in Asia. With ongoing modernisation, all older aircraft types in service are quickly being phased out and emphasis being placed on developing modern 4.5th generation fighters to replace them - along with 5th generation fighters in the near future. If current trends continue and the United States Air Force pursue plans to replace larger numbers of F-15 tactical fighters with fewer numbers of F-22 Raptors then the People's Liberation Army Air Force is set to, in numerical terms, have the largest ("tier-one") tactical fighter force in the world.[2]

The People's Liberation Army Navy maintains its own naval air arm (the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force), operating some 450 aircraft, of which around 290 are fighter aircraft.[3]


Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split[edit]

The PLAAF was founded with Soviet assistance on November 11, 1949,[4][5] shortly after the formation of the People's Republic of China. The PLA had operated few aircraft before that. The PLA's first organized air unit, the Nanyuan Flying Group, was formed only in the summer of 1949 from about 40 ex-Nationalist aircraft; its task was to defend Beijing, the nation's new capital.

The PLAAF fought the Korean War in Soviet-built MiG-15, known as the J-2 in Chinese service, with training from Soviet instructors. The war also brought Soviet assistance for the indigenous aircraft industry. The Shenyang Aircraft Factory built the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer as the JJ-2,[6] and during the war manufactured various components to maintain the Soviet-built fighters. This prepared them to mass-produce derivatives of Soviet aircraft under license, starting with the J-5 (MiG-17) in 1956,[7] then the J-6 (MiG-19) in 1959,[8] and then the J-7 (MiG-21) in 1967.[8]

The 1960s were a difficult time for the PLAAF. The withdrawal of Soviet aid due to the Sino-Soviet split, and the prioritization of the missile and nuclear weapon programs, caused the industry to markedly decline 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 J-8, China's first indigenous fighter, was also initiated during the 1960s.

The 1980s[edit]

The PLA Air Force underwent reorganization and streamlining as part of the reduction in force begun in 1985. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches: air defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments.[9] In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through air army 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 antiaircraft guns. In addition, it had 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.

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 Union — 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 F-7 (MiG-21) and F-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, Russia became China's principal arms supplier to the effect that Chinese economic growth allowed Russia to sustain its aerospace industry.

Modernization program[edit]

PLAAF airmen on parade during a full honors arrival ceremony in 2000.

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 interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited military airlift and 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 (Taiwan) 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.

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 (Tu-16 Badger). 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.

Senior Colonel Wu Guohui has said that the PLAAF is working on a stealth bomber, which some people have called the H-18.[10]

Ranks and insignia[edit]

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,[11][12] representing August 1, 1927, the date of the formation of the PLA. PLAAF aircraft carry these markings on the fins as well.

Aerobatic Display Team[edit]

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.


The Air Force headquarters consists of four departments: Command, Political, Logistic, and Equipment, which mirrors the four general departments of the PLA. Below the headquarters, Military region air forces (MRAF) direct divisions (Fighter, Attack, Bomber), which in turn direct regiments and squadrons.[13] The PLAAF typically used the system of threes in its organization at Division level and below, i.e. 3 Regiments per Division, 3 Squadrons per Regiment, and so on. The situation is now more fluid, with several divisions (the 5th, 15th, 24th for example) only having two regiments.[14] There are also Independent Regiments within the MRAFs. There is also an Airborne Corps (the 15th Airborne Corps) under direct control of PLAAF Headquarters.

Order of battle[edit]

Air bases[edit]

There is presently over 150 air bases utilized by the People's Liberation Army Air Force, these are divided into seven military regions as follows:


The People's Liberation Army Air Force operates a large and varied fleet of some 2,500+ aircraft, of which around 1,600 are combat aircraft.[1] 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.

Aircraft inventory[edit]

Aircraft Photo Origin Role Version Quantity[15][16] Note
Fixed-wing aircraft
Ilyushin Il-76 Kongyu 2000, People's Liberation Army Air Force, China.jpg
PLAAF Ilyushin Il-76 landing at Perth Airport.jpg
 Russia AEW&C
Transport aircraft
An additional 30 of the transport variant on order.[15]
Ilyushin Il-78 Ilyushin Il-78M 36 blue (cn 1013405197).jpg  Russia Tanker aircraft IL-78MP 8 on order.[15]
Shaanxi Y-8 Myanmar Air Force Shaanxi Y-8 MRD.jpg  China AEW&C
Reconnaissance aircraft
Transport aircraft
Tupolev Tu-154 Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-154M RA-85643 Mishin-1.jpg  Soviet Union Airliner (Passenger)
Reconnaissance aircraft
Xian H-6 PLAAF Xian HY-6 Li Pang.jpg  China Bomber aircraft
Tanker aircraft
Sukhoi Su-27 Sukhoi Su-27SKM at MAKS-2005 airshow.jpg  Soviet Union Fighter aircraft Su-27SK/UBK 76[15]
Sukhoi Su-30MKK Sukhoi Su-30MKK.jpg  Russia Fighter aircraft Su-30MKK
Chengdu J-10 Chengdu 10.jpg  China Fighter aircraft J-10A
Shenyang J-11 Chinese Su-27.JPG  China Fighter aircraft J-11A
140[15] A Chinese built 4.5th generation fighter based on the Sukhoi Su-27. 70 more on order.[15]
Shenyang J-16  China Fighter aircraft J-16 A multi-role fighter based on the J-11 with upgraded avionics and longer range. Entered service starting 2013.
Xian JH-7 Jh-7a naval yt.png  China Fighter-bomber JH-7/A 72
Shenyang J-8 KampfflugzeugF-8China-2009-01-04.jpg  China Interceptor J-8A
Chengdu J-7 045 a Shenyang J-7 of the Chinese Air Force (3223302590).jpg  China Interceptor J-7 389 Obsolescent class being phased out.
Nanchang Q-5 Q5 parked.png  China Strike aircraft Q-5 240[15]
Shaanxi Y-9  China Transport aircraft Y-9 7 A large medium-long range tactical transport aircraft. More on order.
Xi'an Y-7 Lao Aviation Xian Y-7-100C Bor.jpg  China Transport aircraft Y-7 80[15] A small short-range tactical transport used for the transportation of light cargo, troops or deployment of Paratroopers.
Xian MA60 Merpati Xian MA-60 Spijkers.jpg  China Transport aircraft MA60H-500 9 A small short-range tactical transport used for the transportation of light cargo, troops or deployment of Paratroopers.
Antonov An-26 An-26 Niµ Nishava Serbien Marko Stojkovic IMG 2634-1-2.jpg  Soviet Union Transport aircraft 25 A small short-range tactical transport used for the transportation of light cargo, troops or deployment of Paratroopers.
Nanchang CJ-6 Nanchang CJ-6A Airplane over California Coastline N4183E 20110219.jpg  China Trainer aircraft CJ-6 1,419 Obsolescent trainer aircraft being phased out and replaced by newer types. Many are most likely no-longer operational.
Hongdu JL-8 Air Force of Zimbabwe K-8 Karakorum.jpg  China Trainer aircraft JL-8 190[15]
Hongdu L-15 HAIG L15.jpg  China Trainer aircraft L-15 2[15] More on order to replace older types.
Hongdu Yakovlev CJ-7  China Trainer aircraft CJ-7 Around 300 on order to replace older types.
Guizhou JL-9 Guizhou jl9.jpg  China Trainer aircraft JL-9 2 More on order to replace older types.
Harbin Y-12 KAF Harbin Y-12 Formation training.jpg  China Utility aircraft Y-12 94
Harbin Y-11  China Utility aircraft Y-11 50
Shijiazhuang Y-5 An-2 on skis.jpg  China Utility aircraft Y-5 293 Based on the Antonov An-2.
Bombardier Challenger 600  Canada Utility aircraft CL 601 5 Primarily used for VIP transport.
CAIC WZ-10 Changhe Z-10.jpg  China Attack helicopter WZ-10 74[17]
Harbin Z-9 PLA Harbin Z-9W 2012 Hong Kong cropped.JPG
Eurocopter Dauphin Malinese Air Force.jpg
 China Attack helicopter
Transport helicopter
Harbin Z-19  China Attack helicopter & Reconnaissance helicopter Z-19 On order.
Changhe Z-11  China Attack helicopter (Light)
Utility helicopter
Mil Mi-8/Mil Mi-17 Egyptian Mil Mi-8 Hip helicopter.JPEG  Soviet Union Transport helicopter Mi-8/Mil Mi-17 330[18]
Changhe Z-8 Super Frelon 4.jpg  China Transport helicopter Z-8 40[15]
Eurocopter AS 532 Cougar Slo hel.jpg  France Transport helicopter AS 532 6
Sikorsky S-70 Sikorsky HH-60.jpg  United States Transport helicopter S-70C 16
Aérospatiale SA 342 Gazelle Soko SA-342L1 Partizan "Gazela".jpg  France Utility helicopter SA 342 8

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hacket, IISS 2010, pg 403–404.
  2. ^ The Diplomat: China Air Force Steps it Up, US assumptions about China’s air power look outdated. It’s building a force that will be without rival in the Asia-Pacific. 1 July 2010.
  3. ^ Hacket, IISS 2010, pg 402.
  4. ^ "The People's Liberation Army Air Force". Global Times. 10 November 2009. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  5. ^ Cliff, Roger; John Fei, Jeff Hagen, Elizabeth Hague, Eric Heginbotham, John Stillion (2011). "Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century". RAND. p. 36. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  6. ^ "J-2 (Jian-2 Fighter aircraft 2)". 2011-05-03. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  7. ^ "J-5 (Jian-5 Fighter aircraft 5)". 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  8. ^ a b "J-6 (Jian-6 Fighter aircraft 6) / F-6 / Type-59 / DF-102 / DF-103 / DF-105". 2011-06-11. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  9. ^ "A Country Study: China". Country Studies (Library of Congress). Air Force section 
  10. ^ "Is China's H-18 bomber a joke? asks Duowei". Want China Times. 13 November 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013. 
  11. ^ "Military Aircraft Insignia of the World"
  12. ^ "Roundels of China"
  13. ^ IISS Military Balance 2012, 233, 237
  14. ^ IISS Military Balance 2012, 239–240.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "The AMR Regional Air Force Directory 2012". Asian Military Review. February 2012. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  16. ^ "World Air Forces 2013".
  17. ^ Photo of the day: The 7th WZ-10 equipped PLA LH Unit
  18. ^ "". 2012-02-01. Retrieved 2012-09-30. 

External links[edit]