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|Armed Forces of the|
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|History of the Chinese military|
|Military ranks of China|
The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF; Chinese: 中国人民解放军空军; pinyin: Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Kōngjūn), also referred to as the Chinese Air Force (中国空军) or the People's Air Force (人民空军), is an aerial service branch of the People's Liberation Army, the regular armed forces of the People's Republic of China. The PLAAF was officially established on 11 November 1949 and it is composed of five branches: aviation, ground-based air defense, radar, Airborne Corps and other support elements.
The PLAAF first faced combat in the Korean War against the United States using primarily the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter aircraft, aircraft provided by the Soviet Union, which also assisted with the expansion of the Chinese aerospace industry. Changes in the organization of the PLAAF followed by modernization programs in the 1990s and increased technology development in the 21st century has created the J-20 stealth multirole fighter, the first of its kind for China.
Today's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) traces its roots back to September 1924 when a small group of nine cadets from the still-young Chinese Communist Party graduated from Sun Yat-sen's military flight school in Guangzhou. Having only been founded three years prior in July 1921, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formed a united front with the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party against competing warlords in a bid to reunite a fractionalized China. The eighteen graduate pilots of the military flight school, under Sun's Guangzhou Revolutionary Government Aviation Bureau, included nine nationalist and nine communist pilots who were sent to the Soviet Union for two years of advanced flight training under the tutelage of the more experienced Soviet Air Force. Two of the CCP's graduates, Chang Qiankun and Wang Bi, continued to serve in the Soviet Air Force for fourteen years until, in September 1938, they returned to Dihua (now Ürümqi) as instructors. Chang and Wang would play instrumental roles in the founding of the PLAAF.
In January 1941, as intensifying clashes between CCP and KMT forces ended the united front against invading Japanese forces, and despite having neither aircraft nor airfields, the CCP's Central Military Commission (CMC) established the Air Force Engineering School with Wang as commandant and Chang as head instructor. In May of 1944, just over a year before the Japanese surrender to Allied forces, the CMC established an Aviation Section in Yan'an with Wang as its director and Chang as deputy director. Two years later in May 1946 and after the withdrawal of Japanese troops, the CMC established the Northeast Old Aviation School in Jilin. By 1949 the Aviation Section of the CMC had 560 trained personnel (125 pilots and 435 ground support specialists), purchased 435 aircraft from the Soviet Union, acquired 115 Nationalist aircraft, and operated seven military flight schools.
The first organized air unit of the People's Liberation Army was formed in July 1949 at Beijing Nanyuan Airport (built and first operated under the Qing Dynasty) and operated American P-51 Mustangs, PT-19s, and British DH.98 Mosquitos. The squadron had acquired the Western-made aircraft once donated to the KMT for use against the Japanese, through a series of airfield captures and nationalist defections.
In March of 1949, the CMC elevated its Aviation Section to the shortly-lived Aviation Bureau with Chang and Wang appointed as the bureau's director and political commissar, respectively. On 1 October 1949, the victorious communist forces established the People's Republic of China and, on 11 November 1949, the CMC dissolved its Aviation Section founding instead the People's Liberation Army Air Force. Initially manned by a variety of units from ground forces, the new PLAAF organized its headquarters (PLAAF HQ) in Beijing and organized administrative aviation divisions for each of the PLA's six military regions, later to each be named a Military Region Air Force (MRAF). The new organization, which was not yet seen as a service separate from the army, was headed by ground force commander Li Yalou with Xiao Hua (former ground force commander and political commissar) as the PLAAF's first political commissar. Chang was appointed as a PLAAF deputy commander and as director of the PLAAF's Training Department while Wang was named deputy political commissar and director of the Aeronautical Engineering Department.
In June of 1950, the first PLAAF aviation unit, the 4th Composite Air Brigade (混成旅) was established in Nanjing based on the 30th Army's 90th Division and commanding the 10th, 11th and 12th Air Regiments. In the same year, the PLAAF created the 2nd and 3rd Composite Air Brigades. Although the 4th Composite Air Brigade would be renamed in 1950 to the PLAAF 4th Air Division, it would become the 1st Air Division in 1956 with the 2nd and 3rd Composite Air Brigades becoming the 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions, respectively.
Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split
The PLAAF expanded rapidly during the Korean War. Two brigades were created in 1950, but disbanded in the early 1950s and replaced by division; both had subordinate regiments. During the war, 26 divisions and a smaller number of independent regiments and schools were created by personnel transfers from the army; the air force inherited the army's organization and was commanded by army officers. By early 1954, there were 28 divisions, with 70 regiments, and five independent regiments operating 3000 aircraft. The Soviets provided Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 aircraft (J-2 in Chinese service), training, and support for developing the domestic aviation industry. Shenyang Aircraft Corporation built the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer as the JJ-2, and during the war manufactured various components to maintain the Soviet-built fighters. By 1956 the People's Republic was assembling copies of MiG-15s and eight years later was producing both the Shenyang J-5 (MiG-17) and the Shenyang J-6 (MiG-19) under license.
The PLAAF emerged from the war as an air defense force. The main role was to support the army by achieving air superiority using fighters, radar, and ground-based weapons. This was reinforced through the 1950s and 1960s when the PLAAF's main activities were skirmishing with the Republic of China Air Force near the Taiwan Strait, and intercepting American aircraft. The bombing role was neglected due to the underestimation of the significance of air power during the war; the Chinese were impressed that they had suffered more casualties from ground fire rather than from bombing. From the Korean to the Sino-Vietnamese War, PLAAF bombing missions were restrained by technical capability and political concerns over escalation.
The 1960s were a difficult time for the PLAAF. Modernization and development was severely impacted by political and economic chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the Sino-Soviet split. The prioritization of missile and nuclear weapon programs crippled the aviation industry, which markedly declined 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 Shenyang J-8, China's first indigenous fighter, was also initiated during the 1960s.
Between January 1954 and 1971, 22 divisions were created for a total of 50.
1980s and modernization
Force reductions led to reorganization and streamlining starting in 1985. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches: air defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments. In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through 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 AA guns. In addition, it had a large number of early-warning, ground-control-intercept, and air-base radars operated 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 Armed Forces — 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 Chengdu J-7 and Shenyang J-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, the Russian Federation became China's principal arms supplier, to the extent that Chinese economic growth allowed Russia to sustain its aerospace industry.
1990s to 2000s
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 Air interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited military airlift and aerial 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 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 the quality of its air fleet.
In the 2000s, there were approximately 30 combat divisions, and 2 transport divisions.
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 the old H-6 bomber (Tupolev Tu-16). 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 an 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 the existing service fleet of KJ-2000 and KJ-200, with UAV/UCAV in the early stages of service in the PLAAF.
According to a 2015 Pentagon report, PLAAF has around 600 modern aircraft.
Lt Gen Xu Anxiang, PLAAF Deputy Commander, revealed the PLAAF has a multiphase roadmap for building a strong, modern air force. He said the building of a strategic force by 2020 would integrate aviation, space power, strike and defense capabilities.
When this goal is achieved, the PLAAF's fourth-generation jet fighters will make up the backbone of the Air Force's arsenal and J-16/J-16D along with J-10C/J-20 would be main stay of PLAAF. Gen Xu also said information-based combat capabilities will be enhanced.
Ranks and insignia
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; Kōngjūn; '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, representing August 1, 1927, the date of the formation of the PLA. PLAAF aircraft carry these markings on the fins as well.
- Liu Yalou (October 1949 – May 1965)
- Wu Faxian (May 1965 – September 1971)
- Ma Ning (May 1973 – February 1977)
- Zhang Tingfa (April 1977 – July 1985)
- Wang Hai (July 1985 – November 1992)
- Cao Shuangming (November 1992 – October 1994)
- Yu Zhenwu (October 1994 – November 1996)
- Liu Shunyao (November 1996 – May 2002)
- Qiao Qingchen (May 2002 – September 2007)
- Xu Qiliang (September 2007 – October 2012)
- Ma Xiaotian (October 2012 – August 2017)
- Ding Laihang (August 2017 – September 2021)
- Chang Dingqiu (September 2021 – present)
The highest leadership organization is PLAAF Headquarters (PLAAF HQ). PLAAF HQ's peacetime responsibilities are force generation, modernization, and operational control of some units like the Airborne Corps and the 34th Air Transport Division. PLAAF HQ contains four first-level departments: the Staff (formerly Headquarters), Political Work (formerly Political), Logistics, and Equipment Department.
The Staff Department (空军参谋部) manages the PLAAF organizational structure, personnel management, intelligence, communications, air traffic control, weather support, development of air force military theory, and air force education and safety. The Staff Department is lead by the chief of staff who is the "principal organizer and coordinator of military operations." The Staff Department's chief of staff has a number of deputy chiefs of staff. Previously known as the Headquarters Department, the post-2016 Staff Department maintains a number of subordinate bureaus (局) including the Operations Bureau, Information and Communications Bureau, Training Bureau, Ground-based Air Defense Bureau, Air Traffic Control Bureau, Pilot Recruitment Bureau, Flight Safety Bureau, Test Flight Bureau, Aviation Bureau, Confidential Bureau, Unit Management Bureau, and Planning and Organization Bureau.
The Political Work Department (空军政治工作部), sometimes abbreviated PWD, is responsible for managing propaganda, security, political education, personnel records, civil-military relations, party discipline, party organizations within the PLAAF, and cultural activities to include song and dance troupes or public events. The Political Work Department is led by a director (主任) and at least two deputy directors (副主任). Subordinate to the department include bureaus such as a Cadre Bureau, Propaganda Bureau, and a Soldier and Civilian Personnel Bureau.
The Logistics Department (空军后勤部), led by a director and political commissar, oversee the PLAAF's logistics to include transportation, materials, supplies, finance, medical care, and petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL). Since the 2016 reform, subordinate bureaus include a Finance Bureau, Transport and Delivery Bureau, Procurement and Supply Bureau, Air Force National Defense Engineering Development Command Bureau, Real Estate Management Bureau, Ordnance General-use Equipment Bureau, Military Facilities Construction Bureau, Combat Service Planning Bureau, Materials Bureau, and Audit Bureau.
The Equipment Department (空军装备部), originally the Air Force Engineering Department, manages the PLAAF's cradle-to-death lifecycle including repair and maintenance of the branch's weapons systems and instruments. Led by a director and political commissar, the department leads bureaus to include the Comprehensive Planning Bureau, Airfield Support Bureau, Scientific Research and Procurement Bureau, Major Type/Model Bureau, Project Management Bureau, Equipment Purchasing Bureau, Testing and Inspection Bureau, Armament General-use Equipment Bureau, Flight Safety Bureau, and Aviation Equipment Bureau.
Below PLAAF HQ are five Theater Command Air Forces (TCAF), successors of Military Region Air Forces (MRAFs) prior to 2016.
Before 2003, MRAF had subordinate air corps and Bases which exercised direct control over units in their area of responsibility (AOR); MRAF only directly controlled fighter and ground attack divisions in the same province as MRAF headquarters (MRAF HQ). From 2004, leadership of units was consolidated in MRAF HQ, with air corps and Bases downgraded to command posts that acted on behalf of MRAF HQ. From 2012 onwards, the command posts were mostly replaced by Bases that exercised command and control over units (brigades) in their AOR and conducted joint exercises.
Below TCAF/MRAF and the air corps/command posts/Bases are corps, division, brigade, and regimental level units (部队).
The first divisions in the 1950s was organized into a HQ and two or three regiments. In 1953, this was standardized to three regiments per division, including one training regiment. Regiments had three or four flight groups, each in turn made of three or four squadrons. Between 1964 and 1970, regiments were called groups. In the late 1980s, operational squadrons lost their training regiments. By 2010, many divisions had only two regiments. In 2019, the bomber, transport, and specialized divisions had not been reorganized into brigades and remained under the control of PLAAF HQ and TCAF headquarters.
Beginning in 2011, and in a similar process as the PLAGF, the PLAAF dissolved the majority of its air division headquarters changing previously subordinate air regiments to brigades and subordinating them directly under military region (now theater command) air forces. Brigades contain several subordinate flight groups; a flight group has one type of aircraft. All fighter and ground attack divisions and regiments were reorganized into air force brigades, organized into a brigade HQ and the flight groups organized under it.
Everything from battalions to squads are considered subunits (分队).
Order of battle
- PLAAF Headquarters
- Staff Department
- Political Work Department
- Logistics Department
- Equipment Department
- Directly-reporting units
- Experimental Training Base
- Flight Test Training Base
- Research Institute
- Airborne Training Base
- Command Academy
- Engineering University
- Aviation University
- Early Warning Academy
- Harbin Flight Academy
- Shijiazhuang Flight Academy
- Xi'an Flight Academy
- Medical University
- Service Academy
- Communications Sergeants Academy
- 66th Blue Brigade
- Eastern Theater Command Air Force
- Southern Theater Command Air Force
- Western Theater Command Air Force
- Northern Theater Command Air Force
- Central Theater Command Air Force
The PLAAF has over 150 air bases distributed across each theater command.
Aerobatic display team
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 People's Liberation Army Air Force operates a large and varied fleet of some 4,000 aircraft, of which around 2,300 are combat aircraft (fighter, attack, and bombers). According to FlightGlobal, China has the second largest active combat aircraft fleet and the third largest total aircraft fleet in the world.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, PLAAF combat pilots acquire an average of 100-150 flying hours per year. 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.
|Combat aircraft: 2300|
|J-11||China||Air superiority||J-11A: 100
|J-16||China||Multirole strike||J-16: 245
|Special mission: 62|
|Y-8/Y-9||China||Electronic warfare||Y-8CB: 4
|B-737 C2||United States||C2||2|
|B-737 VIP||United States||Passenger transport||9|
|Combat helicopter: 115+|
|Z-9||China||Utility, CSAR||Z-9: 20
|AS332 VIP||France||Transport||AS332: 6+
|Training aircraft/helicopters: 1013+|
|Su-27||USSR||Fighter trainer||Su-27UBK: 32||39|
|Uninhabited aerial vehicles: 110+|
The People's Liberation Army Air Force operates a multi-layered, integrated air defense system combining radar stations, electronic warfare systems, early warning and surveillance zones, and air-missile defense systems of various ranges.
|Long-range air defense: 552+|
|HQ-9||China||Long-range SAM||HQ-9: 180
|S-300||Russia||Long-range SAM||S-300PMU: 32
|Medium-range air defense: 190+|
|Short-range air defense: 104+|
|HQ-6||China||Short-range SAM||HQ-6D: 24
|Gun-based air defense:|
|PG-59||Soviet Union||Anti-aircraft gun||1000+|
|LD-2000||China||Anti-aircraft gun||Large quantity|
The People's Liberation Army Air Force Airborne Corps operates mechanized infantry formations with light tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, anti-tank missile carriers, and light training aircraft.
|Armoured fighting vehicles: 184+|
|ZBD-03||China||Infantry fighting vehicle||ZBD-03: 180
|CS/VN3 Modified.||China||Infantry mobility vehicle||Unknown|
|BJ2022||China||Infantry mobility vehicle||Unknown|
|HJ-9||China||Anti-tank guided missile||Some|
|QW-1||China||Anti-aircraft gun||Large quantity|
|PG-87||China||Anti-aircraft gun||Large quantity|
- List of historic aircraft of the People's Liberation Army Air Force
- People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force
- People's Liberation Army Ground Force
- List of aircraft produced by China
- List of Chinese aircraft engines
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