Category The Chinese Air Force

China’s Quest for Advanced Aviation Technologies

Phillip C. Saunders and Joshua K. Wiseman

Although China continues to lag approximately two decades behind the world’s most sophisticated air forces in terms of its ability to develop and pro­duce fighter aircraft and other complex aerospace systems, it has moved over time from absolute reliance on other countries for military aviation technol­ogy procurement to a position where a more diverse array of strategies can be pursued. Steps taken in the late 1990s to reform China’s military aviation sector demonstrated an understanding of the problems inherent in high-tech­nology acquisition, and an effort to move forward.1 However, a decade later it remains unclear how effective these reforms have been. Where are the Peo­ple’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and China’s military aviation indus­try headed? What obstacles must be overcome for China to join the exclusive ranks of those nations possessing sophisticated air forces and aviation indus­tries capable of producing world-class aircraft? Answering these and related questions is at the heart of this study. Because advanced fighter aircraft exem­plify the most sophisticated level of aerospace technology, are important for air force combat capabilities, and present unique design and fabrication chal­lenges for a military aviation industry, the authors’ analysis focuses primarily on China’s efforts to acquire, produce, and develop fighter aircraft and related technology. It also includes some discussion of bombers, transports, and air­borne early warning aircraft where relevant to Chinese technology develop­ment and acquisition efforts.

About the Contributors

Kenneth W. Allen is a Senior China Analyst at the Defense Group, Inc. (DGI), where he focuses on Chinese military issues. Prior to this, he worked in vari­ous nonprofit research organizations dealing with China and Taiwan relations. From 1971 to 1992, he served in the U. S. Air Force, including assignments in Taiwan, Berlin, Japan, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, and Washington, DC. He also served as the Assistant Air Force Attache in China from 1987 to 1989. He has written several books and articles on China’s military. He received a B. A from the University of California at Davis, a B. A from the University of Maryland in Asian Studies, and an M. A. from Boston University in Interna­tional Relations.

Hsi-hua Cheng retired from the Taiwan Air Force as a colonel in November 2011. His military assignments include a tour as acting deputy commandant of the Air Command and Staff College at Taiwan’s National Defense University. Cheng was a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United States from July 2006 to June 2007 and graduated from the U. S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College in 1994.

Roger Cliff is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His areas of research include China’s military doc­trine, defense industries, and future military capabilities and their implications for U. S. strategy and policy. He has authored, coauthored, or edited more than a dozen research monographs and more than a dozen journal articles, book chapters, and op-eds on these topics. He is currently writing a book on China’s future military capabilities. Dr. Cliff has previously worked for the Project 2049 Institute, the RAND Corporation, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and VERAC, Inc. He received his Ph. D. in International Relations from Princeton University, and holds an M. A. in Chinese Studies from the University of Cali­fornia, San Diego, and a B. S. in Physics from Harvey Mudd College. He is flu­ent in written and spoken Chinese.

David R. Frelinger is a Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation with experience in leading technical and policy analytic studies for senior govern­ment consumers. His research interests include intelligence operations, infor­mation technologies, and the interaction of commercial and governmental activities, as well as an ongoing interest in assessing advanced weapons systems concepts. Mr. Frelinger holds an M. A. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a B. A in Political Science from the University of California, San Diego.

Richard P. Hallion is an aerospace analyst and historian who has written widely on defense, aerospace, military affairs, and technology. He received his B. A and Ph. D. from the University of Maryland, and is a graduate of the Fed­eral Executive Institute and the National Security Studies Program for Senior Executives at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He has served as a founding curator, Lindbergh Professor, and Verville Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum; as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Air Force historian; as the Johnson Chair at the U. S. Army Military History Institute; as a senior issues and policy analyst and senior advi­sor for air and space issues to the Secretary of the Air Force; and as a special advisor on aerospace technology to the Air Force Chief Scientist. Currently, he is a senior advisor to Commonwealth Research Institute/Concurrent Technol­ogies Corporation; Vice President of the Earthshine Institute; and a research associate in aeronautics for the National Air and Space Museum. He has taught and lectured widely, is active in professional associations, and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Jessica Hart is an Analyst at a defense contractor. From 2008 to 2011, she worked as a research assistant for the RAND Corporation where she focused on defense policy and nuclear deterrence issues. Ms. Hart holds an M. PI. A. in Intelligence and Defense Studies from Texas A&M University, and a B. A. in Political Science from Clemson.

You Ji is Reader/Professor in the School of Social Science, University of New South Wales. He has published widely on China’s political, military, and foreign affairs. He is the author of three books, including China’s Enterprise Reform: Changing State/Society Relations after Mao (1998) and The Armed Forces of China (1999). He has authored numerous articles and book chapters, includ­ing: “China’s Response to the Deadly Triangle: Arms Race, Territorial Dispute and Energy Security,” CLAWS Journal, Summer 2010; “Managing the Cross – Taiwan Strait Military Conflicts in a New Era of Political Reconciliation,” in 30 Years of Sino-US Relations, Sujian Guo, ed. (Lexicon Books, 2010); “Chang­ing Civil-Military Relations in China,” in The PLA at Home and Abroad, David Lai, Roy Kamphamsen, and Andrew Scobell, eds. (National Bureau of Asian Research and Strategic Studies Institute of the U. S. Army War College, 2010).

Kevin Lanzit is a Senior Analyst at Alion Science & Technology, Inc. with over thirty years in national security affairs. During his Air Force career he served in a variety of operational and national security planning positions, including mul­tiple fighter assignments in the United States, Western Europe, and the Southwest Pacific. As a foreign area officer specializing on China and East Asia, he completed two assignments with the United States Embassy in Beijing, China (1989-1991 and 2000-2003), where his language skills and operational acumen facilitated the successful execution of both diplomatic and operational missions. Following mil­itary service, Mr. Lanzit has worked in both private and government positions. From 2005 to 2006, he served as a senior analyst with the U. S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission where he shaped the research, analysis, and written reports related to China’s growing military power and its effect on U. S. national security interests in the region. Since leaving the Commission he has continued to lend his regional knowledge and operational experience to national security analysis. Mr. Lanzit received a B. S. in Economics from the USAF Acad­emy in 1975, an M. S. in Systems Management from the University of Southern California, and studied National Security Affairs at the U. S. Air War College and Mandarin Chinese at the Defense Language Institute.

Forrest E. Morgan is a defense policy researcher working in the RAND Cor­poration’s Pittsburgh Office. Prior to joining RAND in January 2003, Dr. Mor­gan served a 27-year career in the U. S. Air Force. His military assignments included duty as a signals intelligence analyst and as a space operations officer in various operations and staff positions. Later he served on the strategy and policy staff at Headquarters, U. S. Air Force, Pentagon, and did a tour of duty as a professor of comparative military studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Since coming to RAND, Dr. Morgan has done strategy and doctrine research examining such issues as preemptive and preventive attack, escalation management, deterrence, information operations, and assessing performance of the Air Force and Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Kevin Pollpeter has been the China Program Manager at Defense Group, Inc. since 2005. He manages a group of 11 analysts focused on primary source research on Chinese security issues. Mr. Pollpeter writes on a range of issues, but is a specialist on the Chinese space program. He previous worked at the RAND Corporation from 2000 to 2005 as a Research Assistant and a Project Associate. His other work experience includes time at the Monterey Institute’s East Asia Nonproliferation Project, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the Marine Corps Reserves. Mr. Pollpeter has an M. A. in International Policy Stud­ies and a Certificate in Nonproliferation Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a B. A. in Chinese Studies from Grinnell College.

Phillip C. Saunders is Director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, part of National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Dr. Saunders previously worked at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he was Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program from 1999 to 2003, and served as an officer in the U. S. Air Force from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Saun­ders is coauthor with David Gompert of The Paradox of Power: Sino-American Strategic Restraint in an Era of Vulnerability (NDU Press, 2011) and co-editor of Cross-Strait Relations: New Opportunities and Challenges for Taiwan’s Security (RAND, 2011) and The Chinese Navy: Expanding Capabilities, Evolving Roles (NDU Press, 2011). He has published numerous articles and book chapters on China and Asian security issues in journals such as International Security, Inter­national Studies Quarterly, China Quarterly, The China Journal, Survival, Asian Survey, Pacific Review, Orbis, Asia Policy, and Joint Force Quarterly. Dr. Saunders attended Harvard College and received his M. P.A. and Ph. D. in International Relations from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Shen Pin-Luen is an assistant research fellow at the Cross-Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation in Taiwan. His research focuses on People’s Republic of China national policy and the development of People’s Liberation Army modernization. He has an M. A. in mainland China studies from Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, Taiwan.

David Shlapak is a Senior International Policy Analyst working in the RAND Corporation’s Pittsburgh Office. His areas of research include U. S. defense strat­egy and policy, Asian security, Chinese military modernization, and airpower operations. During his time at RAND, Mr. Shlapak has completed projects on reshaping the U. S. joint force for future challenges, countering nuclear-armed adversaries, and U. S-China security relations. He holds a B. A. in Political Sci­ence from Northwestern University.

Mark A. Stokes is Executive Director of the Project 2049 Institute. During 20 years of service in the U. S. Air Force, Lt Col (Ret.) Stokes was assigned to a variety of electronic warfare, intelligence, planning, and policy positions. From 1984 to 1986, he was assigned to the 6922nd Electronic Security Squadron, Clark Air Base, Philippines. From 1986 to 1989, he served as a signals intel­ligence and electronic warfare officer in the 6912th Electronic Security Wing, Berlin, West Germany. In July 1989, Mr. Stokes entered the Air Force’s for­eign area officer training program as a China specialist. From 1992 to 1995, he served as the assistant air attache at the United States Defense Attache Office in Beijing, People’s Republic of China (PRC). He subsequently was assigned to Headquarters, Air Force’s Plans and Operations Directorate, where he was responsible for operational and strategic planning for the Asia-Pacific region. Between 1997 and 2004, Mark served as Team Chief and Senior Country Director for the PRC, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Office of the Assistant Sec­retary of Defense for International Security Affairs (OASD/ISA). For 7 years, he was responsible for developing, coordinating, and managing U. S. defense policy with respect to China. He holds a B. A in History from Texas A&M Uni­versity, and M. A.s in International Relations and East Asian Studies from Bos­ton University and the Naval Postgraduate School.

Murray Scot Tanner has published widely on Chinese and East Asian poli­tics and security issues, and is recognized as one of the country’s top specialists on internal security, social unrest, policing, and intelligence in China. Among his many books and articles are Chinese Economic Coercion against Taiwan: A Tricky Weapon to Use (RAND, 2007), The Politics of Lawmaking in China (Oxford, 1998), and “China Rethinks Unrest,” Washington Quarterly, 2004. Dr. Tanner has previously served as Professor of Political Science at Western Mich­igan University, Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, as a senior staff member for the U. S. Congress, and as a China analyst for the U. S. Govern­ment. Raised in Syracuse, New York, Dr. Tanner received his B. A. and Ph. D. from the University of Michigan.

Joshua K. Wiseman is a Research Analyst at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. Prior to joining the Institute as a Con­tract Researcher in 2010, he worked as a Chinese language translator for the Department of Commerce. His research focuses on Chinese security issues, specifically the Chinese defense industrial sector, Sino-Russian strategic rela­tions, and China’s expanding aerospace power. Mr. Wiseman attended The George Washington University, where he completed an M. A. in Security Pol­icy Studies with a China regional focus. He has extensive experience working, traveling, and studying in China.

Xiaoming Zhang is Associate Professor in the Department of Leadership and Strategy at the Air War College. Dr. Zhang holds a Ph. D. in history from the University of Iowa and has authored a number of articles on Chinese military involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and Sino-Soviet relations during these conflicts, as well as Red Wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union and the Air War in Korea (Texas A&M University Press, 2002).

The PLAAF Now Has Weapons Comparable to U. S. Weapons

The weaponry—air-to-air, air-to-surface, and surface-to-air—avail­able to the PLAAF has obviously advanced dramatically since the mid-1990s. As discussed above, new AAMs and precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are entering the force, providing China with much improved capabilities across the board. Whereas in 1995 the PLAAF would have gone to war with out­moded AAMs and “dumb” bombs, its inventory today includes weapons—of both Russian and Chinese manufacture—that are in the same class as those carried by USAF and U. S. Navy combat aircraft, including laser – and satellite- guided bombs and guided missiles of various sorts. Tables 8-8 and 8-9 com­pare similar weapons from each side’s arsenal.

Table 8-8. U. S. and Chinese Air-to-Air Missiles


Year Introduced


Range (kilometers)

AIM-9X (U. S.)












AIM—120—C5 (U. S.)












Source: Jane’s {2010)

ARH: active radar homing IRH: infrared homing

Table 8-9. U. S. and Chinese Air-to-Surface Missiles








AGM-114 Hellfire (U. S.)


Semiactive laser





Semiactive laser



AGM-88 HARM (U. S.)


INS/passive radar





INS/passive radar



AGM-84E SLAM (U. S.)




















BGM-109TLAM (U. S.)










ATGM: antitank guided missile ARM: antiradiation missile ASM: air-to-surface missile

EO: electro-optical GPS: global positioning system IIR: imaging infrared

INS: inertial navigation system LACM: land-attack cruise missile TERCOM: terrain comparison and matching

Buying, Coproduction, and Reverse Engineering

After Gorbachev’s 1989 visit to Beijing, Sino-Soviet rapprochement was solidified by various arms sales agreements including the 1991 deal for China to purchase a dozen Sukhoi Su-27 fighters. 108At the time, the Soviet Union had just collapsed and the new Russian economy was in a shambles. Strapped for cash, Moscow was ready to leverage the defense industry—one of the few performing sectors of the economy—in order to profit. China was quick to take advantage of the deteriorating situation in the early 1990s, getting Mos­cow to accept poor quality “barter goods” in exchange for weaponry.109 Russia had little choice but to put longer-term strategic security concerns on the back burner and do what it could to keep its arms industry operational. To provide some idea of how important Chinese arms sales became to the Russian defense industry, a U. S. Department of Defense report estimated the value of weaponry delivered to China (not simply agreed upon) from 1990 to 2002 at between $7 and $10 billion.110

China took delivery of its initial order of 12 Su-27s in 1992, and an addi­tional batch of18 Su-27SKs and 6 Su-27UBKs in 1995-1996. Altogether China purchased 48 Su-27 Flankers before deciding to build the aircraft domestically as the Shenyang J-11.

The J-11 story began in 1996, when Russian arms export organization Rosoboronexport signed a $2.7 billion licensing agreement with Shenyang Aircraft Corporation allowing coproduction of 200 Su-27s.111 The agreement came with two provisos: that China would not export the J-11 and that the fighters would be fitted with Russian engines, radar, and avionics which would not be licensed for coproduction.112 This important agreement, which moved China’s military aviation industry from third-generation to fourth-generation production capacity, came about through the actions of the General Direc­tor of the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Michael Simonov, who negotiated the deal without Moscow’s approval and later presented it to the Yeltsin government as a fait accompli.113 Simonov (acting more in the interests of Sukhoi than the new Russian state) knew that forming a strategic partnership with China was the cornerstone of Yeltsin’s Asia policy and that a reversal of the Flanker deal on Moscow’s part might sabotage these efforts. The terms of the arrangement were finalized and SAC received manufacturing documents for the Su-27 in 1997 along with complete knock-down kits from which it assembled its first two J-11s. Although both fighters were test flown, they proved to be of such poor workmanship that Russian technicians were called in to rebuild them.114

During the first 3 years of production, SAC assembled just five J-11s. Over the next 3 years it quadrupled this number, turning out 20 aircraft by 2003. As SAC began to successfully produce its own replacement parts, the Russian supplier (KnAPPO) began to reduce the contents of the knock-down kits it pro­vided. By 2002 China was not just coproducing the J—11, but doing it at a high level of quality—a remarkable development given that just 4 years earlier SAC could not even put the fighter together correctly without Russian technical assis­tance.115 By late 2004, SAC had taken possession of all 105 CKD kits delivered from Russia and had managed to assemble and deliver 95 of those to the PLAAF. After mastering coproduction China quickly moved on to developing its own version of the J—11. Russia cancelled plans to fulfill the remainder of the order after discovering that China had an indigenous J—11 in the pipeline.116 The 1996 agreement stipulated that China would equip its J-11s solely with Russian-made engines, radar, and avionics, which left China dependent on KnAPPO. Russia had no objection to China producing replacement parts not related to engine, radar, or avionics; the violation occurred when it began to develop these three systems indigenously. By doing so, China ensured that it would not be reliant on Moscow for any component part of its J-11s. This presented the Russian avia­tion industry with a loss of future revenue and also presented the possibility that China would attempt to sell its J—11 on the international arms market. To date China has made no effort to export any J—11 variant, nor has it expressed any interest in doing so. Chinese officials justified the decision to violate the con­tract by claiming that the 95 Su-27s on order were no longer adequate to serve the needs of the PLAAF—an interesting claim given the large number of third – generation J-8s still in service. China’s decision to abrogate the terms of the Su – 27/J-11 contract has had lasting consequences. Since 2006, Russia has refused to enter into any substantive military aviation transfer agreement. We discuss some of the repercussions for China in the next section.

It took 4 years to produce three prototypes of the J-11B multirole fighter, and another 2 years to build the twin-seat J-11BS variant. Sources in the Chi­nese defense industry report that the J-11B is based on roughly 90 percent Chi­nese-designed parts and subsystems, including the Type 1474 serial radar system, 3-axis data system, power supply system, emergency power unit, brake system, hydraulic system, fuel system, environment control system, and molecular sieve oxygen generation systems.117 The J-11B/BS is also fitted with indigenous PL-12 air-to-air missiles. There have been several cases since 2008 of Russian authori­ties in the Transbaikal region arresting Chinese citizens for attempting to smug­gle spare Su-27 parts into China.118 This might suggest that China is not able to design 90 percent of the original fighter’s parts and subsystems (the 10 percent gap in design capability alluded to presumably refers to engines, avionics, and radar which were not among the smuggled items). The engine is the only major subsys­tem China has openly acknowledged it has yet to master, relying on the imported Russian AL – 31F turbofan for both the J—11 and J—10 fighters.119 Shenyang Lim­ing Motor Corporation has produced a turbofan engine in the WS—10A Taihang (likely the product of substantial reverse engineering) that approaches the per­formance of the AL—31F, but takes twice as long to “spool up,” or obtain the same thrust output, as its Russian counterpart.120 This lag time could have life or death consequences for a pilot needing to restart his engine.

Chinese military aviation worked hard to incorporate indigenous systems into the J—11B. The upgraded systems were developed as improvements to the original Su—27SK, which was dated technology by the mid 1990s (the Soviet Air force began operating the Flanker in 1985). China’s subsequent decision to lobby Sukhoi to sell it an upgraded version of the Flanker was precipitated by a handful of factors. China was looking for a faster way to obtain increased fighter capabil­ity than was presented by developing indigenous upgrades. The 1995—1996 Tai­wan Strait crisis highlighted the real possibility of an armed conflict, which in turn reinforced previous conclusions about the centrality of Chinese airpower in prevailing in a Taiwan scenario. Displays of overwhelming U. S. airpower in the 1991 Gulf War were undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of Chinese military planners during the Strait crisis. In addition, the Russian government’s inabil­ity to regulate military transfers and the tenuous state of the national economy ensured that China could gain access to fighter technology that was closer to state of the art than Russia might have been willing to sell in better circumstances.121

The Su—30MK (modernizeerovannyy kommercheskiy—upgraded export variant) was already available on the international arms market at the time China was seeking an upgraded Flanker. Russia agreed to sell China a version of this aircraft, appending “K” to the name to denote the customer (kitayskiy— Chinese), in 1998. While the two-seat Su—30MKK was not the best fighter Russia was able to produce, it represented a significant jump forward for the PLAAF, particularly in terms of subsystems. The avionics suite incorporated cutting-edge digital processors that linked the primary avionics subsystems together via multiplex databuses.122 This made it possible for China to inte­grate new avionics components, either indigenously produced or purchased from a third party, as they became available. The first batch of 10 Su—30MKK aircraft entered service at Wuhu airbase in December 2000.123 Another 70 were delivered to China in 2001. China and Russia signed a contract in 2003 for the sale of a Su—30 variant with maritime strike capability (MK2), with the PLA – NAF taking possession of 24 of the aircraft in early 2004. The Su—30MKK is the most sophisticated fighter the PLAAF operates to this day—a mantle it is likely to wear until China’s fifth-generation fighter comes into service.

Development and Evolution of PLAAF Training and Education

PLAAF education and training exist in a historical background that pre-dates the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the establishment of the nation’s air force. In fact, China’s earliest experience with aviation dates back to 1905, when Zhang Zhidong (izfi), the governor of Guangdong-Guangxi and Hubei-Hunan Provinces, imported two Japanese reconnaissance balloons to set up China’s first military aviation unit.5 In March 1909, the Qing govern­ment sent a delegation to England and France to investigate European aircraft construction and flight technology. By August 1910 a Chinese team success­fully assembled and tested an aircraft at Nanyuan, to the south of Beijing. The Qing government fell in 1911, leaving it up to its successor, the Beiyang gov­ernment, to open China’s first “aviation school for the development of army and naval aviation personnel and the institute for research and development of aircraft manufacturing technology,” at Nanyuan Field in September 1913.6

The Nanyuan Aviation School (Й^ЖЙ^Й) provided aviation academ­ics as well as technical training. Academics included flight theory, mechan­ics, meteorology, military tactics and military history, and foreign languages. Technical instruction was primarily flight training, with supplemental train­ing in engine installation and aircraft maintenance. The students were princi­pally recruited from graduates of army schools. Initially, the curriculum was achieved during a year-long course that was divided into primary and advanced phases of flight training. Subsequently, the curriculum was extended to 2 years to incorporate instruction in reconnaissance, bombing, and air patrolling dur­ing the advanced training stages.

Nanyuan Aviation School operated 15 years and produced 158 avia­tors. These graduates became the backbone of the Nationalist Army’s aviation units as well as other military forces operating in the provinces. By May 1928, the Beiyang government had fallen and the Nanyuan Aviation School was dis­banded. Yet, the establishment of the Nanyuan Aviation School represented a significant step in China’s endeavor toward aviation education; it ended China’s complete reliance on foreign training and laid the foundation for what would eventually develop as the PLAAF’s aviation and military education programs. Nanyuan not only produced a group of Chinese pilots and flight mechanics, it also provided China with a significant source of experience in the conduct of flight instruction as well as aircraft production, repair, and logistical support. The military significance of aviation was not lost on the provincial warlords during this turbulent period in Chinese history and additional flying schools and units were eventually established by the Northeast, Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan armies. Of particular note was the early lead taken in China’s Northeast and in Guangdong to establish schools to support military flight training and aircraft maintenance.

In 1920, 10 of Nanyuan Aviation School’s aircraft along with support equipment and personnel were dispatched to Fengtian, Shenyang Province, to establish a military aviation training base in the Northeast. On April 1, 1921, Northeast Flight Division was established, with the standup of

the Northeast Aviation School at Dongta Airfield coming a year later in Sep­tember 1922.7 The new school conducted a 2 to 2-1/2 year curriculum stressing flight technology with courses in aircraft manufacturing, aircraft engines, avia­tion, aeronautics, and meteorology. In order to accelerate the pace of develop­ment, Zhang Xueliang sent three groups of faculty abroad to France and Japan to pursue advanced studies in flight techniques, tactics, and aviation equip­ment, as well as obtaining expertise on tactical theory, air reconnaissance, air combat, and aerial bombardment. In July 1930, the Northeast Aviation Head­quarters Department selected 16 cadres to form an air command training class, thus establishing the first air tactics training course in China.8

Early steps were also undertaken to promote military aviation in south­ern China. In November 1911, the Guangdong Military Government estab­lished a military flying unit under the direction of Feng Ru, an aviation pio­neer who returned to China after receiving flight training in the United States.9 Although Feng’s career was cut short—he died while staging a flight demon­stration over Guangzhou in 1912—his legacy lived on as flight operations con­tinued to develop in China’s south and President Sun Yat-sen ultimately turned to military aviation to help establish control over the divided nation. In 1924, President Sun established the Guangdong Military Aviation School (ГЯ. Щ under the Aviation Bureau of the Nationalist Government.10 The Guangdong school offered curriculum for both aviators and aircraft mechan­ics. The flying course included instruction in flight theory, aeronautics, avia­tion mechanics, meteorology, wireless communications, cartography, politics, and music, while providing foundational, intermediate, and advanced flight training. The aviation mechanics curriculum stressed engine, aircraft, and equipment maintenance.

The first class of the Guangdong Military Aviation School entered in the fall of 1924 and graduated the next fall after completing the 1-year course. The actual flight training for this class was relatively limited because the faculty and aircraft were frequently transferred to the war efforts. In order to accel­erate personnel development, in August 1925 the Guangdong Military Gov­ernment sent an initial group of six Chinese exchange students to the Soviet Union to study aviation and aviation technology. In June 1926 and February 1927, the government sent additional student groups to Russia for flight train­ing and coursework in aviation engineering.11 Altogether, the former Soviet Union trained 37 Guangdong students, including 24 pilots, 8 aviation mechan­ics, and 5 others in related studies.12

In December 1928, after the Nationalist Government had largely consol­idated its power over China, it established the Aviation Bureau ДОЙ§) under the Ministry of War and set up the Aviation Section within the Cen­

tral Army Officer School to conduct flight training and develop aviation per­sonnel. In April 1929, the Nationalist forces established separate army, navy, and air force commands, with an air headquarters that signified its status as an independent branch.

By 1936, the Nationalist Chinese Air Force had established nine air groups, five directly subordinate squadrons, and four air transports units, with 314 fighter aircraft and over 300 air transport and trainer aircraft, operated by 620 aviators flying from 262 airfields.13 To accelerate development of person­nel, the Nationalist Air Force set up an Air Force Officer School, Air Force Mechanics School, Air Force Air Defense School, Air Force Noncommissioned Officer School, Air Force Youth School, Air Force Communications School, and Air Force Staff School, as well as several additional training courses for specialized technical personnel. Although these schools were hastily set up in a war-torn China—with rudimentary equipment, inferior facilities, evolv­ing courseware, and frequent relocations—confronting Japanese occupation forces, these schools nevertheless produced large groups of trained personnel in a variety of specialties.

Underacknowledged in PLA renderings of their historical development is the significant boost Chinese military aviation programs received from Soviet and U. S. military aid from the 1930s through the 1940s. Although the assistance was directed primarily toward building up the Chinese Nationalist air forces of Chiang Kai-shek, arguably these efforts ultimately laid the founda­tion for the PLAAF’s development after Nationalist forces departed mainland China in 1949. For example, between 1937 and June 1941, the Soviet Union supplied China with 900 military aircraft and 31,600 aerial bombs.14 During that same period, 1937-1940, the United States supplied China with 279 mili­tary aircraft.15 Although the Soviets ceased military aid in 1941, U. S. aid con­tinued and by the end of World War II, the United States had supplied China with nearly 1,400 combat and transport aircraft and trained over 1,300 aviators and 320 aviation technicians.16

Although the PLAAF was not formally established until 1949, after the Chinese Communist Party fully consolidated its control over the Chinese mainland, the earliest foundations of the PLAAF’s education and training pro­grams began shortly following the termination of World War II. Upon Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945, the Central Committee of the Chinese Com­munist Party (CCP) sent personnel to Jilin Province in China’s northeast to take possession of the Japanese aviation materials and set up an aviation school at Tonghua Field. In March 1946, the CCP’s Northeast Field Army formally announced the establishment of the Aviation School of the Northeast Demo­cratic United Army (^4Ь К±К¥^Й^Й) and began training aviators.17 This was the first aviation school established under the authority of the CCP and it served as the initial foundation for the PLAAF military education system. In

March 1949, the school relocated to Changchun and the name was officially changed to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Aviation School. The Chang­chun school closed in December 1949, after graduating 560 personnel, includ­ing 126 pilots, 322 technicians, 26 navigators, and 88 airfield operations and communications staff.18

Formally established in 1949, the PLAAF was thrown immediately into battle conducting air operations in the Korean War, defending the nation’s air space, and suppressing rebellions in the west. This forced the PLAAF to develop its education policies, procedures, and operational training programs while fighting. In February 1951, it was formally announced at the conclusion of an expanded meeting of the air force party committee that “Air Force con­struction was to be based on the Army” (Йй¥вЙ±Ш®Й¥).19 In addition to adopting the “structure and fine traditions of the Army,” this declaration also reaffirmed the commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideals and Mao Zedong thought.

Following the formal establishment of the PLAAF in November 1949, the PLAAF successively set up seven aviation schools—numbered simply as the 1st through the 7th Aviation Schools—adopting accelerated training pro­grams for air service (ЙЖі) and ground support (ШШ) personnel. These seven schools represented the PLAAF’s initial steps at establishing an air force mili­tary education and training structure, and provided the basis for subsequent regularization of the PLAAF. Within a few years, over 20 schools were hastily set up, graduating over 31,300 aviators and ground personnel prior to China’s entry into the Korean War.20

On September 15, 1950, following the eruption of the Korean War, the PLAAF Party Committee quickly established a Volunteer Army Air Force.21 At the time, many of the aviation units were transitioning to new aircraft and had not yet fully completed training in basic flying skills or combat skills. In order to speed up the technical and tactical training of the forces, the PLAAF Party Committee adopted the principle of “study warfare through warfare”(MK# Ф^^К#), a term that continues to resonate with the PLA during national emergencies.22 The PLAAF set upon applying this dictum to develop military education and training programs that would speed the building of aviation and maintenance skills. In other words, the PLAAF’s focus was on operational expediency to the exclusion of other longer term development needs during this early stage of PLAAF growth.

After the termination of the Korean War, the PLAAF Party Committee’s focus shifted to regularization and modernization of the forces. This new stress on education and training led to the establishment of specialized schools for each professional specialty. By the mid-1960s the PLAAF had set up schools and academies for the command, political, logistics, weather, communications, navi­gation, surface-to-air missile (SAM), and health fields. Additionally, the service established advanced air defense schools for air defense artillery and radar.

The period of the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976 was par­ticularly turbulent for PLA schools with serious disruptions in military edu­cation and training. Large numbers of PLAAF schools simply closed and dis­banded classes. The PLAAF education infrastructure collapsed with losses in experienced teaching staff, collapses in academic standards, cutbacks in cur­ricula, and an overall erosion of teaching capacity. This 10-year period was a major setback for the academic program development, nullifying the progress that had been achieved during the first 15 years of PLAAF history.23

In 1978, based on guidance promulgated by the CMC, the PLAAF entered a new era of educational development with the reconstitution of a large number of schools that had been disbanded during the Cultural Revolution.24 At this juncture, in order to speed up personnel development, the PLAAF resolved to selectively develop education and training curriculum based on the particular needs of individuals and various training responsibilities and tar­gets of the units and schools. Military units were to primarily support doctrine education in professional knowledge, operational knowledge and military psy­chology, military hygiene, and foreign military studies; schools were respon­sible for determining curriculum content based on the educational develop­ment objectives. For example, education in command academies and schools primarily covers the principles of military theory and the foundations of orga­nizational command. Within these schools, entry-level command schools are responsible for comprehensive and systematic military foundational educa­tion, mid-level command schools engage in advanced studies education, and senior-level command schools conduct comprehensive education at high lev­els. Education at professional technical academies and schools is primarily basic systems theory, professional theory, and professional technical training. These reforms in educational methods and content, along with improved man­agement, are credited with enhancing the capability of military education pro­grams to meet the PLAAF’s development needs.

In June 1986, in response to the CMC’s promulgation of the “Resolution Concerning Military Educational Reform,” PLAAF military education took further steps to rationalize its training structure, reform training content, and improve conditions and standards, through the adoption of multilevel, multi­channel personnel development. To accomplish this goal, seven of the PLAAF academies—Air Force Engineering Academy, Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) Academy, Weather Academy, Command Academy, Political Academy, Radar Academy, and Communications Academy—began offering master’s studies, moving these schools beyond run-of-the-mill to more modernized educa­tional institutions offering advanced technical degrees. The development of PLAAF advanced studies programs represents a significant milestone in the development of the education and training system, providing the PLAAF with the capability to develop personnel with higher competencies in professional and technical areas.

During the 1980s, in order to improve the caliber and capability of its aviation personnel, the PLAAF raised aviation training standards, requiring aviators to attain higher education (Л^ЙШ). Subsequently, in the 1990s, the PLAAF education and training programs entered a stage of “planned overall development,” whereupon academies and schools established new personnel development goals, restructured curricula, and specialized training programs. Regarding officer personnel, emphasis was placed on recruiting college grad­uates with baccalaureate degrees, strengthening graduate-level research pro­grams, and developing high-caliber military commanders and technical staff.25 The 1990s also represented a period in which the PLAAF invested consider­able resources toward the rethinking of its strategic vision and air doctrine, while simultaneously introducing new, advanced weapons into the force.

Aerospace Coercion

Aerospace coercion is a possible form of PRC action against Taiwan. As noted by the U. S. Department of Defense, the PLA may use ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and precision-guided weapons to strike Taiwan’s air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communi­cations facilities, so as to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leader­ship, and break the Taiwan people’s will to fight. As well, the PLA could employ airpower and some of its ground forces, to target Taiwan’s surface, under­ground, sea-going, and underwater military targets and infrastructure.35 Mod­ern airpower has the ability to seize the initiative and decide a war’s outcome swiftly and irrevocably. In the case of a PLA move against Taiwan, only by massive air and missile operations can the PLA ensure its ability to land forces and secure a lodgment area. Air strikes, which in the precision era can result in swift degradation of an opponent’s military strength and potential, could include attacks targeting Taiwan’s air assets, to prevent them from attacking PLA forces; Taiwan’s command and control facilities; naval and army forces that could counter a PLA amphibious assault; and Taiwan’s overall warfighting potential and the morale of the populace.36

Approaches to Technology Development and Procurement

Few things differentiate the lethality of an air force more than the level of technology in its most advanced aircraft. Historically, advantages in avia­tion technology have often translated into significant advantages in combat environments, especially for fighter aircraft. In the current environment, the world’s most advanced air forces have access to fifth-generation fighter air­craft technology.2 Fifth-generation fighters are characterized by the incorpo­ration of advanced technologies such as stealth, integrated avionics systems, thrust vectoring, and helmet-mounted sights.3 The technological demands of designing and producing advanced fighters present considerable challenges for developing countries. They may want an air force that is on par qualitatively with the world’s most advanced, but usually lack an aviation industry capable of producing cutting-edge fighter aircraft technology. A developing country may be able to produce some highly sophisticated components, but lack the knowledge or industrial capacity to design and build all necessary components or to integrate them into a finished product. Industrial capacity refers to the ability to fabricate each component part that goes into the final product and assemble it using indigenous labor. Knowledge encompasses the know-how to design and manufacture component parts, together with requisite competence in areas such as systems engineering, which is critical to integrating various complex systems into a working unit.4

Developing countries incapable of producing cutting-edge fighters on their own must seek to acquire complete aircraft or technologies from coun­tries willing to sell them advanced aircraft or to export or codevelop the rele­vant technologies. However a number of factors might dissuade countries with an advanced aviation technology base from exporting aircraft or advanced avi­ation technologies to a particular developing country. The exporter country might view such transfers as potentially harmful to its security interests if it is unsure about the developing country’s long-term intentions. It might seek to avoid entering into a technology transfer relationship out of deference to its relationship with allies or other customers. Allies might use leverage to dis­suade potential exporters from making arms sales or technology transfers to developing countries about which they have security concerns. Nevertheless, access to foreign advanced fighters and aviation technology is critical for devel­oping countries seeking to build a modern air force.

The PLAAF Is Beginning to Field “Force Multipliers”

For decades, the United States has fielded dozens of noncombat aircraft that increase the effectiveness of its fighters and bombers. These “force multi­pliers”—the E-3 AWACS, the E-8 JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System), the KC-135, the RC-135, and others—help manage air combat, track moving targets on the ground, refuel aircraft to extend their range and endurance, and provide a variety of intelligence and electronic warfare (EW) capabilities. They are linchpins of not just U. S. air operations but also of the Pentagon’s overall concept for joint operations.

Until recently, the PLAAF has only aspired to such capabilities, and in the realm of in-flight refueling its capabilities remain minimal. With the deployment of the KJ-2000 AEW&C platform and multiple EW aircraft based on the Y-8, however, it has begun to make progress in a number of these areas. These specialized aircraft exist in small numbers and it is not at all clear how adept the PLAAF is in operating and exploiting these emerging capabilities, nor do we know how well they are integrated into Chinese operational con­cepts. But the steps we have seen them taking are significant and bear very close attention going forward.

Buying, Building, and Stealing

In addition to acquisition and coproduction of the Su-27, China also con­tinued to pursue indigenous development efforts in parallel through the J—10 fighter program, which drew significantly on Israeli-rooted technology and design assistance.124 Defense collaboration between the two countries was in full swing as early as 1984 with arms sales reaching an estimated $3.5 billion in that year alone.125 A great deal of speculation remains regarding the amount and type of technical assistance Israel provided in the development of the J—10, but open source materials clearly indicate that Israel used some expertise gained from developing the U. S.-financed Lavi fourth-generation fighter to assist in the devel­opment of the J—10.126 It is difficult to determine whether the design assistance provided by the Israelis on the J—10 rises to the level of codevelopment as articu­lated in the model. It is likewise difficult to determine from open source materi­als what, aside from money, China offered Israel in exchange for design assistance on the J—10. One logical possibility is that Beijing shared technical information on the missiles it sold to countries hostile to Israel—Iran being a prime example. Arguments have also circulated that China had access to a Pakistani F-16, parts of which it may have reverse engineered and integrated into the J—10. The J—10 is clearly not a Lavi clone, however. It has significant design differences from the Lavi including its larger size, canard positioning, wing platform, and two-dimensional air intake.127 It was originally designed to use the Israeli Elta EL/M-2035 radar, which can simultaneously track six air targets and lock onto the four most-threat­ening, but is also able to incorporate Russian and Chinese avionics. Both the origi­nal J—10 and the J-10B/AS/AB upgrade variants that came into PLAAF service in 2006 sport specially designed Russian Lyul’ka Saturn AL-31N turbofan engines.128

Israel was China’s second largest source of military aviation technology transfer in the 1990s.129 While this data point is undeniable, some clarification should be added. Russian arms sales to China during the 1990s topped those of all other countries combined; Israel’s stake in the market was trivial by compari­son. Nevertheless, it assisted Chinese military aviation in several other areas. In the mid-1990s Israel agreed to sell China its Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) platform and the Harpy unmanned aerial vehicle. At the time, some defense experts rated the Phalcon as the most advanced AEW&C sys­tem in the world. This might explain why China approached Israel rather than Russia for access to the technology. With Western arms embargoes still in full force, there was a very short list of states willing and able to sell China advanced military aviation hardware. Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) received an initial $319 million deposit from China to secure the Phalcon. News of the deal pro­voked a strong reaction in Washington, where there was growing concern over Chinese military modernization, particularly as it applied to a potential Taiwan scenario. Chinese military planners understood that in order to prevail in a Tai­wan scenario (with U. S. military intervention likely), it was essential to control the airspace over the strait. The first Gulf War confirmed to Beijing the extent of the gap between the PLAAF and its potential U. S. rival. AEW&C was one of a set of capabilities that China needed to develop in order to stand a chance of contest­ing the U. S. Air Force over the Taiwan Strait. From Israel’s perspective, a supplier – client relationship with a rising power like China was a golden opportunity for its small yet capable indigenous defense industries.

Israel ultimately decided that its relationship with the United States was too important to jeopardize, and in July 2000 it canceled the Phalcon sale and refunded China’s deposit. Beijing was furious when Israel announced it was backing out of the deal. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had promised that China would receive Phalcon technology, leading President Jiang Zemin to make pub­lic statements to that effect.130 Jiang lost face over what turned out to be empty promises and a substantial diplomatic rift between the two sides ensued.131

Since the Phalcon deal fell through in 2000, China has pursued its own domestic AEW&C development program, encountering numerous difficulties along the way. In 2006 a prototype aircraft undergoing flight testing crashed in Anhui province, killing 40 people, among them 35 technicians who were inti­mately involved with the project.132 China has since succeeded in producing several types of AEW&C aircraft: the KJ-200, based on the Soviet Yak-8 trans­port, and the KJ-2000, based on the Russian A-50 MAINSTAY airframe.133 The PLAAF has taken possession of, and is presumably operating, at least four KJ-2000s.134 Little is known about the exact capabilities of these aircraft, though there is speculation that they are similar in design, though technically inferior, to the Phalcon.135 The degree to which China’s AEW&C aircraft were developed domestically remains an open question. Despite the fact that Israel cancelled its sale of the Phalcon, it is not implausible that it might have pro­vided China design and technical assistance after the fact.

Israel’s reversal on the Phalcon damaged its military aviation technology transfer relationship with China (and also affected overall bilateral relations), but the Harpy fiasco in 2004 was the knock-out punch. Designed to “detect, attack, and destroy radar emitters with a very high hit accuracy"’ the Harpy is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with all-weather capability.136 Its range, the fact that it is launched from a ground vehicle outside the immediate battlespace, and its ability to neutralize SAM and radar sites for long periods of time made the Harpy a sought – after item for Chinese military planners looking out over the Taiwan Strait. The Harpy deal was negotiated in the mid-1990s, with China having taken possession of around one hundred of the UAVs by 1999.137 The deal was reported to the United States at the time it was negotiated and although there were objections, Washington did not pressure Israel to cancel it. Because the Harpy was a system wholly designed and produced by Israel there was no basis to block the sale on the grounds of illicit technology transfer. It was only when China sent its Harpy inventory back to Israel for service and repair in 2004 that the United States objected. The Bush adminis­tration claimed that the true purpose was to upgrade the systems with new sensors that could detect radar emitters even when they are not actively transmitting a sig­nal.138 Taiwan was reportedly already in possession of the new, upgraded Harpy.139

Concerned about the threat the Harpy posed in the case of a Taiwan sce­nario, the United States demanded that Israel not return the drones that China had already purchased and thus legally owned. What finally happened to Chi­na’s Harpy aircraft remains unclear (at least in open source material).140 Israel did refund China a considerable sum of money related to the UAV upgrade indicating that some part of the work was not completed, though whether this included technical upgrades (as Washington claimed) or routine maintenance is still unknown.141 There is also the possibility that Israel confiscated Harpy components and paid China off in order to mitigate political fall-out over the incident. Whatever the case, the Harpy episode marked the last significant military aviation transfer between Beijing and Jerusalem. It also had negative repercussions for U. S.-Israeli relations: Amos Yaron, Director General of Isra­el’s Ministry of Defense, resigned after the incident.

Ukraine also emerged as a source of advanced military aviation tech­nology during this period. It has not played as prominent a role in equipping the PLAAF as has Russia, but Ukraine has served as an important conduit for Russian military hardware that China has been unable to procure directly. In 2000-2001, the Ukrainian firm Progress reportedly supplied both Iran and China with Soviet Kh-55 cruise missiles, which have an active range of 3,000 kilometers and can be armed with both nuclear and conventional war – heads.142 The highly accurate guidance system used in the Kh-55 was more advanced than anything China was producing indigenously at the time, and expanded the capability of its aged bomber fleet (the Kh-55 is an air-to-sur – face missile fired solely from bomber platforms). Around this time China also gained access to a single Su-33 (air frame T-10K-7) prototype from Ukraine.143 China has used this aircraft as a template for its J-15 naval fighter, which is reported to have made a successful test flight in August 2009.144

From 1989 to 2004, China actively pursued acquisition of advanced aircraft and aviation technology from Russia, Ukraine, and Israel; used a combination of coproduction and reverse engineering to make advances in subsystem design and manufacturing; and came up with innovations in its own capacity to build fighter aircraft at least partially based on indigenous design. China also appears to have greatly expanded its efforts to steal restricted technologies by way of industrial espionage using both traditional and computer network intrusion techniques. While there are few documented examples citing fighter aircraft technology, there are a number of cases where China obtained, or attempted to obtain, restricted dual-use technologies from the United States using surreptitious means. By 1993 approximately 50 percent of the 900 technology transfer cases handled by U. S. federal law enforcement agencies involved the Chinese.145 Cases of cyber espio­nage that track back to China provide more detail about the types of military avia­tion-related technical data attackers are after. It should be noted that the relative anonymity afforded cyber attackers often leads to problems of attribution. Foren­sic investigators can trace the origin of a certain exploit back to a computer server in China, for example, but the attacker might be using Chinese commercial net­works, which are notoriously porous, as an intermediary point. We therefore only cite examples where evidence exists linking the source of espionage attempts to China, and suggests the involvement of the military or intelligence organizations.

Although the intrusions did not target fighter technology, the 2004 attacks on a number of computer networks belonging to the U. S. military and defense contractors that came to be known as Titan Rain were definitively traced back to a location in Guangdong Province by a computer specialist working at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. The specialist, a former U. S. military intel­ligence officer, surreptitiously monitored the activities of the attackers after the Sandia networks he was responsible for safeguarding were attacked. He discov­ered an operation that involved 20 or more individuals connecting through three separate end nodes in Guangdong. While this is not hard proof of a Chinese mili­tary or intelligence operation, the sort of data being targeted suggests a military end user. The attackers reportedly breached the systems of the Redstone Arsenal, home of Army Aviation and Missile command, and stole technical data for the mission planning system used by U. S. Army helicopters, as well the Falconview 3.2 flight planning software used by both the U. S. Army and Air Force.146

Chinese cyber espionage operations aimed at extracting sensitive technical data began in the period under consideration (1989-2004), and expanded rap­idly in terms of both volume and sophistication since. In a 2009 case, computer networks belonging to at least one defense contractor working on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program were reportedly compromised, giving intruders access to Pentagon computer systems that contained sensitive, though not classified, data on the J-35’s design, performance, and electronics systems. There is not as much evidence linking this exploit to Chinese attackers, but U. S. officials interviewed about the breach reported that it had been traced to China and bore the hallmark of a state-sponsored operation.147 In this particular case, the stolen information could not be used to reverse engineer F-35 systems, but could have been helpful in learning how to better defend against them.

This chapter has examined the evolution of China’s military aviation industry over the decades and discussed the various procurement strategies it has used at different points in time. The approach has been based on four main vari­ables: (1) the state of China’s domestic economy, in particular the state of its tech­nological and industrial base; (2) the technological capacity of China’s military aviation sector; (3) the willingness of foreign countries to sell China advanced military aircraft, key components, armaments, and related production technol­ogy; and (4) China’s bargaining power vis-a-vis potential sellers of military air­craft and aviation technology. Between 1989 and 2004 China was able to diver­sify avenues of aviation technology procurement. Expansion occurred as a result of favorable developments across each of the four main variables. China’s civil­ian technology base grew as a result of trade and foreign investment, generat­ing access to dual-use technologies which the military aviation sector lever­aged to improve design and production capacity. Rapprochement with Russia once again gave China access to advanced military hardware that was blocked by Western embargoes post-Tiananmen. Moreover, China’s newfound economic clout afforded it a much stronger negotiating position with a Russian state that faced myriad economic difficulties after the Soviet collapse. Defense cooperation with Israel, though ultimately problematic, provided China a window of access to technical knowledge and design expertise which moved its aviation industry for­ward. Engagement with the outside world resulted in an increased Chinese pres­ence abroad, providing avenues to restricted military technologies via espionage. Finally, cyber espionage emerged in the later part of this time period as a new vec­tor for the extraction of data related to restricted military aviation technologies.

Looking Forward: Chinese Military Aviation Technology Procurement (2004-Present)

Table 12-7. Looking Forward: Chinese Military Aviation Technology Pro­curement (2004-Present)



J-15: Chinese Su-33 (2009)


China successfully exfiltrates terabytes of data on U. S. Joint Strike fighter electronics systems (2007-2008)


J—10 enters PLAAF service

J—11B enters PLAAF service

J—20 flight test





China’s overall economic development continues to progress rapidly, both in terms of growth and technological sophistication. Investment by devel­oped countries, imports of sophisticated production technology, and indige­nous production have created an advanced-Chinese economy that approaches world-class standards in many areas. Chinese companies do not necessarily have full knowledge of all the advanced technologies embodied in equipment operated on Chinese territory, but the situation has changed fundamentally. The government’s focus on developing indigenous innovation with Chinese characteristics (zizhu chuangxin, emphasizes the importance of for­

eign technology and knowledge in moving China’s overall level of industrial and scientific development forward. The most recent iteration of the Medium – and Long-Term Science and Technology Development Plan (MLP), released in 2006, outlines a path to “promote original innovations by reassembling exist­ing technologies in different ways to produce new breakthroughs and absorb and upgrade foreign technologies.”148 The idea at the core of this approach is to assimilate and absorb preexisting foreign technologies and in the process of merging them with domestic technologies, realize new breakthroughs and improvements.149 The decision of many advanced Western companies to locate technology R&D labs in China has led to an improvement of China’s technol­ogy knowledge base which has in turn enabled overall economic progress.

This economic progress has benefited the Chinese defense industry in general and the military aviation industry in particular. Globalization has increased China’s access to technologies originally developed by the West for military applications, and then applied widely for civilian purposes. This allows China to benefit from a “spin-off, spin-on” dynamic to apply these technolo­gies to its defense industries. Advances in information technology (IT) and communications technology are providing new design tools and the basis for improved avionics systems that can be applied to Chinese fighters. Key compa­nies in this sector such as Huawei and Julong were founded by ex-PLA officers and are closely tied to the Chinese defense industry.150 China has been involved in commercial j oint ventures with Western aviation companies since the 1980s, producing subassemblies and parts for civilian aircraft and has continued to expand its role in the global aviation supply and production chain. However, unlike the IT sector, there have been relatively few opportunities for Chinese civil/military aviation integration and technology sharing.151 This is partly due to the limited applicability of civilian aviation technologies for military use. Compartmentalization also prevents useful transfers of personnel, knowledge of production practices, and materials. Commercial and military aviation proj­ects are conducted by different enterprises on different production lines with apparently little or no interaction on areas that might be of common interest.152 There are a few isolated cases where technologies and process improvements derived from civilian production may spill over to the military side, but this is not an institutional feature of the Chinese aviation industry.153 Despite these inefficiencies and continuing problems, the Chinese military aviation indus­try’s ability to “build” a more sophisticated PLAAF has advanced significantly.

China’s potential to continue to “build” its way to a more sophisticated air force in the future depends on the degree to which it will be able to meet its indigenous innovation objectives, which continue to depend on access to advanced foreign technologies. Examples of true indigenous innovation are still few and far between. Even with the benefit of “follower’s advantage” Chi­nese military aviation is still unable to copy some subsystems at a level equiva­lent to those of the original. Continuing limitations are most apparent in the industry’s inability to design a turbofan engine that meets the requirements of its fleet of indigenously produced advanced fighters. In April 2009, the head of Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), Mr. Lin Zuoming, admitted that the WS – 10A (China’s most advanced turbofan at the time) was still “unsatisfactory in its quality” and that engine production for military aircraft has been a “chronic illness” in China’s defense industry.154 AVIC is investing $1.5 billion into jet engine research and development to try to overcome persistent problems with quality control and reliability.155

Flight tests of the new J-20 stealth fighter may reveal whether China has overcome this hurdle. Chinese news sources reported after the initial test flight that two J-20 prototypes had been produced, one with a Russian engine and the other with an indigenously produced engine. It is not clear which engine is coupled with which prototype. Photographic analysis reveals that the exhaust nozzles of one prototype are “jointed in a way that implies thrust vectoring capability”156 China has been using the thrust-vectored Russian AL-31FN-M1 in its two-seat J-10 AS/BS fighters since 2006.157 This is most likely the engine in one of the J-20 prototypes, although there is speculation that the production model will be powered by thrust-vectored WS – 10G turbofans, manufactured by the Shenyang Liming Aircraft Engine Company.158 If Chinese media reports are accurate and one prototype sports a non-thrust vector capable indigenous engine (probably, based on past instances where Russian and Chinese engines were simultaneously tested in the same model aircraft), this engine is likely some version of the WS-10.159

The unveiling of the J-20 is the most significant recent event for Chi­nese military aviation. The J-20 prototype’s maiden flight coincided with U. S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ January 2011 visit to China. Learning of the successful test flight, Gates commented, “They may be somewhat further ahead in the development of that aircraft than our intelligence had earlier predicted.” The J-20 reportedly made a second round of successful test flights on April 17, 2011, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the PLAAF.160 Most recently, Chinese military bloggers posted photos of the J-20 making what appears to be a third and fourth set of test flights.161 The fighter is expected to enter into service with the PLAAF between 2018 and 2020. While the development of J-20 prototypes is a significant achievement for Chinese military aviation, the flight tests provide no insight into whether the industry is any closer to over­coming its engine impediment or whether it has mastered critical challenges in avionics and radar. J-20 test pilot Xu Yongling made statements to the Chinese media touting technological breakthroughs embodied in the fighter, including supersonic cruise capability.162 Publicly available data on the test flights does not provide enough evidence to support Xu’s assertion. About the only thing that can be determined from them is that China can produce a few prototypes of an aircraft that appears to incorporate some stealth technology and that one of these prototypes can be flown for a short period of time without crashing. Interpreting the appearance of the J-20 as proof that China is right on the heels of U. S. military aviation capability is a misinterpretation of the known facts. Russian and Western military aviation experts maintain that the PLAAF is still 15 to 20 years behind the most advanced air forces in terms of equipment.163

Today’s In-service Education and Technical Training

PLAAF military education emphasizes integration of systematic and specialized, stressing the promotion of personnel development based on PLAAF development needs. Basic level command schools empha­size the complete development of student technical skills and knowl­edge, promoting military specialty education with particular stress on foundational theory, knowledge, and skills for the specialty. Mid-level command schools promote occupational education, stressing essential education and innovative abilities to develop suitable command talents.26

Historically, PLAAF education and training programs have focused on providing military job skills training and this remains true today, although there is evidence that PLAAF is committed to broadening the educational experiences of its officers and NCOs. The quote above, from the 2007 publica­tion The Science of Air Force Military Education and Training, stresses that the emphasis is on “development based on PLAAF development needs” and “devel­opment of student technical skills and knowledge, promoting military specialty education.” This principle reflects the operational and developmental consid­erations of a service that was born during the Korean War, when the urgent task was to recruit young men with enough education to rapidly assimilate the training before launching off to war. PLAAF military schools continue in this tradition today—although new programs encouraging broader and deeper lev­els of academic education are beginning to emerge.