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.