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.