Date: 18 September 2020 Author: Paweł Paszak

Chinese Air Force in the report of the US Department of Defense

The US Department of Defense (DoD) published an annual report to the Congress on the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on September 2, 2020. One of the key directions of the modernization of the PLA remains the air force, which is the main tool for power projection in the contemporary war theater. The DoD report indicates that China has the largest air force in the Indo-Pacific region. Of the total number of 2,500 aircraft, 2,000 are combat aircraft, 1,500 are fighter jets, of which approximately 800 are in the fourth generation and above (J-20, J-16, J-10, J-11, Su-30 and Su-35). In the coming years, the priority will be to replace the planes that entered service during the Cold War (Q-5, J-8) with Generation 4 and 4.5 aircraft, to launch mass production of the J-20 model and to complete the development work of the Xian H-20 strategic bomber. The development and deployment of various unmanned aerial units (UAVs), which, in addition to their reconnaissance functions, also perform combat roles, will be the indicator of future activity.


The DoD report draws attention to the Chengdu J-20 multirole aircraft development program, which is intended to counterbalance the American F-35 and F-22. The authors describe it as a fifth-generation aircraft (according to Chinese terminology, it is the fourth generation), although the real combat capabilities of the Chinese machine are highly questionable. The program is still kept secret, which makes it impossible to realistically determine the combat capabilities of the J-20. About 50 machines have been produced so far, which suggests that there are difficulties preventing the Chinese army from launching mass production. The most serious problem of the program is the limited capacity of the Chinese industry to provide J-20 with engines of adequate power. The optimal solution would be to introduce into mass production the WS-15 units constructed in China, which will eventually provide about 23% more power and enable the so-called supercruise. In this mode, the planes are able to achieve and maintain a speed that is 1.5 faster than speed of sound for a longer period of time without using an inefficient afterburner. So far, an ad-hoc way of coping with the difficulties has been to import quite aged AL-31F engines from Russia, which, with a relatively high weight of the machine, are not able to provide it with adequate power. While the Chinese side is struggling with various types of difficulties and keeps the number of machines at a low level, the F-35 has been put into mass production and gradually becomes the equipment of American troops as well as their allies in Asia and Europe. By the end of 2025, at least 200 F-35s are expected to be in service in the Indo-Pacific region (60 in South Korea, 105 in Japan, 72 in Australia and the remaining US Air Force units). The F-35 development program has been troubled for many years by problems related to insufficient aircraft combat readiness, equipment failures and rising costs. Nevertheless, it has reached a much higher level of sophistication than the J-20 whilst mass production will enable gradual removal of the defects that have occurred so far. Creating an air force capable of competing with the power of the US and its allies would require a comparable number of upgraded J-20s, supported by an advanced fourth generation aircraft (J-16, J-10C, Su-30 and Su-35). It should also be noted that the crisis in relations with India will require the deployment of a higher amount of forces in the southwestern part of the country (West Theatre), which will further worsen the balance of air force in the Western Pacific.

The DoD report also mentions the Shenyang FC-31 model, which was originally intended to be the second machine of the fifth generation to be exported or to serve as a carrier-based aircraft of the PLA Navy. The inclusion of this information in the report is surprising because since the Zhuhai air show in 2014, there is no reliable information about the launch of its production and entrance into service in the PLA.

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The authors of the report point to Chinese plans to develop the strategic bomber Xian H-20, which would enable China to strengthen the “nuclear triad,” i.e. the ability to effectively haul nuclear cargo from land, sea and air platforms. H-20 would replace the aging H-6 bombers based on Tupolev Tu-16. The United States currently has three models of strategic bombers (B-2, B-52 and B1B). Due to the age of the B-52 and B1B, they are to be gradually phased out of the US Air Force. The Department of Defense has also initiated a program to acquire 200 new long-range strategic bombers (LRS-B). The parallel introduction of the H-20 into service would at least partially counterbalance the US advantage and significantly increase nuclear deterrence capabilities. However, given the difficulties in developing the J-20 and FC-31, it is expected that many years will pass before these bombers enter service and reach high levels of combat readiness.

Furthermore, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be a significant element of the modernized air force. China is currently one of the leaders in the export of combat drones (mainly CH-3 and CH-4 models), which have been exported to 10 countries, including: Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. The report notes that China is working on developing advanced combat drones: Wuzhen-8 and Gongji 11. In recent years, WZ-7 (xiáng lóng) reconnaissance drones have been deployed in the Western Theatre and on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Considering the growing importance of this type of equipment on the digitalized and intelligent battlefield, its amount in the air, land and sea forces will consistently increase. A similar direction is indicated by the planned reform of the US Marine Corps, which assumes, among others, abandoning tanks in favor of increasing the number of UAVs and missiles.

The pursuit of gaining an advantage in terms of C4ISR will also require the introduction of more aircraft, such as Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). An increase in the number of KJ-200 and KJ-2000, KJ-500, Y-9G (GX-11) and Y-9JB GX-8, is therefore expected, allowing to improve the situational awareness in the South China Sea and other areas of the Western Pacific.

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