People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) or simply put the Chinese Air Force was initiated as Aviation section in 1921 much before the Chinese independence. On November 11, 1949 it was named officially as PLAAF replacing it’s vintage identity. PLAAF carries an intriguing history, it received Western aircrafts as gift during civil war, trained it’s pilots in USSR, with 1800 flip confronted Allied Forces in Korean war with same gifted aircrafts, it made 3600 turn by fighting Soviets in 60s taking full assistance from US. Yet another U turn in 90s realigned it with Russian Federation. PLAAF’s relentless flip-flops for immediate gains only reinforces the trust issues which has come to define China’s national characteristics.
Initially organised for ensuring strong Air Defense, PLAAF charted role of a multi mission force. The US DoD report of 2014 had noted that ‘PLAFF is pursuing modernisation on a scale unprecedented in it’s history’. PLAAF since then has made major strides it pursued newer capabilities in stealth fighters, bombers, tankers, refuellers, transporters, and electronic warfare aiming to emerge as a future aerospace power. Chinese industries having mastered the art of reverse engineering now appeared to have produced some quality original hardware, 5th Gen Fighter Aircraft programme being one of them. Though, a fact check reflects – more than 2/3rd of 2,100 combat aircrafts are of 2nd/ 3rd generation, over 80% of interceptors are vintage and newer technologies in the service are yet to be validated.
Currently PLAAF is focussed on domination of Eastern and Southern Theatres. It has been flying intermittently inside Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone. Off-late it regularly crossed the Meridien line, a sort of de-facto air boundary between two neighbours. PLAAF bolstered by new induction of J-20 and Su-35 has been routinely testing Taiwanese capabilities. In a fresh development Chinese Su-35s equipped with much advanced avionics surprised Taiwanese Air Force F-16 patrolling international air space as it kept it’s presence over them hidden and suddenly appeared on their radar screen forcing a retreat and disbelief. Disbelief for the reason as it demonstrated capabilities of the Su-35, a 4++ Gen fighter aircraft to remain undetected till it’s too close a call. It also showcased two valuable aspects; firstly, Chinese willingness to deploy their top of the line assets in it’s Eastern and Southern Theatres and secondly, the presence of US Carrier Strike Groups in disputed waters has forced China to follow a policy of contesting in air and sea almost on a daily basis. This has led to a situation of aggressive manoeuvres, reduced threshold and at times almost disastrous confrontation. On December 21, a US fighter jet has to take evasive measures to prevent a collision with Chinese J-11 flying ‘dangerously close’ to it. It may take just one another rash call from PLAAF to end up escalating the matrix with uncontrolled momentum.
The existing ground realities and escalation hypothesis doesn’t match up to Chinese conduct in it’s Western Theatre either. It appears that India’s refusal to be submissive has burned the bloated prides among CCP members and that is fuelling bizarre LAC posture and threatening commentaries. However, both combined will still not be able to meet the demanding challenges, if Chinese activate their Western Theatre aswell. PLAAF has not only limited airbases opposite Indian territory in Bangda, Lhasa, and Shigatse but also need to operate from high altitude. This severely limits the payload, operational range and aircrafts that can be employed while that’s not the case with it’s adversary. PLAAF has already tied itself in the knots in the Eastern and Southern theatres and will not have the luxury of complete sidestepping of assets in the face of US presence. But for someone in the isolationist world, listening to call of pragmatism is never the strength. Getting checked by reality proves much effective than a reasoned discussion at times.
The best bet for PLAAF is to focus all its energy towards evolving threats over East and South China seas. Thanks to unmeasured steps initiated by it’s own leadership that it now finds itself ringed and pitted against a serious superpower closely coordinated with neighbours from NE, East and South. Keeping a bit of history sheets is always good for policymakers and military strategists for designing their future course, doesn’t seem so with China. Every place that US has confronted has preceded by encircling it’s adversary from their own neighbour’s territory coupled with presence of US Fleets in international waters it gets almost 3600 access to targets. Even while confronting landlocked states like Afghanistan Tomahawks have rained over from submarines and ships deployed far away, with China it’s that much more easier.
Ukraine war has reflected three compelling facets and China will do themselves really good to keep a note of. Firstly, inspite of a complete initial military mismatch, Ukraine has kept the war going for almost an year now. Secondly, US has found a novel way practically gifted to it, to just foot the bill and let Ukrainians do the job. Thirdly, Russia holding the legacy and aura of a superpower is finding itself increasingly into vicious circle; it is neither able to deny war losses nor able to forcefully diktat West to desist from sending military hardware which is eventually spelling disaster on the war front.
Comparatively China may have a shade better of forex reserves than Russia, but neither it’s war novice military nor the hardware is any match to the Russians. As a sombre reminder how good maybe propaganda machinery it doesn’t win you the war. A recent media report likely from a Politbureau mouthpiece threatened India of dire consequences for it’s airbases in North-East claiming how it would be turned non-operational within minutes, while accounting for PLAAF’s new machines. It surely would have received immense adulation for displaying patriotism, but elsewhere it leaves No one impressed. Any analyst with basic knowledge of military conflicts would have advised that attacking airbase of another country with fighter aircrafts and missile is a declaration of war. Forward infrastructure such as airbases are only to aid flexibility, countries don’t fight wars just from forward airbases.
India’s approach of not seeking intervention from third party during conflicts, probably making some people in CCP feel comfortable to display brinkmanship of the kind witnessed in Galwan and now in Yangste. Not realising, India has never stated it will actively stop all third parties from their volunteer and willing actions away from Indian territory against China during let’s say, a hypothetical scenario of an Indo-China confrontation. Indian government of the day would have full freedom to chart even a different course best suited in it’s national interest. While for US and it’s partners in the region, that would be another ‘gifted’ opportunity this time by China. It’s always a sound strategy to hit the enemy when he’s most vulnerable and China is No Russia, inspite of all it’s hyperbolic self-assurances it may end up getting day-lighted much sooner!
(This article has featured in a National Magazine!)