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There has been much controversy regarding the actual pace, extend and ambition of this modernization. Western analysts, often stuck in an old world mentality, and a bias developed from centuries of colonial supremacy, has often underestimated China. Recent analysis of US defense estimates vindicated this gap in understanding, noting that the there was a pattern: a consistent underestimating of Chinese military developments. Recent open source attempts to study PLAAF and PLANAF assets have been no exception.
This paper attempts to rectify this problem and to come up with a meaningful understanding of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities. We have attempted to use the widely popular open source analysis which is based on serial numbers. Briefly, this utilizes pictures of aircraft serial numbers to attempt to guess their numbers and the units they are attached with. Thus, for instance, 10121 is the 11th J-11B with the PLAAF 1st Division.
However, the problem with such open source methods of analysis is that it is dependent on pictures of serial numbers, which can mean that there is a systemic underestimation, both due to limits of pictures available from different parts of China, to the lag in time before a picture is taken and it becoming established as real (and not PhotoShop-ed). This means that any meaningful estimate must take this systemic underestimation into account and make a judgment-based attempt to sort the actual numbers. Following is our analysis of what the PLAAF looks like, as of now. The analysis is indebted to the open source Chinese military aviation community, of whose painstaking work its largely based on.
*China as of 2013 has 16 IL-76 of which 4 are converted to AWACS. This leaves 12 for a potential tanker role. There is no evidence that a conversion to tankers of any IL-76 has taken place, but given that such a conversion is relatively simple, and a suitably plumbed IL-76/IL-78 can be converted in 60 minutes, we have made an educated guess as to how many could reasonably be expected in a tanker role.
**H-6 PLAAF, Hui Tong, China Military Aviation
The figures above are our estimate of PLAAF and PLANAF air assets. Total estimated regiments of both the PLANAF and PLAAF stand at 80 regiments, with each regiment approximately with 24 aircraft, although certain aircraft tend to have more, and some others less. It is possible that numbers per regiment is in flux, as China moves to make their regiments equal to Western equivalency. Thus, the J-10s, the newest aircraft type, are all holding to 28 units per regiment. Incidentally, Q-5s have an even higher number, contradicting this viewpoint, but Q-5s are perhaps seen in a different light given their exclusive CAS role.
China has a mix of older generation planes such as the J-7 and Q-5, and a top tier of modern 4th generation aircraft such as the J-10 and various FLANKER variants. In between this top tier and lower order are aircraft such as the J/H-7A and J-8, both still meaningfully effective in their respective roles. Analysts point to a reduction in the lower order types as the PLAAF modernizes. However, in the long-term, it may be Chinese policy to maintain a two tiered force, a lower end and a higher end force, not dissimlar to the F-35 / F-22, F-16 / F-15 combinations with the USAF.
In addition to equipment changes, PLAAF and PLANAF have stepped up their training. Flying hours have increased drastically with the newer aircraft. The result is already visible in cross-Straits encounters: previously, the ROCAF would rapidly intercept any PLAAF aircraft, and even boldly fly into Chinese airspace. In recent times its been noted that PLAAF pilots have increasingly gotten the better of their Taiwanese counterparts.
There are also indications that doctrinal norms have been shifting. For instance, China has now set up its own version of the Red Flag air exercises and is increasingly training with friendly air forces. They have also increased direct contacts with other air arms, increasingly sending and receiving cadres. The most noted increase has been with their historical ally Pakistan. Given the exposure and prowess of the PAF, a clear opportunity exists for the PLAAF to benefit; they can significantly reshape and reconstruct their doctrines and tactics.
Yet another important change has been the increasing sophistication in general Electronic Warfare (EW) and Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capabities of bhte PLAAF and PLANAF. These assets allow the Chinese air arms to monitor a wide range of activities in the region and to carefully construct ECM and ECCM measures.
In terms of weaknesses, the PLAAF still remains bottlenecked by an inability to project power effectively beyond a couple of hundred miles of her airspace. This issue may take a while to rectify as it is dependent on large, strategic asset construction such as the Y-20. This can take until 2020 when any meaningful numbers could be procured for use in force multipliers such as AWACS and tankers. With J-20, J-31, and numerous other 5th generation aircraft projects in the pipeline, Chinese airpower is at a stage where underestimation of her capabilities could seriously cost her adversaries at the strategic and tactical levels. If estimates hold through of the development of modern turbofan engines, stealth and wide body strategic aircraft, and aircraft careers, by 2020, China may be able to effectively project airpower well beyond the second island chain. The PLAAF and PLANAF are clearly on their way to significant modernization and in becoming a peer airforce to the USAF. They have become the most important challenge against US domination of the Asia-Pacific region and will continue to expand at a pace that the US appears unable to match.