American air power planners (air force and navy) are scrambling to adapt to the fact that China is creating a Western style air force, not just with modern aircraft but with modern training methods and tactics as well. While China has only about 500 modern aircraft (comparable to the American F-15/16/18/22), it’s their improved training that is most worrisome. The U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have over five times as many such aircraft and well trained pilots. China, however, is rapidly closing the gap. In another decade or so, China will have at least two thousand modern warplanes and, if they keep at it, pilots close to the capability of their Western counterparts.
China is also devoting a lot of effort to developing modern electronics for their fighters. This is one area where their massive Internet based espionage effort may have given their air force an edge. The exact operating characteristics of military electronics are kept secret, because if the enemy has this data they can better develop countermeasures and other unpleasant surprises for the first weeks of combat. No one wants to talk about this, the better to keep the enemy guessing. When the shooting starts the guessing stops and it’s feared that China may have more of those deadly surprises.
Meanwhile, China is dumping its massive fleet of Cold War era aircraft. A year ago China officially withdrew its MiG-21 clone (the J-7) from first line service. That came as no surprise. In the last five years China has more than doubled the number of modern combat aircraft (J-10, J-11, Su-27, Su-30) and has also made many improvements to older aircraft (like the J-8F) to make them effective attack (with smart bombs and missiles) aircraft.
Five years ago China relied mainly on some 2,000 locally built copies of Russian MiG-19s (J-6) and MiG-21 (J-7). There are still several hundred bombers, mostly Russian knockoffs. Normally, the actual number of Chinese aircraft is a state secret. However, thanks to the ability of Chinese to move freely throughout the country and access to the Internet, it's possible to locate and count all the air force units in the country. That shows a current force that is rapidly changing from one that is mostly MiG-21s and MiG-19s, to one that is smaller but composed of much more capable aircraft. China is buying and building a lot of the Russian Su-27s and Su-30s (the latter an upgrade of the former). But new, home grown designs, like the J-20 are also showing up.
Another reason for withdrawing the J-7 to secondary regions (where modern jets are unlikely to be encountered) is the inability to use J-7s for a lot of training. That's important because China is revising its combat pilot training program. Until recently this took ten years of academic and flight training. The new program cuts that to 5-7 years, while increasing flight hours by over 40 percent. This is more in line with Western methods, while the existing system owes more to the one the Russians developed during the Cold War. The new system puts more emphasis on trainee pilots demonstrating combat flying skills before they can graduate. Cold War era Russian aircraft designs, like the MiG-21, were not designed for the heavy use required for Western style pilot training.
The new training program is actually an evolution of the need for new training methods to prepare pilots to handle the more modern aircraft. Training for pilots of these new fighters has been more intense than for any previous aircraft. In addition, China is also holding training exercises directed at fighting other modern fighters, like those flown by Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. China is not keeping much of this secret and that is apparently sending a message to potential foes. In line with that, China now has a “Top Gun” type training center, where they can train their best fighter pilots and identify who is likely to be an ace in combat.
China still exports J-7s but has been rapidly retiring the ones remaining in Chinese service. The J-7 was, in many ways, the most advanced version of the MiG-21, as the Chinese kept improving their J-7 design. Over 10,000 Mig-21s and J-7s have been produced in the last sixty years, making this the most widely manufactured jet fighter of the last century (during World War II there were several propeller driven fighters that were produced in greater numbers). The MiG-21 looked fearsome but it was a bust in combat, getting shot down more often than not. Russia still had 189 Mig-21s in service when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. These MiG-21s were officially retired a few years later. India, the last major user of the MiG-21, is in the process of retiring them as well.
China is developing stealth aircraft and modern military transports. China has also modernized its air defense network with systems comparable to the American Patriot. In terms of air power, China is no longer a third rate power. China now has a defense budget of over $100 billion a year and it is still growing. The main problem China has is controlling military corruption in peacetime. For thousands of years China has striven, usually in vain, to build and maintain competent in peacetime effective military forces. Many in the Chinese Air Force want to become a modern, combat effective force. But too many air force personnel are also eager to get rich.