Forces: April 9, 2005


The Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (the PLAAF, or the Chinese Air Force) is getting smaller, but better. In 1985, the PLAAF had a grand total of 5,250 combat aircraft, but none of them could be called modern. Today, the PLAAF has nearly 500 modern combat aircraft and about four thousand older J-6 and J-7 aircraft (equivalent to the MiG-19 and MiG-21). This is a force that was pretty much asking to get clobbered.

In the last twenty years, the PLAAF has added large numbers of five different modern fighter designs. These include the J-11/Su-27, the Su-30MK series, the FC-1, the J-10, and the J-8. The modernization program gives China anywhere from 1160 to 1448 front-line aircraft, with about 670 J-7s (usually on par with late-model MiG-21s) also in the mix. With the JH-7 and Q-5 added in, this gives China a force of about 2418 combat aircraft in 2010, less than half of the staggering total available in 1985. However, these aircraft are arguably light-years ahead of the J-6 in terms of performance. It is one of the most powerful air forces in the world, but it is not invincible.

How do the air forces of Chinas rivals stack up against the new PLAAF? Surprisingly well. For instance, Taiwan has 140 F-16, 55 Mirage 2000, and 120 Ching-Kuo (sort of F-16 Lite) fighters. China has Taiwan outnumbered by about 8 to 1. However, this is deceiving. For instance, the FC-1 and J-7 fighters lack range for extended combat across the Formosa Straits, reducing Chinas edge by about 900 fighters. Taiwan also has a small force of E-2 Hawkeye airborne radar aircraft, which make their fighters much more effective. Finally, Taiwan will not be fighting alone.

The United States can bring additional aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. The Navys Pacific Fleet has a carrier based in Japan, and can bring five others to bear. Surging all six carriers would add another 360 combat aircraft (a mix of F/A-18C, F/A-18E, and F/A-18F fighters) and 24 airborne early warning aircraft (E-2C Hawkeyes). The Marines could bring eight squadrons of F/A-18C/D fighters (96 aircraft). The U.S. Air Force could also bring in a large number of F-15C, F-16C, F-15E, and F-22 aircraft with E-3 Sentries to provide airborne radar coverage. The United States is not the only power that could decide to intervene. Japan has announced shared objectives with the United States over the Formosa Straits. Japan brings over 180 F-15Js (comparable to the F-15C) and 130-200 F-2s (equivalent to a late-model F-16C). Japan also has E-767s, which are comparable to the E-3 AWACS of the United States, and E-2 Hawkeyes.

The real edge that the U.S. and Japan bring is not reflected in the number of aircraft. It is primarily based on training. American, Taiwanese, and Japanese pilots are far better than their Chinese counterparts. Another major advantage is the large force of airborne early-warning aircraft that have been around for a while. The American, Taiwanese, and Japanese aircraft also are much better qualitatively, and edge that will only increase as the F-22 and F-35 enter service for the U.S. The PLAAF is only beginning to acquire capabilities that the U.S., Taiwanese, and Japan take for granted, like airborne radar aircraft. Ultimately, these deficiencies will mean that in a fight, the PLAAFs fighters will be shot down in large numbers. Harold C. Hutchison (




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close