Analysis of Chinese Military Doctrine Indicates China Could Pose Serious Challenge to U.S. and Allied Air Forces

For Release

February 21, 2011

An exhaustive study of Chinese military sources reveals that a future Chinese air force campaign would, under most likely scenarios, seriously test the United States and its allies in a conflict, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The study, "Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century," finds that China poses a serious threat if it implements the concepts described in its military publications in combination with the new capabilities it is acquiring — such as its recently unveiled stealth fighter.

The study by RAND, a non-profit research organization, provides detailed analysis of how the Chinese military would employ its air forces in a future conflict, particularly in a conflict over Taiwan and a potential clash with U.S. and allied forces. It also describes what actions the United States can take in response to Beijing's military thinking.

"Just 10 years ago China's air force was an antiquated service equipped almost exclusively with weapons based on 1950s-era Soviet designs and operated by personnel with questionable training," said Roger Cliff, the study's lead author and a China specialist at RAND. "Today, it appears to be on its way to becoming a modern, highly capable air force for decades to come."

Citing research gleaned from Chinese military sources, the authors find that Chinese military analysts are focusing on developing specific, practical concepts for its air forces. For example, recognizing the superiority of potential adversaries, such as the United States, in air-to-air combat, Chinese military publications emphasize attacking an enemy air force on the ground before it can take off.

The authors say China will also aim to achieve air superiority by destroying or suppressing enemy ground-based air defense systems and air defense command systems. While China recognizes it is unlikely to gain complete air superiority against the United States, researchers say the People's Liberation Army Air Force simply aims to achieve its campaign or tactical objectives.

"If these doctrinal principles are reflected in actual training and, in the event of a conflict, in campaign and mission planning, the United States could find itself engaged with adversary air forces both qualitatively and quantitatively superior to any it has fought since the end of the Cold War," Cliff said. "Indeed, the United States has not fought a conflict against an adversary capable of challenging its supremacy in the air since at least the Korean War."

RAND researchers note that although China's air forces have traditionally emphasized defensive operations, that is no longer the case, and will pose an aggressive opponent in the event of a conflict. These attacks, moreover, will be carried out not by China's air force operating in isolation but in coordination with conventional ballistic and cruise missiles.

As a result, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. air forces would not be able to regard their western Pacific bases as sanctuaries safe from enemy attack in a conflict.

Other key findings:

  • If the United States intervenes in a conflict between mainland China and Taiwan, it should expect attacks on its forces and facilities in the western Pacific, including those in Japan.
  • U.S. forces should expect their information systems to be subjected to network intrusions or denial-of-service attacks.
  • During a conflict with China, the U.S. armed forces should prepare to deal with electronic jamming on a scale larger than it has seen in any conflict since the end of the Cold War.

The study can be found at It was sponsored by the Director of Air, Space and Information Operations, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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