Research Brief

The air force of the People's Republic of China is large but antiquated. Although the air force is intent on narrowing the technological gap between itself and China's neighbors, this process will be prolonged and expensive.

As a result, there is little possibility of China's air force emerging as a serious global offensive threat in the early 21st century, given current and expected political, economic, and military conditions.

Those are the conclusions of a new RAND analysis of the history and capabilities of China's air force. The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) professes no coherent strategic doctrine, lacks funds for a comprehensive modernization program, flies outmoded equipment, has ill-trained pilots and ground personnel, possesses no midair refueling capabilities, and cannot rely on domestic Chinese manufacturers to develop and produce advanced airpower weapon systems, the study argues.

The bottom line, according to Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel, and Jonathan D. Pollack in China's Air Force Enters the 21st Century, is that, even though it has the world's third-largest air arm, China is nowhere close to being able to project military power globally through the PLAAF.

The bulk of China's air force fleet is obsolete. All but a handful of its 4,000 fighters, 400 ground-attack aircraft, and 120 bombers are based on 1950s and 1960s technology. The vast majority of these aircraft are well over a decade old, and many will reach the end of their service lives during the next 10 years and are slated to be retired with only limited numbers of replacement aircraft likely to enter the air force inventory.

In the early 1990s, China introduced some two dozen Russian-made Su-27 advanced tactical fighters into its air force. While more acquisitions are likely, their pace and scale will be incremental and will not fundamentally upset Asia's airpower balance. And even with additional planes, the size of China's fighter fleet will shrink dramatically during the next 10 years, likely ending up only half as large in 2005 as it is today.

China's air force has not been tested in combat since the thick of the Vietnam war, 30 years ago. During China's 1979 border war with Vietnam, its air force played no combat role, and PLAAF fighters stayed well away from hostilities.

The RAND analysis concludes that challenges in five areas constrain China's ability to mount a credible offensive air threat: leadership and strategy, manpower, technology and infrastructure, budgets, and competition.

Leadership and Strategy

The PLAAF's strategic thinking is not geared toward offensive operations. The force's primary mission is air defense, a role that dates back to its creation in 1949 to protect cities controlled by the People's Liberation Army. The PLAAF's major responsibilities today involve protecting airfields, national political and economic centers, troop concentrations, military facilities, and transportation networks. Consequently, nearly all fighter airfields are located near China's major cities, most of which are 200 kilometers or more from an international border.

The PLAAF's strategic options are restricted by inadequate command and control systems and outdated air defense systems, and there is little prospect of improving either in the near future. This means that other roles for the air force—providing close ground support or being involved in combined warfare operations with other military branches, for example—play little part in current PLAAF doctrine.

At the same time, the structure of China's military establishment hampers innovative leadership in the PLAAF. China's air force and navy are departments within the army, rather than independent services. The PLAAF commander is one of 20 on the army general staff, roughly equal in stature to one of China's seven military region commanders. This structure makes it difficult to develop an independent officer corps with distinct professional objectives.


The air force is only now recovering from the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution on pilot training and logistics. The political and economic turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s closed almost all PLAAF technical and maintenance schools for nearly six years, halting non-flying education. Maintenance training, particularly on newer-generation avionics and engines, remains well below Western military standards.

Obsolete aircraft, rudimentary simulators and strictly regimented training regimes continue to limit China's pilot instruction. Fighter pilots do not fly as many hours as their Western counterparts (100 to 110 hours per year versus approximately 180 hours for U.S. pilots). They typically train on simulators that are two or three generations behind those used by more modern air forces. And their in-air exercises and maneuvers are rigidly controlled by ground-control operators, which severely restricts the ability of trainees to test their skills and the capabilities of their aircraft.


The Cultural Revolution also severely retarded development of China's defense industrial base. Aircraft factories experienced profound quality-control problems as Red Guards disrupted or shut down industrial production. Development time for aircraft—even for those that were modifications of Soviet-designed MiG-19s and MiG-21s—stretched out over 10 to 15 years. Production problems caused China to scrap several aircraft projects and to recall numerous other models after they had been introduced into the fleet.

These problems continue to manifest themselves in China's aircraft production industry. The PLAAF's capabilities in most critical technologies—avionics, system integration, turbofan engines, composites, for example—remain highly underdeveloped. The Chinese recognize these shortcomings and have turned to foreign sources for assistance. Russia has been its principal foreign technology source in recent years. China's 1992 purchase of 26 Su-27 fighters, one of the world's most modern attack aircraft, cost upwards of $1 billion.

China's effort to develop its new multirole F-10 combat aircraft has received avionics, airframe, and radar technologies adapted from the Israeli Lavi fighter, although the precise extent of Israeli assistance remains unclear. China also turned briefly to the United States for help upgrading the fire-control system on F-8 II interceptors, but that program was suspended after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 and was subsequently canceled.

But even with outside assistance, China remains committed to manufacturing self-sufficiency. Technology transfer has proven to be protracted, but has allowed Chinese manufacturers time to master development and production skills. However, Chinese factories today remain incapable of coproducing two different aircraft at the same time. And even if the plants were able to build sophisticated, high-tech weapon systems, it is unlikely that the air force would be able to integrate them into their forces in large numbers until well beyond the turn of the century.


Modernization costs facing the PLAAF are daunting. Buying aircraft, spares, and equipment from abroad in numbers that would make China a credible air power would be prohibitive. Creating an indigenous manufacturing capability to achieve the same objective would be even more expensive. China has neither the foreign exchange reserves to accomplish the former goal nor the internal tax base to achieve the latter.


The PLAAF also is disadvantaged competing with other services for funds to modernize. This may reflect the lack of an overall strategic vision within the PLAAF that persuasively demonstrates the role of airpower in modern warfare. It may also reflect the air force's relatively low profile in China's military hierarchy. As a result, modernization likely will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, involving incremental technological developments and force enhancement.

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