Training the People's Liberation Army Air Force Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) Forces

by Bonny Lin, Cristina L. Garafola

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Research Questions

  1. How is China training its ground-based air defense units, and what insights can this training provide for assessing Chinese air defense capabilities?
  2. In what way do PLAAF SAM training activities shape operational effectiveness at the unit level?
  3. What are the key themes, strengths, and weaknesses of training conducted by PLAAF SAM units?

This report analyzes key trends and themes in China's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) surface-to-air missile (SAM) unit training. After providing background information on China's air defense forces, the report introduces the basics of PLAAF SAM training, including training requirements, trends in recent training activities, and analysis of training themes.

Based on this research, we found that PLAAF SAM units are improving their capabilities, although progress is uneven and capabilities may vary significantly between similarly equipped units. Based on data collected on PLAAF SAM training activities, the intensity of SAM training varies across China's former seven military regions. SAM units near the capital area and in the coastal regions appear to be most active. SAM units follow a yearly training cycle, with training peaking during the summer and early fall. Content-wise, PLAAF SAM units are engaging in more realistic and challenging combat training compared with the mid-2000s. They have increased the duration and difficulty of their training, continue to emphasize denial and deception tactics, and focus significant efforts on countering low- and extreme-low-altitude targets. SAM units are engaging in substantial mobility and night training, but face logistical hurdles that undercut their ability to rapidly move to operating locations and safety concerns that hinder their ability to engage in difficult and sophisticated training. There is limited joint and combined-arms training, but units appear to be moving beyond simple altitude de-confliction toward sharing data, employing more sophisticated target identification methods, and coordinating firepower with aviation units.

Key Findings

PLAAF SAM Units Are Improving Their Capabilities

  • SAM training intensity varies across China's former seven Military Regions; SAM units near the capital and coasts appear to be most active.
  • PLAAF SAM units follow a yearly training cycle; training peaks during the summer and early fall.
  • Progress is uneven; capabilities may vary significantly among similarly equipped units.

PLAAF SAM Training Content Largely Corresponds to Key Themes from PLA Training Regulations

  • PLAAF SAM training guidance includes the Outline of Military Training and Evaluation, Five-Year Plan–related training reform guidelines, and annual PLA training guidance from the last decade.
  • Training themes of 2013–2014 reflect this guidance — an emphasis on mobility, opposition force or confrontation, live-fire and nighttime, poor weather or difficult physical environments, and under complex electromagnetic conditions.
  • PLAAF SAM training appears to focus on countering the high-technology air assault threats envisioned by the 2005 China Air Force Military Encyclopedia.

SAM Units Conducting More Realistic and Challenging Combat Training Compared with the Mid-2000s

  • They are engaging in sophisticated confrontation training against aviation units, training without predetermined scripts and in unfamiliar territory, and training longer and under more difficult circumstances.
  • SAM units continue to emphasize and practice denial and deception tactics and focus on countering low- and extreme low–altitude targets.
  • There is limited joint and combined-arms training, despite the high priority the PLA places on acquiring the capability for integrated joint operations.
  • SAM units appear to be moving beyond simple altitude de-confliction toward sharing data and coordinating firepower with aviation units.

Recommendations

  • PLAAF SAMs are likely to continue to engage in more difficult and sophisticated training, including unscripted training against aviation opponents and complex operations at night. PLAAF SAMs are also likely to train more closely with PLA Army air defense units as the two services work on their ability to operate jointly. Future research should explore developments in PLAAF capabilities in these areas.
  • Much is still unknown about PLAAF SAM training and operations, including how PLAAF SAMs train with radar, AAA, and ECM troops; how they coordinate with PLA Army air defense forces as well as PLA Navy and Naval Aviation assets; and how PLAAF reserve forces train with the active force for air defense. Research on these topics would expand our understanding of SAM training and operations.
  • An additional valuable area for study could include an evaluation of the data and findings from Kongjun Bao compilation presented here in light of classified sources.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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