From Theory to Practice

People's Liberation Army Air Force Aviation Training at the Operational Unit

by Lyle J. Morris, Eric Heginbotham

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Research Questions

  1. How is the proficiency of PLAAF pilots affected by their training at operational aviation units in the context of the larger PLAAF training system?
  2. What does the open-source literature tell us about the duration, nature, and content of fighter pilot training?
  3. How does the PLAAF training compare with unit-level pilot training in the U.S. Air Force?
  4. What are the impediments to the institutionalization of training within the PLAAF?

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has embarked on a major institutional reform to train and equip a modern, professional aviator corps. At the heart of this reform is an effort to train officers under what the People's Liberation Army refers to as "actual combat conditions" (实战条件). Such an emphasis reflects an acknowledgment by senior leaders that the PLAAF, and by extension the entire Chinese armed forces, is ill prepared to "fight and win" wars against potentially superior military competitors and must therefore reinvigorate training programs to meet the missions that the Chinese Air Force may be called on to execute.

This report seeks to assess PLAAF pilot proficiency by examining training held at operational aviation units in the context of the larger PLAAF training system. The first section analyzes the hierarchy of PLAAF training guidance. The second section examines the PLAAF training system for pilots prior to their arrival at their operational units, to include an examination of the theoretical and practical methods of instruction. The third section covers the transition to the PLAAF operational aviation unit and the content of unit training to include an analysis of the PLAAF annual training cycle. The fourth section addresses the development and training of instructor pilots at the unit level. The final section seeks to evaluate the operational competency and weaknesses within the PLAAF aviation training system.

Key Findings

The PLAAF Is Using Elements of Actual Combat to Transform Its Training System and Improve Operational Effectiveness

  • Senior PLAAF leaders have redoubled their efforts at instilling discipline and offering honest assessments of shortcomings across all levels of aviation unit training.
  • The PLAAF is professionalizing unit training through adherence to less-scripted, combat-realistic training that trains for the battlefield, not for the test.
  • There has been a clear increase in the degree of difficulty of training subjects and scenarios that have been stipulated by the PLAAF Party Committee.

Significant Barriers Still Exist for Development

  • When compared with its U.S. Air Force counterpart, clear deficiencies remain among PLAAF pilots in the area of combat tactics and skills.
  • Institutional impediments run deep in a military that has for decades remained an army-centric fighting force.
  • Concepts involving joint command and control across different branches within the PLAAF itself as well as across the army, navy, and air force are underdeveloped.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    PLAAF Training Guidance

  • Chapter Three

    PLAAF Aviation Pre-Unit Training System

  • Chapter Four

    PLAAF Pilot Training at the Unit Level

  • Chapter Five

    PLAAF Aviation Instructor Training and Development

  • Chapter Six

    Assessing Progress and Weaknesses in PLAAF Aviation Unit Training

  • Chapter Seven

    Overall Assessment

  • Appendix

    Notional USAF Versus PLAAF Fighter Pilot Pre-Unit Training

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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