People's Liberation Army Air Force Operations over Water

Maintaining Relevance in China's Changing Security Environment

by Mark R. Cozad, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga

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Research Questions

  1. What was the purpose of China's recent groundbreaking flights into the Pacific Ocean through the First Island Chain in 2015 and into the South China Sea and around Taiwan in 2016?
  2. Are these over-water flights laying the groundwork for strikes against regional targets, notably Guam, or are they simply training exercises?
  3. What is driving China to develop capabilities directed at new missions in unpredictable and uncertain environments?
  4. How is the Chinese air force positioning itself bureaucratically to remain relevant as China's interests expand further into the maritime domain?
  5. How are PLAAF-PLAN (PLA Navy) Air Forces enhancing cooperation on joint operations?

As China's economic, diplomatic, and security interests continue to expand, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) and in particular its aerospace forces — to include air force, naval aviation, and space capabilities — will require more robust power-projection and expeditionary capabilities on par with China's increasingly global footprint. Beginning in 2014, Chinese President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping has led calls for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) to support PLA efforts to defend China's maritime interests and strengthen its over-water capabilities toward this goal. The PLAAF's current modernization initiatives supporting this move include developing long-distance maritime power projection, improving strategic conventional deterrence, and building maritime strike capabilities. Recent PLAAF over-water exercises attempted to tackle these new and challenging problems as demonstrated by four groundbreaking flights into the Pacific Ocean through the First Island Chain in 2015 and flights into the South China Sea and around Taiwan in 2016. By the authors' count, from March 2015 through December 2016, the PLAAF conducted eight flights past the First Island Chain, including three patrols of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), two flights around Taiwan, and five flights into the South China Sea. These operations mark a training progression toward increasingly frequent and complex flights and suggest that the PLAAF is transitioning from the experimental phase to regularizing these long-range power-projection activities. In the future, Chinese leaders will likely expect the PLAAF to provide more strategic capacity — enforcing territorial claims, supporting strategic conventional deterrence, and, in the case of war, performing maritime strikes in the region.

Key Findings

Recent Over-Water Flights Have Several Purposes

  • Recent over-water flights have been termed as normal operations and part of the natural development of the Chinese military, but authoritative military commentary suggests that the utility of these flights extends beyond simply training for maritime missions, as they are sometimes also intended to convey strategic signals to relevant countries during times of political tension with China.

The H-6K Strategic Bomber Has a Longer Range Than Its Predecessors

  • The H-6K long-range strategic bomber's extended range compared with that of its predecessors enables the PLAAF to fly farther from China, expanding the list of potential targets for the PLA. One specific application of this extended range, which is often unreported in Chinese official statements and state-run media, is the H-6K's strike capabilities against Guam.

Expanding Global Engagement Is Changing the Way the Chinese Services Plan, Deploy, and Fight

  • China's rise brings with it numerous imperatives and concerns, including expanded economic engagement in diverse regions, growing political influence and responsibilities, and new challenges to its territorial claims. To cope with these changes, air force training has shifted emphasis toward training for long-distance patrols and long-distance strike missions, to enable the projection of power over both land and maritime domains.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    The PLAAF's Expanding Strategic Roles

  • Chapter Three

    Development of a Training Program for Operations over Water

  • Chapter Four

    Recent Training for Operations over Water

  • Chapter Five

    Joint Service Maritime Training

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion

Research conducted by

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

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