China's Navy and Air Force
Advancing Capabilities and Missions

Interview with Andrew S. Erickson
September 27, 2012

In the second half of a two-part interview on China’s advancing naval and air forces, Strategic Asia author Andrew S. Erickson (U.S. Naval War College) discusses the capabilities and strategic implications of several of China’s most sophisticated systems, including its improving submarine force and low-observable aircraft programs.

An Interview with Andrew S. Erickson

By Greg Chaffin
September 27, 2012

In the second half of a two-part interview on China’s advancing naval and air forces, Strategic Asia author Andrew S. Erickson (U.S. Naval War College) discusses the capabilities and strategic implications of several of China’s most sophisticated systems, including its improving submarine force and low-observable aircraft programs.

Andrew S. Erickson is the author of “China’s Modernization of Its Naval and Air Power Capabilities,” which will appear in the forthcoming book Strategic Asia 2012—13: China’s Military Challenge, the twelfth volume in NBR’s Strategic Asia series. This year’s volume assesses China’s growing military capabilities, regional responses to China’s increasing military strength, and the implications for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. Strategic Asia 2012–13: China’s Military Challenge will be released on October 3.

What is China’s geostrategic position with regard to potential areas of crisis or conflict, and how does this affect its possible employment of weapons systems?

Chinese planners are attempting to dissuade American forces from intervening in crises or conflicts in the near seas (Yellow, East China, and South China seas) by imposing on them a level of risk that they hope the United States finds untenable, and thus is deterred from moving forward and equivocates regarding regional support. The immediate operative intent would be to shake the confidence of U.S. allies and friends regarding Washington’s support, to the extent that those nations accede to Chinese demands.

China enjoys geographic proximity to some, thought not all, of these potential areas of conflict. In the cases where proximity exists, it confers substantial advantages. For example, China has many bases close to possible conflict areas (like Taiwan) with short lines of operation—including, in many cases, short logistics lines. The United States, by contrast, needs to move forces thousands of miles and operate from a few bases close to these areas—at least given present operational planning. Yet China’s geographic advantages do not extend very far from its coastline, and perhaps not substantially beyond the 200 nautical miles (nm) allowed for exclusive economic zone claims beyond a baseline by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

For example, Earth’s curvature limits line-of-sight intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance from an airborne platform to perhaps 150–200 nm at most. Once operational requirements began to make China send support ships and aircraft, such as airborne early warning (AEW) planes, fighters, jammers, and oilers, away from its coastline, then they too have increasing vulnerabilities that can be held at risk. For example, China would currently be hard pressed to project power to hold territory or sea, air, and space in the southern South China Sea, some 600–800 nm from the mainland. China might thus plausibly hope to control things very close to its coastline—e.g., within 150–200 nm at most—but it can only impose denial farther afield, primarily by relying on Second Artillery Force missiles. If and when China seeks to project power further out—e.g., out to the second island chain or the Indian Ocean—its forces would likely be tied to exposed bases, thereby rendering them vulnerable to anti-access/area denial. Much as China’s military seeks to hold U.S. forces at risk closer to China, it would itself be at risk in this new arena.

China conducted the first flight test of an advanced “stealth” fighter prototype, the J-20, in 2011. Recently, a second low-observable prototype, dubbed the “J-31,” has surfaced. What is the significance of these developments?

China has a larger pattern of emulating, and improving selected aspects of, foreign aircraft designs. This appears to be true (at least in combination) for every major Chinese aircraft produced, save for the J-20 and the J-31. These aircraft represent the greatest potential exception to the previous pattern: movement, at least, from single-source-dominant to multiple-source-dominant emulation. For the first time, two Chinese entities have been allowed to develop similar advanced aircraft simultaneously.

Chengdu Aircraft Corporation’s (CAC) design and production capabilities are increasingly impressive, led by talented managers. J-20 chief designer Yang Wei, for instance, appears to be a true prodigy. Now 49, he became China’s youngest chief designer ever at age 38, and has served in that capacity for many other aircraft, including the JF-17/FC-1 and J-10B/AS. However, Yang’s intense concentration of responsibilities may reflect a wider lack of top-flight managers in China’s military aviation sector.

CAC’s Project 718 J-20 has the potential to become the country’s first full-fledged fifth-generation (U.S. terminology)/fourth-generation (Chinese terminology) aircraft. Requisite characteristics for such an aircraft include low observability, high maneuverability, thrust vectoring, supercruise, sensor fusion, and helmet-mounted sights. These developing characteristics, coupled with the prototype’s fairly large size and weapons bay and China’s own strategic imperatives, suggest several major potential missions for the J-20. This could be one case in which mirror imaging may be entirely appropriate: China may seek to employ the J-20—which resembles the F-22, at least superficially—in much the same way that Western air forces utilize their strike fighters and attack aircraft.

First, the J-20 may be employed in offensive counter-air, which involves an aircraft sufficiently close with a low enough probability of detection for its missiles to be able to strike high-value airborne assets (HVAA). Easier-to-attack HVAAs include slow-moving, poorly defended U.S. airborne warning and control system and tanker aircraft. Second, the J-20 may be charged with destroying critical targets in heavily defended areas inside an enemy’s integrated air-defense system envelope. In the ground-strike domain, this may entail degrading defenses such as radars on Taiwan as part of a first-wave strike to facilitate follow-on strikes by more easily detectable aircraft, such as the JH-7A strike fighter-bomber and H-6 bomber. In the maritime domain, this mission may entail striking surface ships and could render the J-20 a major People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) aviation asset, which would be indicated by early delivery to that service community.

To fully achieve these capabilities, CAC faces the greatest hurdles in engine design, avionics, and systems integration. It is premature to say how the J-20 will compare to foreign counterparts in practice. Assuming fairly smooth progress, 2018 appears to be a reasonable projection for initial operational status. One of the deputy commanders of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), Lieutenant General He Weirong, has cited 2017–19 as a possible date range.

Meanwhile, Shenyang Aircraft Corporation (SAC) seems to be making substantial progress on its own stealth aircraft prototype, which Chinese “netizens” and foreign analysts have variously dubbed the “J-21,” “J-31,” and “F60″—a possible export variant. SAC presented a scale model of the aircraft at the 2010 Zhuhai Air show, and in 2012 Internet photographs and video clips of a heavily wrapped aircraft being transported by truck appeared. SAC itself seems to have painted a “31001” designation on the aircraft, suggesting that “J-31” is the best designator for now. The J-31’s emergence represents the second unveiling of a significant fighter aircraft by SAC in less than a year, the other being the J-16, a two-seat multirole variant of the J-11B, similar to the U.S. F-15E and the Russian Su-30MKK. In any case, like most modern fighter aircraft, the J-31 will likely be a multirole combat aircraft capable of employing modern precision munitions in both air-to-air and air-to-surface roles.

The simultaneous emergence of J-20 and J-31 prototypes suggests that direct competition may have been introduced between CAC and SAC, obviating earlier geographic division of labor that insulated military aviation manufacturers. Alternatively, the J-31 could be a lightweight complement to the heavier J-20—just as China’s J-10 is a complement to its J-11B, and the U.S. F-35 is a complement to the F-22, while the F-16 is a complement to the F-15. In any case, Beijing has finally decided that it can sustain multiple overlapping advanced programs, with SAC alone currently working on four major fighter aircraft: the J-31 and the aforementioned J-16, as well as the J-16’s single-seat parent the J-11B and the carrier-borne J-15, also based on the J-11B.

As for foreign technology sources, the existence of a competing Russian program may make it particularly difficult for China to obtain relevant Russian expertise, particularly in light of Beijing’s unauthorized reverse-engineering of the Su-27 in the 1990s. However, in an indication of one possible technology acquisition approach, cyber intruders allegedly traced back to China have reportedly purloined massive amounts of F-35 design and electronics data. Moreover, China can draw on technology transferred by policy requirement from foreign suppliers to China’s C919 civil airliner program, which includes cooperation with Germany’s MTU Aero Engines to develop a jet engine for the aircraft.

How important is China’s commissioning of its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, to its maritime ambitions? What role will China’s carriers play in the country’s future strategy?

Liaoning’s official handover to the PLAN on September 25, at an official ceremony at Dalian naval base presided over by the Central Military Commission’s chairman, Hu Jintao, and other top Chinese civilian and military officials, represents an important symbolic first step for the nation’s deck aviation development. According to China’s Ministry of National Defense, Liaoning will facilitate PLAN-integrated combat force modernization, help address sovereignty issues, and advance new historic missions by “developing far seas cooperation” and capabilities to deal with nontraditional security threats. Particularly important is its future significance for “enhancing protection operations capabilities” (zengqiang fangwei zuozhan nengli) by using air power to cover vessels operating out of area. While Liaoning will initially serve as a training and test platform, and cannot threaten capable forces such as the U.S. Navy or the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, PLAN-affiliated experts advocate using its formidable symbolism and potential for future air power to deter smaller neighbors such as Vietnam from pursuing competing claims in the South China Sea.

Given China’s overall national resources, including an official defense budget of $106 billion in 2012, acquiring and deploying one, or even several, aircraft carriers does not make China’s navy carrier-centric or demonstrate intent to develop a blue water navy in a U.S. sense. Rather, carriers will constitute part of the lower-intensity tertiary layer of Chinese naval and air power development that I outlined in Part 1 of this interview. China will probably develop multiple aircraft carriers so that one can always remain at sea while the others are undergoing refitting or being used for training.

Liaoning is a short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) carrier, which combines an un-catapulted, rolling takeoff assisted by a ski jump with a traditional arrested recovery system that permits the landing of fighter aircraft in short deck space. The STOBAR design entails several major limitations, the most significant being its inability to launch heavy aircraft, making it better suited for air defense or light-loaded, short-range strike. For AEW, it must rely on helicopters, which are limited by altitude, range, and radar capability.

To increase its deck aviation capabilities substantially, China must develop a catapult-assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) carrier; the question is how soon it will actually do so. It is uncertain whether China has started “indigenous construction,” and how that might be defined. Chinese shipyards may already be working on components. More broadly, will China seek to construct its own version of Liaoning first? If so, construction might proceed expeditiously. Alternatively, might China wait to master more complex processes, and then construct a CATOBAR carrier? The nature of China’s second indigenously constructed aircraft carrier will tell much about its deck aviation trajectory. It is unlikely that a concrete plan is already in place; with so much to learn and to decide, Chinese planners are almost certainly “crossing the river [in this case, the sea] by feeling the stones.”

Over the last decade and a half, China has sought to significantly bolster its submarine force by acquiring or building both conventional and nuclear submarines. How important are submarines to China’s military ambitions, and how is the program proceeding?

China’s submarine force is one of its core strengths, but it contains considerable variety. On the nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine (SSBN) front, three Type 094 hulls are already in service. Their armament awaits deployment of the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which is currently undergoing flight testing. The underground base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, which is emerging as a likely center of Chinese SSBN operations, offers proximity to deep water in otherwise cluttered and possibly closely monitored water space. The Office of Naval Intelligence’s most recent unclassified report characterizes the Type 094 as relatively noisy compared to equivalent Russian platforms. This noisiness, and the lack of an operational SLBM, leave it unable as yet to take full advantage of its South China Sea location. Follow-on variants of both hull and missile, as well as further training and operational experience, may be required before the system as a whole is capable of effective deterrence patrols. Moreover, command and control issues inherent in successful SSBN operations may give Beijing pause and slow development. Meanwhile, China’s land-based, partially mobile nuclear-missile forces are already extensive and highly capable. Their stealth is greatly enhanced by use of decoys and secure fiber-optic communications, options unavailable to submarines. While China is heading toward a nuclear dyad (Second Artillery and PLAN), it is likely to be a slow and cautious road.

For current nonnuclear operations, the key platforms are not SSBNs but rather conventional and nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN). The relative emphasis between them is an important indicator of China’s prioritization of near-seas versus far-seas operations. China’s conventionally powered submarines, already quiet but constrained by the speed and power limitations of their type, are relevant primarily to near-seas operations. This applies even to the advanced Yuan-class, whose likely air-independent propulsion (AIP) would permit several weeks of low-speed submerged operations without snorkeling, which makes antisubmarine warfare against them more difficult. AIP also saves batteries to support several hours of high-speed engagement and escape maneuvers. SSNs, by contrast, are important for far-seas power projection because of their unparalleled power and endurance. China’s numbers and capabilities remain limited here, but this will be an important indicator to watch.

What “software” modernization programs have the PLAN and PLAAF highlighted as necessary to build a modern military?

Modernization (xiandaihua) of hardware is only one component of PLA development and reform. The others are regularization (zhengguihua) and revolutionization (geminghua). Revolutionization refers to the need to ensure that the PLA remains a Chinese Communist Party-controlled military even as it becomes more specialized and proficient. Regularization, or what U.S. specialists term software modernization, entails standardization and improvement of rules and regulations as well as organization to increase the PLA’s ability to employ its hardware.

Multiple factors encourage Chinese pursuit of specific engineering solutions to problems. Historical drivers include prior Soviet influence on China’s defense industry and military instruction. The education and training as technocrats of the vast majority of China’s high-level decision-makers and the industrial focus of China’s present economy exert important influence today. Finally, various Chinese entities tend to enjoy greater access—in all forms—to specific advanced technologies than to the philosophies, practices, and conditions under which they were developed.

This has facilitated Chinese hardware development to a large degree, but does not guarantee a similar degree of software development. China’s development, acquisition, and deployment of advanced weapon systems has been impressive in its focus and rapidity of late, but raises almost as many questions as it does answers. For instance, the PLA remains untested in small-scale operations since the Johnson South Reef Skirmish of 1988 with Vietnam, and in major combat since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. It has not conducted a combined operation since the 1954–55 Yijiangshan Campaign to capture Nationalist-held islands. It is Chinese software development that will determine how these platforms and systems may actually be employed in practice.

Since the late 1990s, increasingly realistic training and organizational reforms (including downsizing of personnel, streamlining of bureaucratic structures, and reconfiguration of logistics and maintenance) have facilitated regularization of China’s navy and air forces. Facilities, faculty, curricula, and research at military educational institutions are being improved, in part through increased funding and even monetary rewards. Consolidation and merging of institutions may also be in store, particularly for PLAAF and PLAN aviation.

Officers of unprecedented intellectual and technical caliber are being recruited. The National Defense Student Program is raising technical capabilities by increasing the number of civilian college-graduate officers. While the majority of new pilots are still recruited from among high school, not college, graduates, the PLAAF is forming air brigades, and PLAAF and PLAN aviation pilots are now being allowed some autonomy to develop their own flight plans. Training is becoming more frequent, diverse, long range, and realistic—albeit from a low baseline.

The quality and education level of noncommissioned officers remains a problem, however, necessitating targeted remedial education. Cultivating sufficient numbers of specialized operators, particularly experienced combat pilots, remains challenging. The skill level of support personnel, particularly for such specialized tasks as maintenance of stealth capabilities (such as the J-20’s and J-31’s sensitive skin), remains uncertain.

The PLA has gradually increased its technological research and development, as well as its military and educational exchanges, and has conducted various combined exercises with such advanced militaries as those of Russia and Turkey. China’s naval and air forces are receiving a larger proportion of PLA personnel and funding as the PLA becomes a leaner, more technology-intensive force through successive personnel reductions, particularly of ground forces.

The actual performance of Chinese military platforms will hinge in large part on organizational, personnel, and training issues. With regard to deck aviation development, for example, the PLAN will have to work through numerous doctrinal and organizational issues as it attempts to incorporate a carrier into its overall schemes of employing military force. Much depends on the answers that the PLAN develops to these important questions:

  • What will be the grade (not rank) of the carrier in the PLAN’s organizational hierarchy?
  • What elements will constitute a carrier group and how will they be selected?
  • Will advanced training opportunities be retained for critical elements (e.g., submarines), even as they participate in initially simple coordination exercises with a carrier and other associated vessels?
  • Will the air component be subordinate only to some sort of carrier group commander, based on a U.S. model, or to the captain of the carrier itself?
  • What will be the training pipeline for pilots and shipboard flight operators? How will they be selected?

As China shifts its defensive focus and places greater emphasis on PLAN and PLAAF modernization, are we likely to see more intense rivalries between service branches? Could these emerging rivalries set back the development of the PLA and diminish China’s overall security?

Inter-service rivalry has long existed within the PLA. Current examples include competition among the PLAAF, Second Artillery Force, and General Armament Department for control of certain counter-space systems—as well as other space systems that may emerge. While some rivalry is natural and present in most militaries, excessive wrangling could be detrimental to PLA development, particularly as missions of increasing scope and complexity require ever-greater jointness, integration, and coordination of sensors and systems operated by different services and other organizations. The PLA’s organizational evolution will go a long way to determining such critical issues as whether its C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) efforts in actual, real-time conditions yield productive data fusion, or merely confusion. For now, the PLA understands and promotes jointness extensively at the conceptual level, but much remains to be accomplished in practice, and progress will require substantial time and effort.

Paradoxically, however, in the near to medium term, heightened inter-service rivalry may indicate progress of sorts. It may intensify as the ground forces are downsized further and become less dominant while other services continue to receive increased resources and platforms. Though a reformist equalization process appears to be underway, command structure lags behind force development. The PLA remains dominated by the ground forces organizationally, with other services still marginalized in many respects. While the commanders of their respective services now enjoy positions on the Central Military Commission, high-ranking naval and air force officers still have difficulty in penetrating the structure of China’s seven military regions, where they typically face a glass ceiling. This remaining ground-force dominance, perhaps facilitated by party institutionalization and discipline that discourages overt rivalry, harms jointness. Future indicators of institutionalized jointness include the ability of non-ground force officers to lead military regions or their possible consolidated or transformed successor organizations, and of their lower-ranking counterparts to serve as staff officers therein in significant numbers and positions of responsibility.

The heart of the challenge lies in China’s overall structure of government. Party control imposes parallel organs at all levels and in all areas. Within the PLA, this political imperative creates more complex organizational structures that merge operational command with peacetime administration. This yields distinctive tradeoffs. It promotes long-term stability and policy continuity in peacetime, but is arguably suboptimal for real-time decision-making and joint operations in crisis or wartime. As China’s naval and air forces prepare for contingencies that likely will require precisely these sorts of operations, it remains unclear to what extent the PLA’s command structure is prepared to direct them.

Greg Chaffin is an Intern at The National Bureau of Asian Research.