HONG KONG — China showed off newfound fighter-jet skills in 2011 with video suspiciously similar to a “Top Gun” clip. Now, the 1986 blockbuster has another parallel as Chinese pilots emulate Tom Cruise’s character in fly-bys of rivals.
While not quite the scene with Cruise in an inverted-jet encounter, Chinese aircraft buzzed Japanese planes near disputed East China Sea islands in May and June in two of the neighbors’ closest brushes since World War II. The incidents reflect a rising role for the air force in President Xi Jinping’s restructuring of the nation’s military.
With the ditching of 1950s-era fighters in favor of planes with 1980s-level technology, the air force’s strengthened resources are being twinned with the elevation of its leadership within China’s military — there are now two representatives of the service on the top, 11-man Central Military Commission. The consequence for nations from Japan to its ally the U.S. is increased Cold War-style encounters over the western Pacific.
“The PLA has realized air superiority and can expand defense space and improve defense flexibility, and it can also provide aerial protection for China’s so-called three million square kilometers of ‘Blue Land,‘” said retired army Col. Yue Gang, referring to China’s maritime sovereign claims. “The current real military-combat pressure comes directly from the skies.”
The Pentagon in a June assessment said that China’s air force “is pursuing modernization on a scale unprecedented in its history and is rapidly closing the gap with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities including aircraft, command and control, jammers, electronic warfare and data-links.”
The Pentagon said in the report that of an estimated 1,900 Chinese combat aircraft 600 are “modern,” with the proportion set to rise to a majority in coming years.
Xi, who became commander-in-chief in November 2012, urged officers to “speed up air and space integration and sharpen offensive and defensive capabilities” when he inspected the air force headquarters in Beijing in April.
Among the gaps in the modernization that remain is the inability to produce indigenously built engines for China’s jet fighters. After decades of attempts, China remains dependent on Russia imports, according to Andrew Scobell, senior political scientist at RAND Corporation in Arlington, Virginia. Scobell said the PLAAF also is struggling to overturn a mindset of being a “support arm for ground force operations and air defense.”
China operates one transport helicopter for every seven the U.S. has, and the American air force operates around 570 aerial refueling aircraft compared with just 10 for the PLAAF, IHS Jane’s Defence said in a report last December.
“There is a big advance over where they were, but still not close to state-of-the-art,” said Saunders.
The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, Friday celebrated its 87th anniversary amid a transition toward greater balance among its land, sea and air branches, after dominance by the army since before Mao Zedong’s Long March. Wearing an army-green shirt and trousers, Xi on July 30 met soldiers and their families in the southeastern province of Fujian, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Xi’s campaign to erode the postwar preeminence of the U.S. military and its allies in the Asia-Pacific region, partly through asserting claims over island groups in the East and South China Seas, exposed the need for enhanced aviation capabilities. The recognition was seen in China’s November declaration of an air defense identification zone over a swath of the East China Sea.
The ADIZ “put the air force on the foremost position to bear the brunt of an attack,” Yue said. China is focusing on longer-range air capacity to support expanded naval projection, he said.
Founded in 1949 with only 10,000 troops, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was used to support ground forces. When the PLA began reorganizing the army into military regions in the early 1980s, the PLAAF was still tasked with providing defense for land positions rather than acting as its own branch.
Now, the PLAAF has an unprecedented presence in the military’s leadership. The Central Military Commission, headed by Xi, has former air force commander Xu Qiliang as one of its two vice chairmen. The current air force chief, Ma Xiaotian, is a member.
Days before Friday’s anniversary celebrations, which typically feature national-defense exhibitions and flag-raising ceremonies, the PLA Daily reported the promotion of Yi Xiaoguang, a commander who spent nearly 30 years in the air force, to deputy chief of the PLA General Staff.
The appointments are part of “broader PLA efforts to improve the capability to conduct joint operations that involve all the services and to move beyond its history as a military dominated by ground force commanders,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington.
The areas designated as priorities for modernization are the air force, navy and strategic nuclear force — known as the Second Artillery Corps. Saunders said “the focus on these services reflects lessons learned from watching the U.S. military operation.”
The relative size of the PLA’s branches was confirmed for the first time in last year’s White Paper on defense, in which China identified 398,000 people at the air force, compared with an 850,000-strong land force and 235,000 in the navy.
Long known for spending hours in classrooms learning military doctrine, PLA Air Force pilots are now spending more time in the air practicing dog-fighting.
“Japanese military pilots were known for their hardcore training but now their Chinese counterparts have caught up,” Colonel Yue said. Top pilots now average around 200 flying hours each year, he said.
Chinese media outlets have dubbed the past four years as a “harvest period” for the air force, featuring several high- profile developments, including China’s first self-developed stealth fighter jet, the J-20, in 2011 and the first long- distance transport airplane, the Y-20, last year. The Y-20, being developed by the Xi’an Aircraft Industry Group, is planned for roles including air-to-air refueling.
“China is trying to build a modern air force capable of defeating regional air forces and holding its own against the U.S.,” said Saunders, who co-edited “The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles and Capabilities,” published in 2012. “The PLAAF has transformed itself from the old PLAAF which flew obsolete fighters based on 1950s Soviet designs to one flying modern aircraft based on 1980s Russian and Western technology.”
One snafu in showcasing China’s expanding abilities came in January 2011, when state-run CCTV aired footage of a live-fire exercise that observers said was identical to a scene in Top Gun, according to a BBC report. One video that went viral this year is a Top Gun-esque look at China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier and its air crews.