Military Review

Development and prospects of the PLA Air Force

Modern armed forces must have a developed combat aviation. The experience of recent conflicts has shown that it is the air forces that can significantly influence the course of battles, and in some situations even become the only active participant in the conflict. The leading countries of the world understand this and therefore are developing their own Air Force. The USA, Russia and China are actively working on the construction of aircraft of existing models, as well as conducting their own projects with a reserve for the future. For example, China is currently engaged in the refinement of two fifth-generation fighters, which over the next decades will be the basis of its Air Force. It is worth noting the pace of development of Chinese military aviation: over the past few years, the aircraft manufacturers of the PRC have done a lot to update the air force in a quantitative and qualitative aspect.

Earlier and now

Just a decade and a half ago, the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army of China was a special spectacle. In the second half of the nineties, the parts had a fairly large number of obviously outdated equipment. In the 1996-98, according to various estimates, the Chinese Air Force had several hundred Shenyang J-6 fighter jets (a licensed copy of the Soviet MiG-19). In addition, there were some older Shenyang J-5 (MiG-17) in storage. In such a situation, several hundreds of Chengdu J-7 fighters (a copy of the MiG-21) looked like China’s last hope in the event of a full-scale conflict.

Shenyang J-6 (licensed copy of the Soviet MiG-19)

Shenyang J-5 (MiG-17)

Chengdu J-7 (copy of MiG-21)

Then, in the second half of the nineties, some programs began, the implementation of which led the Chinese Air Force to a modern state. First of all, it is necessary to note the fighter Shenyang J-11. A few years before the appearance of this aircraft, Beijing agreed with Russia regarding the assembly of Su-27SK aircraft on Chinese production facilities. Later, several ambiguous events occurred, after which the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation demonstrated the J-11 aircraft, which it allegedly developed independently on the basis of the Russian design. In the large-scale production went exactly J-11.

Shenyang J-11

Chengdu J-10

Almost simultaneously with the Chinese Su-27SK under the symbol J-11, another fighter rose in the air - Chengdu J-10. There is an opinion that the J-10 was designed using information obtained from Israeli engineers from IAI, and therefore to some extent repeats the Lavi fighter, which has not yet reached mass production. However, this time the Chinese aircraft manufacturers deny any connection with foreign designers and continue to position the J-10 aircraft solely as an independent development authored by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group (CAIG).

Considering the development of the destructive component of the Chinese Air Force, it is worth mentioning the aircraft purchased from Russia. Currently, Chinese military pilots use several types of vehicles at once: Su-27SK, Su-30MKK and Su-30MK2. In terms of their number, these planes lose to fighters of any other modern type produced in China. So, according to the data of the beginning of the last 2012 of the year, the PLA Air Force had about 170-180 Su aircraft. The most massive Chinese-made fighter was Chengdu J-10 (at least 200-220 units). The Shenyang J-8 fighters (developed on the basis of MiG-21 and MiG-23) remained in second place, near the 220-230 aircraft. Copies of the Su-27SK - Shenyang J-11, which by the beginning of last year collected more than 160-170, slightly lagged behind them.

The exact number of legacy fighter jets available in troops and in storage remains unknown. According to various estimates, their number ranges from several hundred to several thousand. Similarly, there is no reliable information about their future. The Chinese command is not sharing its plans, and therefore there are at the same time different versions, according to which the outdated equipment will be gradually written off and disposed of; leave what is called a rainy day; or converted into target aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles of other types.

Against the background of active renovation of the material part of the fighter units of the Chinese Air Force, the state of bomber aircraft looks quite interesting. Currently, China has only one type of long-range bombers - Xian H-6. These aircraft are a licensed copy of the Soviet Tu-16 and serve since the late fifties. It is worth noting that the H-6 was exploited not only in China, but also in Iraq and Egypt, the latter of which was written off as early as 2000. In the PLA Air Force there are about 120-130 H-6 bombers and about a dozen HY-6 tankers built on their base. Information on the creation of a new aircraft of a similar purpose is missing, and therefore the future of the H-6 looks worse and worse every year, and the development strategy of long-range aviation in China leaves a lot of questions in general.

Xian H-6 (copy of the Tu-16)

Nanchang Q-5

Slightly better is the situation with specialized assault aircraft. The units contain more than two hundred Nanchang Q-5 attack aircraft, created over forty years ago. They are constantly being upgraded, but are now considered obsolete. In addition, not so long ago, one of the foreign operators refused Q-5. In the spring of 2011, Pakistan ended the write-off of its attack aircraft purchased from China. Several dozen of these aircraft still serve in some Asian countries.

Current projects

Over the next years, the old equipment will be written off, and instead of it, the combatant units will receive aircraft of new models. So, recently there has been a lot of talk about the Shenyang J-11B fighter, which is a deep upgrade of the J-11 / Su-27SK. According to some sources, the mass production of the J-11B began in the second half of the two thousand years, and to date, produced several dozen such aircraft. Also provides information on the conversion of the original J-11 in a modernized version with the letter "B".

The second Chinese project, on which great hopes are placed, is the deck fighter Shenyang J-15. According to official Chinese data, this aircraft is a development of the previous ground J-11, but in near-aviation circles the Soviet T-10K aircraft (prototype Su-33) is considered to be the basis for it (and not without reason). Currently, J-15 is being tested, including on the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Start of mass production of the first Chinese carrier-based fighter is scheduled for 2015 year. Considering the information currently available, it can be assumed that several dozen such aircraft will be assembled to equip the first Chinese aircraft carrier. After that, if China starts building its aircraft carriers, production of the J-15 may continue.

Shenyang J-15


In recent years, China has launched two projects to create a fifth-generation fighter. At the beginning of 2011, CAIG launched the first prototype of the J-20 fighter. Since that time, at least three or four prototypes had been built, which made a total of several dozen flights. The characteristics of J-20 are still classified, and all available data are purely evaluative. The only reliable information concerns the timing of the start of production and operation. The first J-20 will go to the troops no earlier than 2016-17.

Last autumn of the 2012, the first flight of another promising fifth-generation fighter, the Shenyang J-31, took place. Earlier, at one of the Chinese aviation exhibitions, the model of the F-60 was demonstrated, the outlines of which strongly resembled the new J-31. As a result, the assumption appeared that J-31 is a modified version of the F-60. From the materials shown at the exhibition, conclusions were also made about the approximate characteristics of the promising fighter. However, there is no official J-31 data yet. There is evidence of the existence of two prototype aircraft and the possible construction of at least one more. Information on the timing of the completion of development and refinement, as well as the start of mass production has not yet become public knowledge.

Shenyang J-31

It is easy to see that the air forces of the People’s Liberation Army of China are moving to a modern method of equipping them with equipment. Several types of aircraft are used in the troops, and the number of each of them does not exceed a couple of hundred. Those times when military pilots simultaneously used several thousand of the same type of machines, have passed for China. This fact may serve as evidence in favor of the version about the development of the qualitative component of the Air Force, and not the quantitative one. Indeed, the available information about the characteristics of modern Chinese aircraft directly speak of their significant superiority over the technique of previous years.

In addition, do not forget helicopters and auxiliary aircraft. So, during the last time, PLA Air Force received 60 attack helicopters WZ-10. They cannot be considered fully Chinese (the Russian company Kamov played a leading role in the development of the project), but it is these machines that will soon become the basis of attack helicopter units and will replace the previous models of the same purpose. It is noteworthy that the total number of attack helicopters in the troops (Harbin Z-9 and Changhe Z-11) slightly exceeds the number of ordered WZ-10 and is no more than 70-80 units.


Auxiliary aircraft of the Chinese Air Force has several hundred aircraft of various models, assembled at Chinese enterprises and ordered abroad. Thus, the fleet of transport aircraft allows you to carry a wide range of cargoes of different weights and configurations. At the same time, the Shijiazhuang Y-5 lightweight aircraft (a copy of the Soviet An-2) is the most popular transporter, and the most recent is the latest modifications of the Shaanxi Y-8 machine. China has high hopes for the new project Xian Y-20. The PLA Air Force has experience in operating Soviet and Russian Il-76 aircraft, which is why they have expressed a desire to get a similar machine of domestic production. At the end of January of the current 2013, the Y-20 first took to the air. Start of operation is planned for 2017-18 years. After the start of the service, Xian Y-20 will become the Chinese Air Force's most lifting aircraft - it will be able to transport up to 60-65 tons.

Shijiazhuang Y-5 (copy of the Soviet An-2)

Xian Y-20


It is necessary to note one more important direction, characteristic of the modern air force and being developed by China at the present time. At the beginning of the two thousand years, with a break of several years, three types of long-range radar detection aircraft were built in a small series: KJ-200, Y-8X and Y-8J. A characteristic feature of these aircraft was the choice of base machines. As a basis for KJ-200, Chinese engineers took Russian IL-76, for the rest, another modification of the Y-8 aircraft, created on the basis of the Soviet An-12. Thus, in the foreseeable future, China will retain the possibility of building long-range radar detection aircraft, while machines similar to KJ-200 will receive a new base in the form of a Y-20 of their own Chinese construction. In the light of these data, regular, but not yet confirmed, recent rumors, according to which a certain radar detection aircraft is already being designed and its construction will begin soon, look interesting.


Appropriate conclusions can be drawn from the current state of the PLA Air Force. In total 15-20 years ago, this branch of the armed forces of China could not be called modern, even with great stretch. The Chinese aviation industry has reasonably disposed of the time available and now China’s military aviation represents at least one of the largest forces in the East Asian region. Now, all the actions of the official Beijing and industry say that in the future the outlined increase in the quantity and quality will continue. The result of this could be China’s entry into world military aviation leaders.

However, when discussing the prospects for China, we should not forget the fact that other countries are also not standing still and in every possible way try to use the available advantages wisely. Therefore, so far it is possible to speak with confidence only about the entry of Chinese aircraft manufacturers to the world level and about future attempts to compete with recognized industry leaders. It is unlikely that it will be easy, because the latest developments of the Chinese aviation industry are often based on foreign projects, copied and modified accordingly. This allows you to build reasoning on the possibility or impossibility of China’s self-creation of aviation technology, and these considerations do not look too positive.

If we judge only by the state of the air force, then China is unlikely to become a world leader in the coming years or even decades. However, he is fully capable of permanently fixing himself on the “post” of the aviation leader of his region. Of all the countries of East Asia, only China has a sufficiently developed aviation industry, capable of independently developing new equipment, even if based on the existing foreign technology. This fact can be considered a good competitive advantage. Therefore, other countries of the East Asian region should pay great attention to the development of their air force and air defense, so as not to lag behind the growing and gaining neighbor.

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  1. Bongo
    Bongo 28 May 2013 08: 49
    In general, the stat is "+", but the lack of light Sino-Pakistani JF-17 and shock JH-7 in it is surprising.
    1. Argon
      Argon 28 May 2013 12: 08
      Obviously, because it is positioned as an export one and has not been adopted by the PLA Air Force. Regarding the Y-20, you can talk about the Il-76 as much as you like (as in the article), but the fact that we have an unlicensed copy of Globemaster is obvious to me. I think an aircraft of the An-26 and An-72 class will appear in the VTA segment. As for long-range aviation, it is hardly worth waiting for the appearance of a strategic "beaver", if it was needed it would already be, but the anti-ship component is of great interest to the Chinese, here we can talk about a certain "trident" the most numerous will be the J-11 or J-15 with a supersonic anti-ship missile like our "mosquito". This topic was actively worked out with us, but was not implemented, I would not be surprised if China even has a license for these works. The next thing to consider is the first strike-J-20, in the opinion of most analysts, its purpose is to suppress the air defense of the ship group in the operational-tactical zone. And to finish off everything that moves but does not snarl will be the N-6K. Of course, we should expect new images to appear. Most likely, the tasks of class Q machines will be taken over by the J-11 platform, or rather its specialized modification, I do not exclude that a certain range of tasks will be assigned to the multifunctional modifications of the J-10. In general, China already has the ability to radical modernization of the Air Force and the speed of its implementation depends only on the economic potential, which is currently higher than ever.
      1. Odysseus
        Odysseus 28 May 2013 14: 08
        Quote: Argon
        Obviously, because it is positioned as an export one and the PLA has not accepted

        But this is a Chinese development. But the JH-7, which has also disappeared from the review, is in service.
        Quote: Argon
        As for long-range aviation, it is hardly worth waiting for the appearance of a strategic "beaver", if it was needed it would already be

        Probably, a B-1 type aircraft is considered unpromising, and a B-2 type stealth bomber can’t be done yet. Although I agree that they don’t really need it.
        Quote: Argon
        The next thing to consider is the means of the first strike-J-20, according to most analysts, its purpose is to suppress air defense of a naval group in the operational-tactical zone

        Here everything rests on the engines.
        Quote: Argon
        In general, even now China has the potential to radically modernize the Air Force and the speed of its implementation depends only on the economic potential, which is currently as high as ever.

        I agree.
      2. Army1
        Army1 31 May 2013 14: 08
        The article is well-built, nice to read.
  2. Nayhas
    Nayhas 28 May 2013 09: 35
    The author did not mention the Xian H-6K adopted in 2011, the latest modification of the Chinese Tu-16, also did not address the issue of unmanned aircraft that China is developing. Also, we didn’t particularly mention that the aviation industry in China is on the rise, that personnel are being prepared both for it and for aviation design bureaus in numerous new universities, we will see the result in the near future. At the expense of the small number of new cars, the issue is controversial, because no one in the world knows the real strength of the Chinese air force ...
    1. Akim
      Akim 28 May 2013 18: 42
      Quote: Nayhas
      He did not touch on the issue of unmanned aircraft that China is developing.

      That's right.
      1. killganoff
        killganoff 30 May 2013 19: 18
        Develops and flies, unlike some.
  3. Skiff
    Skiff 28 May 2013 09: 37
    A copy, a copy, a copy of a copy of a copied copy from a copy, and China a copy of what? There was a feeling of confidence that when copying someone else's hell when you create your own, because the creative potential of the people should develop in their own way. I do not dispute the industriousness and resourcefulness of the Chinese people, but where is the potential of own ideas, where is the generator of scientific thoughts ??
    1. Guun
      Guun 29 May 2013 21: 20
      So why should they spend a lot of money on development that you can buy, steal or copy. They are developing their own, but they are not blowing the whole world - all the money they spend on the development of missiles that will convey greetings to the amers and not only, plus they upgrade and darn considerable troops. Copy copy but they put their own there.
  4. Airman
    Airman 28 May 2013 10: 12
    Now they will buy the SU-35 "limited batch", the S-400 several complexes, and the Chinese air force and air defense will be the most powerful in the region.
  5. Roll
    Roll 28 May 2013 10: 18
    drinks It’s a good article, it’s hard to judge the Chinese army in general, it’s too closed, because China is copying this correctly for the normal development of the country, but Ji 20 and Ji 31 aren’t pulling on pure copies. In general, Ji 31 was developed in a record 13 months, and the project was done exclusively on computers, which testifies to the world level. Ji 20 uses a very original system for launching air-to-air missiles from closed compartments. In general, Ji 20 is a fighter su-30 type bomber. And about the amount of confusion, judging by the number of engines purchased from us, China should have significantly more somlets. Another interesting development is the stealth fighter based on the Ji 11b based on the fighter steamer fighter amers f 15.
  6. Kovrovsky
    Kovrovsky 28 May 2013 10: 38
    The deck-mounted J-31 is very similar to the F-35. The Chinese have almost all planes either "similar" or "very similar"!
    1. Roll
      Roll 28 May 2013 10: 44
      fellow If you specifically look for similarity, then su 27 is similar to f15 and a lot of things. If desired, and in sculpture, the worker and collective farmer can examine the profile of Trotsky. Ji 31 has two engines, f 35 has one, and so on. there are plenty of differences too.
  7. VohaAhov
    VohaAhov 28 May 2013 11: 08
    China, slowly but surely, through trial and error, finds the right type of aircraft. We can already say that China as an air power took place. And practically all countries of the world have it in mind. It doesn’t work for them only with strategic aviation. We did not sell them (and did it right) Tu-22M3. Otherwise, the clones would have gone, only with new radio electronic equipment and with a refueling system in the air. And so the shock capabilities of the Chinese Air Force are limited to a radius of about 1000 km.
    1. Roll
      Roll 28 May 2013 11: 19
      laughing Well, firstly, China has a normal military concept and long-term plans for building the Air Force. In general, the types of aircraft are determined by the military concept, China is not going to fight with Russia, the amer bases are all located quite close, and the amers have air defense at a level that is why China does not really need strategists. And to defeat the armies of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Taiwan, well, Vietnam is still for him and these forces are enough for his eyes.
  8. The comment was deleted.
  9. Odysseus
    Odysseus 28 May 2013 13: 55
    An interesting review, but unfortunately many inaccuracies crept into it.
    1) Mig-19 (J-6) was much more than a couple of hundred.
    2) The agreement on the licensed assembly of the J-11 was reached in 1996 and they were in production and assembled from our kits until the mid-2000s. The Chinese J-11A is already a modernized Su-27SK.
    3) The number of J-8, J-11 (of all modifications) is clearly more than indicated in the article.
    4) H-6 was not operated since the late 50s, but from the 70s. The last modification and all of 2011.
    5) JH-7 generally in a strange way disappeared from the review.
    6) The J-15 is already being produced. And the main modern program of the Chinese Air Force is the J-10B.
    7) Aircraft AWACS based on IL-76 is not KJ-200, but KJ-2000. But KJ-200 is just an airplane based on Y-8.
    8) Army aviation is not part of the Air Force at all, but the number of Z-10s and other attack helicopters of the ground forces is clearly underestimated. Kamov did play a role in the creation of the Z-10, but it was far from leading.
    Well, etc.
    In general, the article shows a tendency to underestimate the capabilities and prospects of the development of the PRC air force.
    But anyway, thanks for the review.
    1. VAF
      VAF 28 May 2013 16: 19
      Quote: Odyssey
      An interesting review, but unfortunately many inaccuracies crept into it.

      Odyssey welcome and ABSOLUTELY agree with your arguments! +!
      But the speeches of our respected members of the forum ... to say the least surprised or what ... embarrassing to admit?

      Take (this is not for you Odysseus) just the quantitative composition of ours and the Chinese, and here it is ... well ... pa!

      There’s no ISA, it’s ours, the assault, it’ll be very softly said .... with a very limited range, the FBA is a little more than fifty flying Su-24Ms and two dozen Su-34s, about a hundred flying su-27p (PD) + SM and as many MiG-31s.
      And I specifically "skip" the quality issue!

      So, my friends ... clones. Not clones, but if that .. just crush the amount at a time!
      1. Bongo
        Bongo 29 May 2013 06: 20
        As for the 2 of dozens of Su-34, you have got very excited, maybe in Novosibirsk they did so much, but not the fact that they are adopted and combat-ready. According to my information on almost all the vehicles supplied to the troops there are massive failures of avionics.
        There is no uniform standard for installation of electrical equipment and wiring.
        1. Odysseus
          Odysseus 29 May 2013 18: 27
          Quote: Bongo
          As for the 2 dozen Su-34s, you got a little excited, maybe they did so much in Novosibirsk, but not the fact that they were put into service and are ready for combat. According to my information, almost all vehicles delivered to the troops have massive avionics failures

          No, it seems that vaf is right. 20 in Baltimore, 6 in Lipetsk.
          They worked on the failures ... What to do, problems with the loss of production culture and the constant refinement of the aircraft ...
        2. OTAKE
          OTAKE 7 June 2013 16: 52
          and then with the jambs of Su-34 infa completely.
      2. Odysseus
        Odysseus 29 May 2013 18: 20
        Quote: vaf

        Odyssey welcome and ABSOLUTELY agree with your arguments! +!
        But the speeches of our respected members of the forum ... to say the least surprised or what ... embarrassing to admit?

        Mutually drinks
        Indeed, many comrades have a strange tendency to underestimate the capabilities of China.
        It amazes me extremely. It is enough to compare the current production potential of 2 countries .....
        Quote: vaf
        There’s no ISA, it’s ours, the assault, it’ll be very softly said .... with a very limited range, the FBA is slightly more than fifty flying Su-24Ms and two dozen Su-34s, about a hundred flying su-27p (PD) + SM and as many MiG-31s

        I agree, unfortunately in the ground forces, the correlation of forces is even worse.
        Speaking really, besides nuclear weapons, we have nothing to stop China crying
        We must try to keep them political methods.
        That's just for this more likely a socialist Russia ....
  10. Constantine
    Constantine 28 May 2013 18: 22
    Good overview. Thanks. On the part of China, I agree with the above that while China is in the role of catch-up, which is always a deliberately losing position. For all the time of the Chinese "boom", I, unfortunately, did not see the potential of my breakthrough / promising developments in the Chinese. They copy well, for the most part, but they are not very good at imagination and flight of engineering thought. The J-20 feels like they glued it out of cardboard, especially the nozzles. Anyway.

    For them, apparently, it is not so critical to be on the crest of a wave. It is enough to recall the Soviet experience of the Second World War. Less technological, but simpler and more reliable, and due to its simplicity also massive, the T-34 broke the ridge of the tank units of the Wehrmacht. I will not say that with modern high-precision weapons, and especially in aviation, this will work, but maybe they have their own calculation.
  11. Marconi41
    Marconi41 29 May 2013 00: 23
    All right, the quantitative ratio is far from in our favor. In which case, 3 Mig-21 will crush one Mig-29 in any way no matter how high-quality it is. And the stronger the country's army, the more confident its politicians say. This must be remembered.
    1. Bongo
      Bongo 29 May 2013 06: 22
      MiG-21 in the PRC is yesterday, at the moment they are used for training purposes and units of the "second" line. Basically, they are armed with much more modern and combat-ready vehicles.
      1. Odysseus
        Odysseus 29 May 2013 18: 32
        Quote: Bongo
        MiG-21 in the PRC is yesterday, at the moment they are used for training purposes and units of the "second" line. Basically, they are armed with much more modern and combat-ready vehicles.

        I agree, but the J-7G as a whole is still quite combat-ready.
        1. OTAKE
          OTAKE 7 June 2013 16: 51
          according to JF-17 an amusing diagram, blinded from what was