Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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China, People’s Republic of, Air Force

In the initial period of the Cold War, the Chinese Air Force was that of Jiang Jieshi's Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) forces. After the end of the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949), the victorious communist forces established the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) with the few air assets left behind by the retreating Nationalists. By the last decade of the Cold War, the PLAAF was the third-largest air force in the world in terms of personnel and inventory. A mere 10,000 personnel in 1950, by mid-1952 the PLAAF numbered 1,800 aircraft, including more than 1,000 jet fighters, and 290,000 personnel. With Soviet assistance, by 1957 the PLAAF—although weak in bombers, of which it had only 300—became the world's third-largest air force in terms of personnel and inventory. During the early 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split, which caused the withdrawal of Soviet advisors in 1960, and the economic rigors of the disastrous 1959–1962 Great Leap Forward brought temporary declines in Chinese airpower. PLAAF strength rose again from 90,000 personnel and 2,000 aircraft in 1963 to 490,000 personnel and 6,000 aircraft in 1988. By 1991 the numbers had diminished to 470,000 men and 4,970 aircraft. As the military reforms of top leader Deng Xiaoping and party chairman Jiang Zemin emphasized quality over quantity, aviation manpower and equipment declined to 370,000 personnel in 1997 and 330,000 by 2005, equipped with 3,500 aircraft.

Five rounds of reorganizations took place in the PLAAF during 1949–1992. With the exception of its operations in the Korean War (1950–1953), the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis (1958), the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, and occasional contacts with U.S. or the Republic of China's (ROC, Taiwan) surveillance aircraft, the PLAAF was largely an adjunct to ground force operations. Its role and capabilities remained limited.

The Korean War was a major watershed in the development of the PLAAF. After the People's Republic of China (PRC) entered the war, the Soviet Union rotated air units into southern China, trained Chinese personnel, and departed, leaving behind their sophisticated MiG-15 jet aircraft. From the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, the PLAAF became more self-reliant, especially in terms of aircraft production. From the 1980s onward, the PLAAF modernized its inventory, strategies, and organizational structure.

Throughout the period of the Cold War, the PLAAF was organized into five major divisions: antiaircraft artillery, air defense units, surface-to-air missile units, airborne units, and supporting units. Organization followed Soviet lines with headquarters and staff, political and logistics departments, as well as other branches in Beijing. The PLAAF included seven regional commands.

Since the 1950s, the PRC's aviation industry has introduced major innovations in key technologies related to aircraft and equipment. These include modernized aircraft systems, improved design and testing technology and practices, the use of light-weight titanium alloys and other advanced materials, the integration of American fire control technology into recent Chinese F-8 fighter designs, and more efficient manufacturing technology, including the assembly of Soviet-imported aircraft from prefabricated kits and the introduction of precision machine tools into Chinese aircraft production.

Most of the PLAAF inventory was of Soviet lineage, with successive versions of MiG interceptor aircraft, different Sukhoi aircraft, and Tupolev bombers. China produced Soviet MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 fighters, known as the F-5, F-6, and F-7 (also the J-5, J-6, and J-7), respectively. China also produced its own versions of the Soviet Il-28 and Tu-16 bombers, known as the H-5 and H-6, respectively.

Soon after the introduction of economic reform in 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping emphasized investment in the aviation industry and in developing the air force. To overcome problems in acquiring advanced engine technologies, avionics, and other systems, the PLAAF sent delegations abroad, including to Britain and the United States. China signed agreements for the manufacture of British Rolls Royce Spey jet engines and French Super Frelon helicopters. The United States also promised to upgrade avionics for the MiG-21–based J-8. The 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident postponed such transactions, however. China has also exported aircraft, such as the J-5 and J-6, abroad, particularly to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Egypt.

In Cold War confrontations involving the PRC, the PLAAF played a major role only in the Korean War. Even there, although the PRC deployed some 1,485 aircraft thanks to the Soviet Union, most were employed defensively to attack United Nations Command (UNC) bomber aircraft and their fighter escorts striking targets in North Korea. PLAAF aircraft did not provide protection for the Chinese People's Volunteer Army's (CPVA) supply lines, nor did they provide close air support to Chinese troops on the ground.

To avoid escalation, PLAAF aircraft were not utilized in the 1962 Sino-Indian confrontation, the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border Incident, or the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Chinese antiaircraft personnel served in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) helping to defend against U.S. air strikes.

Active PLAAF operations centered on homeland defense and the downing of intruding U.S. and ROC reconnaissance aircraft, including ROC-manned U-2s. A major diplomatic incident occurred in 2001 when a collision between a Chinese interceptor and a U.S. EP-3 spy plane forced the latter to land on Hainan Island.

By 1991, however, the PRC's air force evinced an interest in long-range aviation operations over the South China Sea, but its available bomber aircraft, the H-6, was too antiquated to act as an effective nuclear weapons delivery vehicle. Development of bomber forces was also adversely impacted by a Chinese concentration on nuclear missiles.

Srikanth Kondapalli

Further Reading
Dangdai Zhongguo Kongjun shi [Contemporary Chinese Air Force History]. Beijing: Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 1989.; Lewis, John Wilson, and Xue Litai. "China's Search for a Modern Air Force." International Security 24(1) (Summer 1999): 64–94.; Liu, Shunyao, ed. Kongjun Da Cidian [Air Force Dictionary]. Shanghai: Dictionary Publications, 1996.; Xin, Ming, ed. Zhongguo renmin jiefangjun junguan shouce: Hangkong fence [Chinese People's Liberation Army Officers Manual: Air Force Part]. Qingdao: Qingdao Publications, 1991.

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