As part of its modernisation restructuring programme, from early 2012 the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) began to convert its air divisions into more combined and flexible brigade-sized units, similar to the air wings in the USAF. This is possibly the most significant organisational change in the history of the PLAAF, with the aim to achieve a more ‘flat’ administrative and command and control structure.
Historically, the PLAAF has organised its aviation troops after the Soviet/Russian model. The largest operational unit within the aviation troops is the air division, which is usually divided by the ‘three-in-one principle’ with each division consisting of three air regiments, each regiment consisting of three flying groups, and each flying group consisting of three flying squadrons. As the most basic operational unit, a flying squadron normally consists of 3 larger aircraft (bombers or transports) or 4 smaller aircraft (fighters or attackers). In addition, an air division normally owns two or more air stations, also a regiment-sized unit consisting of several maintenance and logistic support elements and the ‘host unit’ of an airfield.
Under this structure, the air division is usually a ‘single-purpose’ unit, i.e. fighter, attacker, bomber, or transport, equipped with aircraft of a similar role. The air regiment is normally a ‘single-type’ unit, equipped with a single type of aircraft (sometimes with both single- and two-seater variants) and normally occupies a ‘home’ airfield. As a result, the air station is normally structured to support a single type of aircraft. Such an organisational structure was originally intended for a Korean War-style air combat, with large number of combat aircraft engaged in visual-range dogfights. However, modern air battlefield requires smaller numbers of combat aircraft, supported by a whole range of ‘force multiplier’ aircraft such as AWACS, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, aerial refuelling tankers, etc.
The new structure attempts to address the issue by removing a layer from the chain of command. An air brigade is most likely going to be a combined operational unit, consisting of several flying groups or squadrons of various types of aircraft, e.g. fighter, attacker and reconnaissance. However, it can be expected that a main ‘theme’ in term of missions and roles to be maintained in each air brigade. So a fighter brigade will consist of fighter, attacker and reconnaissance flying groups, whereas a bomber brigade will consist of bomber and tanker flying groups. There will also be some flexibility to allow special purpose aircraft such as AWACS and tankers squadrons to be attached to an air brigade on a temporary basis depending on the mission requirement. Finally, the air stations under the air brigade will become more versatile ‘air bases’, capable of supporting multiple types of aircraft.
Two air division units were identified to have been converted into air brigades, the 37th Fighter Division of the Lanzhou Military Region Air Force, and the 29th Fighter Division of the Nanjing Military Region Air Force. More divisions are expected to follow but it is not known whether the PLAAF is planning to convert all of its air divisions.