The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the aerial warfare service branch of the Chinese armed forces, responsible for defending the country’s airspace, supporting ground and naval forces, air interdiction, and aerial transport and reconnaissance. The air force currently consists of approximately 330,000 personnel and over 2,500 aircraft, including 1,500 combat aircraft. This makes the PLAAF the largest air force in size in Asia, and the third largest in the world, after the United States Air Force and Russian Air Force.
The Chinese Communist forces consisted of mainly foot infantry troops in its early years, with no air or naval branch. Following the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII) in 1945, the Chinese Communists established an aviation school in northeast China, composed of captured Japanese aircraft and former Imperial Japanese Army flight instructors to train pilots and aviation cadets.
As more aircraft, airfields, and equipment were seized by the PLA throughout the Chinese Civil War between 1947 and 1949, the Central Military Commission (CMC) created the Aviation Bureau (军委航空局) to manage these assets. By October 1949, the Aviation Bureau and its branches across the country had gathered 113 aircraft, 1,278 aviation engines, 40,000 tonnes of materials, 32 aircraft maintenance workshops, and 2,267 former Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) personnel.
On 15 August 1949, the PLA created its first operational fighter squadron based at the Nanyuan Airfield to provide air defence cover for Beijing, the country’s new capital. The squadron was composed of 10 aircraft and 12 pilots. At the same time, the Chinese Communists began negotiations with Moscow for assistance to build a modern air force. The Kremlin agreed to help the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) establish six aviation schools and to sell them 434 aircraft of all type.
On 11 November 1949, the CMC announced the abolishment of the Aviation Bureau and the creation of the PLA Air Force Headquarters, with Liu Yalou appointed the PLAAF Commander and Xiao Hua the Political Commissar. Staff of the PLAAF Headquarters were mainly composed of the headquarters elements of the PLA 14th Army Group. By 1950, regional air force headquarters had been created in every Military Region of the PLA. The Soviet Union supplied the PLAAF with large numbers of fighter jets and also provided aircrew training.
The 1950s Korean War saw a rapid expansion of the PLAAF. Moscow initially provided air regiments equipped with high-performance MiG-15 fighters, along with the trained crews to fly them, to provide air cover for Chinese troops in Korea. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union supplied the Chinese and North Koreans with their own MiG-15s, as well as training for their pilots. By the end of the Korean War, the PLA had established a relatively modern air force mainly composed of fighter jets and a small number of tactical bombers and transport aircraft.
In January 1955, PLAAF aircraft took part in the PLA’s first ever combined service campaign to capture the Yijiangshan Islands occupied by the ROC forces. During the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, over 100 PLAAF MiG-17 fighter jets engaged with ROCSF F-86s in a serious of air battles. The PLAAF was eventually able to establish air supremacy on the mainland side of the strait to prevent further air invasions by the ROCAF, but reconnaissance missions by ROCAF aircraft over China mainland continued until the late 1960s. Between 1962 and 1965, the newly established PLAAF surface-to-air missile troops shot down five U-2 strategic reconnaissance aircraft over China mainland using the Soviet-made S-75 (SA-2 ‘Guideline’) missile – the world’s first surface-to-air missile kills. Between 1964 and 1971, PLAAF aircraft also shot down 21 U.S. BQM-34G Firebee reconnaissance drones. On 9 April 1965, a PLAAF MiG-17 fighter shot down a U.S. Navy F-4 Phantoms over the South China Sea near Hainan Island. The most recent enemy kill was achieved on 5 October 1987, when PLAAF surface-to-air missile troops shot down a Vietnamese Air Force MiG-21P reconnaissance aircraft near the Sino-Vietnamese border.
The PLAAF created its first paratrooper division in 1950 and the unit was expanded into a cops-sized unit in 1961 with the reorganisation of the PLA 15th Corps. The PLA Air Defence Force was merged into the PLAAF in 1957.
Command and control of the PLAAF originates from the CMC, exercised through the PLAAF Headquarters in Beijing and the five Theatre Air Force (TAF) headquarters corresponding to the five PLA theatre commands. Below the TAF headquarters are air divisions, brigades, and regiments, SAM divisions and brigades, radar brigades and regiments, as well as signal and logistics units, training academies and schools, and research institutes. In most MRAFs there are also air force command posts (空军指挥所), which are land-based regional command and control centres.
The largest operational unit with the Air Force is the air division, which normally consists of 2 to 3 air regiments, 2 to 3 airbases, as well as aircraft maintenance, logistics, and other support elements. Most air divisions are only equipped with a single type of aircraft, i.e. fighters, attackers, bombers, or transport aircraft. However, with the reduction of the force, some air divisions are now equipped with mixed types of aircraft.
Each air regiment is equipped with 20 to 30 aircraft, which are organised into 3 flying groups (飞行大队) and a maintenance group (机务大队). An air regiment is only equipped with a single type of aircraft. Each flying group has 3 flying squadrons (飞行中队), each with 4 smaller aircraft (such as fighters or attackers) or 3 larger aircraft (such as bombers or transport aircraft).There are some independent regiments tasked with reconnaissance, transport, and weapon test roles, which are not subordinate to an air division, but directly to the TAF headquarters.
Surface-to-Air Missile Corps
The PLA Air Defence Force, which was created in 1950 and composed of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) divisions as well as searchlight and radar units, was merged into the PLAAF in May 1957. The first surface-to-air missile (SAM) units were formed within the PLAAF in 1958. In the 1980s, the PLAAF transferred most of its AAA assets to the PLA ground forces, while reorganising the remaining AAA divisions into combined SAM/AAA air defence brigades. SAM division formation was retained only in the Beijing Military Region Air Force (now the Central Theatre Air Force). Also AAA divisions are still existing in the reserve forces.
The PLAAF SAM/AAA troops share the responsibility of air defence with the the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF)’s Air Defence Corps, with the former tasked with the regional air defence role to engage high-altitude aircraft and incoming ballistic missiles, while the latter tasked with the field air defence role against airborne targets (aircraft, helicopters, UAVs, and cruise missiles) at medium and low altitudes.
The PLAAF Radar Corps are organised into radar brigades and training regiments. Each radar brigade and regiment has various battalions, including one reporting battalion (情报营) and 30 to 40 radar companies/sites. Each radar company/site has 2—3 radars and 20 personnel (officers and enlisted) assigned. Radar training takes place at the PLAAF Radar Academy in Wuhan or at Radar Troop Training Groups. Training at the academy is for three years, and the cadets must serve one year in a unit before they receive their commission.
The PLA has a unique arrangement by retaining a large land-combat branch within its Air Force. The PLA Airborne Force is under the subordination of the PLAAF Headquarters, but possibly receive orders directly from the CMC. The PLA Airborne Force, also known as the PLA 15th Airborne Corps, is composed of three airborne divisions: 43rd Airborne Division based at Kaifeng, Henan Province; 44th based at Yingshan, Hubei Province, and 45th based at Huangpi, Hubei Province. The airborne corps has also a transport regiment and a helicopter regiment. The corps headquarters as well as its directly subordinated units are located at Xiaogan, Hubei Province.
Before the mid-1980s, the PLA Airborne Force was mainly composed of paratroopers/infantry capable of small-scale disruption and guerrilla warfare. The lack of suitable transport aircraft and training equipment seriously limited their capability. In 1969, the Airborne Force was added with a helicopter regiment added to its order of battle and its subordinated airlift regiment also received some Soviet-made An-26 transport aircraft for improved airlift capabilities. The airborne corps experienced some major force reduction and restructure in 1975 and 1985, with the number of infantry cut and specialised service arms such as artillery, anti-tank missile and air defence missile significantly expanded.
As a result of the PLA’s one-million-men force reduction programme in the mid-1980s, the three airborne divisions were downsized to airborne brigades. However, the Airborne Force were expanded in 1993, with the three airborne brigades expanded into divisions. The status of the Airborne Force within the PLA was also elevated when the CMC regained the direct command of the force and its commander prompted to the position of the Deputy Commander of the PLAAF. With the PLA’s acquisition of large transport aircraft such as Russian-made IL-76 and indigenous Y-8, Y-9 and Y-20, the Airborne Force’s capabilities to conduct more sophisticated, larger-scale airborne and airmobile operations have significantly improved.
Last updated: 1 January 2017