Conquering all domains | Daily News
People’s Liberation Army’s Aerospace Forces

Conquering all domains

Chinese remote sensing satellite
Chinese remote sensing satellite

Conventional battlefields and tactics are changing globally. Nations are investing and upgrading their military capability to be prepared to engage in new platforms of cyber warfare, electronic intelligence and aerospace. Missiles also feature prominently in this new domain of combat.

Over the decades the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has consistently grown to project its power in every spectrum of military engagement. Its five major branches are the Ground Force (PLAGF), Navy (PALN), Air Force (PLAAF), Rocket Force (PLARF) and the Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). The People’s Liberation Army is the world’s largest defence force. It is endorsed as one of the forces with global power projection. As China’s capabilities in power projection grow, PLA aerospace power will play a significant role in fulfilling the PLA’s efforts to protect increasingly expansive Chinese interests abroad. Thus China’s leaders have pledged to build a powerful armed force which is commensurate with China’s international standing.

The People’s Liberation Army was established on August 1, 1927, in the midst of the Nanchang Uprising. The Chinese Eighth Route Army and New Fourth Army, almost with a cadre of one million, were merged and named the People’s Liberation Army. By November 1949, the PLA was empowered with the Air Force and this was further augmented with the Navy in April 1950. The total strength of the Chinese armed forces is estimated at around two million personnel.

The People’s Liberation Army Aerospace Forces have evolved with innovation. These include the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), Naval Aviation and space and cyber assets affiliated with the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF). Over the last two-and-a-half decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has invested heavily in the modernization of its military forces. These efforts have yielded positive improvements in the personnel, organizational structure, equipment, training, doctrine, and overall proficiency of the People’s Liberation Army.

China’s air, space, and missile forces known as the PLA’s ‘aerospace forces’ – have transformed rapidly into forces that could challenge any opponent. At the start of 2016, Chinese President Xi Jinping, also Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), announced major structural reforms to the PLA. Understanding the evolving global military trends, President Xi elevated the PLA’s Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) to service-level stature on par with the three other services (Army, Navy, and Air Force) and renamed it the ‘People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force’ (PLARF). President Xi also established the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) to support joint combat operations in space and to conduct military operations in the electromagnetic spectrum.

The PLA Air Force is now geared to undertake an expanded set of missions beyond defending Chinese territorial airspace to include launching offensive operations against enemy assets. The PLA Air Force boasts the largest air force in Asia and the third largest in the world. The PLAAF’s inventory of operational aircraft includes air defence fighters, multi-role fighters, ground attack aircraft, fighter-bombers, bombers, and helicopters.

The Aviation Branch is responsible for operating and maintaining the full spectrum of fixed-wing aircraft, including its Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and helicopters. To improve and assess pilot skills in combat conditions, the PLA Air Force in 2011 established an annual 14-day ‘Golden Helmet’ air-to air combat competition. The competition takes place at the Dingxin Test and Training Base in the Gobi Desert.

The Air Force also employs several platforms with AEW&C (Air-borne Early Warning and Control) capability. The most important aircraft is the KJ-2000, which is a converted Il-76 airframe that provides enhanced aerial battle space information. The Air Force also fields a robust Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) capability to aggressively defend Chinese airspace. The SAM Branch of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force is charged with defending military bases during a conflict. The SAM branch fields a range of systems, some of which have been designed indigenously. On the indigenous side, the Chinese use the HQ-9 mid- to long-range missiles with active radar-homing capability. The PLAAF is also introducing the advanced HQ-12, which will be able to target large high-value airborne assets at long range.

Today the People’s Liberation Army’s air and missile assets provide the bulk of the long-range precision strike capabilities required to carry out the Joint Fire Strike Campaign. We can assume that the conventional ballistic missile launches, if carried out by the PLA Rocket Force would primarily be aimed at enemy surveillance and early warning systems, electronic warfare systems, air defence and anti-missile formations and air troop bases.

It is believed that China is developing and fielding systems to possibly target enemy platforms approximately 3,000 kilometres from China’s shores. The Aerospace Forces of China have realized the importance of coordinated joint strikes by multiple services and aircraft, long-range air raids, and beyond-defence area strikes. Informatization is a vital component of the Joint Fire Strike Campaign. The PLA seeks to use intelligence derived from their space-based assets to enhance the effectiveness of joint warfare capabilities at the strategic and tactical levels.

The Air Force augments its firepower with a formidable Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) component. Interestingly the PLAAF’s conceptualization of an air offensive campaign comprises air-to-ground attacks against military formations, supply and transportation lines and economic and other military targets. China is boldly pursuing capabilities to galvanize a strategic Air Force that would allow it to conduct offensive operations over longer distances. Airborne campaigns can parachute Chinese troops behind enemy lines, in support of joint operations or clandestine missions. Once deployed these airborne forces can be directed to sabotage enemy military and economic infrastructure. In 1950, Chinese radar troops were charged with providing early warning capabilities to air defence. Today, depending on the type of radar systems, radar troops are an official branch of the PLAAF. Since 2007, it was reported that China had an air intelligence radar network capable of covering the entire country.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces’ transformation is in direct response to the CMC’s clarion call to build a service for dual deterrence and dual operations, meaning a force capable of nuclear and conventional deterrence and strikes. A dual capability provides China with nuclear deterrence options, but it also confers conventional ‘counter-intervention’ capabilities to deter and deny an adversary from deploying or operating effectively.

The PLA Rocket Force is responsible for the Nuclear Counterstrike planning. According to the Rocket Force mandate, if China is attacked with nuclear weapons, the objective would be to conduct a nuclear counter-attack striking the enemy’s strategic targets and weakening its war potential. The Aerospace Forces are specialized units of troops for a variety of support missions. These are communications, electronic countermeasures, chemical defence, and technical reconnaissance troops. Chemical defence units include nuclear, biological, and chemical defence. They are charged with decontaminating PLA Air Force locations or assets affected by chemical and radiological weapons. Technical reconnaissance troops are responsible for intercepting, decoding, processing, and analyzing different varieties of intelligence signals.

The PLA Rocket Force is entering the future by developing hypersonic weapons designed to evade and penetrate missile defences. The PLARF continues to modernize its Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force to maintain strategic nuclear deterrence. Through the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), China aims to enable more effective military operations by leveraging space-based assets to disrupt or cripple the ability of adversary forces. Over the last 15 years, China has made significant progress in remote sensing satellite technology. These satellites provide China with an impressive range of capabilities including Electro-Optical (EO) sensing, Synthetic Aperture (SAR) sensing, and ELINT collection. China’s newest satellites Yaogan, Gaofen, and Jilin provide high-resolution imagery with resolutions within two metres. The PLA Aerospace Forces are a formidable force.


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