A new study highlights China’s growing air power, and warns that China is looking to build out its Air Force to the point that the U.S. would not be willing to take it on in direct conflict.
The Project Air Force team at Rand Corp. describes an emerging Chinese air force that aims to rival the United States’ own, both technologically and strategically, often by mirroring U.S. military capabilities and doctrine.
“It is important to recognize that many of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] efforts in the military aerospace sector focus on fielding of specific capabilities in sufficient quantities to deter the United States from entering a conflict; the PLA would vastly prefer deterrence over actual combat operations,” the report reads. “In this sense, the capabilities competition can be regarded as aimed at defeating the United States without actually fighting.”
Copying or innovating their own capabilities are both valid pathways to this goal. However, “the lower cost and higher speed of the copying and adapting approach appears to have made it a preferred approach whenever available,” the report reads.
Different services prefer different styles, however. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force, or PLAAF, tends to copy, while China’s missile and space programs are more frequent innovators.
Unlike the U.S. military, China’s strategic missile forces act as their own service.
The Rand Corp. report was originally shared with Air Force leaders in September 2017, but was made publicly available this month.
In it, researchers documented the restructuring of the PLAAF and the technological innovations the country is looking to develop as it cruises towards a possible confrontation with the United States.
The PLAAF is one of five branches within the larger People’s Liberation Army, the name given to China’s armed services.
China’s power projection strategy appears to be built around the development of precision-strike ballistic and cruise missiles, supplemented by a dense web of surface-to-air missiles and advanced fighter jets.