People's Liberation Army Air Force

People's Liberation Army Air Force
People's Liberation Army Air Force
Flag of the People's Liberation Army Air Force
Founded November 11, 1949
Country China
Branch Air Force
Role National defence

Emergency relief

Size 300,000-330,000 personnel

~2,500 aircraft
(incl. ~1,600 combat aircraft,
incl. 1,100+ fighters)[1]

Engagements Korean War, Vietnam War, Sino-Vietnamese War
General Xu Qiliang
Roundel of the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force.svg
Aircraft flown
Attack Q-5, JH-7
Bomber JH-7, H-6
KJ-200, KJ-2000.
Fighter J-11, J-10, JF-17, J-8II, J-7, Su-27, Su-30
Interceptor J-8II
Trainer L-15, JL-8, JL-9
Transport Y-9, Y-8, Y-7, Il-76

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) (simplified Chinese: 中国人民解放军空军; traditional Chinese: 中國人民解放軍空軍; pinyin: Zhōngguó Rénmín Jiěfàngjūn Kōngjūn) is the aviation branch of the People's Liberation Army, the military of the People's Republic of China. In 2010, the PLAAF had approximately 330,000 personnel and 2,500+ aircraft, of which 1,617 were combat aircraft;[1] the PLAAF was the largest air force in Asia, and the third largest in the world behind the United States Air Force and the Russian Air Force. This did not include PLA Naval Aviation which had 26,000 personnel and 570 aircraft (290 combat aircraft).[2]



Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split

The PLAAF was founded with Soviet assistance on November 11, 1949, shortly after the formation of the People's Republic of China. The PLA had operated few aircraft before that. The PLA's first organized air unit, the Nanyuan Flying Group, was formed only in the summer of 1949 from about 40 ex-Nationalist aircraft; its task was to defend Beijing, the nation's new capital.

The PLAAF fought the Korean War in Soviet-built MiG-15, known as the J-2 in Chinese service, with training from Soviet instructors. The war also brought Soviet assistance for the indigenous aircraft industry. The Shenyang Aircraft Factory built the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer as the JJ-2,[3] and during the war manufactured various components to maintain the Soviet-built fighters. This prepared them to mass produce derivatives of Soviet aircraft under license, starting with the J-5 (MiG-17) in 1956,[4] then the J-6 (MiG-19) in 1959,[5] and then the J-7 (MiG-21) in 1967.[5]

The 1960s were a difficult time for the PLAAF. The withdrawal of Soviet aid due to the Sino-Soviet split, and the prioritization of the missile and nuclear weapon programs, caused the industry to markedly decline through 1963. A recovery began around 1965 as J-2s, J-5s, and some J-6s were provided to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Development of the J-8, China's first indigenous fighter, was also initiated during the 1960s.

The 1980s

The PLA Air Force underwent reorganization and streamlining as part of the reduction in force begun in 1985. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches: air defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments.[6] In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through air army headquarters located with, or in communication with, each of the seven military region headquarters. In war, control of the Air Force probably reverted to the regional commanders. In 1987 it was not clear how the reorganization and the incorporation of air support elements into the group armies affected air force organization. The largest Air Force organizational unit was the division, which consisted of 17,000 personnel in three regiments. A typical air defense regiment had three squadrons of three flights; each flight had three or four aircraft. The Air Force also had 220,000 air defense personnel who controlled about 100 surface-to-air missile sites and over 16,000 antiaircraft guns. In addition, it had a large number of early-warning, ground-control-intercept, and air-base radars manned by specialized troops organized into at least twenty-two independent regiments.

In the 1980s the Air Force made serious efforts to raise the educational level and improve the training of its pilots. Superannuated pilots were retired or assigned to other duties. All new pilots were at least middle-school graduates. The time it took to train a qualified pilot capable of performing combat missions reportedly was reduced from four or five years to two years. Training emphasized raising technical and tactical skills in individual pilots and participation in combined-arms operations. Flight safety also increased.

In 1987 the Air Force had serious technological deficiencies — especially when compared with its principal threat, the Soviet Union — and had many needs that it could not satisfy. It needed more advanced aircraft, better avionics, electronic countermeasures equipment, more powerful aircraft weaponry, a low-altitude surface-to-air missile, and better controlled antiaircraft artillery guns. Some progress was made in aircraft design with the incorporation of Western avionics into the F-7 (MiG-21) and F-8, the development of refueling capabilities for the B-6D bomber and the A-5 attack fighter, increased aircraft all-weather capabilities, and the production of the HQ-2J high-altitude surface-to-air missile and the C-601 air-to-ship missile.

Although the PLAAF received significant support from Western nations in the 1980s when China was seen as a counterweight to Soviet power, this support ended in 1989 as a result of the Chinese crackdown on the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and the later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the fall of the USSR, Russia became China's principal arms supplier to the effect that Chinese economic growth allowed Russia to sustain its aerospace industry.

Modernization program

In the late 1980s, the primary mission of the PLAAF was the defense of the mainland, and most aircraft were assigned to this role. A smaller number of ground attack and bomber units were assigned to interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited military airlift and reconnaissance capabilities.

In the early 1990s, the PLAAF began a program of modernization, motivated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the possibility of military conflict with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and perhaps also involving the United States. This process began with the acquisition of Su-27s in the early 1990s and the development of various fourth-generation aircraft, including the domestic J-10, and the FC-1 in collaboration with Pakistan. The PLAAF also strove to improve its pilot training and continued to retire obsolete aircraft. This resulted in a reduction of the overall number of aircraft in the PLAAF with a concurrent increase in quality of its air fleet.

The 21st century has seen the continuation of the modernization program with China's huge economic growth. It acquired 76 Su-30MKK's from 2000 to 2003, and 24 upgraded Su-30MK2's in 2004. It also produced around 200 J-11s from 2002 onwards and bought 3 batches (at a total of 76) of the Su-27SK/UBK. Production of the J-10 fighter began in 2002 with an estimated 200 aircraft in service currently. The PLAAF also began developing its own tanker aircraft, which it previously lacked, by modifying old H-6 bomber (Tu-16 Badger). In 2005 it announced plans to buy approximately 30 IL-76 transport planes and 8 Il-78 tanker planes, which would greatly increase its troop airlift capability and offer extended range to many aircraft, though as of 2009 this deal is still on hold.

Predictions of the PLAAF's future aircraft fleet indicate that it will consist of large quantities of Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 as its main force, and JH-7A as the PLAAF backbone precision strike fighter. Future stealth fighter projects such as the Chengdu J-20 will be inducted into the air fleet in small numbers, assigned to elite PLAAF selected pilots. The transport fleet will comprise of Y-9 medium range transport aircraft, along with the Soviet Ilyushin Il-76, and domestic Y-20 heavy transport aircraft. Its helicopter fleet will comprise of Z-15 and Mi-17 troop transporter, and the WZ-10 attack helicopter for its ground forces. AWACS/AEW will be refined variants of existing service fleet of KJ-2000 and KJ-200, with UAV/UCAV in early stages of service in the PLAAF.


The markings of the PLAAF are a red star in front of a red band, it is very similar to the insignia of the Russian Air Force. The Red star contains the Chinese characters for eight and one,[7][8] representing August 1, 1927, the date of the formation of the PLA. PLAAF aircraft carry these markings on the fins as well.


  • Headquarters Air Force (HqAF)

The HqAF consists of four departments: Command, Political, Logistic, and Equipment, which mirrors the four general departments of the PLA.

  • Military region air forces (MRAF)
    • Division (Fighter, Attack, Bomber)
      • Regiment
        • Squadron

The PLAAF typically uses the system of threes in its organization at Division level and below, i.e. 3 Regiments per Division, 3 Squadrons per Regiment, and so on. There are also Independent Regiments within the MRAFs. There are also two Airborne Corps (the 15th Airborne Corps, and the 16th) under direct control of PLAAF Headquarters.

PLAAF Order of Battle

Aerobatic team

The August 1st (aerobatic team) is the first PLAAF aerobatics team. It was formed in 1962.

Aircraft inventory of PLAAF August 1st Aerobatic Team:

Sky Wing and Red Falcon air demonstration teams, which operate Nanchang CJ-6 and Hongdu JL-8 respectively, were established in 2011.


The PLA Air Force has had 10 commanders and 11 political commissars since its inception, including three political commissars who later became commanders.[9][10]

Period Commander Political Commissar
Pre-Cultural Revolution Liu Yalou (1949–65) Xiao Hua (1949–57)
Wu Faxian (1957–65)
Cultural Revolution Wu Faxian (1965–71) Yu Lijin (1965–68)
vacant (1971–73) Wang Huiqiu (1968–73)
Ma Ning (1973–77) Fu Chuanzuo (1973–75)
Zhang Tingfa (1975–77)
Reform Era Zhang Tingfa (1977–85) Gao Houliang (1977–85)
Wang Hai (1985–92) Zhu Guang (1985–92)
Cao Shuangming (1992–94) Ding Wenchang (1992–99)
Yu Zhenwu (1994–96)
Liu Shunyao (1996–2002) Qiao Qingchen (1999–2002)
Qiao Qingchen (2002–07) Deng Changyou (2002-)
Xu Qiliang (2007-)

Deputy Commanders:

  • He Weirong
  • Jing Wenchun
  • Liu Chengjun
  • Wang Chaoqun
  • Yang Dongming

Deputy Political Commissars:

  • Liu Yazhou
  • Rui Qingkai
Chief of Staff: Yang Guohai
Director of Political Department: Wang Xiaolong

Aircraft inventory

Aircraft Photo Origin Type Versions Numbers In Service[11][12] Comments
Combat aircraft
Chengdu J-10 J-10a zhas.png  China Multirole Fighter J-10A
110 (in 2010) J-10B flight testing
Sukhoi Su-30 Sukhoi Su-30MK on the MAKS-2009 (01).jpg  Russia Multirole Fighter Su-30MKK
~76 (in 2009)[13]
24 (in 2009)[13]
Shenyang J-11 Chinese Su-27.JPG  China Multirole Fighter J-11A
~134 (in 2010)
Sukhoi Su-27 Su-27 on landing.jpg  Soviet Union Air Superiority Fighter Su-27SK
53 (in 2009)
16 (in 2009)
Shenyang J-8 Jian-8FighterChina.jpg  China Interceptor Fighter J-8A series and J-8B series 390 (in 2008)
Chengdu J-7 J-7I fighter at the Beijing Military museum.jpg  China Fighter/Interceptor Fighter J-7 579 (in 2008)
Bomber Aircraft
Xian JH-7 Jh-7a naval yt.png  China Fighter-Bomber JH-7/A 70 (in 2008)
Nanchang Q-5 Q5 parked.png  China Close Air Support Q-5 235 (in 2008) Not in production
Xian H-6 PLAAF Xian H-6M Over Changzhou.jpg  China Strategic bomber H-6 100-120
Trainer Aircraft
Hongdu JL-8 Air Force of Zimbabwe K-8 Karakorum.jpg  China
Training K-8 200
Transport Aircraft
Ilyushin Il-76  Russia Transport IL-76MD 20 30 Ordered
Harbin Y-12  China Light Transport Y-12 Unknown
Harbin Y-11  China Light Transport Y-11 50
Shaanxi Y-8  China Transport Y-8 100-120
Xian Y-7  China Light Transport Y-7 23
Shijiazhuang Y-5  China Light Transport Y-5 300
Bombardier Challenger 600  Canada VIP Transport CL 601 5
Tupolev Tu-154  Soviet Union VIP Transport Tu-154M 7
Aerial refueling
Ilyushin Il-78  Russia Refueling Tanker IL-78 4
Xian H-6  China Refueling Tanker H-6U 10
KJ-2000  China AWAC KJ-2000 5
KJ-200  China AEW&C KJ-200 4
Attack Helicopter
CAIC WZ-10  China Attack Helicopter WZ-10 8 6 Prototypes
Harbin WZ-9  China Attack Helicopter WZ-9 30-40
Changhe Z-11W  China Attack helicopter Z-11W 20
Aérospatiale SA 342 Gazelle  France Attack Helicopter SA 342 8
Transport Helicopter
Mil Mi-8  Soviet Union Transport Helicopter Mi-8 20
Mil Mi-17  Soviet Union Transport Helicopter Mi-17 240
Changhe Z-11  China Utlity Helicopter Z-11 20
Changhe Z-8  China Transport Helicopter Z-8 40
Harbin Z-9  China Transport Helicopter Z-9 200
Eurocopter AS 532 Cougar  France Transport Helicopter AS 532 6
Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk  United States Transport Helicopter S-70C 24
IAI Harpy  Israel attack UCAV IAI Harpy Unknown
ChangKong-1  China target, reconnaissance ChangKong-1 Unknown
WZ-5  China target, reconnaissance ChangHong-1 (export) Unknown Believed to being phased out

See also


  1. ^ a b Hacket, IISS 2010, pg 403-404.
  2. ^ Hacket, IISS 2010, pg 402.
  3. ^ "J-2 (Jian-2 Fighter aircraft 2)". 2011-05-03. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  4. ^ "J-5 (Jian-5 Fighter aircraft 5)". 2011-06-16. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  5. ^ a b "J-6 (Jian-6 Fighter aircraft 6) / F-6 / Type-59 / DF-102 / DF-103 / DF-105". 2011-06-11. Retrieved 2011-06-28. 
  6. ^ "A Country Study: China", Country Studies (Library of Congress): Air Force section, 
  7. ^ "Military Aircraft Insignia of the World"
  8. ^ "Roundels of China"
  9. ^ John Pike. "People's Republic of China People's Liberation Army Air Force". Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  10. ^ "The People's Liberation Army as Organization: ReferenceVolume v1.0" (PDF). pp. 354, n840, 357, n847. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  11. ^ ""World Military Aircraft Inventory", Aerospace Source Book 2009". Aviation Week & Space Technology. 
  12. ^ "Capabilities of CPLA to carry out military action in the event of regional conflict". Science Applications International Corporation. March 2009. Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  13. ^ a b "Su-27 Flanker Operators List". MILAVIA Aircraft. 24 September 2009. Retrieved 25 June 2011. 
  • Gordon,Yefim & Komissarov, Dmitry. Chinese Aircraft. Hikoki Publications. Manchester. 2008. ISBN 9 781902 109046
  • International Institute for Strategic Studies (2010). Hacket, James. ed. The Military Balance 2010. Oxfordshire: Routledge. ISBN 9781857435573. 

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.

External links

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