The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is “closing the gap rapidly” with Western air forces across a broad spectrum of capabilities, states the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military, released on June 6. “This development is gradually eroding the significant technical advantage held by the United States,” the report adds.
Last year, China announced a 7 percent increase in military spending, to $144.3 billion, sustaining its position as the second largest military spender after the U.S. (The Pentagon requested $582 billion for the current fiscal year.) Between 2007 and 2016, China’s military budget grew an average of 8.5 percent per year on an inflation-adjusted basis, according to the report.
China’s aircraft industry still relies on foreign-sourced components for high-performance aircraft engines, but its expertise in building both commercial and military aircraft has improved with work on the C919 commercial airliner and Xian Y-20 military transport, the Pentagon said.
The PLAAF fields Asia’s largest air force, with more than 2,700 total manned aircraft, including 2,100 combat aircraft. Of the latter, China operates approximately 600 fourth-generation fighters, including Russian-built Su-27/Su-30, Chinese/Russian J-11A and indigenous Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11B fighters.
China is developing the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 and carrier-capable Shenyang FC-31 Gryfalcon fighters, which could enter service as early as next year, the Pentagon states.
The Chinese air force continues to upgrade its H-6 bomber fleet with standoff weapons—the H-6K carries six CJ-20 air-launched cruise missiles, “giving the PLA a long-range standoff precision strike capability that can reach Guam.” By acquiring three IL-78 aerial refueling tankers from Ukraine, the PLAAF has extended the range of its Su-30s operating in support of the H-6K bomber. Plans call for a new generation of long-range bomber to debut around 2025.
China started production last year of the Y-20 transport “in an effort to correct a strategic airlift deficiency that holds back force projection capabilities.” The Y-20 is China’s first indigenous heavy-lift jet transport, which could also serve as an aerial refueling tanker or airborne early warning aircraft. China also rolled out the AG600 large amphibious seaplane, which has a range of 4,500 km (2,796 miles).
The Ukranian-built Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, conducted its second carrier task group integration training in December in the South China Sea. The Pentagon expects the Liaoning, when fully operational, will be less capable than U.S. Navy Nimitz-class carriers in projecting power. China is currently building its first domestically designed carrier, the Shandong, which is expected to enter service in 2020.
“Last year, China continued to learn lessons from operating its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, while constructing its first domestically produced aircraft carrier—the beginning of what the PLA states will be a multi-carrier force,” the report states. “China’s next generation of carriers will probably have greater endurance and be capable of launching more varied types of aircraft, including EW, early warning and ASW aircraft. These improvements would increase the potential striking power of a potential ‘carrier battle group’ in safeguarding China’s interests in areas beyond its immediate periphery.”
China displayed five unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at the Zhuhai Airshow in November 2016: the Wing Loong I, Wing Loong II, WJ-600A/D, Yunying Cloud Shadow and CH-5 (Rainbow 5). The CH-5 is the country’s most heavily armed UAS, with payload capacity for 16 air-to-surface munitions. In the last two years, the PLA unveiled the Gongji 1 UAS for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and deployed drones to the South China Sea, according to the report.
From 2011 to 2015, China ranked as the world’s fourth largest arms exporter, with more than $20 billion in sales, including $9 billion to Pakistan and other Asia-Pacific countries. It sold armed drones to several countries in the Middle East, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
China faces “little competition” from other large UAS manufacturing countries that are restricted in selling such technology as signatories of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and/or the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls of conventional arms and dual-use technologies, the Pentagon said.