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People's Liberation Army Air Force


People's Liberation Army Air Force

People's Liberation Army Air Force
People's Liberation Army Air Force emblem
Founded November 11, 1949
Country  People's Republic of China
Allegiance Communist Party of China[1]
Branch People's Liberation Army
Type Aerial military force
Role Aerial warfare
Size 398,000 active personnel
Approx. 2,860 aircraft[2][3]
Engagements Korean War, Vietnam War, Sino-Vietnamese War
Commander Gen. Ma Xiaotian
Political Commissar Lt. Gen. Yu Zhongfu
Wang Hai
Roundel Roundel
Low Visibility Roundel Roundel (Low Visitbility)
Aircraft flown
Attack Q-5, JH-7
Bomber JH-7, H-6
KJ-200, KJ-2000.
Fighter J-11, J-10, J-8II, J-7, Su-27, Su-30MKK
Interceptor J-8II
Trainer L-15, JL-8, JL-9
Transport Y-9, Y-8, Y-7, Il-76
People's Liberation Army Air Force
Simplified Chinese 中国人民解放军空军
Traditional Chinese 中國人民解放軍空軍

The People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is the aerial warfare service branch of the People's Liberation Army, the armed forces of the People's Republic of China. The PLAAF was officially established on 11 November 1949. As of 2010, the PLAAF has a strength of around 330,000 personnel[4] and is the largest air force in Asia. With ongoing modernisation, all older aircraft types in service are quickly being phased out and emphasis being placed on developing modern 4.5th generation fighters to replace them - along with 5th generation fighters in the near future.

The People's Liberation Army Navy maintains its own naval air arm (the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force), operating some 690+ aircraft.[5]


  • History 1
    • Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split 1.1
    • The 1980s 1.2
    • Modernization program 1.3
  • Ranks and insignia 2
  • Aerobatic display team 3
  • Organization 4
    • Order of battle 4.1
    • Air bases 4.2
  • Equipment 5
    • Aircraft inventory 5.1
  • Future of the People's Liberation Army Air Force 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split

The PLAAF was founded with Soviet assistance on November 11, 1949,[6][7] shortly after the formation of the Nationalist aircraft; its task was to defend Beijing, the nation's new capital.

The PLAAF fought the [10]

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: 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

PLAAF airmen on parade during a full honors arrival ceremony in 2000.

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 Air interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited military airlift and aerial 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 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 . 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 (Tupolev Tu-16). 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, with J-16 and JH-7A as the PLAAF backbone precision strike fighters. 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 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 Z-20, Z-15 and Mi-17 troop transporters, 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.

Senior Colonel Wu Guohui has said that the PLAAF is working on a stealth bomber, which some people have called the H-18.[12]

According to a 2015 Pentagon report, PLAAF has around 600 modern aircraft.[13]

Ranks and insignia

The ranks in the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force are similar to those of the Chinese Army, formally known as the People's Liberation Army Ground Force, except that those of the PLA Air Force are prefixed by 空军 (Kong Jun) meaning Air Force. See Ranks of the People's Liberation Army or the article on an individual rank for details on the evolution of rank and insignia in the PLAAF. This article primarily covers the existing ranks and insignia.

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,[14][15] representing August 1, 1927, the date of the formation of the PLA. PLAAF aircraft carry these markings on the fins as well.

Aerobatic display 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 includes the J-10 and it has previously flown the JJ-5 and J-7. The Sky Wing and Red Falcon air demonstration teams, which operate Nanchang CJ-6 and Hongdu JL-8 respectively, were established in 2011.


A PLAAF KJ2000 AEW&C aircraft

The Air Force headquarters consists of four departments: Command, Political, Logistic, and Equipment, which mirrors the four general departments of the PLA. Below the headquarters, Military region air forces (MRAF) direct divisions (Fighter, Attack, Bomber), which in turn direct regiments and squadrons.[16] The PLAAF typically used 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. The situation is now more fluid, with several divisions (the 5th, 15th, 24th for example) only having two regiments.[17] There are also Independent Regiments within the MRAFs. There is also an Airborne Corps (the 15th Airborne Corps) under direct control of PLAAF Headquarters., accessed mid 2015, indicates there are at least six regiments of H-6 bombers. All three regiments of the 8th Bomber Division fly the aircraft - the 22nd, 23rd (former 143rd Regt/48th Div), and 24th. Also flying is the 28th Regiment of the 10th Bomber Division (People's Republic of China) and the 107th and 108th Regiments of the 36th Bomber Division.

Order of battle

Air bases

A PLAAF J-10 multi-role 4th generation fighter developed by China

There is presently over 150 air bases utilized by the People's Liberation Army Air Force, these are divided into seven military regions as follows:


The People's Liberation Army Air Force operates a large and varied fleet of some 3,200+ aircraft, of which around 1,700 are combat aircraft (fighter, strike and bombers).[2][3] According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, PLAAF combat pilots acquire an average of 100-150 flying hours per year.[2] For a list of aircraft no-longer flown by the People's Liberation Army Air Force see; List of historic aircraft of the People's Liberation Army Air Force.

Aircraft inventory

Aircraft Origin Role Version Number[2][3] Comment
Fighter aircraft
Sukhoi Su-30MKK Russia Fighter Su-30MKK 73[2]
Sukhoi Su-27 USSR Fighter Su-27SK
Shenyang J-16 China Fighter J-16 24 A multi-role fighter based on the J-11 and Su-30MKK with upgraded avionics and longer range. Entered service starting 2013.
Shenyang J-11 China Fighter J-11
205+[2] A Chinese built 4.5th generation fighter based on the Sukhoi Su-27. More aircraft on order.
Chengdu J-10 China Fighter J-10A
250+[2] A Chinese built 4th generation fighter. Further orders are currently under-way which will see more advanced variants of the J-10 enter service.[18]
Xian JH-7 China Fighter (Fighter-bomber) JH-7
120[2] A Chinese built 4th generation fighter-bomber.
Shenyang J-8 China

A heavily modified 3rd generation interceptor.
Chengdu J-7 China Fighter J-7
528[2] Fleet rapidly being replaced as new aircraft enter service.
Strike aircraft
Nanchang Q-5 China Strike aircraft Q-5C
Bomber aircraft
Xian H-6 China Strategic bomber H-6A
Transport aircraft
Ilyushin Il-76 Russia Strategic transport IL-76MD 16+[2] More on order.
Shaanxi Y-9 China Tactical transport Y-9 7[3] More on order.
Shaanxi Y-8 China Tactical transport Y-8 61[3]
Xi'an Y-7 China Tactical transport Y-7
Boeing 737 USA VIP Transport B-737 9[2]
Tupolev Tu-154 USSR Airliner (passenger) Tu-154M 12[2]
Xian MA60 China Airliner (passenger) MA60H-500 9[3]
Harbin Y-12 China Utility transport Y-12 8[2]
Harbin Y-11 China Utility transport Y-11 20[2]
Shijiazhuang Y-5 China Utility transport Y-5 170[2] Based on the Antonov An-2.
Bombardier CRJ200 Canada VIP transport CL 601 5[2]
Bombardier CRJ700 series Canada VIP transport CRJ-700 5[2]
Special-mission aircraft
Ilyushin Il-76 Russia Airborne early warning & control KJ-2000
KJ-500 China Airborne early warning & control KJ-500 1+[2] Based on the Shaanxi Y-9 air-frame. More on order.
KJ-200 China Airborne early warning & control KJ-200 7[3] Based on the Shaanxi Y-8 air-frame.
Shaanxi Y-9 China Electronic warfare/surveillance
Psychological warfare
1+[2] More on order. Replacing older reconnaissance types of the Shaanxi Y-8.
Shaanxi Y-8 China Electronic warfare, reconnaissance etc Y-8 19+[2] Comes in a wide variety of variants. Unknown number in service.
Tupolev Tu-154 USSR Signals intelligence Tu-154M/D 4[2]
Xian H-6 China Aerial refueling HY-6U 10[2]
Ilyushin Il-78 Russia Aerial refueling IL-78MP 1[3] More on order.
Trainer aircraft
Hongdu L-15 China Trainer aircraft L-15 2 More on order to replace older types.
Guizhou JL-9 China Trainer aircraft JL-9
2 More on order to replace older types.
Hongdu JL-8 China Trainer aircraft JL-8 350[2]
Hongdu Yakovlev CJ-7 China Trainer aircraft CJ-7 50[2] Around 300 on order to replace older types.
Nanchang CJ-6 China Trainer aircraft CJ-6
Chengdu J-7 China Trainer aircraft JJ-7 200[2] Trainer variant of the J-7 fighter, fully combat capable.
Changhe Z-18 China Multi-purpose helicopter Z-18
1+ Search & rescue, transport etc
Harbin Z-9 China Multi-purpose helicopter Z-9 42[3]
Changhe Z-8 China Multi-purpose helicopter Z-8 34[3] Search & rescue, transport etc
Mil Mi-17/Mil Mi-8 USSR Multi-purpose helicopter Mi-17

Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma France VIP Transport AS332 6[2]

Future of the People's Liberation Army Air Force

The People's Liberation Army Air Force is undergoing a period of extensive modernization. Listed below are some of the more high profile aircraft under development.
Aircraft Origin Role Version Number Comment
Xian H-X  China Strategic bomber A large, long range strategic bomber incorporating stealth technology. Currently under development.[19]
Chengdu J-20  China Stealth Fighter Fifth-generation jet fighter being developed by Chengdu Aircraft Design Institute.
Shenyang J-31  China Stealth Fighter Fifth-generation jet fighter. Similar role and configuration to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
Xian Y-20  China Strategic military transport aircraft Large and long range military transport. Has maximum payload of 66,000 kg.
Shaanxi Y-30  China Tactical military transport aircraft Medium sized and ranged military transport. Has maximum payload of 30,000 kg.
Sharp Sword  China Stealth UCAV A long range stealthy UCAV being developed jointly by SYADI, SAU, and Hongdu Aviation Industry Group (HAIG).
Shenyang Dark Sword  China Stealth UCAV A stealthy, long-range, high speed UCAV being developed by Shenyang. Revealed at Zhuhai airshow.[20]
Zhanying (Combat Eagle)  China Stealth UCAV A stealthy strike UCAV with forward swept wings, similar to the Boeing X-45. Revealed at Zhuhai airshow.
Divine Eagle  China Counter stealth UAV A high altitude, long endurance, twin fuselage UAV to provide early warning from cruise missile and stealth aircraft.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae International Institute for Strategic Studies: The Military Balance 2014, p.236
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Flightglobal - World Air Forces 2015 (PDF),
  4. ^ Hacket, IISS 2010, pg 403–404.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ IISS Military Balance 2012, 233, 237
  17. ^ IISS Military Balance 2012, 239–240.
  18. ^ China marks aviation milestones with J-10B production, second Y-20 prototype flight, IHS Janes 360 (December 2013)
  19. ^
  20. ^
  • Gordon, Yefim and Komissarov, Dmitry. Chinese Aircraft. Hikoki Publications. Manchester. 2008. ISBN 978-1-902109-04-6
  • Andreas Rupprecht and Tom Cooper: Modern Chinese Warplanes, Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, Harpia Publishing (2012), ISBN 0985455403, ISBN 978-0985455408
  •  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Library of Congress Country Studies.
  • A Country Study: China

External links

  • Articles on the Chinese military, from
  • Chinese Air Power
  • Regional Capability Growth on APA
  • The Sleeping Giant Awakens (Australian Aviation)
  • PLA Airbase Page on APA
  • PLA idag-PLAAF (Swedish)
  • USAF Air University, The PLAAF in 2010
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