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China is adding carriers, destroyers and amphibs at a staggering pace, now operates the world’s largest Navy, and has an active duty combat force of more than 2 million people, nearly twice the size of the U.S.
China can now fire hypersonic weapons, anti-satellite missiles and is quickly building new ICBM silos to support as many as 700 deliverable nuclear warheads, according to the Pentagon’s annual China report.
2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China.”
These are just a few of the many circumstances of great significance highlighted in the Pentagon’s now published 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China.”
Certainly much attention continues to be paid to the Chinese Navy, space capabilities, computing and hypersonics, a fact which might make it easy to overlook interesting details in the report regarding air power and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.
People’s Liberation Army Air Force
Many have heard of China’s fast-emerging 5th-generation stealth fighter fleet, drones and H-20 bomber, but just how does the PLAAF compare?
The Chinese Air Force is cited in the DoD as being the third largest in the world and the largest in the Pacific region. The Pentagon’s China report also states that the country operates roughly 2,250 combat aircraft and Globalfirepower.com’s 2021 assessment states the country operates just above 1,200 fighter aircraft.
The lack of overwhelming numbers of air assets, particularly 5th-generation planes, may explain why China continues to place such an enormous emphasis on Naval domination.
The Chinese J-20, for instance, may or may not be able to rival a U.S. F-22 or F-35, yet China reportedly operates roughly 50 J-20s, whereas the U.S. can fly more than 160 F-22s and plans a large F-35 fleet of 1,763 aircraft. Given this, it might seem difficult to envision a scenario wherein China is able to establish air supremacy in any kind of major engagement with the U.S., unless it only operates in the Pacific and the U.S. cannot forward-position enough 5th-generation assets in the region to overwhelm China in the air. Having a much larger 5th-generation force can only be of maximum impact if the planes can actually “get” to the conflict.
Perhaps with this in mind, the U.S. Air Force is continuing to explore new avenues for aircraft basing in the Pacific theater, and any kind of U.S. force posture in the region is certainly to be greatly fortified by Japan’s large, multi-billion dollar F-35 buy. Should the U.S. succeed in basing large numbers of 5th generation fighters in geographical areas enabling attack access such as Japan or South Korea, it could conceivably position itself to outmatch China in the air in the Pacific.
China’s force-size deficit when compared with the U.S. might lead some to prematurely dismiss the seriousness of China’s expanding Air Force as a major power global threat, yet the pace of global technological change coupled with China’s emphasis upon scientific innovation and well known industrial capacity are likely to prevent many from underestimating the Chinese air threat. Future conflict is widely expected to be characterized by “multi-domain” air-sea-land synergy, meaning an ability to project maritime power might help the Chinese military offset its small number of 5th-generation stealth aircraft.
This air threat, the DoD study points out, is compounded by the strengthening of China’s nuclear “triad” evidenced in part by the arrival of the country’s first H-6N, its first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber. China is also known to be fast-tracking stealthy attack drones such as the GJ-11 and is of course progressing with its new H-20 stealth bomber possibly intended to rival the U.S. B-21. Added to this equation is the arrival of China’s first F-35C-like carrier-launched FC-31 stealth fighter jet.
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What much of this equates to is that, even if China’s Air Force might not at the moment be able to rival the U.S. in any kind of expansive global major-power confrontation, extremely impactful and lethal warfare effects can be exacted with much smaller numbers of aircraft. Increasing sensor ranges, weapons guidance systems, stealth technology and networking advances certainly strengthens the likelihood that a smaller number of aircraft could still have a large, devastating impact in any kind of great-power warfare engagement.
This would be particularly true should there be a fast-strike, more narrowly targeted assault or rapid annexation of territory when it comes to high-value areas such as Taiwan or disputed island chains in the South China Sea. Simply put, China might not need an overwhelming number of aircraft to take over Taiwan or annex small areas, but might be challenged to project substantial air power beyond the Pacific on any kind of a large scale.
Many of China’s growing military strengths, force expansions and integrated modernization initiatives are analyzed in the Pentagon’s 2021 annual China report, as it is a document which details the country’s grand designs for global domination in coming decades. China’s goal is being pursued through large-scale military modernization and force-size expansion, rigorous research and science and technology initiatives and breakthrough advances in new weapons areas such as hypersonics.
However, despite the growing number of concerning Chinese weapons systems and military expansion efforts detailed in the report, some might wonder about just how much China could project global power in the air? China has a much smaller Air Force than the U.S. and operates very few 5th-generation stealth fighters when compared to the U.S.
China is well known as a dominant regional power and widely understood to be moving quickly to assert itself as a dominant, far-reaching global power. Will having a much smaller Air Force than the U.S. impede its ability to project global air power? The numbers deficit might even be considered alarming to many, given the large amount of attention being paid to Chinese military modernization, but
Globalfirepower.com states that the U.S. now operates more than 10,000 more air platforms than China. In the category of Total Aircraft Strength, the U.S. is listed as operating 13, 233 aircraft, as compared to China’s reported 3, 260 total aircraft.
However, there are many clear reasons why the Pentagon is not likely to dismiss the Chinese air threat.
China’s growing global footprint in places such as Africa and areas of the Middle East might enable it to forward-base air attack assets in position to conduct regional or geographically targeted smaller attacks. This Chinese basing effort, coupled with the addition of a stealthy carrier-launched jet able to launch from the ocean, might help China compensate for its lack of tankers.
The U.S.-China tanker deficit is glaring, as China is reported to operate only “3” tankers, compared to a U.S. Air Force tanker fleet of 625 aircraft, according to Globalfirepower.com. However, China is now converting some of its fleet of now operational Y-20 cargo planes into tankers, likely as part of an effort to address their tanker deficit.
Such a discrepancy between the U.S. and Chinese tanker fleets might lead even a casual observer to think that even if China were well-positioned in its own Pacific arena, it may simply be unable to mount any kind of major cross-continental air campaign without operating a much larger tanker force and expanding its forward basing into areas where it currently has less influence and reach.
China also suffers from another large and perhaps often overlooked discrepancy when it comes to its helicopter fleet. Globalfirepower.com states that China only operates 902 helicopters, less than one-fifth of the 5,400-plus U.S. helicopter fleet.
Having fewer helicopters could certainly encumber maritime attack mission options for China in places such as the South China Sea or complicate efforts to reinforce amphibious landings in Taiwan or Japan with troops, yet having so few helicopters would likely challenge China’s ground force to a much larger extent should the country need to defend itself from land invasion.
While it is tough to imagine any scenario wherein an attacking country might see any hope in trying to fight a land war in mainland China, China’s helicopter deficit might make it difficult for the PLA to delivery infantry from the air in uneven terrain or plateau areas, conduct MEDEVAC missions or provide close in air support for advancing troops on the ground.
This considered, one need not look further than China’s explosive Naval expansion to recognize that the country’s production infrastructure and national will are likely more than sufficient to propel a large-scale PLAAF force expansion. An ability to quickly mass-produce new 5th-generation aircraft and helicopters certainly appears to be well within the bounds of possibility for China as it seeks to pursue its plans for global domination. China’s ambitions in this regard, according to the Pentagon report, are extremely significant as the country is pushing to achieve global supremacy by 2049, if not sooner.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox