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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

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 also 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 2021 China report. 

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 a serious and fast-growing Chinese air threat of great strategic relevance to the Pacific. 

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 when it comes to Air Power? 

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 t 100 J-20s, whereas the U.S. can fly more than 160 F-22s, hundreds of land and sea-launched F-35s 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. This is something the US Navy can greatly influence as it often forward-positions carrier strike groups with F-35C-armed carrier and amphibious formations armed with large numbers of vertical take-off-and-landing F-35Bs. 

 
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.

GJ-11 Stealth Drone

GJ-11 Stealth Drone

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.

Global Domination 

China’s goal of achieving Global Domination by 2049 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. 

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. 

This is likely one of the factors influencing China's move to expand its fleet of air-to-air refueling aircraft to close a tanker deficit with the U.S. and more fully project global air power.

The U.S. operates as many as 625 tanker aircraft, whereas China is listed as only having three, according to Global Firepower. This lack of tankers would limit or even imperil any Chinese effort to launch a large-scale cross-continental air campaign.

China already has fewer 5th-generation aircraft when compared to the U.S., NATO and Pacific allies. The absence of tankers makes it very difficult for Chinese fighter jets, with a likely combat radius of 300-to-500 miles, to travel thousands of miles across a continent or ocean area. China can still easily reach Japan, Taiwan and possibly Australia, India and parts of Southeast Asia, however a cross-continental air-attack is likely out of reach.

This is likely one key reason why The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is developing a new tanker-variant of its C-130 and C-17-like Y-20 Cargo plane.

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“The PLAAF is developing the Y-20U, a new tanker variant of its large Y-20 heavy-lift transport, which will enable the PLAAF to significantly expand its tanker fleet and improve its power,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.

Should the attack ranges of its fighter jets and bombers such as the new H-20 be able to double their range, it opens up an entirely new mission envelope for the PLAAF. This opens up an entirely new sphere of attack options for China.

Nonetheless, the lack of tankers is likely one of many reasons why China is vigorously expanding it footprint and influence around the world to include more locations in the Middle East and Africa. Much of China’s incursions into Africa, apart from the emergence of a military base in Djibouti, are economic or business-oriented in nature.

Any ability to base aircraft in parts of Northern Africa greatly improves the PLAAF’s ability to reach the European continent for potential air attacks. This is extremely significant, because without a larger tanker fleet or substantial forward positioning, China would be ill equipped to handle any kind of air confrontation on a large scale beyond its own immediate region.

At the same time, a lack of tankers does not limit China’s ability to attack Taiwan or possibly even Japan. Japan, however, can be as far as 1,000 miles off the coast from parts of mainland China, depending upon take-off point. Therefore refueling, or amphibious forces, might be needed should China need to launch an invasion of Japan and give its fighter jets reach and dwell time.

   A multifunctional Y-20 variant could make a large difference regarding amphibious attacks. Not only could the large cargo aircraft deliver supplies, ground troops or weapons to an amphibious landing area should a beachhead be secured, but it could enable fighter aircraft to help an amphibious attack pursue air superiority. 

Helicopters

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. 

Z-20

Two Z-20 medium-lift utility helicopters, the first of their kind developed and made in China, do a flyby at the fifth China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin on Thursday.

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.

Chinese J-20 vs US F-22

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is pursuing a number of ambitious upgrades to its 5th-generation J-20 stealth fighter in a clear effort to keep pace with the U.S. F-22.

The upgrades include increasing the number of air-to-air missiles the jet can carry in “stealth mode” to improve air-attack range, precision and firepower, the Pentagon’s 2021 China report says.

The Pentagon’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” also says the Chinese are installing a thrust-vectoring nozzle and adding an F-22-like “supercruise” ability with the installation of indigenous WS-15 engines.

Supercruise

Supercruise refers to the F-22s ability to achieve and sustain Mach-speed without having to use an afterburner, due to the power and thrust of the engine.

This means the attack jet can pursue longer and more detailed attack missions without having to return to refuel as quickly as most fighters need to. 

Much like an F-22, a supercruise-enabled J-20 would be able to remain in high-speed engagements for much longer periods of time without having to quickly exit the fight, escape or return for refueling.

Weapons

Upgrading J-20 weapons to truly rival the F-22, however, is likely to be difficult. This is because Lockheed Martin and the Air Force have substantially upgraded the F-22s weapons ability through a software upgrade in recent years referred to as 3.2b.

This greatly improved the range, targeting precision and durability of several crucial air-to-air weapons such as the AIM-9X and AIM 120-D. The software upgrades, Lockheed weapons developers explain, improve the electronics on the weapons to increase reliability through hardening and enable mid-flight course corrections.

The AIM-9X, for example, can be fired “off boresight,” meaning it can change course in flight to attack a target on the side or behind the aircraft. There does not have to be a linear, straight ahead flight patch for the weapon to travel to and hit an enemy target.

The extent of weapons upgrades to the J-20 is likely difficult to discern, however the Pentagon report did mention something about preserving stealth mode which may be a reference to an internal weapons bay. This enables a stealth aircraft to carry and fire weapons while preserving a smooth, blended stealthy exterior absent protruding edges or sharp contours likely to generate a return radar signal to enemy air defenses.

Ultimately, these enhancements may not lead to much when it comes to truly rivaling a U.S. F-22 unless the range and guidance systems of the weapons themselves can equal or outmatch the Raptor or F-35.

The Chinese J-20 fleet will also remain vulnerable to U.S. 5th-generation aircraft in large measure because there simply are not that many J-20s

Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization

 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. MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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