In this part of the review, we will consider the numerical and qualitative components of the PLA Air Force's fighter fleet, the possibilities for gaining air supremacy and long-range interception of strategic cruise missile bombers. We will also talk about the ground airfield structure and organization of control over the actions of interceptor fighters and combat training.
According to data published in open sources, the PLA Air Force has more than 3,000 aircraft, of which approximately 2,100 are combat aircraft. In total, more than 1,100 fighters can be used to perform air defense missions and gain air superiority. The most valuable in this respect are J-11A, J-11B / BS and J-11D - which in total are about 300 units. Chinese sources say that the Su-27SK and Su-27UBK delivered from Russia in 2018 were finally withdrawn from combat units due to the development of a resource. Also in the fighter regiments there are 73 multipurpose two-seat Russian-made Su-30MKK fighters. Apparently, 24 Su-30MK2s were transferred to the naval aviation, since they are not included in the PLA Air Force as of 2017. The situation with the double J-16 is not clear. Chinese sources say that its main task is to combat naval targets and strike at point ground targets. The J-16 aircraft in many ways resembles the Russian Su-30MKK and was allegedly created to replace the front-line bomber JH-7, of which the PLA Air Force has more than 70 units.
In total, the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation has built about 100 J-16 aircraft. This vehicle, which is a functional analogue of the Russian Su-34, does not have an armored cabin, but is also equipped with a multifunctional radar, can carry medium-range air-to-air missiles, and has good potential as an interceptor.
In November 2018, the last of the 24 Su-35SK fighters ordered in Russia were delivered to the PRC. Russian fighters of the 4 ++ generation were highly appreciated by Chinese pilots, but it is unlikely that they are now fully mastered by the flight and technical personnel. Moreover, the future of these machines is not clear. The number of purchased Su-35SK by Chinese standards is very small, and they will not be able to significantly increase the combat power of the PLA Air Force. Taking into account the fact that several aircraft will most likely be disassembled for detailed acquaintance, the fighters remaining in flight condition will not even be enough to equip one air regiment.
Until recently, the most numerous fighters in the PLA Air Force were the Chinese copies of the MiG-21: J-7D, J-7E, J-7G and two-seat trainer JJ-7. According to data provided by the Flightglobal resource, as of 2018, there were 360 aircraft in service. At the moment, they are being actively replaced by modern light fighters of the J-10 family. According to the same source, in 2017, about 300 J-10A / B / C aircraft were operated in fighter aviation regiments. Given that the production capacity of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation is able to build 50 aircraft per year, it can be assumed that the number of J-10 fighters is at least equal to the number of J-7s available.
As for the officially adopted fighters of the 5th generation J-20A, their number most likely does not exceed two dozen, they are still in trial operation and are not capable of significantly affecting the balance of forces. The outgoing type in the PLA Air Force, along with the J-7 light fighter, can be considered the J-8II interceptor. In 2018, there were 96 fighters of modifications in 4 air regiments: J-8IIDF, J-8IIH, J-8IIF.
About 5 years ago, the PLA Air Force began the formation of separate unmanned special-purpose squadrons, which were directly subordinate to the commander of the military districts. These squadrons are equipped with converted radio-controlled fighters: J-6, J-7 and J-8. Their main purpose is to divert enemy interceptors and anti-aircraft systems to themselves, as well as to perform reconnaissance and demonstration flights with the aim of opening the enemy's air defense system. In peacetime, the personnel and equipment of unmanned squadrons are involved in organizing the training process of fighter aircraft and air defense forces. This is facilitated by a significant stock of obsolete aircraft. The restoration and re-equipment of decommissioned fighters is carried out at the aircraft factories where these aircraft were built in the past.
In the past, the PRC had 7 military districts with headquarters: in Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Jinan, Lanzhou, Nanjing and Shenyang. As part of the modernization of the armed forces and to improve the efficiency of command and control of the Air Force and Air Defense units, 5 PLA Air Force Territorial Commands (Theaters of War) were created in 2016: Eastern (headquarters in Nanjing), Southern (headquarters in Guangzhou), Western (headquarters in Chengdu), North (headquarters in Shenyang), Central (headquarters in Beijing). The central command post of the PLA Air Force is also located near Beijing.
The headquarters of the territorial commands receive information about the air situation from numerous radar posts; data is exchanged with the command posts of divisional and regimental fighter aviation and anti-aircraft missile forces via high-speed communication lines. If necessary, the KJ-200 and KJ-500 long-range radar detection and control aircraft are lifted into the air. In 2018, each territorial command had 3-4 AWACS aircraft at its disposal.
There is reason to believe that the bulk of the J-8IIDF / H, J-10В / С and J-11А / В / D fighters are equipped with automated guidance equipment from an external target designation source. On the most modern types of Chinese fighters, a digital information exchange system is installed, which allows you to broadcast in real time a radar image to command posts and other aircraft. Due to this, a single information field is formed and the effectiveness of the action of air defense forces is significantly increased. Direct control of the actions of fighters and individual anti-aircraft missile divisions is carried out via VHF and HF radio networks. In the process of combat training of combatant air regiments armed with J-8II, Su-30MKK, J-11 and J-10 fighters located at air bases along the coast, it takes a lot of time to practice intercepting cruise missile carriers until they reach the launch lines.
There are 3-4 air divisions subordinate to the territorial command of the Air Force and Air Defense, each of which has 2-4 fighter aviation regiments. The number of regiments in a division depends on the type of fighter. Some commands also have separate fighter brigades equipped with heavy J-11A / B and Su-30MKK. Usually in the fighter regiment, which is armed with J-8II, J-11A / B / D and Su-30MKK, there are 24 single and two-seat fighters. In order to conserve the resource of combat aircraft, outdated fighters are used for carrying out export and training flights: J-7 or "twin" JJ-7. Aviation regiments operating light single-engine J-10s usually have 36 aircraft, and regiments flying J-7s may have more than 40 fighters. This is due to the fact that units armed with previously outdated J-7s are actively switching to new types of combat aircraft, and released fighters, which still have a sufficient operational resource, are transferred to regiments armed with these aircraft.
Quite often, light and heavy fighters belonging to different aviation regiments and brigades are based at the same airfield.It is not uncommon to observe a combination of light J-10 with heavy J-11A / B and Su-30MKK, or delta fighters J-7 and J-8II. Apparently, in this way, optimization and separation of tasks are carried out. Heavy interceptors must meet air attack weapons at distant approaches, and light single-engine fighters must destroy targets that have broken through in the near zone and defend their own air bases.
China's airfield network has more than 400 airfields, including 350 with a hard surface runway. The operational capacity of the airfields is 9000 aircraft, which is almost three times more than the Chinese fleet of combat aircraft. The PLA Air Force has more than 150 air bases at its disposal. In terms of the number of airfields suitable for the deployment of military aviation, the PRC surpasses our country by about 5 times. A common practice is when squadrons of one fighter aviation regiment are simultaneously based at several airfields located at a distance of 20-50 km from each other, or, as part of the development of a way out of the attack, they are urgently transferred to alternate airfields. Such exercises in each IAP are practiced at least 2 times a year. Approximately 30% of the existing airfields with a capital runway are in reserve. At the same time, both the runway itself and the airfield infrastructure are maintained in good condition in the most thorough way. The reserve airbases have security and engineering support units necessary to maintain their vital functions, as well as supplies of fuel and aircraft weapons.
In the 70s and 80s, airbases were built in the eastern and central regions of the PRC, where combat aircraft took refuge in tunnels pierced in rock. Now these shelters, with thick steel gates capable of withstanding a nearby nuclear explosion, are partially mothballed and used as storage bases for decommissioned reserve aircraft, but if necessary, they can receive aircraft from combatant regiments. Even such large aircraft as the H-6 (Chinese copy of the Tu-16 bomber) can fit into some underground shelters.
According to American data, more than 40 underground aviation shelters were erected in the PRC during the Cold War, and now at least 30 of them are in working order. It is reliably known that some of the shelters have been reconstructed and adapted for the permanent placement, maintenance and repair of the most modern types of fighters available in the PLA Air Force.
Underground shelters, protected by tens of meters of rock and reinforced from the inside with reinforced concrete, as a rule, have several halls with main and reserve disguised entrances. The halls, in turn, are interconnected by corridors, the width of which allows aircraft to be transported along them. Thus, even if one of the entrances to the shelter survives, the aircraft can be brought to the surface and used in hostilities.
It is worth recognizing that the PLA command is very serious about the issue of ensuring the combat stability of the Air Force and the ability to conduct long-term hostilities with technologically strong opponents who have long-range cruise missiles at their disposal.
Noteworthy is the fact that 2/3 of active military airfields are located along the Chinese coast, and fighters based on them protect the largest defense-industrial and administrative centers of the PRC. It is in areas with good climatic conditions for the population that more than 70% of the Chinese industrial potential is concentrated. It is quite natural that this is where the main air defense forces and the most modern aviation technology are located.
In the west and northeast of the PRC, the concentration of fighter aircraft is relatively small, but at the same time, there is a sufficient number of active and mothballed airfields for transferring here, if necessary, a significant number of combat aircraft.The operating airbases of the PLA Air Force in the northeast of the PRC, where combat aircraft are operated on a permanent basis, are located no closer than 130 km from the Russian-Chinese border. The Russian-Chinese border is currently viewed by the PRC command as a secondary area that does not pose a threat to national interests.
The three air regiments stationed in the area are mainly armed with obsolete J-7 light fighters and J-8II interceptors. Only one air regiment, deployed at the Yanji airbase near the city of Longjing in the Yanbian Korea Autonomous Prefecture, was re-armed from J-7D fighters to J-10A in 2015. At the same time, taking into account the number of airfields with capital runways in the northeast of the PRC, here it is possible to very quickly deploy an aviation group that is many times superior to the forces of the RF Armed Forces in the Far Eastern Federal District. As you know, in the 11th Red Banner Army of the Aerospace Forces, in whose area of responsibility the Russian Far East is located, there are a little more than a hundred fighters: MiG-31B / BM, Su-27SM, Su-30M2 and Su-35S. And in terms of the number of airfields capable of receiving combat aircraft, we are several times behind China in the Far Eastern region.
In addition to airbases subordinate to territorial commands, there are air units directly controlled from Beijing. This applies to flight test and training centers for flight personnel and combat use.
The Yangcun Air Base near Beijing is the home of the Red Falcons and August Fools' aerobatic teams. The Red Falcons group was created in 2011, and the First of August has existed since 1962. In the past, fighters were used to perform demonstration flights: J-5, J-6 J-7.
In 2009, the pilots of the First August group moved from J-7G to J-10AY. The J-10AY aerobatic aircraft is an extremely lightweight J-10A fighter, from which weapons and some electronic onboard systems have been removed. In total, 23 single and double J-10AY / AYS aircraft were built for the Chinese aerobatic teams.
Cangzhou Air Base in Hebei Province is a flight test and retraining center for fighter pilots. In the past, military trials of the J-8 family of interceptors took place in this place, and now new modifications of Russian fighters, as well as the latest J-10 and J-11 models, are being mastered.
The PLA Air Force Test Pilot School is located in Changzhou. Simultaneously with military tests and retraining, the pilots of the Su-30MKK squadron were assigned the responsibility to provide air defense of the designated sector from the side of the Bohai Bay.
The PLA Air Force Combat Center is located in a rocky desert in northwestern China in Gansu province, Inner Mongolia region. Here, 70 km to the south of the Jiuquan cosmodrome, is the Dingxin air test site, the largest in the PRC. Initially, J-6, J-7 and J-8 fighters, as well as a squadron of H-6 bombers, from which cruise target missiles were launched for testing air defense systems at the air defense range known as "Site No. 72 ". In 1996, work began on the creation of a combat use center here at the Dingxin airfield. By 2001, the three-lane concrete runway was increased to 4200 m, radar posts, optoelectronic ground observation stations, repair shops, a large residential town, ammunition and fuel depots appeared in the vicinity of the airfield. A mock-up of an enemy airfield with fake positions of S-300P, Hawk and Patriot air defense systems, imitators of radar stations and jammers was erected on a target field 7 km east of the airbase. All this makes it possible to increase the realism of the combat training process and, in practice, to work out the methods of counteracting air defense systems, interception and close air combat in difficult conditions.
On the outskirts of Dingxin airbase, there are about a hundred decommissioned obsolete J-5, J-6, J-7 and J-8 fighters.Of particular interest are the ancient J-5s, which are a licensed copy of the Soviet MiG-17. The Dingxin Combat Training Center remains the only place in the PRC where these aircraft, officially decommissioned in 1993, are still taking off. Obsolete J-5 subsonic fighters and JJ-5 two-seat trainers, which were officially decommissioned in 2011, are used as unmanned targets.
Aircraft, which are more than 50 years old, are refurbished to flight condition at an aircraft repair facility located to the west of the airbase runway. Here, remote control equipment is installed on target aircraft. Taking into account the fact that 12-15 obsolete fighters are being restored and refurbished per year, their stock may be enough for another 6-7 years. Target aircraft J-5 and J-6 are actively used at the nearby training ground during control and training firing, testing of new air-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft missile systems.
A great advantage of the Dingxin test site is the ability to launch long-range anti-aircraft and aircraft missiles at air targets, since this area is practically unpopulated, and in the east direction to the nearest settlement Bayan-Nur is about 600 km. This makes it possible to conduct secret tests away from prying eyes and to ensure the necessary safety of flights and the use of aircraft weapons. Around the test site there are 10 stationary radar posts and 5 air bases with capital runways 2-3.5 km long, as well as several civil airfields, where aircraft participating in tests and exercises can land.
Large-scale exercises of the PLA Air Force "Red Sword", as well as the final stage of the "Golden Helmet" competition for fighter pilots, are regularly held at the aviation range. At the final stage of the competition, the J-10, J-11, J-16 and Su-30MKK fighters converge in close air combat. At the Dingxin airbase, an air squadron is permanently based, playing on the exercises for the enemy. Pilots of high qualifications were selected for this detachment, until recently equipped with Russian-made Su-27SK / UBK fighters. However, at the moment all the Su-27SK / UBKs have been decommissioned due to the depletion of the resource, and the pilots of the Chinese unit "Aggressor" have been transferred to the Su-30MKK and J-11V. There is every reason to believe that Su-35SK fighters will soon be used in the Aggressors at the Dingxin airfield.
In 2016, satellite photos of Chinese 5th generation fighters captured at Dingxin airbase appeared on the network. According to information published in the Chinese segment of the Internet, it is here that military tests of the pre-production batch of J-20A aircraft are being conducted.
At the Dingxin airbase, not only tests of the latest fighters, combat training, training air battles and competitions between various aviation units are carried out, but also demonstrations of new aviation equipment to the leaders of the PRC and the high command of the PLA. In March 2006, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Hu Jintao visited the base. On February 2, 2013, the General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping visited here.
The high qualifications of the PLA Air Force pilots were confirmed during the International Army Games (ARMI-2017), held July 30 - August 9, 2017 in Changchun (Jilin Province in the northeast of China) and the Aviadarts military pilot competition held in Russia on July 29 - August 11, 2018 at a military training ground near the village of Dubrovichi (Ryazan region). In 2017, the Russian and Chinese teams won four nominations each. In the Aviadarts-2018 competition, Chinese pilots won in two nominations out of eight. According to The Military Balance 2017, the annual flight time of pilots of Chinese elite fighter units can reach or even exceed 200 hours. The PLA Air Force is quite careful about preserving the resource of modern fighters, and a significant part of flight hours is recruited on training aircraft and outdated fighters.At the same time, in air regiments armed with J-7 and J-8 fighters, the number of flight hours accumulated per year, in most cases, does not exceed 100.
The system of training fighter pilots in China is quite interesting. Initial flight training at flight schools begins on CJ-6 piston aircraft (created on the basis of the Yak-18). Then the cadets are transferred to the JL-8 jet trainer.
After graduating from college, in the training air regiments of the PLA Air Force, as part of the advanced training stage, flights were carried out on "twin" JJ-7 and single J-7. Having mastered the Chinese copy of the MiG-21, the pilot began his career on second-generation fighters, after which, if he was lucky, he went through flights on the Su-27UBK combat training aircraft, its Chinese counterpart J-11AS or a two-seat modification of the single-engine J-10AS fighter. Only after this did the young Chinese pilot receive admission to combat: Su-27SK, Su-30MKK, J-11A / B, J-10A / B. It was possible to switch to the later modifications of the J-8II fighters, having passed through flights on the J-8 of the early series.
According to information published in open sources, the fighter fleet of the Russian Aerospace Forces, which includes the MiG-29, Su-27P / SM / SM3, Su-30SM / M2, Su-35S and MiG-31B / BM, is approximately 700 aircraft. Apparently, this number also includes aircraft that are "in storage" and modernization. Thus, it can be stated that already now the PLA Air Force is significantly superior to the Russian Aerospace Forces in terms of the number of fighters in service. However, in China there are still many outdated J-7 and J-8II, but the process of replacing them with modern J-11B / D and J-10В / С fighters is very active. With a high degree of probability, taking into account the pace of construction in the PRC of modern combat aircraft, it can be assumed that obsolete delta wing fighters will be finally decommissioned within the next decade.