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The primary mission of the PLA Air Force 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
interdiction and possibly close air support, and some bomber units
could be used for nuclear delivery. The force had only limited
military airlift and reconnaissance capabilities.
The Soviet Union helped to establish the Air Force in 1949 and
began to provide aircraft in late 1951. Production technology came
two years later. By 1956 China was assembling F-4s (copies of
MiG-15s) and eight years later was producing both the F-5 (MiG-17)
and the F-6 (MiG-19) under license. Meanwhile, Soviet instructors
were training the new pilots in Soviet tactics. The withdrawal of
Soviet aid in 1960 crippled China's aircraft industry. The industry
declined markedly through 1963, further hindered by the high
priority accorded to the competing missile and nuclear weapons
program. The aircraft industry began to recover in about 1965,
however, when China began providing F-4s and F-5s to North Vietnam.
Chinese pilots saw considerable action in the Korean War and,
to a lesser extent, during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1958. During
the China-Vietnam border conflict of 1979, the Chinese avoided air
battles, probably at least partly because they lacked the
confidence to challenge Vietnam's air force, which though far
smaller was better armed and trained.
The 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: air
defense, ground attack, bombing, and independent air regiments. In
peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the
PLA General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through air
army headquarters located with, or in communication with, each of
the seven military region headquarters. In war, control of the Air
Force probably reverted to the regional commanders. In 1987 it was
not clear how the reorganization and the incorporation of air
support elements into the group armies affected air force
The largest Air Force organizational unit was the 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
education 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 surfaceto -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 (a copy of the MiG-21) and F-8 (an
indigenous model derived from various Soviet designs), 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.
Data as of July 1987