15 May 2012

China’s Aerospace Power Trajectory in the Near Seas

Daniel J. Kostecka, China’s Aerospace Power Trajectory in the Near Seas,” Naval War College Review, 65.3 (Summer 2012): 105-21.

Air and aerospace power has been fundamental for defending China’s “near seas”—encompassing the Bohai Gulf, the Yellow Sea, and the East and South China Seas—since the founding of the People’s Republic. While air and naval operations did not play a significant role in the Chinese Civil War, which was won by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the victorious Communist forces  were threatened immediately by hostile air and naval forces from the maritime sphere. In 1949 the regime was ill equipped to defend its eleven thousand miles of coastline and more than six thousand islands against attacks and harassment from Nationalist Chinese air and naval forces occupying the large islands of Taiwan and Hainan, as well as  several smaller islands, let alone protect the People’s Republic of China (PRC) against the aircraft carriers of the powerful U.S. Seventh Fleet. Even before the People’s Republic was officially declared in October 1949, communist leaders immediately recognized the need for strong naval and air forces; the PLA’s commander, General Zhu De, stated in April 1949 that China “must build its own air forces and navy in order to boost national defense.” This need became apparent shortly thereafter, in June 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT) government on Taiwan declared a blockade of coastal mainland ports and its naval and air forces began attacking coastal shipping and ports as well as laying mines in river estuaries.

Over the course of the 1950s the PLA achieved only mixed success in protecting China’s coastline. In 1949 Communist forces captured Hainan Island, the second-largest KMT-held island, and most of the smaller offshore islands fell in the early 1950s. The PLA was also successful in stopping raids on the mainland and its merchant and fishing fleets. However, KMT forces stubbornly held on to Jinmen and Matsu, as well as a few additional islands such as Taiping (Itu Aba) in the South China Sea. Also, the PLA never represented a serious invasion threat to Taiwan—an issue that persists to this day. Further, throughout the 1950s the PLA naval and air forces were impotent against powerful U.S. forces operating in China’s near seas, as evidenced by the Seventh Fleet’s role in resupplying Jinmen in 1954–55, evacuating KMT troops and civilians from the Dachen Islands in 1955, and escorting KMT vessels resupplying Nationalist-held offshore islands in 1958.

Despite a clear need to defend China’s near seas, resource constraints in those years meant that coastal defense represented the extent of the operational capacity of the PLA’s sea and air forces. The overall emphasis of the PLA Navy (PLAN) on coastal defense as opposed to longer-range operations was evidenced by the deployment of thirteen coastal-defense artillery regiments in 1951, the primary focus of naval aviation on air defense of fleet bases, and the disbanding of the  PLAN marines in 1957, only three years after the force was established. While PLAN aviation and aircraft of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) flew several hundred sorties during the campaigns of the 1950s, they were primarily relegated to coastal air defense and operated under restrictive rules of engagement. On a positive note for the PRC, the 1950s ended with the KMT air force no longer operating at will over Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, due to a permanent presence of

PLAAF and PLAN aviation along China’s eastern and southern coastlines. Overall though, while China’s air forces demonstrated the capacity to defend Chinese airspace against KMT aircraft, they could do little to counter U.S. air and naval operations in China’s near seas, as demonstrated by the Seventh Fleet’s operations in and around the Taiwan Strait in the 1950s and the freewheeling nature of U.S. Navy and Air Force air support to United Nations forces during the Korean War.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s PLA air forces continued to emphasize coastal air defense and possessed little ability to exert influence in China’s near seas. The KMT air force on Taiwan continued to fly reconnaissance missions over the mainland. (Several of these aircraft were shot down; in addition, PLAN fighters based on Hainan shot down a small number of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighters that strayed too close to Chinese airspace during the Vietnam War.) However, some PLA combat operations in the 1970s called for China’s air forces to push beyond the coastal-air-defense paradigm. In 1974, PLAN fighter aircraft flew thirty-eight sorties in support of operations to seize the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam, a mission that to this day represents the longest-distance opposed landing executed by the PLA. Further, in the 1979 border conflict with Vietnam, PLAN aircraft flew 751 sorties in support of fleet units off Vietnam’s coast, although no information is available regarding the types of missions flown. …

For articles cited herein, see:

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “‘Flying Shark’ Gaining Altitude: How might new J-15 strike fighter improve China’s maritime air warfare ability?,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 38 (8 June 2011).

Andrew S. Erickson, Abraham M. Denmark, and Gabriel Collins, “Beijing’s ‘Starter Carrier’ and Future Steps: Alternatives and Implications,” Naval War College Review, 65.1 (Winter 2012): 14-54.