12 January 2013

Chinese Statesmen and the Use of Air Power

Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Statesmen and the Use of Air Power,” in Robin Higham and Mark Parillo, eds., The Influence of Airpower upon History: Statesmanship, Diplomacy, and Foreign Policy since 1903 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013), 237-71.

The development of airpower and its influence on history has been primarily a Western narrative, with American, European, and even Russian centers. Aside from Japan’s operationally brilliant but strategically unsustainable military employment in the Pacific War, no Asian power has been a significant airpower beyond its immediate region. China, though it has regained much of its pre-nineteenth-century economic significance and plays an increasingly important geopolitical role, still has not fully proven itself in the realm of airpower. That may finally be changing, and if so, the ramifications could be considerable.

            Today Beijing’s military air components are finally on the verge of giving the country’s leaders something they have dreamed of since before the founding of the People’s Republic of China: a reliable instrument of national power. Though civil and military aviation have long been a tool of national consolidation and development, and the latter has played a vital if limited role in many of China’s twentieth-century military campaigns, both started from virtually nothing, and the journey upward has been arduous indeed. From the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s failure to reunify Taiwan to its awkward reliance on Soviet aid during the Korean War to its truncated invasion of Vietnam, airpower can be said to have been at least as much a limiting factor as an enabler. Yet China’s leaders used it as best they could, as part of a larger pattern of foreign policy in which they played a weak but strengthening hand with notable skill to consolidate China’s autonomy and advance its strategic interests. In its six decades of existence, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) claims to have shot down 1,474 aircraft and damaged 2,344, for a total of 3,818. Airpower has thus been at the heart of modern Chinese statecraft, and for that reason alone its evolution and use merits careful examination.

            Founded during the Nanchang Uprising on 1 August 1927, the Red Army gradually incorporated subordinate units throughout the Long March of 1934–1935, the War of Resistance against Japan in 1937–1945, and the War of Liberation in 1945–1949, until the PRC’s establishment on 1 October 1949. The term People’s Liberation Army was used to describe individual units as early as 1945, but only the Central Military Commission (CMC) order on 1 November 1948 made the term PLA broadly applicable to CCP armed forces.

            Founded on 11 November 1949, the PLAAF began operations with captured Nationalist and Japanese aircraft. Like the PLA Navy (PLAN, which had been established on 23 April 1949), its early leaders had only ground experience; this persisted until the mid-1980s, since which time all commanders have been former pilots. The PLAAF, PLAN, and Second Artillery—established in 1966 and responsible for most ballistic missiles—were subordinated to the ground forces through the end of the Cold War. A survey of PLA uses of force during the latter half of the twentieth century reveals primarily ground force actions on China’s land borders with some degree of air “support” (albeit never close air support near ground troops), as well as several efforts to assert sovereignty over disputed islands (although China’s air forces did not generally fly over water until the late 1990s). PLAAF wartime operations have followed a general pattern in which a sudden political decision forces rapid preparation and deployment of underprepared PLAAF forces, facilitated by political work, and guided by nuanced rules of engagement established by the PLA’s highest decision-making body, the CMC. Using Chinese territory as a sanctuary, the PLAAF deploys hundreds of aircraft to a border zone. Conflict operations are then used both to achieve military objectives and to train pilots and support personnel.

            Under Soviet guidance, the PLA established the Naval Aviation Force in 1951. Apparently subordinated to the PLAAF initially, it subsequently was divided into three fleet air divisions. In 1950 a naval air academy was established in Qingdao to provide fifteen months of primarily technical instruction. By January 1953 PLA Naval Aviation had established a fighter and a light bomber division. Its 80 aircraft were Tu-2 bombers, MiG-15 fighters, and Il-28 bombers. By 1958 the force had grown to a shore-based 470 aircraft charged with coastal air defense. The separate PLA Air Defense Force was merged into the PLAAF in 1957.

            It is surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and antiaircraft artillery (AAA), not aircraft, that have provided primary air defense. The PLAAF has long employed both; Naval Aviation relies primarily on AAA and has largely phased out its SAMs. The extent to which PLAAF and Naval Aviation aircraft are capable of flying in airspace covered by the various services’ SAMs remains unclear.

            Paramount leaders have always had disproportionate influence on the PLA because it is a party army. Mao Zedong (1893–1976) is the most prominent example of the interrelation between PRC political and military leadership. He led the CCP to victory in the anti-Japanese and civil wars and was China’s principal leader from 1949 to 1976. During that time he commanded the PLA as head of the CMC and served as China’s foremost military strategist. In developing PLA tactics, Mao drew on both traditions of peasant insurgency and guerilla warfare experience, which he privileged under the aegis of “People’s War” at the expense of technological emphasis. In doing so, he limited possibilities for Chinese airpower development even as he presided over its one significant use in conflict, in Korea. However they decide to manage affairs of state in the future, Mao’s successors will finally have significant aviation assets at their disposal. …


About the Volume

Foreword by four-star General Richard B. Myers USAF (Ret.), who served as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

From the Publisher:

From early zeppelins, to the Luftwaffe and the Enola Gay, to the unmanned aerial vehicles of today, air power has long been regarded as an invaluable instrument of war. However, nations have employed aircraft for many other purposes as well; they provide security and surveillance, and they are vital to myriad diplomatic and humanitarian efforts. Air power has become a means for statesmen to advance a variety of goals, opening up new possibilities and problems in times of peace as well as war.

The Influence of Air Power upon History examines the many ways in which aviation technology has impacted policymaking since 1903. It analyzes air strategy in nations around the world and explores how a country’s presumed technological capability, or lack thereof, has become a crucial aspect of diplomacy. Together, the essays in this insightful volume offer a greater understanding of the history of military force and diplomatic relations in the global community.

Editorial Reviews

“The editors have assembled a distinguished group of historians to analyze how states have used air power and air forces to purse larger diplomatic, social, and economic objectives.”

– Colonel Anthony Christopher Cain, USAF (Ret.)

“Whether as a dream or a nightmare, for good or ill, airpower has been the great seducer. This book is a history of that seduction. The contributors, all experts in their fields, give the volume international relevance.”

– Stephen J. Harris, editor of Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

“This outstanding collection of essays delves into the complex nature of airpower in its first century and illustrates its profound impact on national growth and strategy. Highly recommended.”

– John B. Lundstrom, author of Black Shoe Carrier Admiral

“A significant contribution to the fields of aviation history, military history, and defense policy. Editors Higham and Parillo have done a great service by assembling highly qualified and well respected authors to write nine excellent chapters that are informative, stimulating, and provocative. This outstanding collection of essays raises aviation history from its concentration on operations, hardware, and heroes, to a much higher level. The result is a volume of materials well above what has thus far appeared, a collection long in chronology, wide in geography, and broad in topic showing the breath, flexibility, and importance of air power. This is essential reading for student and scholar and also will be of interest to buffs.”

– Kenneth P. Werrell, author of Death from the Heavens: A History of Strategic Bombing

About the Editors

Dr. Robin Higham, professor of history emeritus at Kansas State University, Manhattan, is the author or editor of more than thirty books, including The Military History of the Soviet Union and Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat.

Dr. Mark Parillo, professor of history at Kansas State University, is the author of We Were in the Big One: Experiences of the World War II Generation.