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China’s Search for a Modern Air Force John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai For more than fortyeight years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has sought to build a combat-ready air force.1 First in the Korean War (1950–53) and then again in 1979, Beijing’s leaders gave precedence to this quest, but it was the Gulf War in 1991 coupled with growing concern over Taiwan that most alerted them to the global revolution in air warfare and prompted an accelerated buildup. This study brieºy reviews the history of China’s recurrent efforts to create a modern air force and addresses two principal questions. Why did those efforts, which repeatedly enjoyed a high priority, fail? What have the Chinese learned from these failures and how do they deªne and justify their current air force programs? The answers to the ªrst question highlight changing defense concerns in China’s national planning. Those to the second provide a more nuanced understanding of current security goals, interservice relations, and the evolution of national defense strategies. With respect to the ªrst question, newly available Chinese military writings and interviews with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ofªcers on the history of the air force suggest that the reasons for the recurrent failure varied markedly from period to period. That variation itself has prevented the military and political leaderships from forming a consensus about the lessons of the past and the policies that could work. In seeking to answer the second question, the article examines emerging air force and national defense policies and doctrines and sets forth Beijing’s rationale for the air force programs in light of new security challenges, particularly those in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. In the 1990s, the air force has fashioned both a more realistic R&D (research and development) and procurement policy and a more comprehensive strategy for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in future warfare. We conclude that this strategy is recasting timeInternational Security, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Summer 1999), pp. 64–94© 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai are members of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation and have coauthored a number of studies on Chinese military programs. The authors acknowledge with thanks the contributions made by two anonymous reviewers and by Kenneth Allen, William J. Perry, and Dean Wilkening. Unless otherwise stated, all Chinese-language publications are published in Beijing. 1. Two English-language studies, though now dated, provide the foundation for any understanding of this subject: Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel, and Jonathan D. Pollack, China’s Air Force Enters the Twenty-ªrst Century (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1995); and Duan Zijun, chief ed., China Today: Aviation Industry (Beijing: China Aviation Industry Press, 1989). 64 honored Chinese dogma concerning “active defense” and no ªrst strike, and that PLA theorists have inched closer to Western concepts on the role of air power in warfare.2 We begin with an overview of Beijing’s response to heavy losses from U.S. air strikes against Chinese forces in the Korean War, and the PLA’s abortive three-decade effort to build a modern air force. With the ending of the chaotic Cultural Revolution and the Mao Zedong era in 1976, China’s new leader, Deng Xiaoping, and his military commanders once more gave priority to air force modernization. Here we analyze the Chinese inability to achieve the objectives of the 1980s and provide the background for the PLA’s urgent reevaluation of air power that followed the 1991 Gulf War. We then examine the conclusions reached in that reevaluation and show how these conclusions have changed PLAAF strategy and procurement policies. The ªnal sections of the article discuss how Beijing’s concerns about a future conºict in the Taiwan Strait intensiªed internal PLA debates on air force missions and further transformed its modernization programs. We end with an assessment of the Chinese case for continuing the search for a modern air force in light of the decades of repeated setbacks and the overwhelming air superiority of its potential adversaries. Marching...


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