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Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century: Rise of the Red Dragon

Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century: Rise of the Red Dragon by Andreas Rupprecht. Harpa Publishing, 2019, 253 pp.

This survey of Chinese airpower begins with Sun Yat-sen's embrace of airpower in 1911 and continues through 2019, although the coverage of the last few years is relatively brief. Six historical chapters each conclude with sections detailing the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) various aircraft, and three appendixes provide more information on the PLAAF’s organization and numbering system. Chinese Air Power builds notably on Kenneth Allen’s now-dated China’s Air Force Enters the 21st Century (1995) while ignoring more recent studies, such as a substantial 2011 RAND study. The author, Andreas Rupprecht, is a German aviation journalist who has published several similar books detailing Chinese airpower. He interweaves this knowledge with appropriate coverage of Chinese history throughout the work.

The introduction includes a brief mention of the 2019 anniversary parade. However, the reader seeking commentary on the two new aircraft the author refers to will be disappointed at the lack of commentary. It also includes the unsubstantiated claim and sweeping generalization that, unlike the West, China tends to “resolve issues pragmatically” (p. 7).

The first chapter, “Prequel: 1911–24,” briefly charts the first use of Chinese aircraft in 1913 as well as early pilot training. “Early Years: 1924–29” provides concise paragraphs highlighting various Chinese air forces, including brief attempts by warlords to establish their own air forces and ongoing woes with Russian training, which began a continuing trend (pp. 26, 46).

Chapter three spans the time frame from the PLAAF’s formal establishment through the Korean War. Although Rupprecht does not make this point as explicit as he could, the early PLAAF suffered from being pulled in multiple directions. Even as he stresses how Mao Zhedong intended to invade Taiwan by 1950, he notes how China quickly became involved in the Korean War. China also simultaneously pursued defensive aircraft to protect its cities from Nationalist aircraft. Rupprecht concludes that the PLAAF did not learn much from the Korean War. Rather, it largely “delud[ed]” itself as to what it achieved while crafting a “man-over-machine" identity (pp. 51–52). The author also contends that the air force suffered in this period because the People’s Liberation Army did not intend to make the PLAAF independent, preventing a broader, more holistic doctrine from taking root. The PLA’s influence also stymied the air force’s leadership development due to excessive army influence that kept air-minded thinking from flourishing (pp. 34, 44).

Chapter four highlights the challenges the PLAAF faced from 1954 to 1966. Although the PLAAF made minimal contributions to the First Taiwan Crisis of 1954–55, it did develop bases closer to Taiwan and other Nationalist-controlled offshore islands and gain more control over airspace that the Republic of China Air Force had previously dominated (p. 79). Meanwhile, the Chinese tried to develop their indigenous aviation industry but struggled for a number of reasons, including unrealistic expectations as well as the Cultural Revolution. This chapter overlaps with the next one’s sole focus on the Cultural Revolution. This decade-long process set the PLAAF back for 25 years (p. 100), such as by ceasing training for everyone but pilots for six years.  

The final chapter takes on an enormous span of time, focusing on the PLAAF’s modernization from 1976 to 2019. The Sino-Vietnam border conflict offered a wake-up call for the PLAAF, as it reinforced its lack of “decent offensive capabilities.” In fact, the PLAAF did not fight in Vietnamese airspace; rather, it adopted a defensive stance inside its own borders, averaging about one sortie every five days (p. 125). In terms of modernizing its aircraft, a key change resulted from the fall of the Soviet Union, which motivated a desperate Russian government suffering from a “collapsing” economy to allow the export of the Su-27 to China (p. 131). Other important organizational changes also occurred, such as the first pilot—Korean War ace Wang Hai—to become commander of the PLAAF in 1985. Doctrine also shifted away from more defensive operations to balancing offensive and defensive roles (p. 136). The PLAAF simultaneously embraced more realistic training to prepare for possible combat in ways analogous to the US Air Force’s Red Flag exercises and moved from ground control to more “independent decision-making" (p. 139). Thus, while the author devotes significant space to detailing individual aircraft, he also seeks to include a focus on tactics, training, and organization (p. 145).

This useful introduction to Chinese airpower suffers on occasion from poorly edited English. At times the writing is just distracting although, at a few points, it does obfuscate the author’s point. The author is also a journalist more than a scholar, as evident in some of the weaker citations. For general readers, this study provides an accessible introduction to the PLAAF. For analysts and those wanting the most recent information on the PLAAF, some information might be found wanting. Still, this work provides a useful and well-illustrated reference guide that can be supplemented with other recent works, such as RAND studies.

Dr. Heather Venable
Air Command and Staff College

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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