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Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century

Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth: Chinese Air Force Employment Concepts in the 21st Century by Roger Cliff et al. RAND, 2011, 306 pp.

In Shaking the Heavens and Splitting the Earth, Roger Cliff and a team of five RAND Corporation scholars examine the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and what its rise means for the United States. Cliff, who holds a PhD in political science from Princeton University, is currently a senior political scientist at RAND and a leading voice on Chinese military matters. While much has been written in recent years on the material side of the Chinese military buildup, this book addresses the unanswered question of how exactly China would employ its arsenal if war were to erupt. The answer, of course, is necessarily a nuanced one.

Shaking the Heavens portrays a Chinese air force in a state of wholesale transformation. What was only decades ago an outmoded, underequipped, and inexperienced institution is now on the fast track to becoming one of the world’s preeminent air forces. While for the most part it remains untested in battle, institutional changes have been stark. As recently as a decade ago, PLAAF pilots flew almost exclusively 1950s-era Soviet aircraft and completed less than 100 hours flight training annually—and what little training took place was performed almost exclusively in favorable weather conditions. Today, pilots train hard—upwards of 200 hours per year, rain or shine—in some of the world’s most sophisticated aircraft. Projecting forward just one decade, the RAND team tells us, “the capabilities of China’s air force could begin to approach those of the US Air Force (USAF) today.”

That this is a transformational moment for the PLAAF is by no means a new or even controversial assertion, but it is one too often supported only anecdotally—for example, that China has in recent years begun indigenous production of fourth-generation fighters and a fifth-generation upgrade appears to be only years away. But air forces do not thrive on cutting-edge technology alone—even the fanciest toys must be flown by skilled and experienced pilots, supported by efficient institutions, and incorporated into command and control systems capable of translating raw firepower into readily employable war-fighting doctrine. It is in fleshing out these latter dimensions of Chinese air power that Shaking the Heavens positions itself prominently amidst leading literature on the Chinese military.

Such literature is increasingly vital as China becomes ever more assertive—even prickly—about territorial disputes with neighbors. As has been the case since the early 1950s, the most likely military conflict between the United States and China would relate to Taiwan. As part of RAND’s Project Air Force, a partnership between the think-tank and the US Air Force, Shaking the Heavens is written with an eye to preparing the USAF for just such a military conflict. And it may have a great deal to prepare for. Not only can Chinese ICMBs reach a sizeable portion of the United States, but the very bases that protect our western flank sit within range of a growing battery of Chinese rockets. The final chapters of Shaking the Heavens offer some timely, practical advice to US policymakers about how best to respond to this mounting threat.

Par for any RAND publication, an immediate strength of the book is the rich source material found in its bibliography. The research team mined more than 20 Chinese military publications, offering many in the English-speaking world a first-ever look at PLAAF doctrine. For linguists and analysts of the Chinese military, here is where the true treasure lies. While literal translations work well for common words like “fighter aircraft” (zhan dou ji) or “missile” (dao dan), one must painstakingly pour over source material to pick up on important nuances in the more nebulous realm of doctrine. Shaking the Heavens does this for us.

For an answer to thorny questions of terminology, the RAND team has turned quite sensibly to authoritative sources like the China Air Force Encyclopedia, which the PLA published in 2005. In one place, for example, we learn how an “offensive air campaign”—which can mean 10 different things to 10 different militaries—might be carried out by the PLAAF. In another, we are given a detailed explanation of the cryptic Chinese military concept of “hide the real and show the false, conceal the attack against the defenses.” This type of linguistic analysis provides an important step forward in open-source Western literature on the Chinese military—as it transitions into a more sophisticated fighting force, our understanding about it must become more sophisticated, too.

One weakness of the book—if it may be called that—is an unavoidable one: heavy reliance on Chinese publications is a double-edged sword. Traditional Chinese military strategy emphasizes deception—as Sun Tzu counseled, “When deploying troops, appear not to be; when near, appear far; when far, appear near.” Reliance on sources like the Chinese National Defense University and the China Air Force Encyclopedia risks taking the bait. This point is certainly not lost on the RAND team, and they appropriately warn readers that methods used to develop an open-source book carry a certain amount of risk. But this is a strength too: at the very least, this book does the best job possible describing how the Chinese government claims it will put its air force to use.

All in all, this is an excellent resource for those with a serious interest in the military side of China’s rise. The heavy emphasis on defining military terms makes it less appropriate for recreational reading or as a primer on the PLA. But by placing such heavy emphasis on core doctrinal concepts and by getting terminology straight, we now have essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the PLAAF in its upcoming era of global prominence.

Capt Paul A. Stempel, USAF

Joint Base Andrews, Maryland

"The views expressed 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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