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The PLAAF's First Steps Towards Becoming an Expeditionary Air Force

  • Published
  • By Ms. Cristina Garafola, Project Associate, RAND; Mr. Timothy Heath, Senior Defense Research Analyst, RAND
  • China Aerospace Studies Institute, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL
In recent years, China's People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has developed nascent capabilities to carry out operations abroad. It has organized and put to use a long-distance strategic airlift unit capable of carrying out various non-war missions around Asia and as far as Africa. Fighter and other aircraft have built upon the experienced gained from domestic long-distance deployments to take part in multilateral exercises, competitions, and demonstrations in other countries. As the PLAAF gains experience through these activities, it is updating aspects of its approach to expeditionary operations, to include deployed communications, logistics, and maintenance. While the PLAAF's expeditionary deployments to date remain small and limited by western standards, an increasing need to safeguard interests abroad suggests that the development of expeditionary capabilities will remain a priority for the PLAAF for years to come.

The PLAAF's operations abroad consist of non-war missions such as participation in multilateral exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, international search and rescue, and non-combatant evacuation operations. In 2015, for example, PLAAF transport planes conducted search and rescue operations for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, and provided disaster relief to Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. In addition, the PLAAF has recently expanded its role in foreign military exchanges by participating in international air shows and air competitions. In 2014, the PLAAF began to compete in Avidarts, a Russian-held contest that tests combat aviation skills. Through these experiences, small numbers of Chinese aircrews and technicians are learning to navigate abroad, manage issues of diplomatic access, and operate with greater autonomy. To develop a power projection capability, the PLAAF has focused heavily on developing a small number of elite units to carry out high profile missions abroad. The most important of these units is the IL-76-equipped 39th Regiment of the 13th Transport Division. A diverse array of combat aircraft and units have appeared in multilateral exercises, but these tend to be selected from the country's most advanced platforms and elite pilots. As the world's second largest economy, China will continue to find its ability to sustain economic growth contingent, in part, on secure access to resources, markets, and investments around the world. China also seeks to enhance its status as a great power through participation in multilateral security initiatives and exercises. The acquisition of larger, more capable transport planes, more experience in operating dissimilar aircraft, and access to foreign airfields will enable the PLAAF to better carry out its non-war missions to meet these requirements. Moreover, greater confidence in operating abroad will position the PLAAF to carry out a broader array of missions than in the past. The PLAAF's first steps in expeditionary capabilities have established a limited, but sturdy foundation for it to play a greater role in defending China's international interests.