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The Chinese Air Force’s First Steps Toward Becoming an Expeditionary Air Force

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In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has directed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to develop capabilities to protect China’s interests abroad—both regionally and globally. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has made incremental progress in its ability to carry out overseas operations, including organizing and deploying a long-distance strategic airlift unit capable of carrying out various nonwar missions around Asia and as far as Africa.
The PLAAF has focused heavily on developing a small number of elite units to carry out these high-profile overseas missions. The most important of these units is the Il-76-equipped 39th Regiment of the 13th Transport Division. Fighter and other aircraft have built on the experience gained from domestic long-distance deployments to take part in multilateral exercises, competitions, and demonstrations in other countries. A diverse array of combat aircraft and units has appeared in multilateral exercises, but these tend to be selected from China’s most advanced platforms and elite pilots.
Through these deployments, small numbers of Chinese aircrews and technicians are learning to navigate abroad, manage issues of diplomatic access, and operate with greater autonomy. 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. The acquisition of larger, more capable transport planes (such as the Y-20), more experience in operating dissimilar aircraft, and greater access to foreign airfields will enable the PLAAF to better carry out its nonwar missions in Asia and around the world. Moreover, greater confidence in operating abroad will position the PLAAF to carry out a broader array of missions than it has hitherto performed.While the PLAAF’s expeditionary deployments to date remain small and limited byWestern standards, an increasing need to safeguard Chinese interests abroad suggests that the development of expeditionary capabilities will remain a priority for the PLAAF for years to come.

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