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70 Years of the People's Liberation Army Air Force

For those of you who have the privilege of knowing the great Ken Allen, this book will come as no surprise. For those of you who don’t know Ken personally, trust me when I say he has dedicated his life to the study of the People’s Liberation Army’s Air Force (PLAAF). In many cases, such a statement would be hyperbole, in this case it is the flat honest truth. And if you have any doubt at all, just ask someone who knows him. He spends nights and weekends pouring over material in Mandarin, he spends his waking hours working on all manner of projects, and I can’t tell you how many times he has woken up in the middle of the night with an idea or a way to improve a report because, and I kid you not, he works on the PLAAF in his sleep. The China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) has the largest library of native language publications related to the PLAAF in the Department of Defense, and it is just part of the massive collection that Ken has personally amassed over six decades. Yes, more than half a century of reading PLA newspapers, countless hours in drab state bookstores thumbing through books to determine which ones were significant, and watching more hours of Chinese Central Television’s military channel than most people in China. He is perhaps the only person in the entire world who has every copy of the PLA Air Force Journal, from day one. And he has read them all.

Ken’s contribution to the study of the PLA Air Force, and to the PLA more generally, cannot be overstated. From his start as an enlisted airman in Taiwan, to serving in Beijing as an attaché during the Tiananmen Square incident, and through the decades that followed, Ken has stayed focused on learning all that he can about the PLA Air Force, and probably more importantly he has tried to teach countless others about them as well. This is the mark of a true professional, never one to play “I know something you don’t know”, he has taken scores of young officers and analysts under his wing, he has mentored mid- and senior-level leaders, and he single handedly started the China Attaché Roundtable to help our military attaches going to Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, and across Asia, learn about China and the PLA. Again, as evidenced by the endorsements, his contributions are broad and wide ranging, and he as done all of it as a selfless leader.

Originally, the book was to have the subtitle: “An Overview of Strategy, Organization, Personnel, Education, Training, Military Diplomacy, and Prospects for the Future”, but that just seems unwieldy. Those who are familiar with Ken’s work know full well that he doesn’t “do” hardware, and true to form you will find very little about planes in this book. That is by design. There are plenty of other resources out there if you are interested in the hardware side of things, some even that CASI has published, but precious little out there on these topics. And while Ken has his feelings about ‘doctrine’, Cristina has picked up that ball and run with it. She does a great job complimenting Ken’s work, and draws on her deep background to bring out the important topics that need further explanation. She has done a terrific job, not just on her specialty of doctrine and strategy, but throughout the book and throughout the process of adding depth and explanation as needed. All of the work is meticulously documented, almost exclusively from Mandarin language sources, as the two thousand endnotes will attest.

Throughout the book, you will come to understand the importance of the organizational structure of the PLA, and how and why it impacts their decision making, their command and control, their procurement, and likely how they will fight. Like no one else can, Ken concentrates on the details of the organization, and how each unit relates to others though the grade system, and then explains what the big picture implications of those relationships are. He also shows why it is important to understand the system, and what happens if and when it changes. His self-selected epitaph is: “He taught them Grades and Ranks”.

This really is his Magnum Opus, a comprehensive look at the ‘software’ of the PLAAF across its full history. It isn’t meant to be read from cover to cover; each reader will find something for them, and something they will continue to come back and reference time and time again. Everyone who studies the PLA and its Air Force should keep a copy of this work on hand as a ready reference.

Dr. Brendan S. Mulvaney, Director, China Aerospace Studies Institute

 

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