Monday, February 14, 2011

Kenneth Allen's latest China Brief write-up "Assessing the PLA Air Force’s Ten Pillars"

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Assessing the PLA Air Force’s Ten Pillars
Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 3
February 10, 2011 05:41 PM[tt_news]=37488&tx_ttnews[backPid]=25&cHash=9d8a4177b0d9781d2038312112e90d6d

By: Kenneth Allen

During Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visit to China in January 2011, he stressed the importance of solid military-to-military relations. As a result of his visit, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) will hopefully engage each other through military exchanges across a wide range of issues rather than in combat. Unfortunately, his emphasis on the resumption of military dialogue was overshadowed by the timing of China’s first flight test of its J-20 stealth aircraft at the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation during his visit. While the implications of the timing of the flight test are debatable, the USAF now has a window into understanding more about the aircraft, as well as an opportunity to discuss it openly with the PLAAF and aviation industry personnel.
Although most PLAAF analysis  focuses on the impressive array of advanced weapon systems it has fielded over the past decade and is planning to field over the next decade, including the J-20, it is important to examine the PLAAF from a broad perspective by pointing out some of its strong and weak points beyond its weapons and equipment. Indeed, analyzing the weak points, as well as the strong points, could provide significant clues about the PLAAF’s overall capabilities in combat.
The purpose of this article is to help analysts at different levels (tactical, operational, and strategic) examine and engage the PLAAF using the Ten Pillars as a base.

The Ten Pillars include organizational structure, leadership, doctrine, officer corps, enlisted force, education, training, logistics and maintenance, and foreign relations [1]. The article also provides information about the key joint billets PLAAF, PLA Navy (PLAN), and Second Artillery officers hold within the PLA’s joint leadership structure. Although the Army still dominates the leadership structure, patterns are emerging for permanent PLAAF, PLAN, and Second Artillery billets as Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff. These are important clues for examining the future commanders for each organization as the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress in 2012 approaches.

Key Findings
Based on an assessment of the pillars, the following key findings are made:
The PLAAF and USAF are different. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Analysts need to examine the PLAAF through its eyes without always comparing it to the USAF.

Assessing the PLAAF requires understanding how all Ten Pillars fit together, which includes assessing all four branches (aviation, surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, and airborne) and five specialty forces (technical reconnaissance, electronic countermeasures, communications, chemical defense, and radar), as well as the education and training system.

The PLAAF is rapidly moving ahead technologically, especially through the deployment of new equipment, weapon systems, and information technology (e.g. informatization) with the goal of achieving integrated joint operations with the Army, Navy, and Second Artillery, but some advances are being held back by its historical culture and an Army-dominated leadership structure (See further discussion on this topic below). The PLAAF is also moving forward in its training capabilities. Key tactics training areas include unscripted, opposition force, jamming, night, all-weather, over water, minimum altitude, dissimilar aircraft, and aircraft-SAM/AAA de-confliction training, but the training is still not at the highest levels in several areas.

The PLA is a long way from becoming a truly joint military that incorporates senior PLAAF and PLAN officers in the highest-level organizations. The PLAAF remains underrepresented in the highest echelons, including the second and third tiers, of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee’s Military Commission (CMC), the four General Departments—General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD)—and the Military Region (MR) Headquarters.

Although the PLAAF recognizes that its capabilities, doctrine, and training must still evolve considerably in order to challenge U.S. power projection capabilities, it is exhibiting a growing sense of confidence in just about everything it is doing.
The PLAAF acknowledges that its training management and support systems are not adequate. In addition, the PLAAF recognizes that its operators are not granted sufficient autonomy to perform optimally in complex, dynamic operational environments. Centralized control remains a persistent and unresolved problem. Although the PLAAF uses tactics training coordination zones for combined-arms and joint training, most training is opposition force.

The PLAAF’s annual training cycle revolves around two key periods: all new officers arrive at their unit between July and September during the peak exercise season; and one-half of the PLAAF’s conscripts/recruits turnover and all enlisted personnel who are not promoted to the next grade are demobilized during November through January.
The PLAAF’s officer corps is changing, but not in all areas. Whereas PLAAF college graduates receive their technical training as a cadet, civilian college graduates, who comprised a high percentage (possibly 60 percent) of all new officers in 2010, may or may not receive any technical training prior to assuming their new billets. In addition, officer intermediate and advanced professional military education (PME) is separated by the five career tracks, each of which is taught in a different location.
The PLAAF’s enlisted force is gradually evolving from a conscript force based primarily on new personnel having only a ninth grade education to a force recruited from high school graduates, college students, and college graduates. The goal is to build a more highly skilled noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps.

The PLAAF has been heavily involved in domestic disaster relief operations the past few years, which have provided opportunities for real-world, unopposed experience and has highlighted a critical lack of airlift assets.

The PLAAF is increasing its engagement with foreign air forces through functional and educational exchanges, as well as joint exercises, but foreign contact and exposure remains tightly constrained by PLA guidelines. For example, the PLAAF commander and political commissar are restricted to one foreign trip annually, and the PLAAF posts military attachés to only a few foreign countries.

The PLAAF and Jointness

As China’s economic center of gravity continues to shift from the interior to the coast, the role of the PLAAF, PLAN, and Second Artillery in terms of protecting sea lines of communication and territorial integrity through joint integrated operations will grow in relation to the Army. One indicator of the PLAAF’s shifting role, as well as that of the PLAN and Second Artillery, in joint integrated operations concerns how it is, or is not, integrated into the PLA’s “joint” leadership structure. The leadership structure, which is responsible for overseeing the entire PLA’s ten pillars, consists of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee’s Military Commission (CMC), the four General Departments—General Staff Department (GSD), General Political Department (GPD), General Logistics Department (GLD), and General Armament Department (GAD)—the Academy of Military Science (AMS), National Defense University (NDU), and the seven military region (MR) headquarters [2].

Although the PLAAF commander has been a member of the CMC since 2004, it is the author’s opinion that the PLAAF does not, and will not for the foreseeable future, play a major role in the Army-dominated PLA leadership structure [3]. Specifically, there is debate about whether the current PLAAF commander, General Xu Qiliang, will become the Minister of Defense and/or a CMC vice chairman during the 18th Party Congress, which will be held in late 2012. Those arguing that he will move to one or both of these positions cite his age and seniority on the CMC and the grooming of General Ma Xiaotian as the next PLAAF commander [4]. Ma is currently one of the Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff (DCGS) and would have to retire if he does not become PLAAF commander. Those arguing against this cite the Army’s historical domination of those positions. That said, however, it is the author’s opinion that even if Xu does assume one or both of those billets, he will wear an Army uniform.

Concerning the PLAAF’s, PLAN’s, and Second Artillery’s role in the four General Departments, the key to remember is that the General Departments serve not only as the joint command but as the Army Headquarters [5]. As such, the directors have always been, and will most likely always be, Army officers. As shown in Figure 1, within the four General Departments, PLAAF officers have served continuously since 2004 as one of the DCGSs, and since 2005 as one of the deputies in the GPD. As such, it appears that the GSD and GPD now have permanent PLAAF deputy billets. It does not appear, however, that the GLD has a permanent PLAAF deputy billet.
No PLAAF, PLAN, or Second Artillery officers have ever served as a deputy in the GAD, which indicates it is less joint than the GSD, GPD, and GLD. Furthermore, it appears that only Army officers have served as the director for any second-level departments, such as the Operations, Intelligence, Cadre, Propaganda, Transportation, and Finance Departments.
Figure 1: PLAAF, PLAN, and Second Artillery Officers in Key Joint Billets in the 2000s

PLAAF Officers
PLAN Officers
Second Artillery Officers
CMC Member (7-8)
Qiao Qingchen (2004-2007)
Xu Qiliang (2007-Present
Zhang Dingfa (2004-2006)
Wu Shengli (2007-Present) [6]
Jing Zhiyuan (2004-Present)
Deputy, GSD (5)
Xu Qiliang (2004-2007)
Ma Xiaotian (2007-Present)
Wu Shengli (2004-2006)
Sun Jianguo (2009-Present)
Wei Fenghe (2010-Present) [7]
Deputy, GPD (4)
Liu Zhenqi (2005-Present)
Tong Shiping (2009-Present)
Deputy, GLD (3)
Li Maifu (2006-2009)
Deputy, GAD (4-5)
AMS Commandant
Zheng Shenxia (2003-2007)
Liu Chengjun (2007-Present)
Zhang Dingfa (2002-2003)
NDU Commandant
Ma Xiaotian (2006-2007)
NDU Political Commissar
Liu Yazhou (2009-Present)
Tong Shiping (2007-2009)
Deputy, MR Hq (5)
7 MRAF commanders (1988-Present)
3 Fleet commanders (1988-Present)

Each MR Headquarters, which “exercises direct leadership over the Army units within its area of responsibility,” has an average of five deputy commanders [8]. Since 1988, each Military Region Air Force (MRAF) commander and Fleet commander has served concurrently as an MR deputy commander; however, all of the other MR deputy commanders who serve full time on the staff are Army officers. Furthermore, like the four General Departments, no PLAAF officers have served as the director of an MR first-level department and only a few PLAAF personnel apparently hold positions in any of the departments.

There are no indications this situation will change unless the PLA completely reorganizes the, CMC, General Departments, and MR Headquarters.

The USAF and PLAAF are different and will employ their assets differently in combat. As such, one should not necessarily compare the two using the same criteria. While it is important to focus on the PLAAF’s weapon systems, it is also important to examine the PLAAF as a whole to see where it is moving forward and where it is not in terms of its goal of achieving integrated joint operations with the Army, Navy, and Second Artillery.
There is no doubt but that the PLAAF is modernizing its force with new weapon systems and equipment, including combat aircraft, air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and ground-based radar systems. It is also trying to conduct more realistic training with the new equipment with the goal of eventually implementing integrated joint operations with the Army, Navy, and Second Artillery. That said, however, the PLAAF is lagging behind in many areas that affect how it can use these new systems to the best of their abilities, especially during sustained offensive and defensive operations. One of the biggest areas of concern is the lack of sufficient airlift assets and the ability to coordinate between fighters and SAMs inside an air defense zone. In addition, it is dealing with trying to recruit, train, and retain a more educated enlisted force and officer corps to be able to operate and maintain these new systems.
One of the biggest reason the PLAAF is not moving forward as rapidly as it could across the board is that it is being held back by its historical culture, including subservience to the Army’s dominance in the CMC, General Departments, and Military Region Headquarters, and its inability to push command decisions down to lower levels. As such, there are no indications this situation will change in the near future. 

*The article is a shortened version of the full paper that will be published by The Jamestown Foundation. This article provides the 11 key findings and conclusion sections from the full paper. Although weapon systems and equipment, including the new J-20, is one of the pillars, the U.S. Government and media cover this topic in depth, so the topic is discussed only briefly in the paper
1. The concept of the “ten pillars” is based on the US military’s concept of DOTMLPF, which stands for Doctrine, Organization, Training, Materiel, Leadership and Education, Personnel, and Facilities; however, the author adjusted it for the PLAAF by including logistics and maintenance and foreign relations. See Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (JP 1-02), April 12, 2001, Appendix A, 44.
2. See Kenneth W. Allen, “Assessing the PLA’s Promotion Ladder to CMC Member Based on Grades vs. Ranks,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief: July 22, 2010, Volume 10 Issue 15 (Part 1); August 5, 2010, Volume 10 Issue 16 (Part 2). These can be found at The AMS and NDU commandant billets, along with the DCGS billet, are MR leader-grade billets, and, as such, are a stepping stone to the PLAAF commander position.
3. Altogether, four of the PLAAF’s ten commanders—Liu Yalou, Zhang Tingfa, Qiao Qingchen, and Xu Qiliang—have been CMC members.
4. See Cheng Li, China’s Midterm Jockeying: Gearing Up for 2012 (Part 3: Military Leaders) and Alice L. Miller, “The 18th Central Committee Politburo: A Quixotic, Foolhardy, Rashly Speculative, but Nonetheless Ruthlessly Reasoned Projection,” in China Leadership Monitor,  June 28, 2010, Issue 33, which is available at See also Joseph Y. Lin, “Reorientation of China’s Armed Forces: Implications for the Future Promotions of PLA Generals,” China Brief, Vol X, Issue 13, June 24, 2010, 7-10, which is available at cb_010_64.pdf.
5. Hu Guangzheng, ed. Modern Military Organizational Reform Research (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, October 2007), 96.
6. Wu Shengli was not appointed as a CMC member until 14 months after he became the commander.
7. Wei Fenghe took office on 31 December 2010 and raised the total from four to five DCGSs. This promotion makes him the front runner to replace Gen. Jing Zhiyuan as the Second Artillery commander at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.
8. Hu Guangzheng, ed. Modern Military Organizational Reform Research (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, October 2007), 96.

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