Saturday, November 21, 2015

Book Review: China's Air Force Enters the 21st Century

Kenneth W. Allen, Glenn Krumel and Jonathan D. Pollack
China's Air Force Enters the 21st Century
Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 1995
Category: People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)

Rating: 3-Stars

Despite the fact that this particular Rand study has since been overtaken by events in the two decades since it was first published, it nonetheless stands out as an important document on the status and direction of the PLAAF at a crossroads in its modern development.

This particular study was published shortly after the PLAAF began the modernization push that has continued to be a feature on the global geopolitical stage even to this day.  In the mid-1990s, Western strategists were only just beginning to wake up to the implications of China's growing economic muscle - and its political and military ramifications.  China was, at the time, still widely derided by many as a backward, third world economy in the same vein as North Korea or other failed dictatorships.

To understand the importance of this transformation, it is essential, however, to understand the historic context of these events.  China was never, as some have attempted to portray it, a lesser clone of the Soviet Union.  Communist China did not have the same visions of world empire and domination that had led to decades of global Cold War between the Soviets and the West.  Historically speaking, China's focus has been most often internal - maintaining order across a vast territory with different regional and cultural challenges - or from time-to-time regional - as during China's border war with Vietnam in 1979.

Communist China's potential had long been hamstrung by a combination of bureaucratic ineptitude, combined with a fundamental lack of understanding for how modern technology - and air power in particular - had changed the face of war.  These two, historical limitations, however, came unhinged in the early 1990s.  Part of the story surrounded a series of economic reforms, which encouraged foreign investment and free enterprise as a means to jump-start the Chinese economy while retaining central control over select industries.  This economic boom was what provided the fuel for China's defense modernization at the turn of the century.  The other key component was the startling wake-up call that was provided by the swift U.S. and allied victory of the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait.  Up until this time, the Chinese military leadership had been confident that the U.S. and its allies would become bogged down in a prolonged engagement with Iraq: a war of attrition similar to the Iran-Iraq war of the preceding decade, and for which the U.S. was expected to have no stomach.  The decisive manner in which the U.S. defeated the Iraqi military, and the role that air power played in that victory, came as a startling wake-up call to the Chinese leadership.

By the mid-1990s when this particular book was published, therefore, the Chinese military had already begun to phase out its older aircraft types in favor of more modern jet fighters purchased from post-Cold War Russia.  The parallel efforts to develop indigenous Chinese warplanes and missiles, such as the J-10 fighter and PL-8 and PL-10 air-to-air missiles, were still only rumors, however, at the time that this particular Rand study was completed.

What this particular book does do, is to document in meticulous detail trends in Chinese air force procurement and deployment, providing an essential piece of the historical record that later writers could draw upon as China's modernization efforts gradually came into the public view.  The graphs and tables of Chinese aircraft production, and the descriptions of the sometimes painful evolution of Chinese industry and know-how, mark this book as an exceptional document for its time.  This book therefore stands as an important resource for later researchers and writers to draw on, when attempting to place events in the early 21st century into a larger historic context - which again is why I have chosen to review this book here, rather than ignoring it entirely as so many of its contemporaries on this subject deserve to be.

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