Frank Whittle
Hans von Ohain
Heinkel He 176
French ramjet experiment
commercial jet aviation
in search of speed
the Cold War
the B-52 Bomber
the Soviet Blackjack
Soviet vertical takeoff efforts
Curtiss LeMay and SACs
the aircraft carrier
cold war fighters
the B2 bomber early programme
US bombers - the future
post war British air defence
French nuclear deterrence
current air capability of China
helicopters at war
'small' wars
guided bombs
cruise missiles

A Brief Look at China's Current Air Capabilities
R. Colon
PO Box 29754
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 00929

In the past few years, The People's Republic of China's growing military capability has attracted a great deal of interest, but major details regarding China's near-future military strength have been hard to come by.

At this time, China is spending massive amounts of financial resources in order to improve its overall military capability. This spike of budgetary expenses by China is set up in the background of the country's need to upgrade its low-tech arsenal. Current reports have placed the number of deployable nuclear weapons the country possesses at four hundred. Of these, around twenty are deployed in the Intercontinental ballistic missile configuration. Nearly two hundred and twenty of them are reported to be deployed in various delivery platforms such as aircraft, submarines and short-to-medium range missile systems. All of these weapons are of tactical capability. The remaining weapons are believed to be held in tactical reserves for short range missiles, low yield attacks and demolition purposes.

The country has several delivery systems for their ever growing nuclear stockpile. The main component of the system is the Dong-Feng 5 liquid-fuelled missile, with an estimated range of 13,000 km and can carry a single use, multi-megaton warhead. The Dong-Feng 5 was first deployed in the summer of 1981 and has remained the backbone of China's ICBM force for the past two decades. Twenty, frontline Feng 5's are believed to be stationed in full alert somewhere in central regions of the country.

The Feng 5 was a drastic departure from the early versions of China's ballistic missiles systems. Those early missiles were mainly stored in caves and were rolled-out for launch. The Feng 5 can be launched from vertical silos after just a few hours of the order being received by their launch crews. The Feng 5 operational range gives China the capability to launch a small nuclear attack against most of Continental Europe, Asia and some parts of the United States, mainly the southeast part of the country.

Today, two additional missile platforms are deployed or being tested for possible deployment. They are the medium range DF 31's, which entered first-line operation in 2005, and its long range variant, the DF 31A, formerly called the DF-41; which is expected to be fielded by late 2010. Both missiles are going to be propelled by solid fuel cells and based on mobile launchers. China is expected to attempt producing a multiple re-entry vehicle (MVRs) for their new missile systems. An attempt to produce the more technically challenging multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) is underway.

China also deploys intermediate range ballistic missiles and medium range ballistic missile systems. These weapon platforms are capable of threatening the security of many countries in Asia, including India, but its effects on the overall strategic security of Russia are minimal. China's intermediate missile systems are also capable of hitting targets on Japan's coastal cities and United States bases in South Korea and Japan. The oldest missile platform deployed by China is the “near stationary” DF 3A missile system. This platform is being phased-out in favour of the more modern DF 4 and DF 21 systems. The DF 4, with a maximum operating range of 4,750 km, is still the backbone of China's regional deterrence force. The DF 4 is a liquid fuelled system that operates mainly now, out of fixed launch sites. With the deployment of the DF 21 in 1986, China's regional ballistic missile capabilities increased twofold. The operational DF 21 has an estimated range of 1,800km and is carried in mobile launchers for security reasons. The DF 21 is also the base of China's sea-launch ballistic missile systems. The older, liquid fuelled missiles can carry a single nuclear warhead of an estimate 3.3mt yield. The newest missiles also carry a single warhead with maximum yields in the hundreds kilotons range. China also possesses a limited number of short-range ballistic missile batteries. The DF 11/M 11, with an operational range of 300km, and the DF 15/M 9, with a range of 600km, are the backbone of China's tactical force. Its believed that most of these missile platforms are configured to carry only a small nuclear or conventional warhead.

Ilyushin IL-28

China's bomber force is based on the local production of Russian made aircraft first deployed in the early stages of the 1950s. With the overdue retirement of the Ilyushin IL-28 bomber from front-line, nuclear delivery role, the Tu-16 Badger will most likely assume the role of a medium range, nuclear strike bomber. Being a product of the 1950s technology, the Tu-16 could only carry two or three nuclear bombs over a range of 1,5,00 to 3,100km.


China is believed to have over 130 of these vintage planes in operational conditions. The Chinese Navy also operated the Tu-16 in a reserve role primarily. Although the Chinese Air Force possesses a great number of other possible nuclear carrying aircraft, such as the venerable MiG-21, the Russian supplied Su-27, and the newly designed JH-7s; are not believed to be used for such a role. The Chinese Air Force also has a large inventory of strike and fighter aircraft at their disposal. It is estimated that by 2004 China had a total aircraft inventory of around 4,200 operational aircraft of many types.

This inventory includes all the variants of the J-6 or MiG-19 fighter, J-7 or MiG-21, Su-27, IL-28 and Tu 16 bombers. Of these aircraft, the vast majority entered service with the Chinese air force before 1970. The tactical airlift aspect of the air force is diminishing in capability. Over the last two decades, Chinese leaders have stressed the development of a localized aerospace industry sector capable of designing and developing advanced avionics needed for military aircraft. Despite the investment of large amounts of budgetary and human resources, the Chinese had not shown the ability to promptly design, develop and mass produce an indigenous combat aircraft. The recently revealed J-7, and the J-8, both of which took so long in their developmental stages that by the time they were ready to enter front-line services they were already obsolete by Western standards, showed China the need for more investment in financial and human resources as well as the training of experienced technicians to work in all aspects of the technical design of a combat aircraft. The same holds true of the much vaunted of China's aircraft developments, the J-10.


China is not alone in this area, other countries have tried in the past to design and mass-produce indigenous aircraft systems, most notably Israel, South Africa, India, Taiwan and South Korea; all abandoned their programs in favour of purchasing existing and proved aircraft types from the five largest weapons producers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany. The main reason is the fact that the economic resources needed, not only to design a generation-leaping aircraft, but to be mass produced for local use, are so massive that developing countries with a small industrial base simply can not afford to spend the necessary resources for a long period of time. This also holds true of large economies with a small gross national product output such as Russia, which is lagging far behind the Western countries in military technology designs. As a direct result of their failure to establish a permanent industrial base capable of producing front-line aircraft, China has renewed its imports of combat airplanes from Russia.

The reality is that China is investing massive amounts of money to modernize its armed forces, but the current force structure is so old and that the rate of retirement will surpass the rate of acquisition in all major weapon platform systems. This fact means that China overall military force will decrease in size. Aircraft and missile systems will decrease in numbers. Also, the modernization process is slow due to the massive investment needed to accomplish it. China is also adding a small number of new technology weapon systems to its
overall arsenal. New weapon platforms are purchased in small quantities, which can not dramatically alter the balance of power. China current acquisitions of Russian systems are not as impressive as they might look. These systems are not comparable to the ones fielded by the United States or Japan. The main problem of China's militarization might be their inability to produce a continuous indigenous weapon industry to produce next-generation military technology.

Which could be used on their existing or newest systems? The recent reversal of policy from the Chinese government, from developing its own weapon systems to purchasing systems, mainly from Russia and Israel; has left the government in Peking without control over the military they so desperately desire. For the foreseeable future, China's potential military action, mainly against Taiwan, is limited, let alone branching out of the regional setting they are now. Overall, the balance of air power in East Asia will remain the same for the next fifteen years.

1 John W. Lewis and Hua di, China's Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals, International Security, Original: July 1997 - Updated December 2006.
2 Jeffrey Lewis, The Ambiguous Arsenal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, May-June 2003.
3 Bill Gertz, China Advances Missile Program, Washington Times, June 22, 2005.
4 NTI and The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, China Profile: Nuclear Capabilities, Nuclear Treaty Initiative, Fall 2003.