Review: Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century


Readers of the blog will in all likelihood be familiar with the books of Austrian publishing house Harpia Publishing, that has built up a solid reputation of well-illustrated books covering a wide range of military aviation topics. Two of the more well-covered ones are Russian and Chinese military aviation, of which a number of volumes have been reviewed on the blog earlier (and often with good verdicts).

“Chinese Air Power in the 20th Century” (ISBN 978-1-9503940-0-5) is a bit of an outlier, even if the author Andreas Rupprecht will be familiar to those that have read Harpia’s earlier China-books. The book in essence tells the history of PLAAF, as well as dealing with the most important aircraft types. To provide a basis, it starts with a somewhat brief overview of the early aviation pioneers offering their services to any more or less recognised ruler or warlord in the early decades, before moving on to the somewhat more organised efforts by both nationalists/KMT and the communists to establish their own air forces, often with foreign assistance. Once the civil war had been decided, the development of PLAAF kicked off in earnest, and the book starts to pick up pace. In four chronological chapters, the reader is able to follow the growth from a few aircraft left behind by the Japanese occupiers and the retreating nationalists, to eventually become one of the most powerful air forces in the world. Each chapter also concludes with an overview featuring a short description of all of the most important aircraft types and variants. In true Harpia fashion the book then concludes with three serious appendixes that cover the history of PLAAF units on both the military region air force- and division-levels, as well as the PLAAF serial number system.

Unsurprisingly, with Rupprecht being one of the leading western experts (or perhaps simply the leading western expert) on Chinese military aviation, the quality leaves little to be desired. Having read his three books on the current state of Chinese air power earlier, I feel that this would be have been an excellent primer to better understand where the current day force comes from. The book also feature many of Harpia’s trademark characteristics, being a high-quality and sturdy large-size soft-cover with plenty of photographs. The photographs are interesting and really add to the reading experience, with the older chapters naturally having mostly black-and-white ones with colour taking over as history progresses. The illustrated side and top-view profiles typical of Harpia’s aircraft type monographs are absent. However, considering the topic of the book I don’t feel they would add anything, but rather just be taking away space from the photographs.

I do feel somewhat torn about the structure of the book, with the dual focus on both the history of the overall force and its units as well as the technological presentations of the individual aircraft (and often individual variants of these) at the end of each chapter. This dual-nature feels if not exactly confusing at least uncalled for, and while both parts are of equally high quality and enjoyable to read on their own, I often find myself depending on the mood wanting to skip either the aircraft descriptions to just be able to continue with the story or to just read the technical descriptions to get a better understanding of how the aircraft fleet changed over the years. Of course, there’s nothing stopping one from reading different parts of the book in the order one like, and it might even benefit from this kind of “choose your own adventure”-style of reading. The information you want might certainly all be there, but it might not be grouped together. As such, if what you want is an understanding of how the different versions of the J-6 relate to each other, this book can help you, but it will require a bit of page turning to get the whole picture.

I can understand the reasoning behind this split, but it might not have worked as well in practice for the casual reader as it was intended. And that is a shame, because the casual reader who has a general military aviation and/or China-interest would likely find the contents of this book highly enjoyable. At the same time, one should be aware of what this book is and what it is not (something that might be unclear based on the generic title, I known I got a good grasp of what exactly I held in my hands only once I started flipping through the pages). As said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing or illustrations, these are the kind of top-notch stuff to be expected from Harpia and Rupprecht. It’s just that the complete package is a bit complex.

If you are interested in a particular aircraft or period, either the modern day or an earlier one, you are probably better served elsewhere.  However, if you want a one-stop source for the general history of the Chinese Air Force and its flying equipment, this could very well be it.

The book was kindly provided free of charge for review by Harpia Publishing.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Army Aviation – Aircraft and Units

In December last year I reviewed two Harpia books, the publisher’s sister volumes on the current state of Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation. I then commented that “the role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together.” This spring the third volume was released (ISBN 978-0-9973092-8-7), and it did indeed clear things up.

Screenshot 2019-09-07 at 20.23.16

The basic premise of the book is rather similar to the two earlier volumes, dealing first with the history and current trends of the force as a whole, briefly describing the markings and serial number system, then going through the platforms (aircrafts, helicopters, and UAVs) and weapons used, before fielding a brief overview of the training syllabus. A complete overview of the PLA Army aviation order of battle the occupies the next 30 pages, before describing the aviation assets of the People’s Armed Police Force, and ending with two paragraphs on the enigmatic aviation units of the Border Defense Corps.

However, it isn’t just the status of the WIG-craft of the Border Defense Corps that is enigmatic, but on the whole the Chinese Army Aviation is rather secretive and mysterious. Here the book deviates strongly from many of the other Harpia books. Usually the offerings are the ultimate guides, but since the topic is so poorly documented the Army Aviation-volume in many places notes that different details are unconfirmed. The whole chapter on training syllabus for example is rather short, spanning just over two pages as “barely any hard data is available”.

This will naturally come down to personal preference, but in my opinion when an acknowledged expert such as Rupprecht gives his best understanding of a topic, and crucially is open with where the line between confirmed and unconfirmed details run, I will gladly take that over having a book half as thick dealing only with confirmed facts.

Screenshot 2019-09-07 at 20.23.43

I will admit that I have a soft spot for Chinese aviation, with their unique and sometimes strange (at least for someone used to Western doctrines) solutions. I mean, who else create a dedicated short-range air-to-air missile for helicopter-to-helicopter combat? And then load up eight on a light transport? As such I did find it a very enjoyable read. While the OOB-chapter certainly is of great value to many analysts, I personally find the equipment chapters to be the most interesting. I was naturally happy to find that the helicopter chapter was dealing with the systems in more depth, partly because the book was “probably” the first ever to deal with the topic, as the author put it. For anyone having a problem recognising their Z-8WJ from their Z-8G, this is the book to get.

Otherwise there actually isn’t much to say. The quality of the book, including the glue binding, is top-notch as always with Harpia. Pictures and illustrations are in colour and excellent as usual. You might not get the definitive monograph as usually is the case with Harpia, but that will be the case with anything written on the topic due to the level of operational security surrounding the Chinese Army Aviation. This is still the book to get if you are interested in the topic, and highly recommended for anyone interested in Chinese helicopters and UAVs.

The book was kindly sent to me free of charge by Harpia for review.

Review: Modern Chinese Warplanes – Chinese Air Force & Naval Aviation

Harpia is doing an update for their Modern Chinese Warplanes-book, something which is certainly needed, considering how things have changed during the last six years. The update also splits the original into several volumes according to branch. The Naval Aviation volume came out during the spring, while the Air Force one is hot off the printers. Army Aviation will then follow in April 2019.

From a Finnish (or even European viewpoint), China is largely a trading partner with a rather poor human rights record. Great power struggles in the Pacific and Thucydides traps are far away both geography-wise and psychologically. As such I will admit that my understanding of Chinese military aviation is rather limited, and the books filled a much needed void in my bookshelf.

In case anyone has missed it, China is rapidly starting to produce modern aircraft in a host of different classes, including both high-profile fighters such as the J-20 and lesser-known projects such as the Y-20 transport. On the other hand, the far-reaching organisational changes and updates to doctrine and training regimes during the last years are likely of even greater importance, and is only now (likely) reaching their final form. The books cover all of these aspects, including aircrafts currently in use (stretching from the An-2 derivative Nanchang Y-5 to the top-modern Chengdu J-20), weapons, doctrine, training curriculum, and last but not least an impressive full order of battle. The order of battle is likely the single most comprehensive and up-to-date one published in non-classified books, and explains both the current organisation as well as the roots it comes from.

As with all Harpia-books, the illustrations are of a very high-quality and (almost always) spot-on.

The big question is if the book is too up-to-date? Especially in the case of the Naval Aviation one, questions still remain which units exactly have been reformed and which are still awaiting change. Operational secrecy and increased internet censorship inside China means that information isn’t always easy to come by. Here as well Rupprecht does a good job, as his long experience with the topic gives him the ability to piece together the available snippets of information to create the bigger picture. Importantly, he also clearly indicates which parts are confirmed, which are unconfirmed, and where there are alternative theories and explanations.

The map of the Eastern Theatre Command Navy at the beginning of the Southern Theatre Command Navy-chapter.

But as always there is some room for improvement. The otherwise excellent maps of the areas of operation for the different theatre commands are placed after their respective chapters, leading to the slightly confusing situation where you’re reading about one theatre command while looking at a map of the bases of another one. Another issue is the appearance of the Army Aviation, which is briefly mentioned in a number of places, especially when discussing the Air Force helicopters in use. The role of Army Aviation is never quite explained, and I was left somewhat wondering what exactly they do, and how it differs from the rotary-winged units of the Air Force. I can only assume this would have been clearer if all three volumes had been read together. As it now stands (and as it would for some other China-rookie only getting a single volume) it all remains rather fuzzy, and I found myself wishing for a few sentences on how the lines are drawn between the three branches. A third issue was that in a handful of places I found myself struggling to get a picture of how exactly the designations had changed during development of aircrafts (this was especially the case with the UAVs), though to be honest I am unsure about to what extent the author is to be blamed, and to what extent the Chinese drone programs simply have been complex. As a counter-balance, the chapters on the rather confusing family of different Soviet/Russian and Chinese ‘FLANKER’-variants is simply the clearest and most straightforward one I’ve come across over the years, and a joy to read.

However, even if there are a few minor things I dislike or would have chosen to do otherwise had I been the editor, there’s no denying that this is yet another great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in Chinese aviation. Personally I found greatest enjoyment in the descriptions of Chinese aircraft and airborne weaponry, but I certainly can see that anyone interested in developments in the South China Sea or potential Sino-Japanese clashes would find the OOB to be of even greater value. The books are also of the usual high-quality and hold up well to regular use (and abuse), and the illustrations include both a large number of colour photographs of high-quality as well as the excellent maps and tables which one has come to expect from Harpia. Note that the differences in size of the aviation arms are reflected in the books, as the Air Force one is considerably longer at 240 pages compared to 96 for the Naval Aviation.


The books were provided free of charge by Harpia for review. The ISBN numbers are 978-0-9973092-6-3 for the Air Force and 978-0-9973092-5-6 for Naval Aviation.

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

The Pacific Narrative

After the latest round of G7 talks, the leaders of the countries in this exclusive club declared that lifting the sanctions imposed upon Russia won’t happen unless Russia exits Ukraine, and that they are ready “to strengthen sanctions if the situation makes that necessary” [Guardian].

Sanctions are West’s preferred weapon to combat an increasingly aggressive Russia, while making sure that they won’t do anything that could escalate the situation into all-out war. Thus, we should all be able to sleep soundly in our beds, with the exception of the Ukrainians (and possibly Moldavians), right?

The war in the Pacific is far less known than it deserves to be here in the Northern Europe, and the narrative usually starts with a sudden Japanese strike on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. Seldom is the Japanese reasoning behind why they decided to launch an all-out war with a global power developed. In light of recent development in Europe, I think a short recap of the events involving Japan stretching a further ten years back is in order1.

In 1931 a large number of incidents of various severities took place in China (which was rapidly disintegrating in what we today would call a failed state), culminating in what was effectively a Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Japan then declared Manchuria independent as the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Japan entered into the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, the fear of communism being one of the main reasons why Japan ventured into China to begin with. Another step towards more hostile relations with the west was the Japanese withdrawal from naval limitation treaties in the same year, and in particular the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which many in Japan had felt was a “humiliation” by the USA and the United Kingdom, given that it only allowed Japan a ratio of 3:5 in capital ships and tonnage compared to the British Royal Navy and the US Navy (it should be noted though that both Italy and France had accepted a yet smaller ratio of capital ships of 1.75:5 compared to the RN and USN).

With Japanese-US relations in a slow but steady decline, the accidental (?) bombing of the US gunboat USS Panay in 1937 only made things worse. The same year the Japanese army had launched a full-scale invasion into China, and the US administration was not happy about it. For their part, the Japanese did not appreciate western aid to Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang.

Things then took another turn for the worse in 1938 when Japan concluded the occupation of Eastern China, and followed it up by declaring a “New Order in East Asia” (東亜新秩序 Tōa Shin Chitsujo). The major western powers of the day, USA, the United Kingdom, and France, all declared their opposition to this new order. In response to the aggressive Japanese foreign politics in general and towards China in particular, the US withdrew from a number of bilateral US-Japanese trade agreements in the summer of 1939. This came as a surprise and a serious bow for Japan, which with limited amounts of raw materials was reliant on foreign trade for its prosperity.

Still, this did not deter the Japanese, as events in Europe forced Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands to focus their attention closer to home. Thus, in June 1940, the Japanese Foreign Minister Arita declared the need for a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” (大東亞共榮圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken), and then Japan moved to implement it by invading French Indochina the same autumn in what was one of the least bloody wars South East Asia would experience during the 20th century.

Now things started to escalate quickly. In July 1941 USA declared an embargo on exports of scrap metal and oil, which lead to vocal Japanese protests. Unrelenting, Washington moved on, freezing Japanese assets in the country. A series of more or less sincere negotiations followed, in which Washington demanded that Japan withdraw from conquered territories, while the Japanese standpoint was that for an agreement to be reached, USA needed to “show understanding” regarding the national needs of Japan, and “see the realities” of the region such as they were. In November, USA officially demanded that Japan withdraw to the borders prior to the invasion of Manchuria ten years earlier (at least that was the Japanese interpretation, whether or not Washington meant Manchukuo to be included is debatable). Giving up ten years of land grabs was not on the Japanese agenda, and by that time a large force from the Imperial Japanese Navy had already set sail for Hawaii.

1The following account is largely based upon Albert Axell & Hideaki Kase: “Kamikaze – Japan’s Suicide Gods”, which is a book I’d not recommend in itself. It seems to be largely written to defend Japanese behaviour prior to and during the war in general and Kamikaze-tactics in particular, something it tries to do by e.g. comparing Kamikaze pilots with British CAM-pilots. Still, despite these less than impressive arguments, the book can provide some valuable insights.

The Consequences of Crimea for the NPT

One thing that has been mentioned but seldom actually discussed during the Crimean crisis is the fact that 20 years ago, Ukraine hosted the third largest stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons, next only to Russia and the USA. As has been stated a number of times by different media, they transferred their warheads (and some carriers) back to Russia for dismantling, and in exchange received written promises that Russia would “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] to refrain from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”[1]

The problem here is that the obvious lesson seems to be that being nice doesn’t work in the real world.

It is difficult to say whether keeping a nuclear stockpile would have worked as a deterrent against the Russian invasion of Crimea, and if Ukraine would have met the economic and technical requirements to maintain such a deterrent. However, what we do know is that the written assurances did not work, so it is no far-fetched guess that in Ukraine today at least some of its leaders asks themselves if it was a mistake.

I don’t believe Ukraine will ditch the NPT to develop a new arsenal due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is how Russia would react to such a decision. However, there are a number of places in the world where this might have implications.

That nuclear weapons are restricted to certain countries is not a law of nature. In fact, quite a number of countries studied whether or not they should acquire their own weapons in the early part of the Cold War, but in the end, the costs and technical difficulties meant that only a handful of countries actually created operational weapons, and in the meantime nuclear weapons had received a fairly bad reputation amongst civilians, something which further restricted their use. However, this is in no way an irreversible process, as e.g. North Korea has shown.

If it is felt that the NPT does not work, countries that feels threatened by their neighbors (especially if the neighbors are armed with WMD’s), might very well start to look into the possibility of acquiring their own. Especially in the Far East, where China has both a sizeable nuclear stockpile and is starting to flex its muscles more aggressively, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan/ROC may feel that the added security of a nuclear shield is worth the worsening diplomatic relation such a move would create. This will not happen in the near future, but I believe it is not impossible in the medium term. Japan is struggling with worsening demographics and an uncertain economy which might hamper its planned expansion of its conventional forces. South Korea has the latest nuclear state as its neighbor and is quarrelling with China about its sea borders. Taiwan is always looking for ways to stop a Chinese assault, and while China rapidly is expanding the PLAN, the US is a far from certain ally. In all cases, having a nuclear deterrent might be just the solution the politicians are looking for.

And Ukraine being invaded by the country it gave its weapons too, might be just the spark needed for a new nuclear arms race to start.

Edit: Over at KKRVA a nice analysis partly about the same subject can be found in Swedish under the title Ukraina – Tre döende patienter.