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Friday, September 25, 2015

Countering Foreign 5th Generation Threats: Part I - PLAAF Objectives, Doctrines, and Capabilities

Author's Note/Disclaimer: The following is an educated guess as to plausible tactics, techniques, and procedures American fighter aircraft and other assets will utilize to combat foreign fifth generation fighter aircraft in air-to-air combat within a highly contested anti-access environment. Many of the capabilities capabilities of American aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 are highly classified and are not available within the public domain (e.g. cyber and electronic warfare). Similarly, detailed information on the capabilities of Russian and Chinese fifth generation aircraft is scarce. Thus, the article is based upon hints given by senior officials over the years via reputable aerospace & defense publications as well as my own estimations when the limits of publicly available information have been reached. Any conjecture on my part is clearly marked as to not confuse readers with confirmed/complete knowledge of capabilities and systems.

Image 1: F-22A flying over Edwards AFB. Image Credit: Code One.

In 2005, the United States declared initial operational capability (IOC) for the world's first fifth generation fighter - the F-22A. At that time, the War on Terror preoccupied American strategic thinking and the development of new doctrines and technologies related to confronting near peer adversaries stalled. The Russian stealth fighter program was in its infancy and little credible information existed on Chinese fifth generation programs. A decade after the IOC of the F-22, the F-35B reached IOC and the United States faced a substantially different strategic reality; Russia and China are increasingly asserting their influence in Eurasia and have narrowed the performance gap in terms of low observable techniques and avionics with American aircraft. As the United States transitions from exclusively fixating on non-state actors, the US Navy (USN) and US Air Force (USAF) must recapitalize and expand upon proven on Cold War methods of operations as well as create entirely new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) to reassert the US' position as the dominant global conventional military force. The USN and USAF must be able to complete power projection and all domain access operations with the following environment in mind:
  1. Due to F-35 program delays, the US will field a mixed 4th and 5th generation fighter force well info the late 2020s to early 2030s 
  2. The limited production run of the high-end air superiority F-22A with just 187 airframes delivered outside of test and evaluation roles, of which 143 are combat coded at any one time
  3. The emergence of high quality low cost DRFM jammers has significantly degraded beyond visual range radar guided missile performance 
  4. Advances in electronic and cyberwarfare have the potential to disrupt both friendly and enemy networks, severely limiting situational awareness and reducing the viability of network centric warfare 
  5. Poor cybersecurity and counter intelligence failures have allowed China to obtain detailed information on US weapon systems as well as methods of employment   
  6. The proliferation of sophisticated electronic & cyberwarfare weapons in conjunction with foreign stealth aircraft will mitigate the effectiveness of active detection systems such as radars meaning passive detection systems will become more widespread e.g. IRST systems 
  7. Use of passive systems and increasingly capable very high frequency (VHF) radars will degrade the effectiveness of X and S band optimized stealth aircraft into the late 2020s to 2030s which includes all current stealth fighters in development with the possible exception of the sixth generation F-X 
The article will discuss potential TTP the USN & USAF will produce with respect to the aforementioned issues. The focus of this article on Chinese A2/AD related threats rather than equivalent Russian systems stems from the significant conventional military modernization issues faced by the Russian military. Other than the United States, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is likely to be only other nation to field hundreds of fifth generation aircraft:
"Russia has found it impossible, so far, to field numbers of fifth-generation fighters. 'The Russians can build one-off systems, can build small numbers of really capable stuff, but they have not yet achieved the industrial capacity to produce in huge volumes'...the Chinese are expected to produce large numbers of J-20s over time...'I absolutely believe they have the industrial capacity to build lots of them. That’s what worries me. I have no doubt they’ll get, they’re stealing stuff from us as fast as they can, so that will accelerate their technological path, and then their industrial capacity is impressive.'”- Former Air Force General Mike Hostage, 2014 
A brief overview of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) objectives, doctrines, and capabilities relevant to probable US countermeasures e.g. new TTP will be provided.  PRC knowledge of sensitive American capabilities, revealed as a result of cyber espionage, will also be discussed.

Author's Note: Given the complexity of the topics discussed, the author recommends the following publications for a more detailed examination of the PLA and PLAAF: "Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development A Western Perspective" by Anthony H. Cordesman, Ashley Hess, and Nicholas S. Yarosh as well as "People's Liberation Army Air Force 2010" by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.

PLAAF Objectives, Doctrines, and Capabilities

Image 2: J-20 prototype model "2011" featuring an electro optical targeting system system.


As a rising great power state, the PRC has a diverse range of national security objectives ranging from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintaining control over domestic media to suppression of Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. For the purposes of this article, objectives and relevant doctrines related to the potential employment of PLAAF 5th generation aircraft against the United States will be discussed. Much of the literature discussing PRC strategic objectives related to a potential PRC-US conflict highlight the counter-intervention A2/AD strategy which would be employed between the first and second island chains; the first island chain covers the geographic region from the Ryukyu islands to the nine dash line in the South China Sea (SCS) and the second island chain extends outward from the first island chain toward Guam, the Marianas, and the Indonesia Sea (Global Security, 2011). As part of the A2/AD island chain strategy, the PLA would attempt to deny a foreign military force from intervening on behalf of Taiwan as well as the Philippines and Japan in the South China Sea and East China Sea respectively depending upon the contingency. The PLANAF and PLAAF would seek to establish regional air superiority, deny US sortie generation/basing, and destroy hostile surface vessels which would effectively limit US power projection in the region (RAND, 2008). As described below, the objective would be to execute a short decisive war within a limited in geographic scope.


Several PLA white papers discuss the growing need to fight a "local war under conditions of informatization" by achieving a state of information dominance over the enemy (DoD & Cordesman, 2015). In many respects, this doctrine mirrors aspects of the US doctrine of network centric warfare:
"The Local War under Conditions of Informatization (Local Wars) concept has been the official military doctrine of the PLA since 1993. This doctrine states that near-future warfare will be local geographically, primarily along China’s periphery; limited in scope, duration, and means; and conducted under 'conditions of informatization,' which the DOD describes as 'conditions in which modern military forces use advanced computer systems, information technology, and communication networks to gain operational advantage over an opponent'...Because of this extreme battlefield lethality, in combination with the limited geographic scope and objectives of Local Wars, the PLA expects to fight short wars in which the first campaign will be highly destructive at the military level and lead to a decision within the military sphere quickly. Moreover, the ability of military forces to communicate and coordinate rapidly through effective C4ISR networks means that, at the operational level, military forces in Local Wars will be agile, capable of high-tempo deep operations, resource-intensive, critically dependent on information, and present in all warfare domains." - Cordesman, 2015 
It remains to be seen if differing branches of the PLA can establish the level of cross service cooperation required to facilitate information dominance and effective employment of a networked A2/AD system given current institutional barriers (RAND, 2015). Furthermore, as PLA units gain greater cross service cooperation and improve their networked A2/AD capabilities, they become more susceptible to disruptive attacks against their C4ISR assets in a similar manner as the current vulnerability of American forces (Clark, 2014).

Capabilities: IADS, C4ISR, and Fighter Aircraft 

For the purposes of this article, aspects of China's integrated air defense system (IADS) and C4ISR capabilities will be discussed as it is most relevant to fourth and fifth generation fighter operations. However, it is important to note that anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, conventional ballistic missiles, etc. all contribute towards China's A2/AD capabilities within the first two island chains. China's IADS includes ground radars, surface to air missiles, command and control (C2) sites, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance assets (ISR), and fighter aircraft.

Image 3: HQ-9 site near Beijing. Image Credit: Sean O'Connor, 2007.

The mainstay of the PLA's long range SAM forces consist of S-300 derivatives including the locally manufactured copy, the HQ-9 which features minor alterations including a redesigned rocket motor. The PLA fields:

  • Between 8 to 16 HQ-9 SAM batteries
  • 16 battalions of 150 km range S-300PMU1 SAMs 
  • At least 8 battalions of the more capable 200 km range S-300PMU2 SAMs 

Note: Each S-300 battalion consists of up to six batteries which features up to six transporter erector launchers equipped with four missiles  each (Global Security & Kopp, 2015).

In any potential US-China conflict, the main threat to US fighter forces would result from high concentrations of S-300 and HQ-9 batteries with maximum engagement ranges between 125-200 km augmented by scores of shorter range SAMs such as the HQ-12 and SA-15.

Wile the negotiation of the sale of the 400 km (215 nautical miles) range S-400 has frequently made news headlines, the S-400's strategic value to China in the near term has been greatly overestimated by most media outlets for two reasons: (1) the PLA's acquisition of S-400 systems will be limited to between four and six battalions and (2) the 400 km figure pertains to only one of many missile types employed by the S-400 system - the 40N6 missile. The majority of missiles employed by the S-400 system are composed of the 130 nautical mile (240.7 km) range Fakel 48N6E3/48N6DM missile while the more expensive 40N6 is reserved for high priority targets such as AWACS aircraft (Kopp, 2014).

The radars comprising the S-400 system, such as the 92N2E Grave Stone, are likely to have a greater strategic impact than the 40N6 missiles given their ability to network with other IADS assets. Furthermore, the opportunity to reverse engineer the S-400's advanced radars will almost certainly have long-term effects on the technological maturity of future PLA SAM systems. Long range ground based radars will remain the backbone of the PLA's long range network of sensors to provide targeting data to both surface to air and surface to surface missiles as China fields limited space based and airborne ISR systems.

Image 4: Long March 2C launch vehicle. In 2014, the PRC put 16 satellites in orbit compared to 23 for the United States and 34 for the Russian Federation (Clark, 2014).

In order to deny US power projection within the first and second island chains, China's A2/AD strategy relies upon ISR assets to provide over the horizon (OTH) targeting information to PLA conventional ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, ships, and aircraft. Large fixed targets such as US ground facilities in Japan would be comparatively easy to target given the locations of these targets are static and observable in peacetime conditions. However, mobile targets such as US carrier groups, AWACS aircraft, and tanker aircraft would require real time long range space based and airborne sensors to relay targeting information to PLA forces.

The PRC has made significant investments in reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites which could provide real time OTH information to PLA forces within the first and second island chains. Beidou 1 consists of five satellites positioned in geostationary positions between 70 to 140 degrees east longitude and 5 to 55 degrees north latitude; an additional 16 Beidou 2 navigation satellites are active (Gormley, Yuan & Erickson, 2014). China has also deployed multiple Jianbing-8 ocean surveillance satellites similar to the US' Naval Ocean Surveillance System (Barbosa, 2014). As China continues to heavily invest in space assets, the assumption that the US would be disproportionately affected in a future conflict with China in which both sides attempt to deny the use of space merits further analysis; without long range space based systems the effective range of China's A2/AD assets is confined well within the first island chain (Biddle & Oelrich, 2015).  A combination of kinetic and non-kinetic options are available for the US to target both Chinese surveillance and communication satellites.

Image 5: Chengdu's Tian Yi High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV. Note the uncanny resemblance to the Northrup Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. A second derivative of the Tian Yi features two engines buried within the airframe along with additional stealth features.

As with PRC satellites, UAVs enable the PLA to cue long range conventional ballistic and cruise missiles. The DoD reported in May of 2015 that the PRC will field more than 40,000 sea and land based UAVs by 2023 at a total cost of $10.5 billion. The vast majority of future PRC UAVs will be shorter range miniature and tactical UAVs capable of operating only within the first island chain. However, the comparatively larger number of tactical UAVs such as the ASN-206 will make neutralizing the PLA's ISR capabilities much more difficult within the first island chain. Larger and more capable medium altitude long endurance (MALE) and HALE UAVs will provide substantial ISR capabilities within the second island chain but fewer of the more capable platforms such as the Divine Eagle will be available.

A large number of publications, such as Popular Science, have heralded the Shenyang Project 973 UAV as a game changer with its alleged anti-stealth capabilities and its role as an integral C4ISR node within China's larger A2/AD force:
"The Divine Eagle is planned to carry multiple Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, of the AMTI, SAR and GMTI varities. Airborne Moving Target Indicator (AMTI) radar types are used to track airborne targets, like enemy fighters and cruise missiles. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) provides high resolution of slow moving ground vehicles and enemy bases. Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radars are ideal for identifying and tracking ships, such as aircraft carriers. X/UHF band radars, which include the 'F-22 killer' JY-26 that debuted at Zhuhai 2014, have raised concerns in the American military that they could track stealth aircraft like the F-35 fighter and B-2 bomber at long ranges." - Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer  
A great deal of skepticism is warranted when trying to assess the Divine Eagle given the spectacular performance claims made by many Chinese publications and defense forums. Early claims that the UAV itself was stealth are clearly refutable on the basis of its vertical tail surfaces. Furthermore, the active emission of signals from its AESAs would reveal its position to passive systems such as the ALR-94. Lastly, UHF/VHF radars do provide an ability to detect stealth aircraft at tactically significant ranges, but do not provide weapons quality track data which still requires S and X band arrays (Majumdar, 2014). All the aforementioned caveats do not imply the Divine Eagle does not have significant capabilities, but it is unlikely a "silver bullet" to combating stealth American aircraft. If the details on its avionics provided by Popular Science are correct, the Divine Eagle can still provide an early warning capability against X and S band optimized stealth aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.

Part II will discuss PLAAF and PLANAF fighter capabilities as well as PRC knowledge of American systems through the Snowden leaks and cyber espionage.


  1. People's Liberation Navy - Offshore Defense, Global Security, 2011. 
  2. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Project: Organizational Capacities and Operational Capabilities, Ian M. Easton and L.C. Russell Hsiao, 2013.
  3. China’s Military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry, Kimberly Hsu, 2013.'s%20Military%20UAV%20Industry_14%20June%202013.pdf 
  4. Divine Eagle, China's Enormous Stealth Hunting Drone, Takes Shape., Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, 2015. 
  5. 2014’s launch tally highest in two decades, Stephen Clark, 2014. 
  6. Air Combat Past, Present and Future, John Stillion & Scott Perdue, 2008. 
  7. The HQ-9 SAM System: A Site Analysis, Sean O'Connor, 2007.
  8. China's Incomplete Military Transition, Michael S. Chase, Jeffrey Engstrom, Tai Ming Cheung, Kristen A. Gunness, Scott Warren Harold, Susan Puska, Samuel K. Berkowitz, 2015.
  9. Commanding the Seas A Plan to Reinvigorate US Navy Surface Warfare, Bryan Clark, 2014. 
  10. Long March 4B lofts Yaogan-21 in surprise launch,  Rui C. Barbosa, 2014. 
  11. A Low-Visibility Force Multiplier Assessing China’s Cruise Missile Ambitions, Dennis M. Gormley, Andrew S. Erickson, and Jingdong Yuan, 2014. 
  12. Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: From Command of the Commons to Spheres of Influence, Stephen Biddle & Ivan Oelrich, 2015. 
  13. Chinese and Russian Radars On Track To See Through U.S. Stealth, Dave Majumdar, 2014.