Asia Pacific

Top military officer confirms Chinese Air Force plan to ‘extend reach into space’

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The Chinese Air Force intends to expand its presence into space as part of its plan to become a “world-class force,” state-run media reported Tuesday, quoting top military officers.

The China Daily newspaper said senior Col. Wang Zhonghua, head of the Planning Bureau of the air force’s Equipment Department, had told a news conference Sunday in the city of Zhuhai that the branch “spares no efforts in handling all threats, and is gearing up to extend its reach beyond the clouds and into space.”

Wang’s news conference coincided with the 69th anniversary of the air force’s founding, and was part of the six-day 12th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition that wrapped up Sunday in the city.

The top officer was quoted as saying that the air force is currently undergoing “revolutionary changes that will generate a system that can function in future warfare scenarios.”

Lt. Gen. Xu Anxiang, the branch’s deputy commander, also outlined what the report called “a multiphase road map for building a strong, modern” air force.

The first step, he said, would be the establishment of a strategic force by 2020 that “will have integrated air and space capability and balanced strength in both defensive and offensive operations.”

“When that is achieved, fourth-generation equipment will serve as the backbone of the air force’s arsenal. Information-based systematic combat capabilities will be enhanced,” he added.

According to the report, the air force categorizes its top weapons, including the J-20 stealth fighter jet and Y-20 strategic transport aircraft, as fourth-generation equipment, while the J-10 and J-16 combat fighters are classified as third-generation.

Xu said the following phase would see the air force further improve its strategic capabilities and modernize its organizational structure, human resources and weaponry.

“The building of a modern strategic air force will essentially be achieved by 2035,” Xu said.

Ultimately, the air force will be fully transformed into a world-class force by the mid-21st century, he added.

The Chinese Air Force is the largest in the region and the third largest in the world, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power. This year’s report said the branch “is working to become a ‘strategic’ air force capable of long-range power projection” and is “closing the gap with the U.S. Air Force across a spectrum of capabilities, gradually eroding longstanding U.S. technical advantages,” including in space.

Earlier this year, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump proposed the creation of a Space Force as a sixth branch of America’s armed forces, with Vice President Mike Pence in August announcing a plan that would see its establishment by 2020.

“If the United States is to maintain military advantage in space as President Trump has promised — and as his new Space Force is meant to do — U.S. policy and strategic decisions should be informed by an understanding of China’s ambitions to become an ‘aerospace superpower’ — and how the Chinese military has reorganized itself to seek dominance in space,” Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, wrote in a September commentary for the website Defense One.

According to this year’s Defense Department report on China’s military power, Beijing’s space program “continues to mature rapidly” — despite its public stance against the militarization of space.

The Chinese military “continues to invest in improving its capabilities” and “is developing multiple counterspace capabilities to degrade and deny adversary use of space-based assets during a crisis or conflict,” which strategists regard “as central to modern warfare,” the report said.