by DAVID AXE
China has staged two massive air force exercises in recent weeks, each involving scores of high-performance warplanes. The training events signal a potentially huge leap in the ability of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to coordinate high-intensity air campaigns against a determined foe — until recently a major shortfall of the Chinese military. Meanwhile, Taiwan has been barred from participating in the U.S. Red Flag exercise, the world’s leading air-war simulation.
The looming training disparity should worry Taipei. China possesses thousands more combat aircraft than Taiwan, but historically the latter’s Republic of China Air Force has enjoyed a significant advantage in pilot skill, owing to better training based on U.S. methods. Any Chinese assault on Taiwan would likely involve huge air battles over the Taiwan Strait. In such a confrontation, the victor could very well be the one that trained harder. Increasingly, that’s China rather than Taiwan.
From Nov. 19 to 30 at what Chinese media described as an “experimental training base” in the country’s northwest, more than 100 jet fighters and pilots from 14 regiments assembled for a Red Flag-style exercise featuring mock aerial combat. It was the “largest confrontation air-combat testing assessment of the PLA Air Force in recent years.”
The war game combatants included: the 1st Regiment with the most modern, twin-engine J-11B, the 4th Regiment flying the older J-8DF, the 8th Regiment and its single-engine J-10s, the 42nd Regiment with the old but upgraded J-7E, the 54th Regiment and its Russian-made Su-30s and 55th Regiment also operating the J-11. Photos from the event showed a J-10 with kill markings on its fuselage — evidence of intensive mock dogfighting.
In a related development, the PLAAF has begun painting some of its fighters in unique color schemes so they can act as so-called “adversaries” — that is, pretend enemies in simulated combat. A photo published in Combat Aircraft Magazine depicts Su-30s of the 18th Division in such schemes.
Around the same time as the northern event, a similar “comprehensive support experiment drill” took place at an airport in southwest China. The exercise appeared to focus on logistics, marshaling, air-traffic control and other support functions that are critical to sustaining a high-intensity air campaign. More than 100 warplanes of 10 types participated, including J-10s, J-11s, airborne early-warning planes and transports.
The drill tested methods for increasing launch rates using two runways at the same base. “The use of the double-runway airport greatly enhances airport capacity and flight service efficiency,” state media explained.
While China was benefiting from two large-scale training events, Taiwan struggled to join even one. This summer the U.S. Defense Department invited the ROCAF to send some of its F-16s and their pilots to the July Red Flag 12-4 held at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. But at the last minute, the White House rescinded the invitation, reportedly over fears that Taiwan’s participation would anger Beijing.
Even without the Taiwanese jets, Red Flag 12-4 was a huge drill, involving 94 warplanes from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps and the air forces of the United Arab Emirates and Colombia. “Everyone’s performance was phenomenal,” said Lt. Col. Cameron Dadgar, one of the event organizers.
To make up for missing Red Flag, Taiwan organized its own, surely less-sophisticated, aerial warfare simulation called Tien Lung, held in Hualien and Taidong from Nov. 10 to Nov. 16. Tien Lung “mirrored the routines performed during Red Flag” and involved “all the major fighter wings” of the ROCAF, according to a summary of one Taiwanese report. The ROCAF flies U.S.-built F-5s and F-16s, Mirage 2000s from France and its own homebuilt Ching Kuo fighters.
Taiwan continues to conduct basic fighter training in the U.S.
The White House reportedly will consider allowing Taiwan to join future Red Flags. But it’s hard to see how the politics of the two Chinas will make it any easier for the Americans to say yes. And for Taiwan, that means an eroding aerial advantage as China steadily boosts the scale and realism of its own aerial training.