Sep 9, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

5 mins read

China's Military Looks to the Sky

China's Military Looks to the Sky
Forecast Highlights

  • Airborne forces will complement China's strategic military needs.
  • China will continue to invest in the development of its airborne forces.
  • To enhance their effectiveness, Beijing will focus on upgrading the firepower and strategic mobility of its airborne forces.

China is broadening its military horizons. The country is pursuing its global interests more proactively, driving its military to focus on becoming a more international presence as part of its "active defense" doctrine. As China extends its reach and expands its efforts to defend its interests around the world, the country has had to rely on branches of its armed forces beyond the army, traditionally the dominant branch. To that end, Beijing has poured money into developing its naval and air power and overhauling and modernizing its command and control structure. At the same time, it has worked to enhance its airborne forces.

Meeting a Strategic Need

Beijing's focus on cultivating its airborne forces reflects its strategic needs. China is one of the largest countries in the world, and its borders contain vast swaths of remote territory. Furthermore, since the country is surrounded by potential flashpoints, from its disputed borders with India to its potentially explosive border with North Korea, Beijing can never be sure where its next crisis will erupt. China depends on flexible and mobile forces that can quickly deploy wherever needed, whether to counter an armed invasion or respond to a natural disaster. Airborne forces, which are lightly equipped, well trained and highly mobile, are uniquely suited to that role. Outside the Chinese mainland, China's airborne forces will probably take on a prominent role in managing problems in proximate areas such as the South China Sea or Taiwan. In addition, as China hones its power projection capabilities, airborne forces could prove useful for global missions, such as peacekeeping activities in Africa, evacuation operations and long-range counterterrorism missions.

China has already developed a formidable airborne contingent in its 15th Airborne Corps, an elite force comparable to the United States' XVIII Airborne Corps. The 15th Airborne Corps, composed of three divisions totaling approximately 30,000 men, forms the core of China's strategic reserve and rapid-reaction force and operates under the aegis of the air force (though the Central Military Commission maintains direct command). The corps' troops are some of the best trained in the Chinese military, receiving instruction in parachute jumps, air assault, operations behind enemy lines and combat in diverse environments. In recent years, their training has emphasized rapid deployments to the Tibet region of western China, where India has built up its new Mountain Strike Corps just beyond the border.  

What's more, the 15th Airborne Corps has the gear to match its training. In terms of firepower, the corps traditionally receives the best light equipment available to the Chinese military. Since 2003, it has been equipped with light armored vehicles that can be dropped from transport aircraft, significantly increasing the firepower available to deployed troops, who could find themselves deep behind enemy lines. Moreover, Beijing remains committed to improving its airborne capabilities: Recent images from China suggest that a new airborne infantry fighting vehicle with better armor and firepower is under development.

A Lingering Limitation

But for all their training and equipment, China's airborne forces lack the strategic air transport necessary to deploy troops efficiently. With limited numbers of Il-76 and Y-8 transport aircraft at its disposal, China can deploy only one division of the 15th Airborne Corps across the country in under 48 hours. Limited transport availability also restricts the stream of supplies to airborne infantry troops after deployment. Since airborne forces are valuable precisely for their ability to deploy rapidly from the air, China's insufficient transportation capacity is a challenge that Beijing will have to overcome.

To address this problem, China has been investing heavily in its strategic transport fleet over the past few years. Soon, Beijing will begin to reap the rewards. China, for instance, recently began producing two new indigenously developed transport aircraft, the Shaanxi Y-9 medium-range transport and the Xian Y-20 strategic airlifter. Broadly equivalent, respectively, to the U.S. C-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, the Shaanxi Y-9 and Xian Y-20 will augment the lift capacity available to the 15th Airborne Corps in the years ahead. In addition, China signed an agreement with Ukraine on Aug. 30 that will provide it with a completed An-225, the world's largest transport aircraft, along with the specifications and license to produce it. Only one An-225, which is capable of lifting a payload of more than 250 metric tons, has been built to date. Though Beijing's intentions for the plane are unclear, its deal with Kiev further illustrates China's interest in strategic airlift that could support future force projection missions.

As China has invested more in developing its military power, it has had to adjust its force structure and capabilities, reducing the role of large-scale traditional ground maneuver units in favor of alternative means of projecting power. Beijing's emphasis on its airborne forces, particularly its 15th Airborne Corps, reflects its understanding that its changing military demands require more flexible and mobile power projection capability.

Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani

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