Just How Good are the Mainland Chinese Fighter Pilots?
The People’s Republic of China is now a global force to reckoned with. And up to this day it kept on evolving, hoping that one day it will gain an edge over Western Powers. It did come a long way since it unmasked itself as a communist nation under chairman Mao Zedong. And now, it is an economic and military powerhouse in Asia, though nations could agree that such great power now lacks great responsibility. It seems that being on the top turned this nation from a dragon, into a monster. The smaller nations are now feeling the pressure of China’s newly found might, when they found their territories unjustly taken.
China is always keen on flexing its muscles and maintaining a frightening face across the world. Just look at the upgrades it made in its air force. They now got a homegrown stealth fighter to begin with. But one question remains though. How qualified are their pilots to even take those fighters to the sky? How good are they, or are they more than a match to the Western Powers? As we all know, owning deadly toys is one thing, and getting to use those is another. China might have advanced technology, but it also needs competent pilots to fly those things. Otherwise, they are no different than a tacticool mall ninja who poses with a semi-auto rifle in social media.
But, Their Air Force is Flawed
Make no mistake about it. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is no joke. It is a heavily armed unit, with more than 5200 aircrafts and 398000 active personnel. And among those 5200 aircrafts are 3000 combat jets, like bombers and fighters. It has an ongoing upgrade, and soon fourth generation aircrafts like the J-20 will serve as its backbone.
Compared to most of its neighboring nations, the Chinese air force is a head above the rest. But it still got a long way to go before it matches the Western Powers. Yes, it got advanced combat jet in its arsenal. 500 of its many aircrafts are modern warplanes. But everyone knows how the PLA tends to “borrow” technologies from other country. And some critics pointed out that the PLA warplanes are nothing but knock-offs from established combat aircrafts.
And knock-off technology means knock-off quality.
These aircrafts are plagued with reliability problems. Everyone knows the disastrous J-15 program. This supposedly competent fighter jet is a clone of the Russian SU-33. It was meant to match U.S. carrier borne aircrafts, like the F-18 hornet, given that it could even fly properly. After several crashed, the J-15 is now going to the scrap heap for replacement.
Even the indigenous fighter J-20 is not immune to quality issues. With an underpowered engine, it will have troubles engaging the likes of the European Typhoon, or the F-22.
The PLA’s fondness for illegally copying foreign technologies could be its greatest downfall (it will be discussed in future articles). And then, there is pilot competency. In an event that war broke, are the PLA pilots ready enough to face the more seasoned western combat aviators?
When Thailand Beats the Chinese Air force
In 2015, Thailand held a joint exercise with China. The Exercise Falcon Strike 2015 was held in Thailand’s Korat Royal Air Force Base for two weeks. It involves a mock dog fight, and the Chinese brought their J-11 fighters. In the Thai corner, they got their F-16s, but instead they deployed different fighters; the JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The J-11 (a clone of the Russian SU-27) was reputed to be the better dog fighter, but the Gripens are a better long-range shooter. It is no surprise that the J-11 won in the first day of the exercise, as it involves visual range only. The Gripen got weaker engines unlike the J-11. The J-11 “shot down” all 16 Gripens with zero loss.
But the game shifted to beyond visual range, which is another aspect of air combat.
And for three days, the Thais proved superior. Their Gripen defeated 19 J-11s and only lost three. Their winning streak continued until the last days of the exercise. Overall, the Thais shot down 42 J-11, while losing only 34 Gripens.
In the post war game analysis, the Chinese pilots lacked situational awareness and coordination. They had no experiences with missile evasions and countermeasures either.
So basically, a powerful Chinese fighter plane was beaten by a cheaper Swedish fighter jet of the Thai Air force.
The Chinese Pilot's Problems
Yes, China is aware that their pilots’ skills are still flawed. In fact, in 2005 they began to organize realistic war games to hone their skills. But until today, they are yet to produced competent pilots capable of taking on more proficient western pilots.
Yes, China is partaking on war games, but the pilot training itself is unrealistic and the tactics underdeveloped. The approach to training is very by-the-book as well. Then, there is the rigid structuring of the PLA. It is highly centralized that could hinder the skills of its pilots. This resulted with less adaptable pilots, where they are unable to make decisions on the spot as the tactical maneuvers are fed to them by commanders on the ground.
To illustrate this, when they fly in a formation, the lead plane will take commands on dogfights. Tactical skills are needed here by the lead pilot, something that Chinese pilots lack. They need to refer to ground commanders to know what to do. It is a major disadvantage when they are in an actual fight, where split second decisions matter. Before the pilots could hear the commanders’ orders, they are dead.
Ground commanders are not helping either. They are not quick enough to adapt to the rapid changing air situation.
And maybe, the Chinese Air Force’s lack of combat experience also contributed to the poor training, planning and management of its pilots. Having not seen war for a long time, the PLA could have forgotten how modern warfare looks like.
China got formidable air force indeed, but not formidable enough to match the air powers of the likes of Russia and the U.S. Yes, they got advanced air assets, but can they use such assets to its full extent? The military exercise with Thailand exposed such weakness when the cheaper Thai fighters defeated the Chinese J-11. Its pilots lacked situational awareness, missile evasion skills and coordination. Training realistically is also a problem, as well as managing the planes in the air. The rigid command style also deprived the pilots of their quick reactions.
Up to now, China was said to be fixing such problems. But there are the problems with its machines also. Yes they are advanced, but the reliability is a question.
1. Beckhusen, Robert (2016) ""China Might Have Stealth Fighters, But How Good are the Pilots Who Fly them". War is Boring
2. Axe, David (12 December 2019). "How the Chinese Air Force Lost a War Game to This Fighter Jet." The National Interest.