PLA Blows Hot And Cold Over US Air Force’s Multirole Heavy Aircraft – Analysis

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By Derek Solen*

Introduction

In mid-November, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) published an article evaluating the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF) recent efforts to use its heavy aircraft (bombers, tankers, and cargo aircraft) for more missions than they were designed to execute. The article casts doubt on the usefulness and feasibility of these efforts.

However, the article was soon followed by another article indicating the threat that is posed by one of these efforts. The glaring contradiction raises the question of which article represents the consensus in the PLA, but in this case, the more alarmist of the two is likely to be closer to the consensus.

Downplaying the Threat

The first article was written by one Liu Haochang (China National Defense News, November 16). The article was published in the International section of China National Defense News (中国国防报, Zhongguo guofang bao) a sister publication of the PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Central Military Commission, which is equivalent to the U.S. Defense Department. The audience for China National Defense News is the Chinese militia and those working in China’s defense establishment outside the PLA and the Chinese People’s Armed Police, people involved in conscription, civilian mobilization, and “defense education.” Defense education comprises students’ mandatory military training as well as the indoctrination of the public in military affairs. It is for this last purpose that China National Defense News regularly publishes CCP orthodoxy concerning foreign military affairs in its international section.

The orthodox approach to chronicling foreign military developments usually downplays the efforts of Beijing’s enemies and this article is no exception. Given this tendency, it is difficult to determine the degree to which this viewpoint reflects Beijing’s actual assessments, but it should not be automatically assumed that the two are inconsistent. Orthodoxy can be self-reinforcing, coloring the views of those with greater access to facts who are writing official assessments as much as it influences the public.

The article was mostly a summary of a single article that was published on the website of the American online magazine Defense News, albeit one that accentuated the negative aspects of the USAF’s endeavor much more than the original (Defense News, November 7). Liu’s article diverged from the article in Defense News once he began editorializing toward the end.

As is common practice, Liu quoted unnamed “analysts” to offer a direct response to a remark by the USAF Chief of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. The article in Defense News quoted General Brown that the ability of a C-130, for example, to carry palletized munitions would complicate an adversary’s targeting because the adversary would be unable to determine whether a C-130 is carrying food or missiles (Defense News, November 7). Liu’s “analysts” responded by saying that this is “excessively wishful thinking” (China National Defense News, November 16). They reportedly said that because the front and the rear are no longer distinguished in modern warfare, logistical and support nodes as well as lines of communication and transport aircraft are important targets. “To a military with sufficient air defense forces, any enemy military aircraft in the midst of an armed clash is a target for strikes,” they apparently remarked.

Liu concluded his article by quoting Americans to support his article’s negative assessment of the USAF’s endeavor. Liu quoted an executive from L3Harris as saying, “Even if the U.S. Air Force squeezes more utility out of the military aircraft that it currently possesses, this will not help resolve the compositional problem of its fleet of military aircraft” (China National Defense News, November 16). However, this appears to be a translation of an indirect quotation of a remark by Heather Penney of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies (Defense News, November 7). It is possible that Liu intentionally misattributed this remark to the executive in order to create the impression that greater doubt exists about the USAF’s endeavor within the U.S. itself.

The likelihood of this possibility increases, when it is considered in relation to Liu’s embellishment of the quotation from Penney that he used as the article’s final line—what is, in effect, the article’s closing argument: “The U.S. Air Force’s way of doing things cannot resolve the problem of its fundamental needs[.] Even if it expands the related functions [of its aircraft], the U.S. Air Force will still require more cargo aircraft, bombers, and fighters” (China National Defense News, November 16). The first sentence of this quotation did not appear in the original article (Defense News, November 7). It may have been a paraphrase of the remark that Liu misattributed to the executive at L3Harris, but if Liu was paraphrasing Penney, he should have noticed his mistake.

Therefore, the message of Liu’s article is that the USAF’s endeavor to increase the roles of its heavy aircraft is tactically futile and ultimately unfeasible. Such an assessment is overly negative. Certainly, the USAF’s endeavor will not resolve the problems of a shrinking and aging fleet, but it should maximize the utility of every existing aircraft and enhance the overall agility of the force. Moreover, Liu’s analysts seem to have failed to consider the reality that, even if a military possesses “sufficient” resources, no military possesses unlimited resources. The PLA will likely attempt to prioritize aerial targets to efficiently use its munitions for maximum effect. Hence, the USAF’s endeavor is neither futile nor unfeasible. If, however, the PLA truly believes this, then, in the words of Liu’s “analysts,” it may itself be engaging in wishful thinking.

Sounding the Alarm

The PLA is unlikely to be so optimistic, though. Almost one week after Liu’s article appeared, the PLA published another article, which contradicted it. The article was written by one Xi Qizhi and was published in the Science and Technology section of China National Defense News (China National Defense News, November 22). The Science and Technology section reports military scientific and technological developments outside China, but unlike the International section, it tends to publish straight news. Xi’s article focused on Rapid Dragon, a program to develop one of the aforementioned capabilities, the capability to launch cruise missiles from pallets dropped by cargo aircraft. In early November the USAF conducted the first live-fire demonstration of Rapid Dragon, which was successful (U.S. Air Force, November 14).

Chinese National Defense News previously published an article about Rapid Dragon in its Science and Technology section in November 2021 (China Aerospace Studies Institute, November 10, 2021). That article mentioned positive aspects of Rapid Dragon, but it also raised two critical weaknesses: the scarcity of cargo aircraft in the USAF’s inventory and the inadequacies of the missile being used in the program, the AGM-158B, namely its low “cost effectiveness” and its insufficient range. Xi mentioned neither in his article, which in fact, was almost alarmist. The first two-thirds of the article reviewed Rapid Dragon’s origin and progress, the speed of which Xi explicitly indicated (China National Defense News, November 22). In the final third of the article, Xi raised three advantages of Rapid Dragon. The first is that cargo aircraft can carry large numbers of missiles. Second, and in direct contradiction to Liu’s “analysts,” Rapid Dragon will confuse America’s enemies:

In a state of war, sorties by transport aircraft far exceed those of bombers, and opponents have difficulty tracking them closely. When a transport aircraft carrying palletized munitions flies to just outside a defensive perimeter and fires stealth cruise missiles, it is generally difficult to detect and discover it. Besides, palletized munitions can also be pre-positioned at forward bases, and after a transport aircraft delivers materiel from the rear to the front, it can undertake a strike mission during its return flight. One can predict that once it is armed with palletized munitions, the agility of the U.S. military’s distributed method for strike missions and the suddenness of those strikes will increase immensely (China National Defense News, November 22).

The third advantage of Rapid Dragon is its high “cost effectiveness,” which Xi wrote, manifests itself in two ways: first, turning cargo aircraft into bombers is cheaper than developing and maintaining bombers; second, the U.S. can quickly turn allies’ cargo aircraft into bombers, too, “providing [additional] options for deterring opponents” (China National Defense News, November 22). Xi predicted that there will be increasingly more types of palletized munitions and that more types of aircraft will be able to carry them in the future.

Conclusion

The contrast between Xi’s and Liu’s articles is striking and naturally raises the question as to which viewpoint represents the consensus in the PLA. In this case, it is likely that Xi’s article is closer to the consensus. After all, it is unlikely that the articles represent a drastic evolution of the PLA’s view, certainly not within one week. Instead, it is more likely that the articles’ composition and publication were not coordinated by the authors and the editors of the newspaper’s different sections. Working separately, they accomplished the purposes of each section: one to inform and one to indoctrinate. In this case, given that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Liu fabricated quotations, it is likely that Liu knowingly painted a picture of the USAF’s endeavor that is more negative than even he knows is warranted.

Therefore, although it would be wrong to conclude that the consensus in the PLA is always the opposite of the views that are presented in China National Defense News’ International section, in this case, the PLA likely regards Rapid Dragon in particular as a credible threat. The PLA is likely to regard the seriousness of that threat as significantly greater if Rapid Dragon is shared with American allies, a possibility that the PLA likely fears now that Tokyo is poised to include the development of the capability to attack “enemy bases” in its defense strategy (Mainichi Shimbun, December 9). In addition to increasing the total number of cargo aircraft that China’s enemies could use as “weapons trucks,” it would also increase the vectors from which threats come.

*About the author: Derek Solen is a senior researcher at the U.S. Air Force’s China Aerospace Studies Institute. He was a civilian intelligence specialist in the U.S. Army. The opinions and conclusions that are expressed or implied herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of Air University, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.

Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 23

The Jamestown Foundation

The Jamestown Foundation’s mission is to inform and educate policy makers and the broader community about events and trends in those societies which are strategically or tactically important to the United States and which frequently restrict access to such information. Utilizing indigenous and primary sources, Jamestown’s material is delivered without political bias, filter or agenda. It is often the only source of information which should be, but is not always, available through official or intelligence channels, especially in regard to Eurasia and terrorism.

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