Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a ramp up in the training of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the last few years; demanding they become combat ready and learn from the lessons of their Western rivals. One of the harder lessons China is learning is that with more drills, comes more accidents. Planes that are never flown can never fall from the sky.
The PLA-AF released a statement on Monday that a plane had crashed during a routine exercise in a rural area in Guizhou Province. No casualties have been reported at the time of this article. The PLA-AF has also yet to confirm the type of aircraft involved in the incident.
This is just the latest in a string of training accidents involving a traditionally struggling Chinese air capability. In April 2016, a carrier-based J-15 fighter jet pilot died in a crash during a simulated deck landing exercise at an unspecified inland base. That incident was seen as a setback in China’s drive to field its blue water navy and subsequent naval air capability. The J-15 is Chinese-made and the core fighter platform for the mainland’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and other more advanced carriers under construction.
There have been at least eight additional military air training accidents since 2013, most of which have taken place over the East China Sea –the region the PLA uses to conduct all-weather air training drills.
An uptick in all-weather combat simulation flights began after Beijing set up its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in November, 2013. The ADIZ encompasses the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan refers to as the Senkakus. Both countries claim the uninhabited islands but Tokyo currently controls them. More than half of the Chinese ADIZ overlaps Japan’s own air defense zone.
“Zhejiang is on the front line of the East China Sea ADIZ, and more fighter jets are needed to scramble to expel unidentified foreign aircraft. That’s why so many accidents have happened there,” said a Beijing based naval expert.
Long time China watchers believe the lack of practical experience, both in combat and regular deployments, is the PLA’s biggest weakness. A 2017 report by RAND outlines the issues facing the PLAAF– as well as its effort to develop solutions in response to them –concluding that while China’s air force has increased its expeditionary capacity, it remains well behind the USAF, USN and many European air forces.
Chinese intelligence services have become quite skilled at restricted technology acquisition by both illicit means and via legal loopholes– helping them significantly advance the capability of their military assets. But the one thing the Chinese have never been able to reproduce through espionage or by gaming trade regulations, is the experience gained through repetitive training evolutions. Pilots need thousands of hours in the cockpit and simulators to be truly combat ready.
In contrast to the Chinese, the U.S. has nearly a century’s worth of experience in the deployment of expeditionary airpower. Since World War II, American aircraft have operated successfully from bases and carrier groups around the world. China would be hard pressed to develop a similar presence, at least in the short-term–but this latest crash shows that China has no intention of slowing down its desire to try.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia