China's air force is far from ready for a crucial mission it needs to seize Taiwan

The J-16 fighter has the precision-guided munitions and advanced radar needed for China's close air-support missions.
The J-16 fighter has the precision-guided munitions and advanced radar needed for China's close air-support missions.Qian Baihua/Getty Images
  • China's military is improving its air-to-ground firepower and tactics.

  • But China appears not to have the tight air-ground coordination required for crucial missions.

  • Conducting airstrikes when friendly troops may only be a couple of hundred yards away is tricky.

China's air force is improving its ability to deliver close air support to the army, according to some U.S. experts, even as questions persist about whether China is capable yet of delivering the tight air-ground integration that has long been standard in US military operations.

This has deep implications for a Chinese readiness to invade Taiwan. Ground troops dropped by air or scrambling ashore lack heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery. This makes them heavily dependent on external fire support to suppress enemy defenses they'll face, including naval gunfire, missile and drone strikes, and attacks from jets and helicopters.

A key component will be close air support, or CAS, which the US Air Force defines as "air action by aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces." It's a difficult mission that can result in friendly troops being hit. The US military has long practiced CAS, including the Air Force's development of the A-10 Warthog, and Marine Corps aviation's emphasis on direct support of the ground troops.

Yet as evidenced by the Ukraine war, air-ground operations has long been a Russian weakness, and the same applies to China. However, as the People's Liberation Army, as the Chinese armed forces are known, has discarded its Soviet-era equipment and tactics, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has modernized its aircraft and doctrine. The PLAAF's ability to deliver "close air firepower support missions has improved over the past decades," according to a December 2023 brief by the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office.

Previously, air support "consisted mainly of planned strikes with inadequate flexibility to address mobile or newly discovered targets on the battlefield," noted FMSO analyst Kevin McCauley. But air support became more responsive "as the ground forces became more motorized and mechanized, and PLAAF capabilities improved."

For example, China has enhanced its ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems, including the use of Beidou, China's counterpart to the GPS system. China's air-to-ground firepower has also become more lethal as early Cold War models, such as the Q-5 attack jet (based on the Soviet MiG-19), have been replaced by modern designs such as the J-10 and J-16 fighters and JH-7A strike jets equipped with precision-guided missiles and advanced radar and electro-optical sensors. "These upgrades represent a significant shift in speed, lift capacity, and survivability of aircraft likely to be assigned for CAFS [close air fire support] missions," McCauley wrote.

But the biggest limitation for Chinese close air support remains command and control. Conducting airstrikes when friendly troops may only be a couple of hundred yards from the target is a tricky process. During World War II, nations learned through trial and error that air support for front-line troops is only effective when armies and air forces work closely together. US Army soldiers in Normandy were so exasperated at being hit by friendly bombs that they nicknamed the US 9th Air Force "America's Luftwaffe."

The US and Britain eventually devised methods such as using forward air controllers to ensure that enemy forces are hit – and friendly forces are not. From Korea and Vietnam, to Afghanistan and Iraq, American ground troops grew to count on air support. US forces are trained to use air support to strike at encroaching threats or to attack enemy positions so ground forces can maneuver as enemy fire is suppressed.

While China is beginning to make strides here, the PLA's approach to close air support has key differences with America's. Their airpower is oriented towards targets deeper behind the front lines, like ammunition depots or staging points, which require less coordination with ground units because they're farther from friendly forces. Chinese CAS also "appears to have a simpler and streamlined command and coordination system compared to U.S. close air support," wrote McCauley. While it is "not as closely integrated with ground maneuver as U.S. CAS, it does directly support tactical ground combat."

Joint terminal attack controllers relay air support missions during a 2023 exercise that included a US Marine Corps Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter.
Joint terminal attack controllers relay air support missions during a 2023 exercise that included a US Marine Corps Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter.Cpl. Ethan R. Jones/USMC

McCauley sees China studying and learning from the US close air support system. "While it is unlikely the PLA will copy U.S. procedures and organizations completely, it will likely adopt features it believes will improve its aerial fire support capabilities," he concluded.

However, other U.S. experts are more skeptical. China's close air support capabilities "started from essentially nothing and have moved on to something they are trying to figure out how to do," Brendan Mulvaney, director of the US Air Force's China Aerospace Studies Institute, told Business Insider. "They are a long way from anything resembling what we would call CAS."

China's air force doesn't normally work closely with the ground troops. "We rarely, if ever, see this in exercises or training," said Mulvaney, a former US Marine Corps Cobra attack helicopter pilot with extensive experience in close air support. For example, China lacks the equivalent of US Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, specially trained ground troops in forward units who ensure that pilots know which targets to attack, guide smart bombs to those targets, and ensure that pilots know the location of friendly forces to avoid fratricide.

PLAAF operations"seem to be far closer to 'air support to ground operations' as opposed to "close air support," Mulvaney said; in other words, Chinese troops can't expect fighter jets to aid them with pinpoint strikes when they're in a jam. Yet Mulvaney does see China making efforts to improve CAS. "They know what they have to do, they have studied it, and no doubt have a plan to get there."

But in the meantime, close air support is not a Chinese strength. "Yes, they are getting better," Mulvaney said. "But that is a low bar." 

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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