Space to be the next frontier for China’s air force

Not only was this China’s fifth-generation fighter, but China’s fifth-generation fighter that is equal in technology and capability with its American counterpart. The sixth-generation will have surpassed American prowess — while America is suicidally inflicting itself with budget cuts, mothballing and technical problems of its latest generation.

What’s more, it makes you wonder what China’s doing under the radar with such a large ownership share of rare earths. It’s within the realm of possibility that the PLA could in the future begin to crank these (and future generation fighters) out like Twinkies, en masse.

When the wraps came off the J-31 stealth fighter at the Zhuhai air show yesterday, there was double cause for celebration for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. It not only marked the public debut of the country’s the fifth-generation stealth fighter, it represented the progress China has made in the 65 years since its air force first got off the ground.

The J-31 is just one of a series of fighter jets to roll off mainland military production lines in recent years. Despite the advances there remains one gaping hole in China’s winged military industrial complex – one that could stop it from realising the next mission set for it by the highest echelons of power.

Whatever their individual missions, the various jets fighters and aerial drones are building blocks for China’s aim to push the next frontier – space.

In June, President Xi Jinping , who is also chairman of the PLA Central Military Commission (CMC), told the air force to upgrade and accelerate its integration with the country’s space programme to keep up with what was the main goal of advanced air forces around the world, Xinhua reported. Xi said the air force had to complete the integration within five years, allowing China to showcase the achievement on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the people’s republic.

There’s no word yet from China on how far along the air force is in its space military programme but in September, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported that the PLA had established an aerospace force. The branch, which is expected to focus on military operations in space, would be the army’s fifth branch after the PLA’s ground, air, naval and strategic missile force. The new force would be complemented by an aerospace office under the CMC, it added. But the PLA did not confirm the report.

“So far we don’t know whether Beijing will follow the US or Russia in air-space operational command,” Professor He Qisong, a defence policy specialist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said.

He said the air forces in both the US and Russia played lead roles in their countries’ air-space operations. In the US, the Air and Space Operations Centre is the air force senior agency commanding air and space operations. In Russia, air defence forces merged with the strategic missile corps in 1998, coming under the air force to become one of three air-space combat units.

“The next major challenge for the PLA to achieve a better joint force outcome is to figure out how it will manage warfare in outer space,” Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre, a US-based think tank, said.

“All of the major space stakeholders in the PLA are vying for leadership of a future space force as they all build their respective capabilities, but it does not appear that the Chinese political leadership is ready to make fundamental decisions just yet.”

One of those fundamental problems is technological – China still can’t make its own aircraft engines.

“Aircraft engines are a key technology that the US and Russia developed as they industrialised. It took Russia 100 years to get this far and the United States 80 years. Moscow definitely won’t pass on such a core technology to Beijing.”

Full article:Space to be the next frontier for China’s air force (South China Morning Post)

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