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Monday, May 02, 2011

China Air Force Step it up[

US assumptions about China’s air power look outdated. It’s building a force that will be without rival in the Asia-Pacific.

This is the first in a series of articles looking at recent developments in China’s military.

The formal retirement ceremony this June for the last People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) Shenyang J-6 / MiG-19 Farmer fighter marks an important milestone for China’s air power, as it transitions from a Cold War era, Soviet-style force to a modern and technologically sophisticated air force with a fleet of high performance aircraft.

Sadly, far too many analysts and senior bureaucrats in the United States remain tethered to the idea that the PLA fighter force still comprises fleets of thousands of cloned 1955 Soviet technology MiG-19 fighters, and is thus incapable of protecting China’s areas of interest from regional or US military forces. Yet although this perception remains appealing in Washington, it ceased to be true almost a decade ago, and today reflects more than anything what Huxley described as ‘vincible ignorance’—not knowing because you don’t want to.

For those that are interested though, a more accurate picture can be gleaned from the fact that about 5 years ago, China planned to field well in excess of 500 Russian designed Sukhoi Flanker fighters, a size comparable to the now declining United States Air Force fleet of around 600 Boeing F-15 Eagle fighters. The Flanker was designed to be a direct equivalent (in some respects superior) to the F-15, which is also the backbone of the Japanese and Singaporean fighter fleets.

Indeed, with an ongoing modernisation plan that will see all legacy aircraft types replaced by modern and much longer ranging replacements, the PLAAF will in numerical terms become the strongest air force in Asia, with the largest fleet of ‘tier one’ fighter aircraft globally, should the United States pursue its current plan to downsize and reduce the capabilities of its tactical air forces. In terms of air power alone, this will result in the single largest swing in the strategic balance in Asia since the 1940s.

The PLAAF has existed since the late 1940s, initially equipped with a mix of foreign—at that time Japanese, American and Soviet—aircraft. Through the 1950s the PLAAF acquired a wide range of then state-of-the-art Soviet planes and the first (and to date only) air war in which the PLAAF participated was in Korea, where Chinese pilots performed well in Soviet supplied MiG-15 Fagot fighters.

But a key juncture in the development of the PLAAF fighter force was the Khrushchev era collapse of relations between the Chinese and Soviet leaderships. Denied the ongoing supply of advanced Soviet aircraft, China resorted to the only choice it had, which was reverse engineering Soviet designs. Numerous Soviet types were built, the most significant being the MiG-19S Farmer, or Shenyang J-6, and the MiG-21F Fishbed, or Chengdu J-7 fighters. These cloned Soviet designs formed the backbone of the PLAAF and PLAN fighter regiments, until the next major evolutionary transition point—the fall of the Soviet Union.

In 1992, China ordered its first batch of Russian built Sukhoi/KnAAPO Su-27SK Flanker B fighters, an export variant of the first mass-produced Soviet Flanker model. Further batches were purchased, including the dual seat Su-27UBK combat trainer and by the late 1990s, China had negotiated a deal to partly manufacture and assemble 200 examples of the Shenyang J-11A. Concurrently, multiple regiments of the dual seat Su-30MKK were procured, an aircraft best compared with early blocks of the US F-15E Strike Eagle, providing a robust all-weather strike capability with a wide range of guided weapons, including anti-radiation missiles to defeat opposing air defence radars, and a range of standoff missiles and smart bombs with TV command link, imaging optical and laser guidance.

PLANAF units have also received variants of the Su-30MK, specifically the Su-30MK2, which is equipped with the additional capability to carry Russian anti-ship cruise missiles. PLAN Flankers supplement a growing force of domestically built Xian JH-7 Flying Leopard/Flounder maritime strike fighters, now also being deployed with PLAAF units.

By the middle of the last decade, cracks had begun to appear in the relationship between Shenyang and KnAAPO. China wanted the second half of the domestic J-11A build to be produced in a more advanced configuration, something which the Russians refused to do. Shenyang had by then completed the reverse engineering of the Su-27SK airframe, and disclosed that prototypes of the fully Chinese built J-11B existed. While the Russians have alleged that the Chinese built J-11B is an unauthorised ‘clone’ of the Su-27SK, it’s actually quite different in key systems and avionics.

The PLAN also negotiated with KnAAPO for the supply of up to 50 navalised folding wing Su-27K/Su-33 Flanker D shipboard fighters, intended for operation off the Varyag. This order, which would have brought Chinese Flanker numbers planned and budgeted for well beyond the 500 aircraft mark, stalled due to Russian concerns over reverse engineering (a recent report by Kanwa claims that the PLAN procured a prototype Su-27K previously abandoned at a Ukrainian airfield, and used it to reverse engineer the J-15 Flying Shark shipboard fighter).

In strategic terms, China’s Flanker fleet is its regional ‘big stick.’ These aircraft have a combat radius without aerial refuelling of up to 900 nautical miles, robustly covering the ‘First Island Chain.’ With heavier weapon loads operating radius is reduced, with aerial refuelling it is further extended. Importantly, the Flanker is a credible modern air combat fighter which matches or exceeds key performance and capabilities of the US built Boeing F-15C/E, F-15CJ/DJ and F-15SG operated by the United States, Japan and Singapore, while the indigenous Chinese PL-12/SD-10A air to air missile is a credible equivalent to the US built AIM-120 AMRAAM. Meanwhile, the large fuel and missile load carried by the Flanker provides it with superior combat persistence, compared to most F-15 variants.

But while the Flanker has become the backbone of the PLA tactical fighter fleet, it is not the only important advance under way.

The legacy fleet of lightweight Cold War era J-6 Farmer and J-7 Fishbed fighters is being replaced by newly built indigenous Chengdu J-10 ‘Sino-canard’ fighters, modelled on the European canard fighters, and a direct competitor to US built F-16 Falcon fighters operated across Asia. While many US observers have described the J-10 as a clone of the US-funded and later cancelled Israeli Lavi fighter, this isn’t actually the case. The design of the J-10 is uniquely Chinese, and the ‘double delta’ wing design is clearly based on the earlier Chinese Chengdu J-7G design. The J-10B is designed to carry an advanced electronically steered radar antenna, and employs an engine inlet design modelled on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

And in terms of basing? PLAAF and PLANAF tactical fighters continue to operate from the extensive network of around 200 Cold War era fighter bases. Modelled on period Warsaw Pact semi-hardened base designs, these typically employ fully dispersed service areas protected by berms. Thirteen of these bases qualify as ‘superhardened’ with deep underground hangars tunnelled into hill sides, while a number of other bases have been equipped with Hardened Aircraft Shelters to resist smart bomb attacks. The PLA’s tactical fighter basing system is a strategic asset in its own right, providing the means for rapid redeployment, dispersal and offering inherent strategic depth unavailable to any other nation in Asia.

All this means that China’s evolving fighter force is potent, and will increase in potency over the next decade as remaining legacy fighters are replaced with new ones. With a force structure modelled on that of the US Air Force tactical fighter fleet, the PLA’s fighter force is becoming a strategic asset without peer in the Asia-Pacific.
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Time for ASEAN Peacekeeping Force

The latest clash between Cambodia and Thailand has underscored the need for a regional peacekeeping force. Indonesia should push for one now.

The latest clash between Thai and Cambodian troops over a disputed area surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple along the two countries’ border should be a wake-up call for ASEAN.

Years of negotiations have proved ineffective in resolving the crisis as Thailand’s insistence that the issue is a bilateral one has been sharply rejected by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hun Sen’s response has been to call for UN peacekeepers to be deployed to the area, a call that raises an interesting question—is it time for ASEAN to seriously consider a peacekeeping force?

Ad hoc ceasefire agreements reached after each clash have been too fragile and prone to being breached by both sides—every time a skirmish has broken out, each side has been quick to blame the other.

Political efforts to find a solution, meanwhile, have been complicated by the domestic politics of both countries. Hun Sen has been accused by his political opponents of exploiting the border dispute to maintain his tight grip over his country, while Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is expected to dissolve the Thai parliament in early May, is loathe to appear weak heading into an election. All this is complicated by the close relationship between Hun Sen and the de facto leader of the Thai opposition, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Indonesia, as chair of ASEAN, has played an outstanding role in trying to broker a resolution to the dispute, but it can only do so much. For example, it put proffered the suggestion of dispatching a team of Indonesian observers to monitor the disputed area to avoid further clashes. This proposal was reportedly actually agreed on by the political leaders of both sides in the dispute, but there have been suggestions that objections from the Thai military, which feels uneasy with the idea of having a third party present in the conflict zone, have meant the idea is still on hold.

The latest clash started late last month, and many observers believe it is the most serious so far. At the time of writing, the official death toll stood at 17, although this is expected to increase. A temporary, fragile ceasefire was reached between the two militaries last Thursday, but quickly broke down after only 10 hours, leaving a tense situation and the prospect of war looming over the border.

What can ASEAN do to prevent all-out conflict? It could start by pooling the resources of all member states—including Thailand and Cambodia—to establish and deploy a peacekeeping force at the first opportunity.

This wouldn’t be the first time such a force has been considered. Back in March 2004, Indonesia’s then-Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda moved to propose the establishment of a regional peacekeeping force. Indonesia’s current foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, voiced his support back then, saying: ‘ASEAN countries should know one another better than anyone else, and therefore we should have the option for ASEAN countries to take advantage of an ASEAN peacekeeping force to be deployed if they so wish.’ However, the idea was opposed by a number of other foreign ministers, who noted ASEAN’s stated principle of non-interference in countries’ domestic affairs.

The problem with Wirajuda’s proposal at the time is that it was akin to planting a seed without soil and water—there was really no immediate benefit that ASEAN member states could see from engaging in such cooperation, meaning the environment just wasn’t right.

But with the ASEAN Charter, a legally-binding document signed in 2007, calling for ASEAN to become an economic, socio-cultural and political-security community, the time has come for the idea of an ASEAN peacekeeping force to be put back on the table.

The inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting, along with eight other dialogue partners (ADMM+) in October last year, has provided an excellent foundation for a bolder form of security cooperation among ASEAN member states. Indeed, the ASEAN Political and Security Blue Print, which supplements the Charter, already has language backing peacekeeping cooperation. It eyes: ‘(Establishment of) a network among existing ASEAN Member States’ peacekeeping centres to conduct joint planning, training, and sharing of experiences, with a view to establishing an ASEAN arrangement for the maintenance of peace and stability, in accordance with the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) 3-Year Work Programme.’

The African Union, which in many ways looks to ASEAN for inspiration as a successful regional bloc, has already formed the African Standby Force (ASF), to be deployed as a preventive measure aimed at averting conflict. Although still a work in process, it’s designed to consist of five brigades with 4,500 personnel, 350 vehicles and four helicopters per brigade.

The ASF has engaged in exercises with significant assistance from the EU and the United States. ASEAN member states currently have deployed 5,000 personnel worldwide as part of various UN Peacekeeping operations, yet these forces have no presence in their own backyard.

The benefits of an ASEAN peacekeeping force would go beyond resolution of the Thai-Cambodian border conflict. Any region must have its own processes and mechanisms for ensuring confidence and stability to maintain economic growth and sustainable development. ASEAN has made a remarkable transition into a formidable player in Asia and beyond, and a regional peacekeeping force would build on this progress and contribute to a greater sense that the region can take care of itself in times of crises—manmade or natural.

Of course, there’s bound to be opposition to any such development. Back in 2004, Singaporean Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar was quick to dismiss the idea, arguing that: ‘ASEAN is not a security or defence organization…Perhaps sometime in the future there may be scope for such an organization.’

Yet it should be clear that that future has now arrived, and as chair of ASEAN this year, Indonesia should again explore the possibility.

If it is to have legitimacy in the current spat, any force would clearly need to consist of an equal number of Thai and Cambodian troops, stripped of their respective national military uniforms in favour of one bearing the ASEAN flag. To ensure neutrality, an Indonesian four-star general could serve as commander. If Indonesia was somehow to make such a peacekeeping force happen, it could well be the country’s single most important contribution to the future of ASEAN during its chairmanship.

It will, of course, inevitably have to keep pushing to bring the idea to fruition and overcome opposition from some of its neighbours. But the country is the only member of ASEAN with sufficient political capital and respect to put forward a proposal for such a paradigm shift in ASEAN’s security cooperation.

The ASEAN Summit to be held this weekend in Jakarta presents a timely opportunity for Jakarta to really step up.
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Thailand-Cambodia: Villagers return as clashes ease

Local people have been staying in Camps and Temples
to avoid the  fighting
 Civilians who fled fighting between Thailand and Cambodia have begun returning home, as 10 days of border clashes eased.

Tens of thousands of villagers had been staying in temporary camps and temples as troops exchanged artillery fire in jungle areas both sides claim.

A truce agreed on 28 April did not end the fighting but reduced its intensity.

The clashes, which began on 22 April, have killed 17 people, including one civilian.

"These people have returned to their houses because the situation now is calm," said Pech Sokhen, the governor of Cambodia's Oddar Meanchey province.

"I hope that the fighting between the two sides will keep decreasing over time."

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva confirmed people were returning to their villages. "The military will monitor the border. We will remain very careful," he said.

The fighting has not stopped completely. A Cambodian commander said Thai shelling continued on Sunday night, while a Thai commander said the two sides exchanged automatic fire - but reports say it is confined to smaller areas.

It has centred around the two temples of Ta Moan and Ta Krabey, which sit in a hilly jungle area that both sides say belongs to them.

Clashes were also reported last week at the hill-top temple of Preah Vihear, a flashpoint for the dispute.

Parts of the Thai-Cambodian border have never been formally demarcated, spurring nationalist sentiment in both countries.

Fighting took place three years ago in the run-up to a general election in Cambodia, and this latest outbreak comes with the Thai government due to call an election in the coming days.
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