News | May 10, 2022

LITERARY REVIEW: Chinese Air Power

By Cmdr. Peter Mersky, USNR (Ret.)

This massive encyclopedia of the current fleet of Communist Chinese aircraft and the equally huge bureaucratic organization that houses them and their widely varying missions that threaten world peace has to be one of the most inclusive and perhaps intimidating aviation works to appear in several years. Although the threat of a new Russia following the demise of the Soviet Union is also rising amid the political ashes of the USSR, it is the new and increasing power of mainland China that now has the western world’s focus, and with good reason. In truth, that threat has never left us. 

I can’t help remembering Gordon W, Prange’s title to his classic study of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec.7, 1941: At Dawn We Slept. This new voluminous book should start a few alarm clocks ringing. Actually, the bells have been ringing since Vietnam, but it is only now that we have begun hearing them. And like what the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled for us, I hope this new warning is not too late.

After a brief but informative history of military aviation in China, the book launches into a type-by-type, mission-by-mission discussion of every type of aircraft flown by the Chinese army, navy, police force, as well as unmanned vehicles. It is amazing just how many planes are used in this huge country. And, although there remain many types originally supplied by the Soviet Union, such as the MiG-21 Fishbed fighter and the Tu-16 twin-jet Badger bomber, there are quite a few original designs, a few of which may look like American designs right down to their twin tails and their forward-placed canard control surfaces. 

The fact that China has also been developing a somewhat viable, though at the time small aircraft carrier fleet, cannot be overlooked. At the time of publication, only one or two Chinese flattops are currently cruising Pacific waters with fighters and helicopters that, respectively, resemble Sukhoi and Kamov designs, indicating they are definitely gaining knowledge and expertise that go far beyond the abortive Soviet ships and aircraft of the 1970s. Again, we should take special heed of the great resemblance of the situation of the 1930s and ultimately the early 1940s when the Japanese learned from the British and Americans enough to field what became for a short and frightening time the world’s premier fleet of carriers and used them to establish themselves in the Pacific. While the Mitsubishi Zero was not the direct copy of American fighters as was so widely claimed right before Pearl Harbor, its Hiryu and Kaga carrier partners definitely showed what their Japanese creators had learned by observing the U.S. and U.K. in the years following WWI.

The book contains a lot of information that should interest readers such as what was the type of aircraft that had a midair collision with a U.S. EP-3E Aires on April 1, 2001, which resulted in the pilot and his crew landing on a Chinese airfield and being interned for 11 days. It was a Shenyang J-8B, Finback in NATO code. The Chinese pilot was evidently lost. The incident was addressed in a two-part episode of the popular TV series “JAG.” The second part has an overzealous U.S. Navy Hornet pilot taking the initiative to attack the Chinese airfield and destroy the EP-3E in hopes of rendering any information and devices the Chinese could glean from their prize useless. In the end, the young lieutenant is found guilty of disobeying orders and will be dismissed from the service.  The Chinese pilot is found to be alive and the Chinese subterfuge is uncovered to the embarrassment of the Chinese general involved.

The aircraft’s designation was embarrassingly confused by a self-impressed young TV reporter who demanded to know why we were supplying a potential enemy with an obsolete U.S. Navy fighter, i.e., the Vought F-8 Crusader of Vietnam fame. He obviously had not done his homework to make this outrageous claim.

I would have liked to have seen at least one detailed map of China showing all the different provinces mentioned in the book’s text, showing where different facilities are, especially because Chinese navy ships are often named for those particular areas, such as their initial carrier, the CNS Laioning CV 16, a fairly impressive design that features a bow-placed ski jump, which seems to be de rigeur for all new carriers except for the U.S. designs, which are much larger.

Also, a glossary of Chinese acronyms, terms and places would have also helped a western reader to better understand the text and captions. While the index is large and detailed, it sadly lacks a usable listing that we often see in other books.

The fixed-wing fighters that fly from Chinese carriers show a definite similarity to Soviet Sukhoi designs. And although the Chinese use several Kamov helicopters, their indigenous helos are pretty much of home-grown design. 

While sometimes relying on Russian support back in Putin’s country, Chinese flight training is also understandably a major concern, resulting in a large number of their own jet trainers. Sometimes, the different trainer families are sub-divided to fit specific missions after performing their basic undergraduate training mission. 

The Chinese also have a large fleet of cargo and transport types, some of which are still the still-useful Antonov series of multi-engine fixed-wing aircraft, including the An-12, similar to the Lockheed C-130 series. However, they also have a large number of their own designs.

All in all, the Chinese have definitely acquired their own surprisingly large and apparently formidable fleet of widely-varying aircraft that can probably be attributed to the country’s vast geographic expanse and equally large population that results in a large number of service members.

Even allowing for possible errors, or overblown claims and performance numbers, this book should definitely tell us relatively safe in our own homes and bases here in America that China is an up-and-coming competitor and has the aircraft, ships and supportive equipment and personnel to prove it. 
Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) was commissioned through Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1968, and remained a reservist, serving in various intelligence billets as well as two tours with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306 until retiring in 1992. He was the first civilian editor of “Approach” magazine, has been a volunteer associate with "Naval Aviation News" since 1971, and has written NAN’s book review column since 1982 including more than 800 book reviews to NAN and other publications, including 16 books on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Aviation.