Major Reorganization in China’s Naval Aviation as Carrier-Based Units Take Center Stage, Shifts Rest to Air Force

Before this restructuring, the PLA Navy operated its fleet of naval attack aircraft.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

A vital report documenting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) large-scale confidential reorganisation was published on July 31 by the “China Aerospace Studies Institute,” a think tank affiliated with the United States Air Force (USAF).

Last year, the Institute released a paper that was 255 pages long and detailed the internal personnel organisation and the nationwide deployment of the PLA Rocket Force. It contained details such as rocket force unit designations, the names of persons in charge in both Chinese and English and the addresses of their bases, which led to rumours inside the Chinese military that information was being passed on to the United States.

The aviation forces of the Chinese PLA Navy are the subject of the most recent report from the “China Aerospace Studies Institute.” It reveals that the PLA began “transferring” the majority of its air defence units, fighter bombers, radar stations, and other assets that were once under the control of the Navy to the Air Force at the beginning of this year. At this point, at least three fighter jet regiments, two bomber regiments, three radar regiments, three air defence regiments, and many airfields have completed the transfer, and their uniforms and unit designations have been updated to reflect their affiliation with the Air Force.

Following the completion of the reorganisation, the only elements of the Chinese PLA Navy’s aviation forces that will be preserved are:

  • The drone squadron.
  • The carrier-based helicopter squadron.
  • A few particular airfields.
  • One land-based fighter jet regiment.

According to the “China Aerospace Studies Institute,” it is possible that the purpose of maintaining this land-based fighter regiment is to assist with the Navy’s operations in the South China Sea. Alternatively, these fighters could be upgraded into carrier-based fighters like the J-15.

Before this restructuring, the PLA Navy operated its fleet of naval attack aircraft. However, to carry out attack operations at sea in the future, they will require the assistance of other branches, such as the Air Force.

According to the findings of an investigation conducted by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, this places higher demands on the PLA because it necessitates using unified command systems. As a result of the transfer of the JH-7 and H-6 bombers to the Air Force, the Navy will no longer have access to aircraft capable of laying naval mines at high speeds. 

If the Air Force takes control of the early warning aircraft, the Navy may be required to make repeated requests for air support through the theatre command system. This could result in delays while operations are being carried out. In a nutshell, it might make coordination between different military branches in marine operations more difficult.

However, in terms of the overall power of the air force, this restructuring offers two advantages. First, it makes the organisation easier to understand because the Navy and the Air Force formerly operated their separate fighter jets, bombers, air defence equipment, and radar systems. Second, before this restructuring, the region stretching from south of Zhoushan in Zhejiang to Hainan was typically considered to fall within the jurisdiction of the aviation units of the PLA Navy. This region had no air force radars or land-based air defence units. This problem referred to as the “geographic gap,” is being solved by restructuring.

After the reform, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would reportedly concentrate on developing its carrier-based aviation units, which will be centred upon aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, according to some studies. The scheme is very much like the one run by the Indian Navy at INS Hamsa, which is a naval base in Goa that is solely devoted to the carrier air wing.

The China Aerospace Studies Institute disclosed sensitive information previously classified regarding the PLA Rocket Force in the previous year. After that, there were rumours that high-ranking officers within the Rocket Force were being removed from their positions. Not too long ago, Xi Jinping made public the decision to replace both the commander and the political commissar of the Rocket Force. According to a report in the Financial Times, two senior officials from a foreign nation who were not identified but were acquainted with the intelligence indicated that the primary reason for probing the leadership of the Rocket Force was the leaking of military intelligence.

Now, in the context of China strengthening alliances with North Korea and Russia, which pose dangers to the region of the Indo-Pacific, the China Aerospace Studies Institute has once again produced this significant report, warning that Western powers are closely following the developments of the PLA. This might stimulate Xi Jinping to conduct broader investigations, potentially leading to further instability within the Chinese military, and it deserves attention.


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