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- Provide fleet air defense for PLAN surface combatants
- Patrol and hunt/destroy for submarines
- Air patrols and defense of territorial waters
- Air defense of the mainland's coastline
- Anti-ship attack
- Transport and training
- Search and rescue
- Assault transport and tactical support for amphibious operations
- Interdiction attack on enemy ground targets
The PLANAF has 25,000 personnel and roughly 800 aircraft under the navy's command. This is a considerably large naval aviation force considering the lack of aircraft carriers. It operates similar aircraft to the air force, including fighters, bombers, strike aircraft, tankers, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, maritime patrol, seaplane, transport, training and helicopter types. The PLANAF has traditionally received older aircraft than the PLAAF and has taken less ambitious steps towards mass modernization. Advancements in new technologies, weaponry and aircraft acquisition were made after 2000. The modern day PLANAF is capable of performing a number of roles, and is quite numerically and technologically adept in anti-ship and air defense operations.
Historically, the PLANAF's main role has been to provide the navy's warships with air defense coverage. Part of the coastal defense doctrine was to have naval aircraft protecting the ships, hence why many PLA ships of the 1960s-70s lacked long range anti-aircraft missiles or artillery. During the Sino-Vietnamese War, the PLANAF carried out many successful bombing and airstrike missions against Vietnamese territories, such as in the Spratly Islands. The 1960s saw a series of air combat sorties flown against Taiwanese intruders. PLANAF pilots have been credited with many major victories over the Taiwanese in these small incidents. Historical aircraft operated by the PLANAF include the J-5, the J-6, and H-5. These aircraft have been retired by the late 1990s.
For fighter missions the PLANAF operates the J-7E and J-8II. The J-7E is a much improved design based on the original Soviet MiG-21. With new double delta wings and the PL-8 AAM, the J-7E is quite an effective dogfighter. The J-8II is an indigenous fighter with a nose mounted radar and capable of high speed high altitude interceptions. A small number of these fighters are in service, and are capable of being inflight refuelled by the navy's own H-6DU tankers, modified from former navy H-6D missile bombers. The navy's air defense squadrons can always be complemented by the PLAAF, that operates more advanced combat aircraft including the J-11B and J-10 fighters.
Strike and anti-ship attacks are carried out by the Q-5, JH-7, Su-30MK2 and H-6. The Q-5 was a design based on the J-6, but with provision for a nose radar. It has become the premiere light nuclear attack aircraft of the Chinese air force since the 1970s. Around 40 Q-5s are in service with the PLANAF. These are believed to be of the modified model that has a modified nose. These nuclear naval strike variants carried a search radar. Main armament were air dropped torpedoes and rockets, though it was believed these special Q-5s were capable of carrying one YJ8 air launched anti-ship missile. The JH-7 was an indigenous, supersonic, heavy nuclear attack aircraft with a crew of two. Its general performance and weapons delivery capability is thought to be comparable to early models of Panavia Tornado. The JH-7 was subsequently improved to the JH-7A, capable of carrying a variety of advanced Chinese and Russian precision munitions as well as anti-ship missiles. The JH-7 can be armed with the YJ82 improved air launched missile, or the Russian KH-31 ram jet anti-ship missile. The most recent acquisition of the PLANAF were a batch of 24 Su-30MK2. These aircraft are highly advanced and improved variants of the Su-30MKK. The primary difference between the naval variant and the air force one, is that the MK2 has a longer range search radar that could detect and attack surface ship targets with advanced long range missiles. The H-6 is a design based on the 1950s Soviet Tu-16 Badger. Though based on an old design, it has been built in new air frames and vastly improved models (similar to the upgrades given to the US B52s). Chinese H-6 variants in the navy include the H-6D, that specializes in carrying two anti-ship missiles. The PLANAF is believed to operate a much improved model, capable of launching the more advanced YJ-62 and YJ-8 series anti-ship missiles.
For maritime patrol, the PLANAF has the Y-8MPA, Y-8J and Harbin SH-5 sea plane. The Y-8MPA is based on the Y-8 heavy transport aircraft. Although it carries no weapons, the Y-8MPA has a vast array of electronics and sensors that could detect surface ships, aircraft or submarines. The Y-8J is the Y-8 fitted with one of six (or eight) British Skymaster long range detection radars. These Y-8Js serve as AWACS to direct aircraft into interception, as well as providing target coverage for the PLAN combatants. The Harbin SH-5 sea plane is capable of patrol, rescue and anti-submarine warfare. For the latter role, the aircraft can carry a large payload of torpedoes and depth bombs.
Helicopters are an important asset aboard Chinese surface combatants. With over 30 surface warships and numerous auxiliaries capable of facilitating a helicopter, it is surprising that the PLANAF operates small numbers of ship-borne helicopters. Over the years, the PLANAF has operated the Changhe Z-8 , Harbin Z-9 and Russian Ka-28 Helix. The Changhe Z-8 is the largest helicopter built in China yet, which is largely similar to the French Super Frelon design. The Z-8 is most efficient in auxiliary roles in the PLAN, such as towing mine clearing systems, vertical inflight refueling of smaller ships, and supporting the Chinese submarine fleet. The Z-8 is also quite capable of carrying out attacks on submarines using dipping sonar and torpedo, and attacks against surface ships using the YJ-82 missile.
The Z-9C and the French AS 565 have become standard helicopters for PLAN surface combatants. The French delivered eight AS 565N Dauphins to the PLANAF in the late 1980s to equip China's latest escorts. The Z-9C is an indigenous version of the AS 565. Numbers have not been confirmed, but around 25 are credited to be in service (though some estimate only 10). The Z-9C is a multi role medium sized helicopter capable of ASW, SAR and surface targeting roles. With the purchase of the Russian Sovremenny class destroyers, the Ka-28 Helix was also imported. This is the export version of the Ka-27, the standard ship borne helicopter for the Russian Navy. The Ka-28 is vastly superior to the Z-9C and Z-8 in performance, and is expected to be the new standard helicopter for future Chinese destroyers and frigates. Eight Ka-28s were delivered so far (with four ASW and four SAR variants) to form a training regiment. More have since been delivered.
The future of the PLANAF is unclear. However, it is certain that as the navy receives more attention, the PLANAF will receive newer aircraft and much more funding, as its significant role in projecting power over the sea is becoming evermore realized. A new transport helicopter, the Z-15, may enter naval service by 2015 as a dedicated medium sized multi-role shipborne helicopter. This would replace the Z-9C and complement the Ka-28 Helix. In early 2006, an article reported a deal between China and Russia, which sees the PLANAF's acquisition of 40 Ka-29 assault transports, 20+ Ka-31 AEW helicopters (mounted with search radar) and up to 20 Be-200 jet amphibians. If this purchase goes ahead, this would represent a major step forward for the PLANAF in terms of capabilities. The KA-29 may form the first dedicated transport for the marine corps, the Ka-31's powerful radar can serve in over-the-horizon target acquisitions and early warning for Chinese surface ships, and the Be-200 jet amphibian would replace the SH-5 in maritime patrol duties and ASW.
In addition PLANAF would undergo significant change once China's first aircraft carrier is fully operational. Near the end of October 2006, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper revealed that Russian state-run weapon exporter Rosoboronexport is completing negotiations with China to deliver up to 48 Sukhoi Su-33 (NATO codename: Flanker-D) carrier-capable fighter aircraft in a purchase deal reportedly worth $2.5 billion. The Su-33 is a variant of Sukhoi’s Su-27 Flanker with forward canards, foldings wings, an arrester hook, a reinforced structure, and other modifications that help it deal with carrier operations and landings. At present, reports regarding the sale and China’s aircraft carrier intentions both remain somewhat murky. What is not in doubt, however, is that China has expressed interest and is presently in negotiations to acquire these aircraft, plus setting up a program to train naval air cadets, seems to be adding more credibility to the rumors.
- Harbin HZ-5 Beagle (phased out)
Bomber and maritime strike aircraft
Maritime surveillance and patrol aircraft
- Shaanxi Y-8MPA (4)
- Shaanxi Y-8J - AEW (~2)
- Harbin SH-5 - ASW (4)
- Shaanxi Y-8 ELINT - ASW and AEW (~2)
- Beriev Be-6 Madge - ASW (phased out)
Transports and trainers
- Xian Y-7 (variant of Antonov An-24 Coke) (~10)
- Nanchang CJ-6 (based on Yakovlev Yak-18A Max)
- Shenyang JianJiao JJ-6 Farmer
- Guizhou JianJiao JJ-7 Fishbed
- Mil Mi-8 Hip
- Antonov An-26 Curl
- Shaanxi Y-8 (based on Antonov An-12 Cub)
- Shijiazhuang Y-5
- Yakovlev Yak-42 Clobber
Currently, helicopters are the only ship-based aircraft in the PLANAF. They include:
- Chenghe Z-8 - ASW (based on Aérospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon)
- Harbin Z-9C - ASW/SAR (variant of Eurocopter SA 365 Dauphin)
- Kamov Ka-28 Helix - ASW
- Kamov Ka-27 Helix - ASW