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The Growth of China’s Air Defenses: Responding to Covert Overflights, 1949–1974

Moves and Countermoves
The Growth of China’s Air Defenses: Responding to Covert Overflights, 1949–1974

Bob Bergin

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was an extremely modest force when it was established in 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was officially proclaimed. It had few pilots; its aircraft were US and Japanese leftovers from World War II; and most of its early instructors were Japanese pilots who had been prisoners of war and Chinese Nationalists left behind when Chiang Kai-shek fled mainland China and relocated his Republic of China (ROC) government and his Nationalist Party (Kuomintang [KMT]) to Taiwan.

In the years that followed, new PLAAF pilots were selected from young PLA recruits. They were often poorly educated, but they were tough, bright, and determined. During the Korean War (1950–53), they were trained to fly jets by Russian instructors and were given MiG fighters that could match the US aircraft of the day. With the onset of the Sino-Soviet split in 1958, Soviet support was lost and China was driven to design and manufacture its own aircraft, a vast undertaking beset by technical and political problems.

Political and economic turmoil attending the Great Leap Forward (1958–60), the Cultural Revolution (1966–71), and challenges to Mao Zedong’s leadership all affected the development of the PLAAF and modernization of the Chinese military in general. However, one constant kept air force leadership focused: intrusions into PRC airspace by US and ROC reconnaissance aircraft gathering information on China’s growing military and nuclear and missile programs. The flights, which did not end until 1974, were recurring reminders of China’s vulnerability and spurred PLAAF efforts to counter the threat.

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Posted: Oct 24, 2013 01:08 PM
Last Updated: Oct 24, 2013 01:08 PM