“The Chinese Air Force intends to expand its presence into space as part of its plan to become a ’world-class force’.” This is how The US Stars and Stripes military news website interpreted a statement made by a senior Chinese Air Force official during a press conference held in Zhuhai, south China’s Guangdong Province, last Sunday, on its website on November 13.
However, an investigation by reporters found that this is a misunderstanding of the PLA Air Force’s strategy of “building integrated air and space capability and having balanced strength in defensive and offensive operations.” The strategy has long been established by the PLA Air Force. The press conference did not develop this concept, and the Chinese military official did not express any intention to expand Chinese military presence into space at the conference.
Foreign media misread the concept of “building integrated air and space capability”.
The US Stars and Stripes issued a report titled “Top military officer confirms Chinese Air Force plan to 'extend reach into space'” on its website, claiming that a senior Chinese Air Force official said that the branch “spares no efforts in handling all threats, and is gearing up to extend its reach beyond the clouds and into space” at a press conference held in Zhuhai, in south China’s Guangdong Province, last Sunday.
After reviewing reports of Chinese official media, we found that the original quotes of the PLA Air Force officer were “to cope with the threats of air and space, to adapt to the profound changes in the military field, and to accelerate the transformation of the PLA Air Force from aviation to aerospace.” The US media report can thus be misleading.
An article taken from the US medium quoted a multiphase road map for building “a strong, modern air force” described by another senior officer of the Chinese PLA Air Force at a press conference. The first step, he said, would be the establishment of a strategic force by 2020 that "will have integrated air and space capability and balanced strength in both defensive and offensive operations.”
The concept of “building integrated air and space capability” is nothing new.
Through investigation, we found that the concept of “building integrated air and space capability and having balanced strength in defensive and offensive operations” has already been put forward many years ago, so it neither was a novel idea proposed nor the theme of this press conference. According to China Air Force Encyclopedia, the PLA Air Force has “established the air force strategy of ‘building integrated air and space capability and having balanced strength in defensive and offensive operations’ in 2004 according to the military strategy of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in the new era, and the core content of the Chinese PLA Air Force strategy was clarified further... ”
As such, the concept of “building integrated air and space capability” has been first proposed within the Chinese Air Force 14 years ago. It is the Chinese PLA Air Force's strategy of “building integrated air and space capability and having balanced strength in defensive and offensive operations” that guides the development and construction of the Air Force in various fields.
On April 14, 2014, when visiting the PLA Air Force, Chinese President Xi Jinping asked the air force to speed up its transformation into a strong power with an integrated air and space capability and requested it to have balanced strength in defensive and offensive operations, which has clarified this concept further.
Given Chinese media reports, there was neither new interpretation or expansion, nor specific explanation, of the concept of “building integrated air and space capability” at the press conference. Some analysts believe that if the Chinese Air Force develops into an air-space integrated air force, it must be supported by air-space integrated equipment, and take the air-space integrated battlefield as its activity space to implement air-space integrated defense and offense operations.
However, in the context of the limited scale and low level of attack and defense weapons in space, aerospace integrated operations in the future will mainly refer to airborne offensive operations and air defense and anti-missile operations supported by space-based platforms.
Nevertheless, some other analysts believe that the Chinese PLA Air Force has expanded its military coverage to the near space, which seems an achievable goal at present.
Is the US just hyping up this issue to justify its establishment of a Space Force?
The concept of building air-space capabilities has long been proposed in the world. After the Soviet Union and the US launched their first artificial satellites respectively in succession, the two sides began to compete for outer space. In 1959, “aviation power” was replaced by “aerospace power” for the first time in the US Air Force doctrine, and the entire space above the earth’s surface was referred to as “aerospace space” and regarded as the US Air Force’s operational environment.
Since then, almost all basic rules and theories of the US Air Force have employed the term “aerospace.” The United States Air Force Doctrine for Space Operations promulgated in 1998 states that there is no absolute boundary between atmosphere and space. From a technical point of view, aircraft and spacecraft are basically the same, and their force structures, facilities, control, maneuver, and personnel training are interconnected. At present, the US Air Force is still responsible for the launch, management and operation of its space assets.
In addition, Russia is also taking the path of air and space integration. At present, the Russian Aerospace Forces cover the functions of the Russian Air Force, the Russian Space Forces and the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces.
Experts said that the US is trying to hype the Chinese PLA Air Force intension to expand its presence into space through media reports, and it seems likely to seek to generate public support for the US establishment of a Space Force.
Earlier this year, the administration of US President Donald Trump proposed the creation of a Space Force, with Vice President Mike Pence in August announcing a plan that would see its establishment by 2020. The US media stressed that the Chinese PLA Air Force intends to expand its military presence into outer space, which obviously smack of overhyping.