Korean War The North Korea Versus South Korea
The new People’s Republic entered the Korean War on the side of North Korea in November 1950, and soon the pace of the PLAAF’s growth accelerated. It learned some valuable lessons from this war, although its performance was not particularly impressive. It lost in air combat eight of its newly acquired MiG-15 jet fighters for every one of the F-86 Saber jet fighters that the Americans fielded in the war. No doubt this poor performance was the result of throwing into the fray new and as yet inexperienced fighter pilots as well as the relative superiority of the U.S. fighters.
The Chinese also found that the PLAAF was no match for the combined effort of the Taiwanese and U.S. air forces that continually violated mainland Chinese air space during the ’50s. Air defense of the cities thus became the prime motive and the sole aim of the PLAAF. To be sure, “On 7 October 1959, [PLAAF] shot down a Taiwanese reconnaissance aircraft over Beijing, the first combat use of surface-to-air missiles anywhere in the world. In the 10 ensuing years, the missile force shot down six U.S.-made U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and three U.S.-made pilotless aircraft.”
launched new programs for aircraft design and development. At this time Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward movement caused serious problems. These were further exacerbated by the 10-year long Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which not only compelled the country’s intellectuals into forced labor in the rural areas but also severely disturbed the PLAAF’s training programs. A number of its technical training institutes and colleges were closed, and the students and faculty were sent to work in the fields. Leadership transitions, purges, and domestic upheavals took a heavy toll on the air force. Some of the key strategic programs,
however, such as those directed at building China’s strategic arsenals, did not suffer any adverse effects of this countrywide internal turmoil.
It is important to point out the Chinese did not really use the huge, if somewhat unwieldy, PLAAF in war during these early years. Although the Chinese had used its air force in the "liberation" of Tibet in 1950 and gained some experience from the Korean War, the PLAAF was used only for air defense duties during numerous encounters in the Taiwan Straits conflicts of the ’50s and early ’60s. China did not employ its airpower during the 1962 invasion of India, the 1969 Usuri River border conflict with the former Soviet Union, or in its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Although in the last case the PLAAF was mobilized for war, it did
not support the army's offensive.
Another blow to the PLAAF came in 1971 after the death of Lin Biao. A veteran of the Long March and one-time heir apparent to Mao, Lin died in an air accident while fleeing China after an apparent failed coup attempt. Because of his close ties with the military, the PLA and PLAAF suffered as a result of ensuing purges. It was not until after the second coming of the visionary leader Deng Xiaoping in 1975 that PLAAF’s fortunes were revived, albeit somewhat haltingly.
In fact, Deng proved to be the savior of China’s airpower. It was he who not only articulated the decisive role that airpower would play in any future conflict but also castigated the air force for being lazy, inefficient, and overstaffed.8 Such personal interest and understanding of airpower must have made it easier for the air force to cut excesses and weed out the less educated, old, and inefficient officers. By the early ’80s the PLAAF was firmly on the path of recovery.