Korean War to the Sino-Soviet Split
The PLAAF was founded with Soviet assistance on November 11, 1949,
 shortly after the formation of the
People's Republic of China. The PLA had operated few aircraft before that. The PLA's first organized air unit, the Nanyuan Flying Group, was formed only in the summer of 1949 from about 40 ex-
Nationalist aircraft; its task was to defend
Beijing, the nation's new capital.
The PLAAF fought the
Korean War in Soviet-built
MiG-15, known as the
J-2 in Chinese service, with training from Soviet instructors. The war also brought Soviet assistance for the indigenous aircraft industry. The
Shenyang Aircraft Factory built the two-seat MiG-15UTI trainer as the
 and during the war manufactured various components to maintain the Soviet-built fighters. This prepared them to mass-produce derivatives of Soviet aircraft under license, starting with the
MiG-17) in 1956,
 then the
MiG-19) in 1959,
 and then the
MiG-21) in 1967.
The 1960s were a difficult time for the PLAAF. The withdrawal of Soviet aid due to the
Sino-Soviet split, and the prioritization of the
missile and nuclear weapon programs, caused the industry to markedly decline through 1963. A recovery began around 1965 as J-2s, J-5s, and some J-6s were provided to
North Vietnam during the
Vietnam War. Development of the
J-8, China's first indigenous fighter, was also initiated during the 1960s.
The PLA Air Force underwent reorganization and streamlining as part of the reduction in force begun in 1985. Before the 1985 reorganization, the Air Force reportedly had four branches:
bombing, and independent air regiments.
 In peacetime the Air Force Directorate, under the supervision of the PLA
General Staff Department, controlled the Air Force through air army headquarters located with, or in communication with, each of the seven
military region headquarters. In war, control of the Air Force probably reverted to the regional commanders. In 1987 it was not clear how the reorganization and the incorporation of air support elements into the group armies affected air force organization. The largest Air Force organizational unit was the
division, which consisted of 17,000 personnel in three
regiments. A typical air defense regiment had three
squadrons of three flights; each flight had three or four aircraft. The Air Force also had 220,000 air defense personnel who controlled about 100
surface-to-air missile sites and over 16,000
AA guns. In addition, it had a large number of
ground-control-intercept, and air-base radars manned by specialized troops organized into at least twenty-two independent regiments.
In the 1980s the Air Force made serious efforts to raise the educational level and improve the training of its pilots.
Superannuated pilots were retired or assigned to other duties. All new pilots were at least
middle-school graduates. The time it took to train a qualified pilot capable of performing combat missions reportedly was reduced from four or five years to two years. Training emphasized raising technical and tactical skills in individual pilots and participation in
Flight safety also increased.
In 1987 the Air Force had serious technological deficiencies — especially when compared with its principal threat, the
Soviet Union — and had many needs that it could not satisfy. It needed more advanced aircraft, better
electronic countermeasures equipment, more powerful
aircraft weaponry, a low-altitude
surface-to-air missile, and better controlled
antiaircraft artillery guns. Some progress was made in aircraft design with the incorporation of Western avionics into the
F-8, the development of refueling capabilities for the
B-6D bomber and the
A-5 attack fighter, increased aircraft all-weather capabilities, and the production of the
HQ-2J high-altitude surface-to-air missile and the
C-601 air-to-ship missile.
Although the PLAAF received significant support from Western nations in the 1980s when China was seen as a counterweight to Soviet power, this support ended in 1989 as a result of the Chinese crackdown on the
Tiananmen protests of 1989 and the later collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the fall of the
Russia became China's principal arms supplier to the effect that Chinese economic growth allowed Russia to sustain its aerospace industry.
PLAAF airmen on parade during a full honors arrival ceremony in 2000.
In the late 1980s, the primary mission of the PLAAF was the defense of the mainland, and most aircraft were assigned to this role. A smaller number of
ground attack and
bomber units were assigned to
Air interdiction and possibly
close air support, and some bomber units could be used for
nuclear delivery. The force had only limited
military airlift and
aerial reconnaissance capabilities.
In the early 1990s, the PLAAF began a program of modernization, motivated by the collapse of the
Soviet Union, as well as the possibility of military conflict with the
Republic of China and perhaps also involving the
United States. This process began with the acquisition of
Su-27s in the early 1990s and the development of various fourth-generation aircraft, including the domestic
J-10, and the
FC-1 . The PLAAF also strove to improve its pilot training and continued to retire obsolete aircraft. This resulted in a reduction of the overall number of aircraft in the PLAAF with a concurrent increase in quality of its air fleet.
The 21st century has seen the continuation of the modernization program with China's huge economic growth. It acquired 76
Su-30MKK's from 2000 to 2003, and 24 upgraded
Su-30MK2's in 2004. It also produced around 200
J-11s from 2002 onwards and bought 3 batches (at a total of 76) of the Su-27SK/UBK. Production of the
J-10 fighter began in 2002 with an estimated 200 aircraft in service currently. The PLAAF also began developing its own
tanker aircraft, which it previously lacked, by modifying old
H-6 bomber (
Tupolev Tu-16). In 2005 it announced plans to buy approximately 30
IL-76 transport planes and 8
Il-78 tanker planes, which would greatly increase its troop airlift capability and offer extended range to many aircraft, though as of 2009 this deal is still on hold.
Predictions of the PLAAF's future aircraft fleet indicate that it will consist of large quantities of
Chengdu J-10 and
Shenyang J-11 as its main force, with
JH-7A as the PLAAF backbone precision strike fighters. Future stealth fighter projects such as the
Chengdu J-20 will be inducted into the air fleet in small numbers, assigned to elite PLAAF selected pilots. The transport fleet will comprise
Y-9 medium range transport aircraft, along with the Soviet
Ilyushin Il-76, and domestic
Y-20 heavy transport aircraft. Its helicopter fleet will comprise
Mi-17 troop transporters, and the
WZ-10 attack helicopter for its ground forces. AWACS/AEW will be refined variants of existing service fleet of
KJ-200, with UAV/UCAV in early stages of service in the PLAAF.
Senior Colonel Wu Guohui has said that the PLAAF is working on a
stealth bomber, which some people have called the H-18.
According to a 2015 Pentagon report, PLAAF has around 600 modern aircraft.