Written by Colonel S. Korgin, Lieutenant Colonel D. Ilagin; Originally appeared at Foreign Military Review #4 2019, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Army Aviation (AA) is a type of aviation within the Ground Forces (Army). It is designed to defeat enemy targets mainly on the front line and in tactical depths, as well as to solve the problems of comprehensive support of the general army combat (special operations) and increase the mobility of troops. The PLA AF Command regards army aviation, which is equipped with helicopters for various purposes, as a versatile and reliable means of support and combat operations.
The main tasks of the AA are: striking the enemy’s forces and facilities; suppressing its electronic means; conducting aerial reconnaissance, as well as providing control and communication.
The main organisational and staff unit of the Army Air Force is the AA Brigade. Subdivisions of the AA Brigade participate in aerial bombardment, correction of field artillery fire and tactical aviation strikes, protection and defence of the rear areas of compounds and units, search and rescue and medical evacuation activities.
Since May 2017, the PLA AF Command has been carrying out the next stage of the ground forces reform in order to increase the mobility and combat capabilities of the Army groups in the theater.
China’s land forces have 15 army aviation brigades and four helicopter training regiments. In the course of the organisational and staff activities, each army was assigned an army aviation brigade. The AA brigades were assigned numbers corresponding to the number of the army they belonged to (for example, the 71st Army formed the 71st AA Brigade, etc.).
The institutions, units and military units of central subordination include: the Institute of Aviation of the Ground Forces of the PLA AF and the AA pilot training centre.
The army aircrew combat training is conducted in permanent locations (airfield areas). Flight training includes the development of elements of individual piloting techniques, group flight clearance of crews and tactics for use within units. For the performance of combat training tasks, forward airfields are used during various AA exercises.
Army aviation formations may operate as part of a brigade, squadron of links or helicopter pairs. The tactics of units and divisions depends on the combat situation and the nature of the tasks to be performed.
During the exercise of the Army Corps “Kuayue-2016” AA management noted that the conduct of an offensive army operation can be carried out by up to three helicopter flights per day by one crew, and the total flight time is from 2 to 4 ours per day, with the preparation of the helicopter for the subsequent flight should not exceed 20-40 minutes.
In the period between 2014 and 2016, army aviation crews in the course of the fire training plans event as part of regular squadrons during the sea landing operations performed the tasks of covering landing ships and landing aids, as well as landing them on an unprepared coast.
The main educational institution for training personnel for formations and units of the PLA AA is the institute of Aviation of the Land Forces (IALF).
It was formed on June 30, 1999 on the basis of helicopter training Regiment A, stationed in the area of Tongzhou (20 km east of Beijing).
The Institute trains over 2,000 cadets and civilian students for helicopter aviation units of the land forces and the people’s armed militia of the PRC in two faculties: flight and engineering personnel. The training period is four years.
Up to 100 flight personnel and up to 200 specialists of engineering and technical staff graduate annually.
Graduates of secondary educational institutions who have expressed a desire to study in the IALF and passed the entrance exams are sent to the branch of the aviation university (part of the Air Force) in Changchun (Jilin province), where they receive primary aviation education for two years, which at this stage of the programme is similar in both faculties. The cadets are then sent directly to the IALF, where they learn the aerodynamics of helicopters, as well as the basic training course.
The final stage of training at the flight faculty of the Institute is held in training helicopter regiments (Z-11 and Mi-17 helicopters).
At the Faculty of Engineering, after completing the primary aviation education, students in the following two years will acquire theoretical knowledge and practical skills according to their specialisation:
- helicopter and engine repair and maintenance engineer;
- repair and maintenance of automated data transmission systems engineer;
- repair and navigation systems maintenance engineer;
- repair and maintenance of weapons systems engineer.
The daily activities of army aviation formations are managed from the brigade command post (CP) located at the airfield of permanent location.
When carrying out direct fire support tasks for land forces groups, AA forces are commanded from a forward control point (FCP), which is typically deployed in the area of the CP of an air-supported combination or connection using standard vehicle equipment. This may include:
- control station of the brigade commander (deputy);
- air traffic control centre;
- mobile HF and microwave hardware;
- mobile hardware;
- mobile weather station.
In the area of combat, use of automotive PPU equipment brigades and support units (fuel, lubricants, weather reconnaissance) circulate on public roads. If necessary, they can be transferred by air from the army aviation brigades.
To improve the accuracy of target designation of helicopters, advanced air gunners (AAG) are allocated from the army aviation, sent to the PPU provided to the military units of the ground forces. Communication with the army aviation FDUs is provided by VHF communication means (30-300 MHz).
In addition, the army aviation is involved in other tasks, such as delivering humanitarian aid, conducting search and rescue operations, and participating in natural disaster responses both within China and abroad.
Aviation helicopter squadrons (as part of brigades) have specialised attack, multi-purpose and transport helicopters, which determine their main purpose.
Helicopter attack squadrons are designed to perform an number of tasks: to provide direct (aviation) support to units and subdivisions of ground forces on the battlefield; to strike at combat troop formations; escort transport helicopters; fighting the enemy’s helicopters and UAVs; conducting aerial reconnaissance and surveillance; target designation, as well as to provide control and communication.
The main types of attack helicopters are Z-10 and Z-19, while the Z-10W series is designed to fight armoured targets and is capable of conducting air combat. The machine is a standard layout for combat helicopters, its design uses composite materials. In 2016, production of Z-19 attack helicopters began, featuring an upgraded fire control system and radar station (radar) in a fairing located above the main rotor.
In the AA brigades, the Z-19 helicopter is to replace the Z-9 helicopter currently in service.
The multi-purpose helicopter squadrons are designed to deliver logistics support assets on the battlefield, to provide control and communications capabilities, and to install minefields.
The main types of such vehicles in Chinese AA are the Mi-17 (including its modifications) and the Z-9. The Z-9 is a family of Chinese multi-purpose helicopters, which is a licensed copy of the French Dauphin by Aerospaciale.
Modifications of the Z-9 helicopter are: the Z-9A is the first serial modification of the multi-purpose helicopter; the Z-9B is a multi-purpose helicopter with improved engines; the Z-9W is a reconnaissance and strike helicopter capable of performing tasks at night.
The Z-11 is a light multipurpose Chinese-made helicopter. There is also a modified training helicopter.
Transport and landing helicopter squadrons are designed for tactical landing and evacuation, transfer of personnel, weapons, ammunition and other means of logistics support (both in the cargo bay, and the external suspension), search and rescue operations, as well as the evacuation of the wounded.
The main types of transport and landing helicopters are the Mi-17 and Z-8.
The Z-8 is a licensed copy of the French Super Frelon helicopter. There are three modifications of the helicopter: Z-8Z, the first serial modification of the transport helicopter; the Z-8F, with improved engines; the Z-8K/KA, a vehicle for search and rescue operations.
The military and political leadership of China pursues a consistent policy aimed at improving the capabilities of the army aviation, developing the national helicopter industry and reducing dependence on foreign supplies of spare parts. In the near future, a new multi-purpose Z-20 helicopter is expected to enter service with the PLA, based on the civilian Sikorsky transport helicopter S-70C-2, which was purchased from the USA.
In terms of tactical and technical characteristics, the Z-20 is close to the UH-20 Black Hawk multi-purpose helicopter, which is in service with the U.S. Armed Forces.
The Z-20 differs from the S-70C-2 by the presence of a five-blade main screw and an increased volume of cargo and passenger compartment. The Z-20 helicopter has a payload weight of up to 9,000 kg (1,000 kg of cargo and passenger load and 8,000 kg on the external sling), which will allow it to carry up to 15 fully equipped soldiers.
In addition, the new machine is also designed for highland operations. It is planned that the Mi-17 transport and landing helicopters will be taken off the armament and replaced by the Z-20.
At present, the country’s aircraft industry is actively researching the creation of a heavy transport and landing aircraft (with four-blade large-diameter propellers, similar to the American CV-22 Osprey) and a high-speed helicopter (similar to the S-97 Raider from the Sikorsky company), capable of cruising speeds of over 400 km/h.
The Chinese analogue of the S-97 helicopter has larger dimensions, is made on the coaxial scheme with four-blade bearing and stabilising screws in the ring channels, located on the tail beam.
In addition, it is planned to develop a large-capacity transport helicopter together with Russian specialists.
Thus, the PLA AF Army Aviation has helicopters and aircraft capable of providing direct air support and combat support to ground forces. The majority of the machines are in satisfactory technical condition, but the aircraft management is trying to improve the fleet of AA aircraft so that it meets the requirements of modern combat.