Defeat, Not Merely Compete

China’s View of Its Military Aerospace Goals and Requirements in Relation to the United States

by Scott W. Harold

Over the past two decades, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has made rapid advances in building up new capabilities and operational concepts. Aerospace power has been a core feature of the PLA’s rapid modernization. In particular, since 2004, the PLA Air Force has pursued a service strategy aimed at developing the capacity to “simultaneously prosecute offensive and defensive integrated air and space operations.”

This report explores the extent to which the desire to “compete” with the U.S. Air Force (or other advanced air forces) shapes PLA thinking about the development of military aerospace power. It examines how China selects between the options of “copying” foreign powers and “innovating” its own solutions to various operational military problems, as well as which areas China chooses to not compete in at all.

Key Findings

PLA’s goal is to defeat, not merely compete

  • The main driver for Chinese military aerospace power development is the PLA’s view that it needs to be prepared to deter and, if necessary, defeat the United States in a high-end clash.
  • The PLA appears to copy foreign militaries when it can find low-cost hardware, organizational, or operational concepts that it can adapt from abroad to solve the operational challenges it confronts. In contrast, when foreign capabilities or organizational practices are irrelevant to Chinese military aerospace problem sets, the PLA either innovates its own solution or declines to replicate the foreign capability (although it does continue to track and study these).
  • The PLA appears not to compete in certain areas because it does not need certain capabilities to accomplish its directed mission, or it has other means to address the military problem at hand.


  • The USAF should understand the advances that China is making in specific domains related to ISR, strategic and tactical lift, and strike platforms and assets as well as power projection in and through space and against space-based satellite architectures.
  • In addition, the USAF should monitor a range of other PLA investments and changes, including in the realms of doctrine, organization, training, manpower, logistics, procurement, and facilities.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Terminology, Methodology, and Data Sources

  • Chapter Three

    Rapid Recent Development from a Low Post–Cold War Baseline

  • Chapter Four

    PLA Aims to Defeat, Not Merely Compete with, U.S. Military

  • Chapter Five

    When Does China Copy Foreign Militaries?

  • Chapter Six

    China’s Innovations in Military Aerospace

  • Chapter Seven

    Conclusions and Implications

  • Appendix A

    Transfers of Air Defense Systems, China to World (Final Deliveries and New Orders, 2010 to 2017)

  • Appendix B

    Transfers of Combat Aircraft, China to World (Final Deliveries and New Orders, 2010 to 2017)

  • Appendix C

    Transfers of Missiles, China to World (Final Deliveries and New Orders, 2010 to 2017)