Author discusses differences in U.S., Chinese air forces during Misawa visit

Kenneth Allen, think tank analyst and author of several books on China, briefs members of the U.S. military at Misawa Air Base, Japan, on Friday. Allen spoke about the structural and cultural differences between the U.S. Air Force and China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force.


By T.D. FLACK | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2009

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Servicemembers received an intimate view of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force during a briefing Friday by an analyst who’s spent decades studying China.

Kenneth Allen, author of several books on China’s military, visited Misawa Air Base as part of a National Air and Space Intelligence Center-funded trip.

The 21-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force served in assignments in Taiwan, Berlin, Japan, Hawaii, China and Washington, D.C., and was the assistant air attaché in Beijing from 1987 to 1989, according to his biography. His briefing focused on the structural and cultural differences between the U.S. and Chinese air forces.

Allen said the PLAAF has traditionally had a strong recruiting program, pulling its pilot-hopefuls out of high school and putting them into a training pipeline. But it’s recently started recruiting college students, Allen said.

And the best pilots to graduate from the academies never make it to flying units. Instead, they’re tasked as academy flight instructors for their careers.

He also talked about the "family affair" concept. Chinese troops basically serve in one unit for their whole careers and they become like family, with strongly developed personal relationships. Aircrews work on one aircraft at a time, and pilots will fly only one or two different planes. Since the Chinese planes are handmade in factories, crews and pilots have to learn the ins and outs of each piece of equipment, he said.

Another major difference is the sight of senior officers working the controls in the air traffic control towers and in the maintenance divisions. The Chinese pilots aren’t given the same sort of decision-making latitude that even rookie American lieutenants get, Allen said. Instead, their commanders are on the communications, telling them to fire up the jets, when to taxi, when to take off and what to do each step of the way.

That, Allen explained, is representative of the sort of major cultural differences the U.S. Air Force should keep in mind.

And when the PLAAF gets a new piece of equipment — like Russian fighters — they "start from scratch" to learn the item without written specifications. He talked of pilots spending hours in the cockpit just becoming familiar with the instrument panel before even thinking about firing up the engines.

Allen peppered the session with personal stories gleaned from his work in China.

He said that during one trip, he entered a briefing room early to find a Chinese enlisted servicemember sleeping. The man looked at Allen, rolled back over and went back to sleep. When a high-ranking Chinese officer came into the room, he told Allen to be careful not to wake the servicemember. It was the traditional lunchtime nap, and the Chinese military takes it very seriously, said Allen, drawing chuckles in the briefing room.

He also explained some of the day-to-day life for members of the PLAAF. Interesting facts included: 99 percent of the officers can’t drive cars because they don’t have licenses; enlisted members must serve 16 years before they can be accompanied on assignment by their families; upon retirement, flag officers can continue to live in their military housing; and "pilots are gods in the PLAAF."

Allen also explained that China is doing a good job of sending its military out on foreign exchanges with other nations.

Col. David Stilwell, 35th Fighter Wing commander, had asked Allen to give a similar briefing at a previous command. He stressed the importance of keeping cultural differences in mind.

"I strongly support educating our people about Asian culture," he said in a statement through a command spokeswoman. "… Asian culture is different than ours — not only as warriors, but also in how we live."