Analysis: China People's Liberation Army reorganizes its Naval Aviation

According to a report published by the Air University on July 31, 2023, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) initiated a monumental transfer of its PLA Navy Aviation units to the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in 2023.
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Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001 Chinese Shenyang J-15 fighter aircraft. (Picture source: Japanese MoD)

This reshuffle involved a significant chunk of the PLAN’s fighter, bomber, radar, air defense, and airfield units being integrated into the PLAAF's framework.

Yet, the PLAN remained in charge of its helicopter, UAV, and carrier-based aviation units. A highlight was the PLAN's decision to retain the 8th Aviation Brigade, hinting at strategic interests in the South China Sea or potential plans for carrier-based transformations.

The implications of this shift are profound for maritime and air operations. The restructuring emphasized the necessity of harmonized maritime strikes, pushing for better coordination among the PLA's diverse branches. One pivotal concern arising from this transition is the potential diminution of minelaying emphasis unless the PLAAF assimilates it.

Furthermore, from an aerial perspective, the revamp offers dual advantages: a more coherent administrative system and the amalgamation of all defensive aerial undertakings into one cohesive framework. This negates any geographical discrepancies in defense strategies.

The overhaul also aligns with the PLAN's strategic vision of building a formidable carrier-based aviation prowess. By divesting from numerous commitments and assets, the PLAN is better positioned to steer towards a carrier-focused trajectory. Activities, like the deployment of PLAN J-15 carrier-based fighters at Feidong Airfield, indicate this direction.

However, as the PLAAF receives an influx of contemporary resources, questions arise about their long-term retention. While these assets are contemporary and essential, they come with inherent challenges in maintenance and management. This realignment also underscores the PLA's inclination to eliminate service overlaps, pushing for a more integrated operational synergy.

Delving into the specifics:

At the Eastern Theater Command (ETC), units such as the 4th and 6th Aviation Brigades likely transitioned to the PLAAF. Nevertheless, the PLAN still manages Feidong Airfield operations and several aviation and UAV units.

In the Southern Theater Command (STC), while units like the 9th Aviation Brigade integrated into the PLAAF, the PLAN still wields control over certain assets, notably the J-15 equipped brigades. The precise status of airfields in the Paracel and Spratly Islands remains ambiguous.

At the Northern Theater Command (NTC), there was a clear transition of the NTN Air Defense Brigade and 4th Radar Brigade to the PLAAF. Yet, the PLAN retains control over specific aviation brigades, divisions, and other notable assets.