For 11 days in November, the sky over the northwestern Chinese province of Gansu witnessed some of the most intensive dogfighting to ever take place in China. Jet fighters screamed overhead, twisting and turning in complex aerial maneuvers. Heavily-laden bombers lumbered through the tangle of fighters, dodging enemy defenses as they lined up for bombing runs.
The warplanes and their crews were the real deal. It featured the best of the best of the Chinese military, which with 2,700 aircraft possesses the world’s third largest aerial arsenal, after the U.S. and Russia. But the combat over the sprawling Dingxin Air Force Test and Training Base was simulated. Despite the ferocity of the maneuvers, no live weapons were fired. The mock battles of the annual “Red Sword/Blue Sword” exercise are meant to prepare the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) for the possibility of actual high-tech combat.
In terms of authenticity, China’s pretend air battles are getting pretty close to the real thing. That improving realism, combined with Beijing’s new fighters and other hardware, has some observers in the U.S. feeling uneasy. For decades the Pentagon has counted on highly realistic aerial training to mitigate the increasing age and decreasing size of its warplane holdings. “That [training] used to be a significant advantage U.S. air forces held relative to the PLAAF,” Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force general who flew F-15 fighters, tells Danger Room.