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Can China's Top Guns Fly?

The Chinese military is aiming high. But can its Air Force break through all the red tape?

The Chinese Air Force plane drifted past a city and seemed to float, like a leaf, before exploding onto a mudflat where the Shandong peninsula juts out into the Yellow Sea.

"It was floating, floating, floating then BANG, suddenly hit the ground," says a witness, according to video footage of the smoking wreckage on March 31 that was anonymously uploaded on the Chinese version of YouTube.

The huge plume of black smoke, still billowing from the wreckage 20 minutes after it exploded, suggests the tanks were full and the accident occurred not long after takeoff, probably from Jinan, the provincial capital.

Perhaps there had been a fuel blockage on one of the external wing tanks, leading to a weight imbalance that contributed to the Soviet-made Su-27 20 entering a flat spin before descending like a kite to earth, according to retired and serving Air Force officers.

The presence of what appear to be ejector seats just meters from the wreck suggests the two airmen died unnecessarily, because they failed to eject until it was too late. Whatever the case, the names of Yu Liang, 33, and Wu Yongming, 36, will be added to the 1,747 inscribed on the Heroes-and-Martyrs Wall at Beijing's Chinese Aviation Museum.

Crashes happen, even to the United States. But for professional military watchers, the more they see inside one of the world's most secretive air forces, it seems, the less they are impressed with the Chinese military's aerial wing.

Pilots are neither trusted nor properly trained. Drills are regimented, centrally controlled, and divorced from realistic combat conditions. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has nearly 2,000 thousand planes, compared with a little over 3,000 for the U.S. Armed Forces, but only a fraction of the peace-time accident rate, suggesting pilots are not spending sufficient time in the air or training under pressure.

While Chinese military enthusiasts saw the Shandong crash as an embarrassing setback, professionals saw it as a small sign that the PLA Air Force might be beginning to take the risks required to develop human "software" to match its expensive hardware and compete with their American, Taiwanese, or Japanese counterparts.

"They've got to take risks," says Robert Rubel, a graduate of the U.S. Navy's "Top Gun" academy and now dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. "I've lost control of every airplane I've ever tried to fly."

In the Chinese version of Top Gun, the equivalent of "Maverick" is a hotshot, risk-taking wing commander who arrives to drag the PLA Air Force into the 21st century. The lead characters in the 2010 film, Skyfighters, wear aviator sunglasses and chase attractive female instructors who drive motorbikes fast along military airstrips. The main difference from the original is that the red team is always the good guys shooting at the blue, rather than the other way around.

The moral of the film is that in the PLA's new "scientific" environment -- shown as a future ideal in contrast to a moribund status quo -- pilots will be rewarded for showing initiative, flying under combat-like pressure, and taking risks even if they occasionally scratch the paint work.

The hero, Commander Yue, has the Tom Cruise character's appetite for high-octane adventure but is otherwise free of his preternatural ego. His "scientific outlook" -- a term from the Hu Jintao era -- is benchmarked against international best practice and juxtaposed against his vanquished deputy, who prefers to quote aphorisms about controlling remote armies from a tent like Mao did before 1949 at the Red Army base camp of Xibaipo.

Abandoning old thinking doesn't make the New Age PLA Man politically unreliable. To the contrary, Commander Yue cracks jokes about the U.S. president, talks constantly about war, and is prepared to sacrifice his life to save the national hardware.

The film aims to challenge deep conventions in China's risk-averse system, where decisions are avoided or made by consensus high up in the hierarchy. And yet this film about how the PLA is breaking from dysfunctional, committee-driven micromanagement is littered with incidental signs that suggest it may not be possible.

It opens with a pilot who narrowly escapes being court-martialed for an unavoidable accident -- his Su-27 hitting a bird -- which seems to underscore why ambitious Chinese pilots may be better off sticking to the ground. Commander Yue cannot wield full authority because he has to defer to a political commissar, who has no professional knowledge, and he is constantly second-guessed by a deputy who is playing on his bureaucratic home turf.

And when Commander Yue's J-10 spins out of control attempting Maverick's "cobra" move -- "I'll hit the brakes and he'll fly right by" -- ancient habits of centralized, hierarchical control seem inescapable. "Check the oil ... watch your altitude," instructs his deputy commander from the control tower, as if that would help a pilot who would be clenching his entire body to push blood to his brain and avoid passing out.

American and Australian commanders are required to delegate responsibility as far down the chain as possible, and pilots are trained to be trusted to make their own decisions, according to veterans of those systems. They work through endless emergency procedure simulators to internalize key parameters and make instant decisions without need for radio contact. Nothing is hammered into a pilot's head more deeply than the decision to eject at a set altitude when out of control.

Captain Yue, on the other hand, dutifully obeys the myriad petty orders and then ignores the only one that counts.  "I believe the plane has a soul," he tells the military tribunal, explaining why he refused to eject as ordered. Not only does he keep his wings, but he receives a standing ovation.

The film, a production by the PLA's August First Film Studio, in collaboration with the Political Department of the PLA Air Force and the Propaganda Department of the Beijing Municipal Government, is not real life. But many of the PLA's organizational weaknesses depicted in Skyfighters strongly resonate with what professionals observe.

The PLA's highest-profile challenge is to operate its newly revamped Ukrainian aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, with indigenously produced planes fitted with reverse-engineered Soviet technology, and fulfill China's ambitions to project military power offshore.

Last week, the Liaoning's captain, Zhang Zheng, and Rear Admiral Song Xue briefed defense attachés in Beijing and confirmed an ambition to build bigger carriers with greater capabilities. They also admitted to having only 12 trained pilots for the J-15 fighters they plan to deploy, according to sources who were present, suggesting it may be decades before Chinese carriers are operating effectively at sea.

"They've got to learn to operate on cloudy no-moon nights, where there is no horizon, and to land on a deck that's pitching 10, 12 feet," says Rubel, of the U.S. Naval War College. Even more crucial, he says, is developing the systems and culture to learn from inevitable mistakes.

The U.S. Navy lost a staggering 13,000 aircraft and 9,000 air crew in the four decades after World War II, mostly due to accidents, not enemy fire, as its pilots adjusted to the lethal combination of jet engines and aircraft carriers. Rubel says that much of those losses were due to a U.S. Navy culture where ship captains were naturally conditioned to survive on their wits at sea, and the early navy aviators threw caution to the wind because the chance of death was so high. Both the U.S. Air Force and the Navy established safety centers and procedures. The accident rate plummeted in the Air Force, with its centralized structure and standardized practices, but kept rising in the Navy. It didn't fully settle down until 1983, when Top Gun was made.

China's learning curve may be even steeper. The challenge of operating battle groups and jet-powered air wings at sea, which took four decades to overcome in the U.S. Navy, is multiplied in a Chinese political system where politics explicitly trumps professionalism in all facets of organized life and there is no transparency or independent institutions to monitor and regulate the game.

Chinese officers admit they have a long way to go, but say that risk tolerance is rising under tougher demands from the new commander-in-chief, Xi Jinping. "Accidents are the price that must be paid to improve combat capability," said Air Force Senior Colonel Dai Xu. "This is the price for scientific progress."

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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