The Chinese People's Liberation Army air force is feeling the heat from higher command for failing to produce enough qualified pilots and for spending too much on pilot training.
Last week, a comprehensive combat pilot training program was announced to meet the challenges.
China is in overdrive to expand its air power. The air force is under intense pressure to address some of its shortfalls now that Gen. Xu Qiliang, a seasoned fighter pilot and one of the two vice chairmen of the all-powerful Central Military Commission, was promoted to be the first air force general to hold the post in the communist country's history.
China's combat pilot recruiting and training program traditionally is among the more elite military-run operations.
For several generations, prospective pilots have been recruited from high school under an esoteric process requiring extreme scrutiny of a candidate's loyalty to the Communist Party, a totally trouble-free family history, and perfect eyesight and physical fitness.
The process has been carried out with absolute seriousness: In China, becoming a combat pilot is considered the most glorious achievement for a prospective recruit.
Rigid selection and training regimes greatly limit the prospective pilot pool, and the result has been a shortage of qualified pilots for the rapidly expanding air force.
While their political and ideological correctness is overemphasized, many pilot trainees lack basic knowledge of modern science, or a broad understanding of aviation principles — a requirement for operating sophisticated jet and weapons technologies.
In the meantime, the cost of training pilots keeps skyrocketing as training cycles are extended.
"Air force training has become more diversified and complex," said a state-run Xinhua news agency report on the new training initiative.
All signs indicate the plan to revamp the pilot training program is far reaching.
"Reforms related to theoretical study, the pilot selection process, training subjects and methodology have taken place," Xinhua reported.
"We have made a lot of effort to develop and use flight simulators to shorten training and save costs," Gen. Xie Hong, deputy head of the air force training command was quoted as saying.
Taiwan's Ma on Xi's ascendance
Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou issued an unprecedented olive branch to his communist adversaries in China following the recent leadership change in Beijing.
"In the past 10 years the Taiwan Strait region has reached the most peaceful and most stable state in 60 years," Mr. Ma gushed in his congratulatory message to outgoing General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Hu Jintao and incoming party chief Xi Jinping.
Curiously, Mr. Ma's message to his mainland counterparts was not sent in his role as president of the Republic of China, but as chairman of the ruling Nationalist Party.
In the note, Mr. Ma stressed the lofty mission of joint efforts by the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party for "the grand revival of the Chinese nation."
Unlike Mr. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who threatened Taiwan with missiles and hard-core diplomatic pressure, Mr. Hu was able to work together with the George W. Bush administration to rein in Taiwan's independence-leaning forces.
Yet, unlike all the previous Chinese Communist leaders, including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the incoming Mr. Xi has the most intimate and first-hand knowledge and understanding of Taiwan.
For more than a decade, Mr. Xi built up his political resume as a reform-minded communist official in Fujian province, a stone's throw from Taiwan across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.
In addition to its geographic proximity to Taiwan, Fujian shares close ancestral, linguistic, cultural, economic and political ties with the Taiwanese. Today, there are more Taiwanese businessmen and Taiwanese investment in Fujian than in any other region of China.
Mr. Xi is said to have a good reputation among many Taiwanese for being less strident and more willing to listen to the Taiwanese side of the six-decades-old political and military standoff.
"At this moment of your Party's change of leadership," Mr. Ma wrote to Mr. Xi in his note, "I eagerly await the continuation of our two parties' more outstanding achievements in further promoting our deepening exchange and establishment of official liaison facilities on each other's side."
Closer ties will be easier said than done. At present, the Chinese government has hundreds of missiles — by some estimates as many as 1,500 — deployed along the Fujian coast and aimed at Taiwan.
Chinese military intelligence also has been running vigorous espionage operations against the island democracy. China has not relented on vows to invade and take Taiwan, and Beijing's international isolation campaign against Taipei is continuing without any sign of easing.
• Miles Yu's column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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