The PLA Air Force 15th Airborne Corps (simplified Chinese: 中国人民解放军空降兵第15军; traditional Chinese: 中國人民解放軍空降兵第15軍; pinyin: Zhōngguó rénmín jiěfàngjūn kōngjiàng bīng dì 15 jūn) comprises three airborne divisions (43rd, 44th, 45th airborne divisions). The PLA Air Force's 15th Airborne Corps is China's primary strategic airborne unit and it is part of the newly formed rapid reaction units (RRU) of the Chinese military which is primarily designated for airborne and special operation missions. Its role is similar to that of the U.S. Army's XVIII Airborne Corps/82nd Airborne Division.
Only one of the Corps' three divisions can deploy to any part of China within 48 hours due to limited airlift capabilities. In the late 1990s the airlift capability of the PLAAF consisted of 10 IL-76 heavy lift, Yu-8, and Yu-7 transports, as well as Mi-17, Mi-8, S-70C, Z-8, and Z-9 helicopters. As such, the PLAAF could only lift one division of 11,000 men complemented with light tanks and self-propelled artillery. In 1988, there were reports claiming that a 10,000 man airborne division was transported to Tibet in less than 48 hours.
The 15th Airborne Corps traces its lineage to an infantry army in the Fourth Field Army. There is a common misconception that the 15th Airborne Corps initially originated from Deng Xiaoping's Second Field Army. In fact, the 15th Army was transferred to the Second Field Army in 1950. The unit was involved the Chinese Civil War and carried out anti-bandit operations in southern Sichuan before being deployed in Korea in February 1951. As part of the 3rd Army Group joining the Korean War, the 15th Army was involved in the Chinese Fifth Phase Offensive on April 1951. Due to the stellar performance of the 15th Army during the Battle of Triangle Hill in November 1952, the unit received numerous appraisals and even titles of being an elite army unit.
On July 26, 1950, the PLAAF's Airborne Troops began when the 1st Airborne Brigade was raised. On August 1, the brigade's Headquarters moved to Kaifeng, Henan Province, which were designated as the division's training bases. On September 17, the PLA formed a PLAAF 1st Airborne Brigade by recruiting six thousand battle hardened soldiers across the 40 Armies of PLA. Following the Soviet practice, this airborne brigade was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, which eventually became an airborne division. Training of the PLAAF 1st Marine Brigade immediately begun and after merely eleven days of intensive training, on September 29, 1950, its soldiers made their first jump. Cui Hanqing (崔汉卿), the commander of the 1st Airborne Battalion led the way and became the first paratrooper of PLA when he jumped first. Thereafter, the unit's designation changed several times, becoming the Air Force Marine 1st Division, the Paratroops Division of the Air Force, then the Airborne Division. In May 1961, the Military Commission changed the Army's 15th Army, which had fought during the Korean War, into the PLAAF 15th Airborne Army, and subordinated the PLAAF's original airborne division to this new Army. All of the PLA's paratroop units belongs to the PLAAF.
In the 1960s when the commander of the PLAAF, General Liu Yalou was asked to create an airborne army, he picked the 15th Army because he had been impressed by its performance in Korea.
During the restructuring of the PLA in 1985, the 15th Army was reduced to three brigades. In the 1990s, the PLA's concept of People's War was replaced by the Limited High-Intensity War concept. This in turn resulted in a return to a divisional structure with an all-over increase of 25% in the 15th Army's strength. It is now more appropriately referring to it as the 15th Airborne Corps.
In 1985, most of the soldiers in the 15th Army were ordinary paratroopers trained for general supporting duties in a combined army campaign. Only 17 percent of them were specialized paratroopers. However, this percentage has now risen to 43 percent and ordinary paratroopers have dropped from 53 percent to 23 percent. The purpose of this increase in the percentage of specialized paratroopers was to make the 15th Airborne Corps into a combined arms force rather than just a mobile infantry force. Thus making it more capable of conducting independent operations in a limited but highly technological focused conflict.
In May 1989, the 15th Airborne Corps’ 43rd and 44th Paratrooper Brigades were deployed to Beijing to enforce martial law and suppress the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
According to You Ji's "The Armed forces of China", the 15th Airborne Corps has been elevated to the status of a strategic force. It is a departure from the PLA traditional airborne force concept. Doctrinal modernization change allows the 15th Airborne Corps to act as a principal force employed for independent campaign missions in future wars. It is now accepted that the airborne troops should be used for pre-emptive attack on the enemy's key military targets in the rear area in order to paralyze or disrupt its preparation for an offensive. This kind of large-scale mission cannot be conducted without having a total control in the air. Also, a single-lift capability of 50,000 men is required for this type of missions. Currently, the PLAAF can only lift one division of 11,000 men with light tanks and self-propelled artillery.
In 2006 Dennis Blasko wrote that the 15th Airborne’s headquarters is in Xiaogan, north of Wuhan in Hubei. The airborne divisions were located as follows: the 43rd Division stationed in Kaifeng, Henan (127th and 128th Airborne Infantry and 129th Airborne Artillery Regiments), and the 44th and 45th Divisions also in the Wuhan area at Guangshui and Huangpi.
More and more focus will be placed on helicopter assaults as opposed to traditional parachute drops. In times of war, the 15th Airborne Corps can also utilize transport aircraft such as Shaanxi Y-9, Shaanxi Y-8, Xian Y-7, and very large numbers of Y-5 (700+) utility transports. During a number of exercises, the 15th Airborne Corps has demonstrated it can move a regiment plus of paratroopers with light armored vehicles to anywhere within China in less than 24 hours. These exercises also show that a large number of para-gliders are in use.
The 15th Airborne Corps' weapons inventory includes 50-100 ZLC2000 derivatives and 2S9 self-propelled mortars, large numbers of BJ212 jeeps with 105mm recoilless rifles or HJ-11 ATGM, and Type 89 120 mm SP anti-tank guns. The last two weapon platforms are air transportable. Additional weapons include Type 84 82mm mortars, Type 85 60mm light mortars, Type 85 107 mm MRL, and more. In 1997, a new lightweight high-mobility vehicle entered service. Reportedly, up to ten of these vehicles can be carried by a Y-7H military transport. Paratroopers are outfitted with portable GPS systems, night-vision goggles, radios and other high-tech equipment.
The Airborne Divisions have various special units, including weapons controllers, reconnaissance, infantry, artillery, communications, engineering, chemical defense, and transportation soldiers. Today, the Airborne Divisions have three regiments plus one light artillery regiment, which are further divided into battalions and companies.
In early 2013 China began flight testing of the Xian Y-20, considered a high priority technology project by the Chinese authorities, the Y-20 will give China a large capacity-long range strategic transport aircraft.
In 2015, Chinese paratroopers took first place in the International Army Games which took place in Russia.
The Chinese airborne troops performed excellently in the five-kilometer accelerated march, overcoming obstacles and shooting with small arms on that day. The Chinese team left the Russian team far behind in the contest of shooting with small arms after seven out of the nine 40mm rocket shells launched by the Russian participants missed the targets.
Plus its parachuting score on August 3, the Chinese team won the first place with a total score of 1 hour 18 minutes and 17 seconds, which was 17 minutes 15 seconds ahead of the Russian team that ranked the second.
The performance of the Chinese team on August 4 was appreciated by its rivals. The deputy leader of the Byelorussian team commented that the outstanding performance of the Chinese paratroopers showed "they are fully prepared and well trained."
In 2016, Chinese paratroopers came in third place in the International Army Games which took place in Russia.