The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) northwestern Lanzhou Military Command, whose charge includes the disputed Aksai Chin region, completed a large-scale, 12-day military drill involving more than a dozen air force units in the Gobi desert on Friday.

The exercise was described by state media as the biggest “air-to-air strike assessment” drills conducted by the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in recent years, involving “simulated air combat” to measure the fighting capability in modern warfare scenarios.

It was, also, the first major exercise following last month’s leadership transition that saw Xi Jinping take charge both as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Mr. Xi will take over as PLA President when Hu Jintao steps down in March.

The state-run Xinhua news agency said the exercise was held in the Gobi desert close to the border with Mongolia, near the base of the Lanzhou Military Command.

It involved 14 air force units and at least 100 pilots flying Jian-10 and Jian-11 fighters.

Yang Yongfei, an air force brigade commander, was quoted as saying by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post ( SCMP ) that the drill was “a response to political tasks set out at the Communist Party’s National Congress last month and reflected the army’s achievements in information warfare modernisation”.

At the Party Congress, the Work Report delivered by outgoing General Secretary Hu Jintao — the policy blueprint for the next five years — said the military would “enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local war in an information age”.

Xu Guangyu, a researcher at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, told the SCMP that the PLA had to carry out simulations to improve its combat capabilities as it “was not in the business of declaring war on other countries”.

“We are not the U.S. army, which has had many opportunities to engage in wars to maintain its fighting skill” he said. “The PLA is a defensive force that can only rely on military drills to improve its capabilities”.

  • Conducted by Lanzhou Command, in charge of Aksai Chin

  • Done to improve combat capabilities, not engage in war, says researcher