by Darien Cavanaugh. He is writing on politics, foreign policy, global conflict, and weapons platforms has been published at War is Boring, offiziere.ch, The National Interest, Real Clear Defense, Yahoo! News, The Week, Global Comment, and the Center for Securities Studies. To see more of his work, visit his website.
Before 2015, China’s bombers stayed relatively close to its coast and were regarded almost exclusively as a means of deterrence and self-defense. However, the bombers now routinely travel beyond the First Island Chain. The H-6K bombers have traveled 1,000 km from China’s coast during some of these flights, which brought them within striking distance of potential U.S. military targets in the Second Island Chain, most notably Guam.The flights are another example of how China’s military doctrine is shifting away from relying primarily on “active defense” and toward developing greater offensive capabilities, enhanced power projection, and achieving strategic goals well beyond its traditional sphere of influence. The flights are also another indicator that China increasingly believes it will be able to effectively compete with the U.S. military in the near future.
A new report from the RAND Corporation chronicles the history of China’s long-range bomber flights in the Asia-Pacific region and places them within the context of the “remarkable strategic transformation” that the PLAAF has undergone over the last two decades. “Once viewed as a backward force equipped with antiquated aircraft flown by poorly trained pilots, the PLAAF has gradually stepped out of the shadow of China’s ground forces and emerged as one of the world’s premier air forces,” the report asserts.
The shift in PLAAF doctrine can be traced back to 1999 when then-president Jiang Zemin began a push to improve both the defensive and offensive capabilities of all branches of the People’s Liberation Army and particularly the PLAAF. One of the most significant doctrinal changes for the PLAAF has been a growing emphasis on air-to-surface combat with the goal of “achieving air superiority by striking enemy aircraft and airfields on the ground” (Derek Grossman et al., “Chinas Long-Range Bomber Flights: Drivers and Implications“, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 29).
China’s current president, Xi Jinping, who came to power in March of 2013, has accelerated the modernization of the PLAAF and expanded its strategic goals. In April of 2014, PLAAF commander Ma Xiaotian called for the PLAAF to assume a more active role in China’s maritime security. When Lt. Gen. Ding Laihang became commander of the PLAAF in August 2017, he likewise expressed his desire to continue the PLAAF’s outward expansion. Speaking to a gathering of 1,000 trainee pilots at the PLA Air Force Aviation University in Changchun, Jilin Province, Ding stated that the PLAAF was undertaking “an unprecedented deep reform” and that achieving China’s new strategic goals “requires the ability to project power and make strikes over long distances”. He noted that “exercises on the open seas will become a regular part of training”.
Historical Milestones in China’s Long-Range Bomber Flights
Since 2015, PLAAF’s H-6Ks have flown on at least 38 long-range over-water flights in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the RAND report (Derek Grossman et al., p. 1).
An H-6K strategic bomber crossed the First Island Chain for the first time by passing through the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines in March of 2015. In November of that year, four H-6Ks accompanied by one Shaanxi Y-8 and one Tupolev Tu-154 transport aircraft flew through the Miyako Strait between Okinawa Island and Miyako Island. Both of those flights reportedly flew 1,000 km away from China’s coast. A 2018 U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) report stated that during those flights the bombers flew “within LACM [land-attack cruise missile] range of Guam”.
The first H-6K flight into the South China Sea “likely” occurred in May of 2016 and crossed over Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. The second flight, which passed over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, occurred in July of 2016, just four days after the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
After H-6Ks passed by Taiwan on several previous flights, they began circumnavigating the island in November of 2016. According to the RAND report, the PLAAF has conducted at least 14 such flights around the island, some of which included support-aircraft. On at least two occasions the support-aircraft included Sukhoi Su-30, Chengdu J-10, and Shenyang J-11 fighter jets for at least part of the journey, but the fighters broke away from the bombers and other aircraft before approaching Taiwan.
The initiation and rising operational tempo of PLAAF bomber flights is notable because it demonstrates a new capability designed to challenge U.S. military operations and threaten U.S. allies and partners. Bombers are yet another aspect of Beijing’s growing power projection capabilities that will complement its expanding maritime and missile capabilities. — Derek Grossman et al., “Chinas Long-Range Bomber Flights: Drivers and Implications“, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. 1.
Disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea
Strategic signaling and external propaganda are undoubtedly two purposes of the flights, especially in regard to China’s regional rivals and territorial disputes, such as the Spratly Islands and Taiwan, which China still views as a breakaway province. For instance, the PLAAF released images of H-6K bombers flying over disputed waters for the first time in the days following the July 2016 PCA ruling against China.
According to the DoD, in the event of a conflict between China and Taiwan and its allies, H-6Ks could conduct “shorter-range strikes targeting eastern Taiwan from all directions”. Beijing has not been subtle about flaunting its military prowess at Taiwan. After H-6Ks bombers accompanied by Su-30 and J-11 fighters and several support-aircraft circumnavigated Taiwan from north to south in December of 2017, a PLAAF spokesperson referred to the flight as an “island encirclement patrol” and said the PLAAF was “an important force for effectively shaping the situation, controlling crises, containing war, and winning wars” (see also video from the Chinese state television broadcaster CCTV below). The RAND report notes that a post on the PLAAF’s official Weibo account that featured images of the bombers passing near Taiwan suggested they were in Chinese territory, an allusion to China’s claim that Taiwan is still a province of China (Derek Grossman et al., p. 22).
In September of 2016 a large group of PLAAF aircraft, including H-6Ks, Su-30s, and refueling tankers, flew through the Miyako Strait, again. The DoD report from 2017 said this was the PLAAF’s “most complex long-distance strike training to date”. The RAND report cites the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, which implies that the flight was a response to the Japanese Defense Minister Inada Miyazaki’s suggestion that the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force might join the U.S. Navy in patrols of the South China Sea (Derek Grossman et al., p. 15).
The PLAAF began conducting even more antagonistic flights near Japan in July of 2017 when six H-6Ks passed through the Miyako Strait before veering north and flying along Japan’s east coast to the Kii Peninsula in violation of Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). “Tokyo has already been contending with air incursions into Japan’s ADIZ by PLAAF and PLAN Aviation fighter aircraft, as well as other types of military aircraft in recent years”, the RAND report notes. “Bombers, however, are a relatively new phenomenon” (Derek Grossman et al., p. 45).
The reactions from regional governments have been somewhat muted, even when China crosses into their ADIZ zones. Japan monitors all of China’s flights near its airspace, and Taiwan intercepts all flights into its airspace, but there has otherwise been little response. Japan did, however, recently tripled the number of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters it is purchasing from the U.S.
For its part, the U.S. has maintained a continuous bomber presence, based primarily out of Guam, in the South China Sea since 2004. Both the U.S. Air Force and Navy continue to patrol near the Spratly Islands and essentially ignore China’s claim to the archipelago.
Limitations and New Capabilities
Despite the considerable improvements to the PLAAF’s capabilities over the past two decades, it still suffers from significant logistical, technological, and experiential limitations. For instance, China does not have yet overseas bases that can provide refueling or other support for long-range bomber missions, nor does it have a viable air-refuelable bomber or support-aircraft. However, according to RAND, China is developing a new model of the H-6, sometimes referred to as H-6N, that will be air-refuelable with a range of 12,000 km. The first test flight was apparently conducted at the end of 2016. At the same time, the DoD report 2018 on the Chinese military acknowledges only that “China may add an aerial refueling capability to at least some H-6s” (emphasis added).
Even if China has developed air-refuelable H-6Ks, or will do so in the near future, it currently does not have any aircraft that are reliably capable of refueling them. China has a few Ilyushin Il-78s it purchased from Ukraine in 2011, but it has not been able to integrate them fully. It also has a fleet of 12 HY-6U tankers, but as the RAND report points out, they are “too small and technologically obsolete to fulfill the needs of long-distance air combat”. (Derek Grossman et al., p. 53)
Another concern for China is that the current range limitations of PLAAF fighters would mean that H-6Ks on long-range missions would not have fighters to defend them and would therefore “be easy targets for American, Japanese, and Taiwanese air defenders long before they could get within range of Guam”.
The PLAAF is developing a version of its Xian Y-20 heavy transport that can provide aerial refueling capabilities for both bombers and fighters such as the J-11 and the Sukhoi Su-35, which are capable of receiving aerial refueling. Adding a practical refueling tanker to the PLAAF fleet would expand the operational range of China’s bombers by a substantial distance while also enabling fighters and other support-aircraft to accompany the bombers, thus improving the survivability and effectiveness of the bombers in a combat scenario.
In addition to the development of new H-6Ks and Y-20s, China plans to have its Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter and the Xian H-20 stealth bomber that is in the final stages of development integrated into the air force by the mid-2020s. Although several J-20s are currently “in service” with the PLAAF, China is still experiencing difficulties with the jet’s engines and currently relies on Russia to manufacture them.
The H-20’s range is expected to be 10,000 km, with a combat radius of if 5,000 km. Again, the development of a practical aerial refueling craft for the PLAAF would extend that range even further. This would mean that “instead of simply relying on its MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] and IRBM [intermediate-range ballistic missile] missile forces, the H-20 will provide Beijing with an alternative means of waging counter-intervention operations against U.S. forces at these ranges during a conflict,” the RAND report states (Derek Grossman et al., p. 50, 54).
The H-20 should also feature “nuclear-conventional integration” and may have the capability to deliver up to six KD-20 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) or other precision-guided munitions using a rotary launcher.
An article in the China Youth Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League of China, boasted that the H-20 will provide the PLAAF with a “strong electronic combat capability” that will enable it to “disturb and destroy incoming missiles and other air and ground targets through a range of equipment including radar, electronic confrontation platform, high power microwave, laser, and infrared equipment”. The article added that the H-20 is also capable of “large-capacity data fusion and transmission” and that it can “interact with large sensor platforms like UAV, early warning aircraft and strategic reconnaissance aircraft to share information and target data”.
The RAND report provided a comparably positive assessment of the benefits the H-20 would bring to the PLAAF:
“The H-20 will provide Beijing with a means of waging counter-intervention operations against U.S. and allied forces at extended ranges throughout the region in the event of a conflict. Additionally, assuming that the H-20 will retain the standoff strike capability of the H-6K, its range using air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) or air-launched ballistic missiles (ALBMs) will be even greater, potentially bringing even more distant targets into range. Coupled with other next-generation aircraft that have entered service over the last several years, including the J-20 fighter and Y-20 transport, these systems will advance China’s capability to project air power throughout Asia and possibly beyond.” — Derek Grossman et al., “Chinas Long-Range Bomber Flights: Drivers and Implications“, RAND Corporation, 2018, p. vii.
While the PLAAF is making formidable strides regarding logistical and technological advancements, it still lacks combat experience. That could prove to be its greatest hindrance to implementing a successful long-range bomber strategy. “Today, China’s military has an increasingly impressive high-tech arsenal, but its ability to use these weapons and equipment remains unclear”, Timothy R. Heath writes in a separate article recently published by RAND. “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) struggles under the legacy of an obsolete command system, rampant corruption, and training of debatable realism, among other issues”.
- Darien Cavanaugh, “China Thinks Its Air Force Can Deter or Even Defeat the US Air Force, and the USAF is Responding“, Offiziere.ch, December 5, 2018.
- Paul Pryce, “China’s Strategic Bomber: A Flight of Fancy?“, Offiziere.ch, July 30,2015.
- Darshana M. Baruah, “US-China dispute in the South China Sea: the issue of EEZ”, Offiziere.ch, May 1, 2015.
- Paul Pryce, “China’s Extending Reach“, Offiziere.ch, November 10, 2014.