News analysis: Recent fast jet missions suggest growing Chinese confidence

Military Capabilities
29 May 2014

PLA Air Force J-11s, at least one of which was armed with R-73 (AA-11 ‘Archer’) short-range air-to-air missiles, intercepted Japanese reconnaissance aircraft over the East China Sea on 25 May. Source: Japanese Ministry of Defence

Recent events in the South China and East China seas suggest an increase in the confidence and capabilities of the China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF).

Aircraft from both services have been involved in asserting Chinese interests since early May. PLANAF aircraft, including Xian JH-7 fighter-bombers of the 9th Naval Aviation Division based at Ledong on Hainan Island, have been flying regular missions to support Chinese Coast Guard and PLAN ships guarding an oil rig conducting a drilling survey in waters off the disputed Paracel Islands.

Vietnamese media also photographed a Shaanxi Y-8J maritime patrol aircraft and reportedly sighted what is believed to be a KJ-200 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. On 25 May the PLAAF staged its first ever exercise demonstrating its ability to conduct flight operations from regular highways. A stretch of road near Zhengzhou in Henan Province was used for take-offs and landings by a PLAAF Sukhoi Su-27UBK, a Harbin Z-9 helicopter, and a Xian Y-7 transport.

The same day, PLAAF Shenyang J-11As flew “abnormally close” to Japanese reconnaissance aircraft over the East China Sea in the words of the Japanese Ministry of Defence. The J-11s, at least one of which was apparently armed with R-73 (AA-11 ‘Archer’) short-range air-to-air missiles, flew to within 30 m of a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force OP-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft and 50 m of a Japan Air Self-Defense Force YS-11EB ELINT platform. Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera described the intercepts as “dangerous acts … completely beyond our comprehension”.

In response, China accused Japan of interfering with a joint PLAN-Russian Navy exercise. The intercepts occurred where China and Japan’s air defence identification zones (ADIZ) overlap. The J-11s came from the Chongqing-based 98th Air Regiment, and given the distance from Chongqing to the East China Sea, would have likely staged from a deployment base in Fujian Province.

COMMENT

The first publicised intercept of Japanese aircraft by China since it declared the ADIZ in the East China Sea in November 2013 may signal the start of more aggressive Chinese enforcement of the zone.

The incident is also the closest publicised intercept of a foreign military aircraft by a PLA aircraft since the April 2001 interception of a US Navy EP-3C Aries II signals intelligence aircraft by two Shenyang J-8IIs, which ended with the death of a J-8 pilot and the forced landing of the EP-3 on Hainan island.

Also notable is the distance at which the PLAAF and PLAN are operating from their home bases: the Y-8J and KJ-200 operating in the South China Sea are assigned to the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet. Meanwhile, the runway exercise adds China to a small group of Asian countries with this capability, joining Singapore, Taiwan, and Pakistan.

The exercise may be linked to the lack of deployment fields in the areas near the coast. While several bases (especially in the Nanjing military region) have undergone a programme of hardening in the past decade, most appear to still be quite vulnerable to a first strike in that they have a single runway and non-hardened aircraft shelters.

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