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Did Chinese Jets Practice War In The South China Sea?

September 25, 2018

This J-11B is carrying an air-to-air missile in its belly. Via China Military Online.

Last week the PLA’s official news website published images of J-11B multirole fighters from the “South China Sea Fleet” taking off for a “live fire flight training exercise near the South China Sea.” While it looks like another bold gesture to cement Beijing’s claim on the disputed body of water, the event itself may have been less ambitious in scope. The gallery of images did show J-11B’s carrying tandem rocket pods on their wings. This suggests they flew along a coastal area to practice shooting unguided munitions on a hillside or some other target.

But the deployment of the J-11B, which is the PLAAF’s best twin engine fighter since the J-16 and the J-20 just started production, may have coincided with exercises involving single engine J-10’s that took place in the same week. The full scope of these flights may never be known but what they reveal is China’s air force maintains a packed training schedule. This is important because other regional air fleets either don’t have enough third and fourth-generation fighters or don’t mandate enough hours for pilot combat training.

The J-11B is a rare model that, unlike other Chinese airframes, has never been exported abroad–for good reason. It’s a faithful reproduction of the Russian Su-27 Flanker and, until recently, a credible threat to Japan’s F-15J’s and Taiwan’s Ching-Kuo multirole fighters. The J-11B’s maneuverability and armaments gives it an edge over F-5’s and F-16’s But the future of Beijing’s airpower isn’t tied to the J-11B and it might disappear at the end of the next decade. Why? Because it represents a small fraction of the PLAAF’s fixed wing combat fleet.

In 2014, the US Air Force’s best assessments of Chinese airpower tallied 2,300 fixed wing combat aircraft and found only 500 of them were “modern,” as in not aging J-7 and J-8 interceptors. This figure hadn’t changed by 2016 when the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) counted 581 “modern” fighters in the PLAAF’s 2,306 combat aircraft for its annual The Military Balance report. In 2017, when Japan’s defense ministry adjusted the number of “modern” aircraft in the PLAAF to 789…the J-11B’s comprised half at 329 or just 14% of total fixed wing combat aircraft while Su-30MK2’s imported from Russia comprised a meager 4%. In fact, Japan’s defense ministry believes the single engine J-10 is now the most prolific “new” fighter in the PLAAF with less than 400 in service.

As for the locally made J-16 and stealth airframes like the J-20 and the J-31, their numbers are too few to threaten China’s enemies. But ASEAN states with claims on the South China Sea, as well as Taiwan’s government and the US Navy, should be aware of the threat posed by the J-11B. It’s built for delivering air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles that can decide the outcome of any territorial conflict. J-11B’s are also the preferred escorts for H-6K bombers armed with long-range cruise missiles for attacking Guam and other US bases in the Asia-Pacific.

Now that China and the US are caught in an economic war, any sensible resolution to the South China Sea dispute is gone, with seven armed outposts on the Spratly Islands serving as grim reminders of who exercises the greatest control over the area. The Chinese navy does conduct war games in the South China Sea without interruption and when foreign navies pass by, like the British amphibious transport HMS Albion on its way to Vietnam earlier this month, their crews are bombarded with threats via radio. It’s a lousy stalemate that won’t get better soon.

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