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PLAAF Operations Over Water

May 2016 --

    

    As China’s national interests grow globally and the Chinese government seeks to enforce its territorial claims in Asia, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly called upon to secure and protect these interests. Overwhelmingly, these interests either reside in or rely on the maritime domain. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) since its inception has focused its efforts on territorial defense with only limited concern for issues beyond China’s mainland. Beginning in 2014, Chinese President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping has led calls for the PLAAF to support PLA efforts to defend China’s maritime interests and strengthen its over-water capabilities toward this goal. These efforts are part of a broader effort to prepare for military struggle, particularly in the maritime domain, in part by shaping the security environment to win without fighting. The PLAAF’s current modernization initiatives supporting this move include developing long-distance maritime power projection, improving strategic conventional deterrence, and building maritime strike capabilities.

The PLAAF initiated an experimentation and training program in 2014 to meet the new challenges it faces in the maritime domain. This early effort is focused predominately on maritime strike. It includes concept development aided by a combination of increased realism and competitive training for maritime strike missions against regional targets. These new requirements and the PLAAF’s responses to the challenges they present provide a lens into the strategic orientation of its future modernization efforts.

 

Recent PLAAF over-water exercises attempted to tackle these new and challenging problems as demonstrated by four groundbreaking flights into the Pacific Ocean through the First Island Chain in 2015 and flights into the South China Sea and around Taiwan in 2016. By the authors’ count, since March 2015, the PLAAF has conducted eight flights past the First Island Chain, including three patrols of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), two flights around Taiwan, and five flights into the South China Sea. In March 2015, the PLAAF entered theWestern Pacific for the first time when H-6K long-range strategic bombers overflew the Bashi Channel, between Taiwan and the Philippines. The Air Force touted this flight as marking an important “breakthrough” of the First Island Chain for projecting power farther into the Pacific. In May 2015, another H-6K unit for the first time overflew the Miyako Strait, near Okinawa, Japan, establishing a second route into the Pacific. In July 2016, the PLAAF began “air combat patrols” in the South China Sea, prominently featuring H-6Ks. Finally, H-6Ks and other support aircraft circumnavigated Taiwan in November and December 2016.

These flights have both operational value for training pilots and political value for strategic messaging.While these flights have been described as normal operations for littoral states and part of the natural development of the Chinese military in official PLAAF announcements, authoritative military commentary suggests that the utility of these flights extends beyond simply training for maritime missions, as they are sometimes also intended to convey strategic signals to relevant countries during times of political tension with China. There is also evidence that this training is laying the groundwork for strikes against regional targets, notably Guam.

The PLAAF has also stepped up joint training with the PLA Navy (PLAN) Air Force since 2015, as its ability to coordinate with the PLAN is one of the central challenges in the PLAAF’s new emphasis on maritime operations. This cooperation is most evident in the “Sharp Sword- 2015” and “Joint Sea-2015” (with Russia) exercises. Sharp Sword—based on its earlier use as a capstone experimentation and demonstration exercise—presages a likely burst of PLAAF-PLAN joint operations work in the coming years as they share responsibility for safeguarding Chinese interests away from the mainland.

These operations mark a training progression toward increasingly frequent and complex flights and suggest that the PLAAF is transitioning from the experimental phase to regularizing these long-range power-projection activities as PLAAF capabilities mature. Reflecting this, the PLAAF announced in July 2016 that it had “regularized” flights into the South China Sea, and in September 2016 it similarly said that it had “regularized” flights past the First Island Chain.With China’s economic and security interests continuing to expand beyond China’s immediate periphery, Chinese leaders will likely expect the PLAAF to provide more strategic capacity— enforcing territorial claims, supporting strategic conventional deterrence, and, in the case of war, performing maritime strikes in the region. Although the PLAAF’s conceptual development in the maritime arena is in its early stages, PLAAF long-range flight activity in the Pacific will become increasingly common. In addition, as Chinese leaders become more confident in PLAAF capabilities, the service’s support to other strategically important initiatives will increase accordingly.

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