Flood Of Chinese Aircraft South Of Taiwan Continues Days After Mock Attack Runs On U.S. Carrier

Chinese bombers, fighters, and other military aircraft started flying markedly more sorties in the area just days after President Biden took office.

A composite showing recent routes flown by Chinese military aircraft inside Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone.
Taiwan Ministry of Defense

Taiwan's Ministry of Defense says that eight Chinese aircraft, including fighter jets, maritime patrol, and surveillance types, have flown into the southwestern corner of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the last two days. There has been a significant uptick in Chinese military aviation activity in this general area of the northern end of the South China Sea in the past two weeks or so. This includes reported mock attack runs on the U.S. Navy's Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which entered the region, along with elements of its carrier strike group, last week.

During the day on Jan. 31, 2021, two People's Liberation Army (PLA) J-11 fighter jets, Chinese clones of the Russian Su-27 Flanker, along with a pair of domestically-designed J-10s, entered the southwestern end of the ADIZ, according to the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense. A variant of the four-engine turboprop Y-8 configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions also flew a separate sortie in the same general region on that day, though the presence of these aircraft in the area is much more common.

USN

An F/A-18E Super Hornet comes in to land on the deck of the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which recently entered the South China Sea.

Then, overnight, two more J-11s conducted another patrol in this same corner of the ADIZ. Today, Feb. 1, a maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) variant of the Y-8 conducted yet another flight into the area.

"Airborne alert sorties had been tasked, radio warnings issues, and air defense missile systems deployed to monitor the activity," Taiwan's Ministry of Defense said in each case. Interestingly, it also said that an unspecified U.S. military ISR aircraft, along with two aerial refueling tankers, had also been operating somewhere within the ADIZ on Feb. 1 and another American ISR aircraft had been inside the zone on Jan. 31, all with the apparent consent of the Taiwanese military. The Jan. 31 notice appears to be the first time ever Taiwanese authorities have specifically noted the presence of American military aircraft inside the ADIZ.

U.S. and Taiwanese military forces regularly engage with each other, including during training exercises on the island, but do so, generally, in a discreet manner, with few, if any public acknowledgments from either side. There has been a marked shift toward more public discussions about this cooperation in recent years, as former President Donald Trump's Administration sought to expand the U.S. government's relationship with authorities in Taipei. The regime in Beijing sees Taiwan as an integral part of its territory and has repeatedly threatened military action should officials there declare full independence from the mainland. The United States officially has a "one China" policy that does not recognize Taiwan as independent, but reserves the right to engage with officials there separately, as well as support the island's military, until its final status is formally resolved. 

This recent flurry of Chinese military aircraft sorties into this particular part of the South China Sea follows a notable uptick in such activity that first became apparent in the latter half of January. As already noted, Y-8 patrols are relatively routine in this general region, which is of great strategic significance. It is where the South China Sea meets the bottom end of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the Philippine Sea and the broader Western Pacific, by way of the Bashi Channel. As a result, it is a major maritime thoroughfare for naval vessels, including Chinese submarines, such as their ballistic missile boats, as well as commercial ships. The airspace above is also regularly transited by military and commercial aircraft.

Taiwan Ministry of Defense

A variant of the Chinese Y-8 configured for anti-submarine warfare and general maritime patrol missions.

However, the PLA has significantly stepped up flights by other combat aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers, in recent weeks. On Jan. 23 and 24, two particularly large armadas of Chinese aircraft had flooded into the region.

The grouping on Jan. 23 included 8 H-6Ks and four J-16s, as well as a Y-8 maritime patrol variant. The H-6K is a variant of the H-6 bomber, itself derived from the Soviet-era Tu-16 Badger, which is optimized for carrying cruise missiles, including anti-ship types. The J-16s, which also have the ability to carry anti-ship cruise missiles, are Chinese-made derivatives of the Russian Su-30 Flanker fighter jet.

Taiwan Ministry of Defense

A Chinese H-6K carrying an anti-ship cruise missile under its wing.

This was followed by another burst of Chinese military aircraft sorties on Jan. 24, which saw 15 more PLA aircraft fly in the same area. These included six J-10s, four J-16s, and two of China's Russian-supplied Su-30s, as well as two maritime patrol Y-8s and a single ISR variant of that aircraft.

These sorties were directly in response to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and its associated carrier strike group, sailing through the Bashi Channel into the South China Sea. In addition to simply being a show of force, at least some of the Chinese aircraft reportedly conducted mock attack runs on the carrier, though they also stayed at least 250 nautical miles away from the ship at all times, according to the British newspaper the Financial Times. That story said that individuals familiar with the incident had heard radio chatter of the Chinese pilots going through the procedures involved in releasing anti-ship cruise missiles.

The U.S. military did not confirm or deny that these provocative maneuvers had taken place, but did say there was never any actual threat to the American warships.

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USS Theodore Roosevelt heading toward the South China Sea on Jan. 15, 2021.

"The PLA activities highlighted here, are the latest in a string of aggressive and destabilizing actions," Navy Captain Mike Kafka, a spokesperson for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), which oversees all U.S. military activity in the Pacific, also told the Financial Times. “These actions reflect a continued PLA attempt to use its military as a tool to intimidate or coerce those operating in international waters and airspace, to include their neighbors and those with competing territorial claims."

The last year or so has seen other spikes in Chinese military aviation and naval activities, as well as those of the United States and Taiwan, among others, in the same general region, which the War Zone has been following closely. This latest surge came after China held its own large maritime maneuvers in the region, which included the participation of the People's Liberation Army Navy's aircraft carrier Shandong, also known as the Type 002, the country's first domestically produced flattop, as well as its first Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

The Chinese government subsequently released video footage from those drills that included a clip of PLAN personnel addressing a notional "enemy" in English, telling them that "You are surrounded. Surrender!” This was seen as a clear signal aimed at the U.S. military.

It's also worth noting that, in addition to being a strategic waterway, this particular part of the South China Sea is also home to Pratas Island, part of the Dongsha Islands chain. Pratas is under Taiwanese control and would be one flashpoint during any future conflict between Taipei and Beijing. Some recent Chinese maritime exercises in the region have reportedly been focused on simulating amphibious operations to seize Pratas.

Chinese combat aircraft, including combat jets and bombers, would also be a key part of any larger operation to take control of Taiwan itself. In any such campaign, PLA planes would focus their initial attention on "important command and control centers, early-warning radars, airstrips, and air defense batteries," according to a 2017 book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia, from Ian Easton, which cited official Chinese military documents the author had obtained. Easton, a China expert at the Project 2049 Institute think tank, said that key government buildings, including Taiwan's Presidential Office Building, and underground facilities would also be struck and that Taiwanese nuclear power reactors could also be hit to blackout the island. Forces at sea and on the ground, would of course also be involved and the PLA's largest ground training center, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone feature, has a huge mock urban area with buildings that mimic the Presidential Office Building and other structures in Taipei.

Chinese State Media

Chinese troops conduct a mock assault on a building at the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base that is clearly meant to represent the Presidential Office Building in Taipei during an exercise.

Of course, the South China Sea is, as a whole, hotly disputed, as well, with the regime in Beijing having expansive claims to virtually the entire body of water, something almost all of the countries in the region dispute. The United States and other countries around the world have also rejected the Chinese government's position, as have numerous international organizations. 

At the same time, the PLA has steadily worked to increase its presence in the South China Sea, as well as its ability to project power in and around the region. This primarily includes work to expand the size and capabilities of a constellation of man-made island outposts, many of which are now have garrisons of ground-based anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. This anti-access and area denial posture, which you can read about more in these past War Zone pieces, is bolstered by Chinese aircraft and ships, including those operating from these island bases. 

Just last year, a picture emerged showing an H-6J, another H-6 cruise missile carrier variant that the People's Liberation Army Navy operates, on Woody Island, a Chinese island outpost in the northern South China Sea, for the first time. People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6Ks have at least performed touch-and-gos from that island's airfield in the past, as well. All of this further underscores the Chinese military's broader efforts to increase its ability to distribute long-range strike capabilities throughout the region.

The U.S. Navy's top intelligence officer recently made dismissive comments about China's growing anti-ship missile capabilities. This includes the steady development of very-long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, which the PLA reportedly demonstrated can hit moving ship-sized targets in the South China Sea during an exercise last year  

"I hope they just keep pouring money into that type of thing," Navy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Trussler, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, said last week. "That may not be how we win the next war."

At the same time, as the War Zone has stressed, these threats are real, despite any countermeasures and new tactics, techniques, and procedures that the U.S. Navy has available now or in the process of developing. These challenges extend well beyond the South China Sea, too, to other strategic bodies of water around China, many of which are home to their own territorial disputes between the government in Beijing and neighboring states.

It's also important to point out that this latest flurry of Chinese military aviation activity started just days after President Joe Biden's inauguration. As already noted the previous Trump Administration had very publicly worked to expand the U.S. government's engagement with Taiwan and had approved a number of very significant arms deals for the Taiwanese military, including the sale of new Block 70 F-16C/D Viper fighter jets, which officials in Beijing had previously said was a "red line" issue for them.

ROCAF

An F-16A from Taiwan's Air Force, also known as the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF), flies alongside a Chinese H-6 bomber during an intercept. Taiwan's F-16A/B fleet is in desperate need of replacement and the country is now set to get new advanced Block 70 F-16C/D jets.

In the latter stages of his presidency, Trump and his Administration had taken a very hard line against the Chinese government in general, with Washington and Beijing sparring over a host of political and economic issues, not to mention the matter of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, over the past four years. It would not be surprising for Chinese officials to seek to put pressure on the new Biden Administration through all available means, including military shows of force in contested areas, such as the South China Sea.

For its part, the Biden Administration appears to be set to take a relatively similar stance toward the Chinese government, at least in the near term. The U.S. State Department has said that Biden's Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is interested in expanding U.S. cooperation with friendly nations in the Pacific through a grouping known as The Quad that also includes India, Australia, and Japan. An expanded bloc could provide an important additional tool for containing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region, and beyond, as well as a more united front to challenge China's positions on the South China Sea and similar disputes.

The PLA's recent aerial activity in the northern end of the South China Sea makes clear that the Chinese government is equally keen to show its resolve to continue challenging the ability of the U.S. military, as well as that of Taiwan, along with other American allies and partners in the region, to operate unfettered in the Western Pacific.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com