This is a commemorative envelope issued on August 7, 2016 for strategic bomber H-6K's patrol of the Huangyan Island. It records the combat air patrol conducted by aviation troops of the PLA Air Force over the South China Sea in July 2016. (File photo/Southern Weekly)
While "the PLA Air Force sends multiple main battle aircraft to South China Sea for combat patrol" still makes "headline", the PLA Air Force issued another piece of "hot news" lately , the commemorative envelop of "PLA Air Force's H-6K patrol Huangyan Island" is issued. Some netizen commented that "this isn't a usual commemorative envelope. It is of great historical significance because it tells a big story of strengthening the country through a strong military."
Also known as "Mars" that can reach the high sea to protect its people, H-6K is a medium and long-range bomber independently designed by China and mainly used to carry out long-distance precision strike and bombing missions. In 2015, it flew past the first island chain four times for military drills in the West Pacific and participated in China's V-Day Military Parade on Sep.3.
The South China Sea islands have always been Chinese territory since ancient times and China's sovereignty and rights and interests in the South China Sea cannot be infringed upon - these words are explicitly written on the commemorative envelope in both Chinese and English. The PLA Air Force dispatching H-6K to patrol the Huangyan Island is a necessary operation to defend its national sovereignty and security.
The PLA Air Force conducted two South China Sea patrols over the Huangyan Island, which had something to do with the so-called South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines and also demonstrated Chinese military's stance that it is able to conduct effective management and control in the region.
"H-6K's patrol over Huangyan Island indicates a new high in PLA Air Force's long-range covering capability. Its future patrols in the South China Sea will go beyond the Huangyan island to cover all islands and reefs within China's sovereignty."
BEIJING, Aug. 25 (ChinaMil) --"The PLA Air Force dispatched its multiple aircraft including H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighters to carry out combat patrol in airspace over the Nansha Islands and Huangyan Island in the South China Sea, in order to advance its realistic training on the sea and enhance the real combat capability of dealing with various security threats," Senior Colonel Shen Jinke, spokesperson for the PLA Air Force, said on August 6, 2016.
It's worth noting that the PLA Air Force's previous combat patrol in the South China Sea was over 20 days ago. Shen announced on July 18 that multiple aircraft of the PLA Air Force would conduct combat patrol in the South China Sea and such patrol would become routine. It's surprising that the second combat patrol would take place so shortly afterwards.
It's rare for the PLA Air Force to organize so many types of aircraft for combat patrol in the airspace over South China Sea twice, not only reflecting the improvement of its combat capability, but also indicating that its South China Sea patrol will become a "New Normal".
A Su-30 fighter performs in-flight refueling during a combat patrol mission over the South China Sea. (Photo/Xinhua News Agency)
One or two combat patrols a month
When the fishing season started in August this year, Chinese official vessels including coast guard have already carried out fishing protection, patrol and other enforcement activities in the South China Sea.
At such a critical moment, the PLA Air Force released news saying that multiple aircraft conducted combat patrol in airspace near South China Sea's Huangyan Island and other islands and reefs on August 6, which was interpreted as an operation aimed to "protect fishing from the air" and showed the world what the "routine combat patrol" meant.
According to Shen Jinke, bombers, fighters, AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System), reconnaissance aircraft and aerial tankers of the PLA Air Force took off from different airports to carry out combat patrols in the South China Sea, establishing a combat system integrating air control over the sea, defense penetration, surprise attack, support and supply.
The PLA Air Force released photos of H-6K strategic bombers patrolling over Huangyan Island on its official Sina Weibo account on July 15, which was understood as a response to the arbitration award announced by the so-called "international arbitral tribunal" on July 12.
In response to different interpretations, Shen Jinke announced that "the PLA Air Force's aviation troops conducted combat patrol in the South China Sea in order to effectively fulfill its missions and tasks and such patrol will be carried out as a routine practice."
Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, spokesman for China's Ministry of National Defense (MND), emphasized when answering questions about the patrol in South China Sea that "China has sovereignty over the islands and reefs of the South China Sea and their adjacent waters. It is the sure responsibility of the Chinese military to safeguard the national sovereignty security, territorial integrity as well as maritime interests and rights." This leaves room for imaginations for future combat patrols.
"H-6K's patrol over Huangyan Island indicates a new high in PLA Air Force's long-range covering capability. Its future patrols in the South China Sea will go beyond Huangyan Island to cover all islands and reefs within China's sovereignty," Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said in an interview with CCTV.
The recent two South China Sea patrols involved almost all main battle aircraft in the PLA Air Force. Such large-scale maritime patrol involving multiple aircraft types in airspace far away from the land is an indication of enhanced capability.
Photos released by the PLA Air Force on its official WeChat account show that J-11 fighters participated in the combat patrol in July. As a twin-engine heavy-duty air superiority fighter, J-11 boasts long flying range, large combat radius and long endurance, making it the perfect choice to escort strategic bomber H-6K during South China Sea patrol.
For air combat fleet far away from land airport, special operations planes such as reconnaissance aircraft and aerial tanker are equally important as combat aircraft. For example, reconnaissance aircraft is not only the eyes and ears in the air, but can also serve as the megaphone and interferometer, while aerial tanker can considerably lengthen the flying range of fighters capable of air refueling.
It must be noted that the J-11 participating in the patrol in July couldn't be refueled in the air, which means other types of fighters also participated in the patrol but are not revealed yet, probably the familiar J-10 fighters. AWACS is also indispensable in such a massive air operation for its outpost command and control.
The fighters in the air patrol in August was the two-seated Su-30MKK fighters capable of air refueling and the AWACS was KJ-200. No other country in the South China Sea region is able to send such a comprehensive and massive air combat fleet. Su-30's ability to conduct two air refueling operations is regarded to be able to "maximize the combat performance of Su-30MKK and H-6K of the PLA Air Force".
A large amount of H-6K bombers were dispatched in the two combat patrols, indicating that this aircraft is fully able to carry out surprise strike missions on the sea.
Two J-11 fighter jets fly in formation at extremely-low altitude over the South China Sea during a combat patrol mission. (Photo by Fan Yishu)
"Double insurance": PLA Air Force's long and strong strategic attack capabilities
"The PLA Air Force's combat patrol reflects that we have the resolve, capability, means and approaches of safeguarding national sovereignty in the South China Sea," said Wang Mingzhi, an expert on air force matters. Some analyst said that no other country in the South China Sea region is able to organize patrols of this scale and strength, and the latest patrols by the PLA Air Force, without any doubt, have a strong deterrence on those nations that want to make waves in the region. PLA Air Force's routine patrol of the South China Sea indicates that it's coordinated combat capability of multi-aircraft and large-fleet has been improved significantly. According to the Air Force's news release, "the Su-30 had two air refueling operations during the patrol", matched with a photo of the operation.
This means that the aircraft's flying range and combat radius are considerably lengthened. Su-30's maximal flying range reaches 5,400km with one air refueling and about 4,000km without it, and it's maximum bomb load is up to eight tons. But if it takes off with maximum bomb load, it cannot have a full fuel tank and its combat radius will be shortened drastically. The aerial tanker enables Su-30 to take off with maximum bomb load because it can refuel the fighter in the air and help it reach the maximal flying range.
Some expert said that the two air refueling operations by Su-30 in airspace over the South China Sea sent two signals. First, the Su-30 fleet of the PLA Air Force has controlled air refueling technology after one year's development and practice and the training subject has become part of routine combat patrol. Second, the South China Sea patrol is perhaps the farthest one conducted by the PLA Air Force so far.
Where's the next patrol target after Huangyan Island?
The PLA Air Force conducted two South China Sea patrols over the Huangyan Island, which had something to do with the illegal South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines and also demonstrated Chinese Air Force's stance that it is able to conduct effective control over the island.
It is estimated that H-6K has the flying range of 8,000km, hang time of up to 10 hours and a combat radius of over 3,500km, but how far the overall air combat system can extend to depends on how far the weak link can reach, namely the combat radius of escort fighters.
The Huangyan Island is located at the utmost end of the combat radius of J-11 fighters that takes off from a land airport. But as air refueling is no longer a problem, the Su-30, H-6K, AWACS and high-tech aircraft are able to reach the airspace over Nansha islands and reefs located farther south under Su-30's escort.
It is learnt that Su-30 can fly 5,400km with one air refueling and nearly 7,000km with two, meaning that its combat radius will exceed 3,000km even if we count in the time for air combat. Therefore, H-6K will be able to go deep into the South China Sea with Su-30's air protection.
Besides, H-6K's powerful electronic combat capability combined with electronic reconnaissance aircraft and AWACS air warning series is enough to cope with any possible air emergency.
"H-6K will go beyond the Huangyan Island to cover all islands and reefs within China's sovereignty," said Du Wenlong, adding that this kind of routine patrol will be frequent, realistic and without any dead angle.
At that time, the deterrence of such patrol will reach a new high.