It was mostly quiet on the maritime front in the East and South China Sea in 2017. Not so in the air, where parties to the region’s many conflicts sought to intimidate each other through displays of air power.
On December 17 the Chinese air force planes circled Taiwan by entering the Western Pacific through the Bashi Strait separating Taiwan from the Philippines. They flew along Taiwan’s east coast before returning to home base through the Miyako Channel.
These flights are becoming routine. The Ministry of Defense reported that the Chinese conducted nine of these aerial encirclement “drills” just in the two months since the ending of the Chinese 19th Communist Party Congress in October.
The mainstay of the Chinese air force in the exercises is a 50-year-old long-range bomber once known to Russia watchers as a “Badger” and to the Chinese and other commentators as the H-6K. Despite its age it is a capable bomber modified to carry cruise missiles.
On these training missions they usually fly in pairs, although some formations have comprised up to six bombers. They are escorted at least part of the way by Su-30 fighters and may also include electronic jammer, reconnaissance planes, even aerial refueling planes.
Defense News reported on a Pentagon briefing on returning from President Trump’s November Asian tour in which the briefers said that the Chinese bombers were practicing making bombing runs at Guam, which is the home of a major US Airforce and naval base. “The Badgers run not infrequent flights within range of Guam,” he said.The latter is important as the Chinese airforce is flying far beyond the First Island Chain, of which Taiwan is an important link, into the Western Pacific where they could threaten American long-range bomber bases on Guam and potentially even Hawaii.
Tokyo usually protests these incursions, but in the March incident Beijing dismissed the protest telling Tokyo to, in essence, “get used to it.”
Washington’s response to the flights near Guam has been muted, especially considering the ruckus that was stirred up after North Korea’s Kim Jong-un threatened to fire four ballistic missiles in Guam’s vicinity.
Chinese incursions near Korean waters have been rare compared with those near Japan, but this month Chinese aircraft entered Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to fly near the disputed Socotra Rock, which the South Korean call Ieoda. It is a permanently submerged reef – even at low tide – halfway between China and Japan.
The Koreans strongly believe that the reef is sovereign territory and have even erected a maritime weather station with a helicopter pad on it. When Beijing announced its new air defense zone included the disputed Senkaku islands, Seoul extended its own air defense zone to cover Socotra in response.
The Korean incursion, the second this year, took place while South Koran President Moon Jae-in was paying an official visit to China designed to smooth over relations that had been severely strained by the South’s decision to erect the THAAD anti-missile system.
In March the largest Chinese air armada seen all year flew through the Miyako Channel, a strategic passageway separating Okinawa from the island of Miyako. It involved 13 aircraft including six bombers, an incident which the Japanese defense ministry said with understatement was “unusual.”
In December too a Chinese aerial flotilla passed through the Tsushima Strait that separates Japan from South Korea for the first time.
Japanese jet fighters scrambled constantly
Tokyo usually protests these incursions, but in the March incident Beijing dismissed the protest telling Tokyo to, in essence, “get used to it.” Said the Chinese air ministry: “[The Japanese] will feel better after getting used to such drills.”
Each time, a Chinese aircraft entered Japan’s air defense zone Tokyo scrambled F-15 jet fighters to investigate. There were a record 1,168 scrambles in the fiscal year ending in March, but they were not all Chinese fighter planes that provoked this – the Russians frequently patrol along Japan’s coast too. That puts a lot of wear and tear on the Japanese fighters based in Okinawa.
Of course, the US airforce has regularly sent its own aerial taskforces hugging the Korean demilitarized zone all year. They are built around one or two B-1 bombers and escorted in part by Japanese Air Self Defense Force fighters. South Korean Air Force jets have joined them.
These flights have usually taken wing following the launch of a new ballistic missile in North Korea and are meant to be reminders of the air power the US is gathering in Northeast Asia. In essence, they are a show of force designed to intimidate North Korea, although it doesn’t show many signs of being deterred.
In early December the US and South Korea staged a huge aerial exercise – Vigilant Ace – involving some 230 aircraft from three countries. The large numbers of planes involved, including a contingent of F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, suggested that it was a dress rehearsal for an attack.
Two squadrons of stealth fighters now in Japan
The exercise underscored the growing presence of America’s newest and potentially most dangerous aerial weapons in Asia. At present, two squadrons of stealth fighters are now based in Japan all year. Sixteen have been based at Iwakuni Marine Corps Station all year. Another squadron is now based at Kadena on Okinawa.
More are on the way. Japan is beginning to take delivery of the F-35s it contracted to buy, while the South Korean Air Force is scheduled to receive a full complement of 40 F-35s by the end of next year, amid reports that they might buy 20 more.
The aircraft have an array of capabilities that make it a uniquely capable in the Koran context. Indeed, It is hard to imagine any kind of sustained attack on North Korea, should it come to that, succeeding without drawing on the capabilities of this aircraft.