China’s Maritime Air Power

China realised way back in the 1980s that to become a global power it will have to develop its Navy, based on the twin strategies of Island Chain concept and anti-access/area-denial strategy

Issue: 1 / 2013By Lt General (Retd) Naresh Chand

The People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force (PLANAF) enables Chinese Navy to have its own air arm making it independent from the Chinese Air Force. Even without a sizeable carrier-borne force, it is fairly large in size having about 800 aircraft. In fact the first aircraft carrier Liaoning has only been commissioned on September 25, 2012. Earlier it used to operate similar aircraft to the Chinese Air Force with the main role of providing air defence to the Navy’s ships at sea but this role has changed as the current ships have improved air defence systems. China has been striving hard since 2000 to modernise its PLANAF and accordingly the role of PLANAF has become bigger. Except for the ship-based helicopters, PLANAF remains mainly a land-based force but this will gradually change with the recent introduction of China’s first aircraft carrier and subsequent enlargement of its role.

Role

Earlier the main role of PLANAF was to provide air defence to China’s naval fleet but currently it is capable of performing multiple roles to include fleet air defence, antisubmarine warfare (ASW), maritime domain domination, anti-ship attack, coastal defence, search and rescue (SAR) and supporting amphibious operations. PLANAF has taken part in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 during which it carried out many successful bombing and air strike missions against Vietnamese territories and in the 1960s, flew a series of air combat sorties flown against Taiwanese intruders.

PLANAF Inventory

Fixed-wing aircraft: The PLANAF has achieved much in the modernisation of its fixed-wing fleet over the last two decades by upgrading the quality of its fighters and also increasing the type of fighters in its inventory. This has been achieved by imports and also acquiring aerospace technology by all possible means. Traditionally, Russia has been their main supplier. The fighter inventory comprises of the indigenous J-8 interceptor and the most successful Russian Su-30 Flanker. The J-8 interceptor was originally based on Russian design but underwent many significant improvements. J-8 is an effective all-weather air-to-air combat aircraft and China operates many variants of J-8. It got adverse publicity when it collided with a US Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals intelligence aircraft in 2001 near Hainan Island. Both the Chinese Navy and Air Force have various variants of Su-30, acquired between 1992 and 2002. In 2002, China purchased 24 Su-30 Mk2 which has an extended range and maritime radar systems which enables Su-30 Mk2 to attack enemy ships at longer distances, while retaining superior air-to-air capability.

The mainstay for maritime strike is H-6 which is a copy of the ex-Soviet Tu-16 Badger medium-jet bombers being manufactured under licence. Its maritime version can employ advanced anti-shipping cruise missiles (ASCM). Some H-6s have been modified as tankers or drone launchers in order to increase the PLANAF’s flexibility and range. The PLANAF also employs indigenously produced variants of the JH-7 tandem-seat fighter/bomber, for maritime strike. Upgraded versions of JH-7 feature a more capable radar and improved weapons capacity thus enhancing its operational capability. Its general performance and weapons delivery capability is thought to be comparable to early models of Panavia Tornado. The JH-7 was subsequently improved to the JH-7A, capable of carrying a variety of advanced Chinese and Russian precision munitions as well as anti-ship missiles. China’s Navy operates about 100 ASCM-armed JH-7 fighter-bombers that were delivered between 1998 and 2004. It is also reported that the naval version of J-10A single-seat multi-role variant named J-10AH and J-11BH (naval version of the J-11B) are also on the inventory of the Chinese Navy. J-11 is a single-seat, twin-engine jet fighter based on the Soviet-designed Sukhoi Su-27. Some of these are fitted with modern ASCMs. There was some controversy with Russia as they felt that China had infringed intellectual property agreement by copying Su-27. China’s Air Force also operates at least 150 Su-27s which can also be used for fleet-defence operations.

Helicopters: The PLANAF operates three main helicopters i.e. Harbin Z-9C, Changhe Z-8, and the Russian Ka-28 Helix. Z-9C is the primary naval helicopter, used chiefly for ASW and SAR operations. The Z-9C has been produced under licence from the French AS 365 Dauphin (military version is AS565). The earlier models were assembled with imported components but by 1990s, over 70 per cent were produced indigenously. The Z-9C can also be fitted with surface search radar to detect surface ships far beyond the range of shipboard radar systems and can engage them with the ET-52 light ASW acoustic homing torpedo. Apart from Z-9C, the Ka-28 Helix is also used extensively as a ship-borne helicopter. They were deployed to support anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa. China acquired the Helix, the export variant of Russia’s Ka-27, along with Sovremennyy class destroyers. It is slower than Z-9C but can carry nearly double the cargo load. The Z-8 has been produced under licence from the French SA-321 Super Fre1on. It is a medium-lift helicopter which can be used for ferrying of troops, ASW, minesweeping and mine laying missions. Z-8 is the largest helicopter built in China.

Maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), airborne early warning (AEW) and AEW and control (AEW&C) aircraft: China has displayed great innovation by modifying existing airframes for new roles. Y-8 has been under licence production from the Russian An-12 and forms the basis of many variants. The Y-8X is the primary Chinese MPA which is a four-engine turboprop aircraft which can perform maritime patrol, surveillance, ASW and SAR missions. It has been very active in the China Sea region. The aircraft is fitted with infrared antisubmarine detection equipment including sonobuoys and a sonar receiver. There are low-altitude and medium- to high-altitude optical cameras and an infrared camera installed for aerial imagery. The aircraft can be equipped for electronic and signal intelligence missions. It is equipped with a self-defence electronic countermeasures suite, which consists of an all-aspect radar warning receiver and chaff/flare dispenser. The aircraft is equipped with Doppler navigation radar, radio compass, radio altimeter, beacon marker receiver and identification friend or foe. There is an APSO-504(V)3 surface search radar housed in the under-chin dome. It has a range of 5,620 km. AEW and AEW&C aircraft are also based in An-12 airframe. China’s Air Force has the KJ-2000 airborne warning and control system aircraft which is similar in capability to the Y-8 AEW&C variants but is much larger as it is based on Russia’s IL-76. The Harbin SH-5 seaplane is capable of patrol, ASW and SAR. For the ASW, the aircraft can carry a large payload of torpedoes and depth charges.

China’s Maritime Strategy

China realised way back in the 1980s that to become a global power it will have to develop its Navy, based on the twin strategies of Island Chain concept and antiaccess/area-denial strategy.

Island chain: China’s military strategy propagated the concept of two island “chains” as forming a geographic basis for China’s maritime defensive perimeter. The precise boundaries of these chains have never been officially defined by the Chinese Government and as such a subject of debate amongst defence analysts. One view is that the ‘first island chain’ is formed by the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan’s archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo which can be considered ‘Green Water’ extending into the Pacific Ocean. Further eastward is the ‘blue water’ which extends to the ‘second island chain’ running from the north at the Bonin Islands and moving southward through the Marianas, Guam and the Caroline Islands. Admiral Liu Huaqing was chief of the PLAN from 1982-88 and later Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission who defined the First Island Chain, or current limit of most PLAN operations, as comprising Japan and its northern and southern archipelagos, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. The Second Island Chain, which Liu envisioned as being fully within the scope of future PLAN activities, ranges from the Japanese archipelago south to the Bonin and Marshall islands, including Guam. Some unofficial Chinese publications refer to a third Island Chain, centred on America’s Hawaiian bases, viewed as a strategic rear area for the US military and about 3,800 km from San Francisco.

Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD): The other strategy China is following is the A2/AD which is not merely sea denial but denial of crucial areas to the US. A2/AD strategy includes naval power coupled with airpower integrated with air defences to maintain air parity or superiority over its territory and forces.