Mon, Nov 27, 2017 - Page 3 News List

Refueling planes imply attack exercises

LONG-DISTANCE MOVES:Midflight refueling would enable the PLA’s low-range Su-30s to escort bombers past the first island chain and as far as Hawaii, observers said

By Aaron Tu  /  Staff reporter

The presence of Ilyushin Il-78 aerial refueling planes in the formations of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft that approached the waters off Taiwan on Wednesday and Thursday suggests not only an increase in PLA activity, but also that it is likely to simulate attack missions, political observers said.

The addition of Il-78 to the regular Xian H-6 bombers, Shaanxi Y-8 electronic-warfare aircraft and Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets would extend the flight durations, allowing the Su-30s to escort the formation beyond the first island chain.

China has conducted long-distance navigation exercises since 2015, but the frequency has increased from several times a year to several times a month, with a record nine flypasts between July and August.

The exercises were halted during the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress last month, but have now resumed, with four flypasts this month.

In a departure from previous practice in which the bases of aircraft participating in long-distance drills was kept secret, PLA Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke (申進科) on Thursday said that multiple H-6 bombers took off from “an airbase in the Guanzhong area,” suggesting that personnel based in inland areas were also required for long-distance missions.

H-6 bombers are able to fly 6,000km, but Su-30s can only reach 3,000km, so the inclusion of the Ukrainian Ilyushin Il-78 can increase the flight distance of Su-30s, said Chieh Chung (揭仲), a senior assistant research fellow at the National Policy Foundation, a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-affliated think tank.

This suggests that the Chinese air force is developing the capacity to conduct more attack exercises, observers said.

Democratic Progressive Party Legislator Tsai Shih-ying (蔡適應) said it would be difficult for Taiwan’s early warning system to detect H-6 bombers departing from bases in inland China.

Mid-air refueling capability gives PLA Air Force flight groups the ability to reach Guam, Hawaii and other locations with major US military bases, Tsai said.

The PLA is also seeking to boost coordination between military aircraft by increasing training resources and flight hours, he said, adding that Taiwan must closely monitor the situation.

With the commission of China’s second aircraft carrier, the 001A, the PLA’s “sea-bound” strategy is to stay the same, Taiwan Thinktank consultant Tung Li-wen (董立文) said, adding that it is seeking to break through the first island chain to achieve this goal.

The incorporation of the refueling aircraft not only increases the flight distance of Su-30s, but boosts the jet fighters capacity to protect naval formations and helps integrate offensive and defensive operations in the air and at sea, Tung said.

The Ministry of National Defense said the military has measures in place to protect the nation’s security.

It said it would scramble fighter jets and warships in response to approaches by PLA aircraft.

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