China’s Bomber Flight into the Central Pacific: Wake-Up Call for the United States
Late last month, Chinese H-6K bombers staged one of their longer missions in recent memory. Flying through the Miyako Straits northeast of Taiwan, the bombers proceeded into the central Pacific, to a point 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the Ryukyu island chain (stretching from the Japanese Home Islands past Okinawa towards Taiwan). As important, they reached a point less than 1,000 miles from Guam.
These actions reflect an ongoing effort on the part of both the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the PLA Navy’s Naval Aviation force to expand their operational envelope. Chinese fighters and bombers over the past two decades have steadily moved from a force primarily focused on homeland defense to one more capable of projecting aerial power. This is consistent with the strategic mission that the PLAAF finally was assigned in 2004, when it promulgated the strategic concept of “unified air and space operations, preparing for both offensive and defensive operations.”
At the same time, Chinese Naval Aviation, the aerial branch of the PLA Navy, has also been expanding its operations, complementing the modernization and expanded capabilities of the Chinese navy. As Chinese warships have begun to operate beyond the first island chain, they are also undertaking expanded combined arms operations. Air and sub-surface forces now operate alongside the various modern combatants that the PLAN can now field. These efforts are likely to intensify with the incorporation of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.
Chinese bombers operating throughout the western Pacific and into the central Pacific not only reflect growing capabilities. They also send a political message to China’s neighbors. China once had little in the way of power projection capabilities, but two decades of unrelenting, annual double-digit increases in the defense budget have significantly remedied that shortcoming. China now has the ability to deploy a variety of long-range aircraft, including not only the H-6 bomber (a modernized version of the Tu-16 Badger), but also the JH-7/FBC-1 series of fighter-bombers and a number of Su-27 variants (including the Su-30 and domestic J-11). Moreover, these various aircraft are equipped with a growing array of air-to-surface munitions, including long-range cruise missiles as well as precision-guided munitions.
Aircraft have major advantages over China’s ballistic missile forces, including the ability to regularly probe Japan’s air defense identification zone, and increasingly, the central Pacific. Any deployment, much less employment, of ballistic missiles massively raises tensions, as we saw in the 1995–1996 Taiwan Straits Crisis when China bracketed Taiwan with missile tests north and south of the island. But aircraft flights allow Beijing to signal resolve, pressure neighbors, and remind everyone of China’s claims (e.g., the boundaries of China’s air defense identification zone), all without necessarily escalating tensions to the brink of conflict.
While Beijing is interested in messaging to its neighbors through its aircraft flights, at least as important is the warning being sent to Washington. At the end of the day, Beijing understands that the greatest obstacle to its ability to dominate the western Pacific is the United States. Washington is the political and military linchpin in the region, and Beijing has argued that it is the United States that enables and emboldens China’s neighbors to make claims against what Beijing sees as its territory.
Consequently, a central part of Chinese military modernization efforts has been to challenge American ability to access the region. While much of the attention on China’s so-called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) effort has been focused on the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), the demonstrated ability of Chinese airpower to deploy into the region between the first and second island chain is at least as important.
As China develops its long-range strike capabilities, and complements them with an array of long-range sensors including electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar reconnaissance satellites, over-the-horizon radars, masses of fishing boats and merchant ships, and long-range patrol aircraft, it will increasingly be able to harry American forces seeking to deploy to the western Pacific.
Indeed, a demonstrated ability to fly long-range missions into the central Pacific will mean that American air and naval reinforcements may suffer attrition as they deployed westward in the event of a conflict. As China develops long-range, air-to-surface weapons, and if it can coordinate them with their ballistic missile and submarine forces, the resulting integrated force could pose a serious, multi-axis threat against American aircraft carriers comparable to the kind posed by Soviet Naval Aviation and Frontal Aviation during the Cold War. A sobering consideration should be that the pace of advances in microelectronics means that the sensor and communications packages necessary to coordinate such strikes have shrunk significantly — and many of the required components are manufactured in China.
In a war with China, not only would American forces be confronted with large-scale attacks once they enter the western Pacific region (well within range of a variety of strike aircraft, diesel-electric submarines, and China’s large array of ballistic missiles), but they would likely suffer repeated attacks even as they are transiting from Guam, if not Hawaii. Such attacks, depending upon their scale and the tactics employed, may not inflict many actual losses. However, they would induce wear-and-tear upon the crews of the fighter squadrons aboard the aircraft carriers and compel their escorts to expend munitions.
Moreover, given the difficulties of replenishment at sea for vertical launch systems (VLS), the escorts’ effectiveness is likely to weaken as they steam ever closer to China, as the number of loaded VLS tubes declines even as the number of potential attackers rises. Thus, a carrier group that arrived in the area of the first island chain (stretching from the Japanese Home Islands through Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Philippines to the Straits of Malacca) would already be tired from constant aerial harassment and more vulnerable than ever, with its inventory of weapons depleted.
Nor is it just American naval aviation that faces this potential for extended attrition. As China develops ever longer reach, the threat to Guam, the main pillar of America’s position in the central Pacific, will also come increasingly under threat. Guam already has a major airbase (Andersen) hosting a variety of combat aircraft, including B-52s and B-2s, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Its forward location also makes it a key staging area for such enablers as aerial tankers, airborne early warning aircraft, airlifters, and electronic support aircraft.
In addition, a squadron of American submarines, and one of America’s few submarine tenders, is also based at Guam. And some of the Marines currently hosted in Japan will be redeployed to Guam (causing Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia to fear that the island might tip over!).
While the island is unlikely to face a threat of capsizing, co-locating so many high-value assets at one location certainly makes it a lucrative target. It is no accident that the Army deployed one of its missile defense batteries to Guam in 2013, and maintains the missile-defense-oriented Task Force Talon there. When the Chinese could only range on Guam with ballistic missiles, their ability to threaten the island was somewhat limited. But as Chinese aircraft armed with long-range land attack cruise missiles prowl the central Pacific, the range of threats that must be defended against becomes ever more extensive and complicated. More assets devoted to defending Guam will mean fewer assets available in the western Pacific to help defend American allies (or forward-deployed American forces).
Finally, the ability of the Chinese to deploy long-range, air-to-surface assets will complicate U.S. sustainment throughout the western Pacific. Not since World War II has any nation directly posed a threat to American supply lines supporting forward operations. No Korean, Vietnamese, Iraqi, or Serbian forces interdicted American or allied troop movements or supply convoys on their way to America’s wars in the post-1945 era. But this is unlikely to remain the case in the event of a U.S.–China confrontation. While both sides may choose to refrain from striking the other side’s homeland (for fear of nuclear escalation), the same restraint is unlikely to apply to sea and air lines of communications.
Even if civilian merchant ships were somehow exempted (a highly dubious proposition), U.S. Navy underway replenishment ships would likely be high-priority targets. Destroying such vessels would cripple the ability of American carrier groups to sustain operations, limiting resources to what was in the warships’ holds and magazines. Protecting underway replenishment groups would be yet another demand imposed upon available surface combatants, forcing a further dispersion of available forces.
For most of the post-World War II era, both during and after the Cold War, the United States enjoyed undisputed control of the world’s air and sea lanes. It was able to deploy, and redeploy, forces with impunity; for the most part, military personnel could rest assured that until they reached the combat zone, they were fairly safe from enemy action.
China’s recent bomber flights, coupled with its development of a broad array of other anti-access/area denial capabilities, are a signal that this happy circumstance is coming to an end. Far from providing unchallenged access to the seas in the rear areas, the sea lanes themselves will be potential battlegrounds in any future conflict with China. Sustainment is more likely to resemble the Arctic convoys to Murmansk than the troop and supply chain to Noumea and Sydney.
Dean Cheng is the Senior Research Fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. He has also worked at SAIC and the Center for Naval Analyses. He does not like piña coladas or getting caught in the rain.
Photo credit: Japan MOD