China’s Air-Sea Battle Plan for the South China Sea
Image Credit: DoD photo by Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen

China’s Air-Sea Battle Plan for the South China Sea

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Last week a senior PLA officer detailed China’s plans for establishing air and sea control over the South China Sea.

In an interview with state media last week, Senior Colonel Du Wenlong was asked what China’s “trump card” was for establishing sea and air control over the South China Sea. In response, Du highlighted the importance of cooperation between China’s fighter jets and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft would play in allowing to establish “sea and air control” in the South China Sea.

Specifically, he said that cooperation between the J-10 series, J-11 series, J-16, KJ 2000, and KJ 200 “gives China control over enemy targets in an extended airspace through strong air-to-air attack capability.” Once China gained command of the skies, Du noted, it would be able to impose control over the waters in the South China Sea by using aircraft with air-to-sea functions, backed by submarines and surface vessels like advanced destroyers and frigates.

Du went on to emphasize the importance of the J-16 fighter jet because it boasts extraordinary air-to-air, air-to-sea, and air-to-ground capabilities, and can therefore perform multiple roles in the PLA’s South China Sea battle plan simultaneously. The J-16 is a multirole fighter/bomber based off of Russia’s Su-30MK2, which China purchased over a decade ago. Want China Times has reported that China wants to make the J-16 the “fulcrum of its naval fighter force.”

Du also stressed the importance of acquiring more advanced AEW&C aircraft with air-to-sea and air-to-ground reconnaissance and early warning technology that had both greater accuracy and a larger scope than China’s current AEW&C aircraft. In such an environment, Du told reporters, China would control the sea and air over the South China Sea largely through cooperation between AEW&C aircraft and the J-16, working in close cooperation with naval assets. 

Notably, the first photos of China’s next generation early warning aircraft, the so-called KJ-500, appeared online just this week.

In the article, Du Wenlong is only identified as a military expert. However, he is a frequent commentator in China’s media and late last month China’s Ministry of Defense identified him as Senior Colonel Du Wenlong, a senior researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Science (AMS). Bates Gill and James Mulvenon have said that the AMS is the “’national center for military studies’ and is the premier military research organization in the PLA. It is directly subordinate to the Central Military Commission (CMC), but also receives direct tasking from the General Staff Department.”

According to the two scholars, it is the PLA’s largest research institution, and its 500 full time researchers “write reports for the military leadership, ghost-write speeches for top military leaders, and serve on temporary and permanent leading small groups as drafters of important documents like the Defense White Paper.”

Du himself often appears to be hawkish, and prone to bombastic rhetoric. When the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) three major fleets conducted a joint exercise last month, he proudly proclaimed that the first island chain had been “dismembered,” which he later characterized as something that had become quite normal for the PLA. Since fall of last year, when the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands began to escalate, Du has been stressing the importance of China establishing drone bases to use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor the islands and Japan’s movements along them. His words have apparently been finally taken up by the senior command. Many believe that this has made the standoff over the islands even more unstable.

The fact that Du’s calls for using drones in the East China Sea dispute were eventually heeded raises the possibility that his Air-Sea Battle plan for the South China Sea could become the PLA’s standard operating procedure.

It’s notable that, according to last week’s article, media outlets had asked Du what China’s “trump card” was for establishing sea and air control in the South China Sea. This suggests that the goal of establishing sea and air control was a given, and that the PLA or CCP wanted Du’s views on the subject to be read by ordinary Chinese and the PLA’s foreign military competitors.

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