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


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.

February 12, 2014 at 22:52

China prefers to issue threats because legally it has no right. It says it has “historical claims” which the rest of the world considers silly. The US once controlled the Philippines, and US General MacArthur was the effective ruler of Japan shortly after World War II, but the US knows it has no claim to either country. Western countries once controlled all of China, and if they had followed the same logic China’s leader use now, they could all go to war against China to get something they were able to control for a time. Japan could also go to war to get back Manchuria. China gets its kicks from history and wants to eventually claim additional land by force. But they do not want to risk conflict involving the US right now as they are still improving their military capability. Like Hitler, who prepared Germany for years building up a large air force and increasing the size of the military by 200%, China does not want to fight now because it is still preparing. China will start a war once it believes it has achieved military superiority.

Richard Gan
November 24, 2013 at 11:08

You all are just war mongers, if there is a real war breaks out tomorrow, nobody, yes nobody will ever survive on this planet earth, with all the nuke bombs each country possessed today. Again, theory and actual war are two very different matters, you can never accurately predict the real outcome of a modern warfare. As for gentleman who criticizes China for churning out poor quality products, my friend, you get what you pay for, haven’t you heard such a saying ? For that lousy $2.00 dollar, what do you expect, a Rolls Royce ?

November 15, 2013 at 07:51

I hate War..but in this case War is the only answer

November 14, 2013 at 11:36

You raise a good point about Chinese bombast; but look at China's actual activities.  Harassing fishermen of foreign nations, and preventing them from fishing in their own countries' EEZs.  Harassing U.S. Navy vessels outside Chinese territorial waters.  Setting up "Sansha City" to "administer" the entire South China Sea, despite no country's recognizing their "nine-dash line" as legitimate.  Building airstrips and bases on other countries' territory.  

Perhaps China's military is behind the U.S.'s.  But their actions must be taken seriously by the international community.  China is flouting international law and using force and intimidation to get their way, rather than bringing diplomatic and legal actions (which they would lose).  

If China seriously wants peace, why not follow peaceful channels for arbitration of disputes, rather than use paramilitary forces for intimidation and provocation?  



December 7, 2013 at 13:54

Did US follow UN laws when US invaded Iraq?

February 7, 2014 at 06:07

Did the US annex Iraq as its own because of faked “historic evidences” as china is doing with Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia? Did the US only dare to take on smaller neighbors but too cowardice to take on someone the same size as china is doing?

November 14, 2013 at 11:28

Perhaps, just perhaps, the rest of Asia does not want to go along with China's "Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere."  



November 14, 2013 at 11:26

You are conveniently ignoring the fact that Chinese naval and civilian vessels routinely harass unarmed U.S. Navy vessels inside China's EEZ, but outside its territorial waters.  These U.S. Navy activities are within the freedom of navigation enshrined in established international law of the sea.  China does not have a good track record when it comes to respecting other nations' freedom of navigation.  



martin vu
November 14, 2013 at 06:50

Everyday, there's a new version of the Chinese claim. Even the Chinese may not really know,  " understand the nature of the claims" and they like to keep it that way just to be right whichever way the wind blows. One thing for sure, your knowledge of Chinese wants, international laws and reality is way off. No one trusts China to even let them own even 1 island.

December 7, 2013 at 13:51

Say it. Did VN take lands from Lao, Champ, Cambodia? Phu Qouc really belongs to VN?

henry winn
November 14, 2013 at 06:39

Wait a minute! " China aspires and wants a peaceful world " but it must control Asia in that process? Beside Cambodia, who else will let you?

November 14, 2013 at 00:57

China's not offering up anything especially new or revolutionary and if this is their trump card they are either woefully ignorant of modern military capabilities, are playing to the home crowd (which may not be as militarily savvy), or are engaged in a deliberate campaign of disinformation. 

The "trump card" of AWE&C for China may turn out two ways.  The first would be comparable to when the Germans decided to adopt massed armor in their strategy and tactics prior to World War II.  A development of both the British and the French, Germany was not the originator of the idea of massed armor and mobile warfare, but it was arguably the best practitioner of it.  So the fact that China did not come up with it is irrelevant.

The second option is that China is just full of hot air, much like the Italians were during World War II.  The Italians, having seen the susccess of "blitzkrieg" (in and of itself a term the Germans rarely if ever used), started claiming expertise in the field of "lightning war" – and proving they were hardly capable of fighting a Napoleonic much less modern industrialized conflict.

In my opinion, the actual results will be somewhere in between.  China has always been good at fighting towards its own strengths rather than the strengths of its enemies.  A perfect example is the Korean War – far from employing "human wave" assaults, the Chinese actually employed von Hutier infiltration and assault tactics, using local superiority to overcome a technologically superior for.  In this instance China, lacking aircraft, armor, and heavy artillery, simply adopted their style of warfare to match their capabilities and rather than go to World War II for lessons on strategy and tactics, they went back to World War I.  The end result: they got most of what they wanted.

So insofar as China being behind the curve on this one, I would not be so quick to dismiss it.  An old trick is still effective if the person it is played upon is not expecting it.

November 14, 2013 at 00:47

I suppose that as you are an expert on "military matters", you'd be able to discern the message from the messenger.  While I don't agree with Mr. Keck all the time, his message is not that China has brought military matters into the brave new world of AEW or drone use, but that a certain commentator said something and that his words, having been heeded in the past by the CCP and PLA leadership, offers insight into the plans the PLA has for the South China Sea and other disputed areas.

Don't let your desire to prove what an expert you are blind you to what the author was saying. 

November 13, 2013 at 23:55

America is far ahead of china in naval power but  the  thing is that aso called superpower which has to runaway from vietnam, iraq  and afghanistan can afford a war with 1 100 times more powerful miltary might than theses three countries keeping in mind that that superpower is bankrupt economically and has no money to wage war.

Mr TianChao
November 13, 2013 at 23:26

Mainland people please control zhongyuan, thats big enough for you

November 13, 2013 at 19:10

Obviously, the author of this article knows absolutely nothing about military matters. The US Air Force and US Navy pioneered the use of AWACs and have the best and most advanced capabilities in this area in the world. The Chinese are playing catch -up and are about thirty years behind. The idea that this is some kind of "trump card" that would establish Chinese dominance over the South China Sea is ludicrous.. The Chinese are nowhere near attempting to challenge the US Navy and its carrier groups. Any claim by the PLA is bombast.

November 13, 2013 at 19:08

How quickly people forgot that it was the Japanese who called for using Global Hawk drones to patrol the island chain in 2012. Wu is just suggesting tit- for tat, it seems.

November 13, 2013 at 14:58

I think the PLA has played too many vidio games…theres no way a country known for its substandard manufactued products would even last a month under the proven weight of the western war machine..bring it on PLA..bring it on!..

November 13, 2013 at 13:20

you clearly do not understand the nature of the claims. even if every other claiment gave up and china got all of its claims, the right of peaceful travel will still be there. the claims isnt about closing off the SCS to peaceful travels. History and politics aside, the claims are about the resources, as who ever owns the island owns the resources of the waters around the islands. so if the US want to sail through the SCS, it can do so regardless of who owns the islands there.

boko harum
November 13, 2013 at 13:06

I have always thought  J-16s (and two-seater land-based J-15s operatin' alongside autonomous drones) are better suited to fighting the vast and very very powerful pacific forces than any Su-35s. Zac's article here more or less proves I am right. The Su-35 is useless except for aerobatic demos at the extreme edge of controllable flight envelopes. Survival against the pac forces requires PLA to have reserves and reserves and more reserves of its own fighters and combat drones not imported ones.

admiral Cheng
November 13, 2013 at 10:55

China aspires and want a peaceful World. The best would be for the US with its allies to divide the World into two spheres of control. US and its allies can control their part and let China control Asia. It may sound silly but thats the ground reality. China does not interfere in US's activities in Europe or South America so why can't the US return the favor? Respect China

December 7, 2013 at 13:59

You are so naive. US wants to conquer the world. They know they can defeat China. Once they defeat China, Russia will be an easy target.

November 13, 2013 at 03:40

Outside of 12NM the SCS is available for peaceful travel by all. Efforts by the PRC to use old maps mean nothing. International law applies not the unilateral edicts of the CCP. The US says NO to Chinese claims.

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