Skip to main content

Video Above: What China's Escalated Military Posturing Means for Taiwan

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Using the term “island attack drills,” a Chinese-government backed newspaper says the People’s Liberation Army is flying bombers, fighters and surveillance planes in preparation for a possible so-called “joint land attack and long-range air strike” invasion of Taiwan.

However, while the phrasing and language of joint warfare operations may sound ominous, it raises an interesting question regarding the extent to which Chinese military forces are actually capable of “joint” multi-service operations. Such an ability, now evolving quickly within the US military services, is technologically complex and dependent upon an ability to align data and messaging formats, connect separately engineered communications nodes across multiple domains and vast distances and process shared information at relevant speeds. The extent to which China can do this might well indicate just how well the US military would perform in a major warfare engagement. Should the US be well ahead of China in this capacity, such a technological imbalance would favor success for the US.

H-6K Nomber, JH-7A Fighter Bomber and Su-30

Citing a video released by PLA Eastern Theater Command, the Global Times said the war drills included an H-6K bomber, JH-7A fighter bomber and the Su-30.

“Fully loaded with live ammunition, several bombers and fighter bombers of the Air Force took off one by one, entered combat formations, and launched standoff, saturation strike exercises with various types of precision munitions,” the paper says

‘The Chinese paper seemed to suggest that the PLA was also mirroring or potentially even copying a US military tactical focus on multi-domain operations, reporting that the air assets were accompanied by the PLA Army’s “long-range rocket artillery and the Rocket Force’s conventional missiles.”

While this may sound significant, the extent to which the PLA is capable of multi-domain attack would seem to rely on an ability to “network” information in near real time and connect target data specifics between bomber aircraft and ground-based missile launchers. This is something the US Is making rapid progress with though its air-land-sea multi-domain task forces in the Pacific and joint-service program called Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

With China, a potentially lesser known yet critical element of the PLA’s multi-domain connectivity would depend upon how much they have evolved in areas of multi-transport layer interoperability, cross-domain networking and common protocol to allow otherwise disparate information systems to security exchange information.

While the Chinese report did not include specific kinds of communications technologies, it did suggest that the bombers and fighters were connected wtih early warning surveillance plandes and EW-capable planes and warships at sea. Should this be true, meaning should the PLA be capable of sending time-critical data from bombers to surveillance planes to surface warships to land weapons systems, it would suggest a concerning and potentially formidable threat. However, while so much may be unknown regarding the PLA’s capacities, the US is now well-evolved with this kind of connectivity and has, for instance, demonstrated many multi-domain, joint-force networking successes. For instance, the Army’s fast-evolving Integrated Battle Command System (IBCS) ground-based networking radar and missile defense systems has demonstrated an ability to share information with Air Force F-35s. Northrop, Navy and Army developers of ICBS are also exploring the prospect of extending the network to incorporate the Navy’s surface-ship Aegis combat system.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

F-35

F-35

As part of its ongoing power demonstration, The People’s Liberation Army - Air Force recently flew its newest variant of its large, non-stealthy H-6K bomber over Taiwan in an effort to demonstrate resolve, lethality and readiness to attack.

However, there may be interesting questions about the extent to which large Chinese H-6 bombers would actually pose a serious risk given their potential vulnerability to air defenses, surface ships and of course Taiwanese and allied aircraft.

A pair of Chinese H-6K or H-6N in flight carrying cruise missiles

A pair of Chinese H-6K or H-6N in flight carrying cruise missiles

The PLA-AF would need to have established air superiority in order for the H-6J to fly low altitude mine laying or precision bombing missions, something which would not be at all assured in any kind of great power confrontation. The US and its allies may or may not have advanced air defenses in the South China Sea, however there are established systems in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.A bomber such as the H-6J would be extremely vulnerable to ship-launched US Navy 5th generation aircraft and easily seen by drones and networked ground surveillance systems. An aircraft as large as the H-6J could also be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire coming from surface ships, depending upon how low it was flying to lay mines in littoral areas.The real added value when it comes to the functional impact of a large, B-52-like heavy bomber would more likely be in its standoff weapons such as extremely high altitude precision bombs or the use of long-range precision cruise missiles able to be effective at stand-off ranges.

F-35, H-20, H-6, B-2, B-21

Otherwise, precision bombing missions would need to come from an undetected, high-altitude stealth bomber such as China’s new H-20 or be executed by fighter jets during or after a war to establish air supremacy. Should the US operate amphibs and carriers in the region in any measurable capacity, sea-launched 5th-generation aircraft such as the F-35B and F-35C would likely make it extremely difficult for large Chinese bombers to operate with any measure of success.

While waiting for large numbers of its emerging H-20 bomber to arrive, China has been consistently upgrading its legacy Xian H-6 bomber to a degree that continues to generate U.S. concern or at least merit considerable attention.

The H-6, which can be traced as far back as to the Cold War era Tu-16 strategic heavy bomber, is mentioned thirty-three times in the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power report, according to a report from Flightglobal.

The report says the H-6 will likely fly into the 2030s, by virtue of an ongoing series of significant upgrades. Newer K, J, and N variants of the aircraft are powered by two more efficient Soloviev D-30 turbofan engines.

Adding to U.S. concerns is China’s new H-20 bomber expected to fly alongside and ultimately replace the H-6. However, part of why the H-6 continues to be extended relates to the time it may take to produce and deploy the H-20 in sufficient numbers.

This kind of phased pattern does, to some extent, resemble the U.S. plans with the B-2 and B-21 bombers. The thirty-year old B-2 is expected to fly for many more years until sufficient numbers of the B-21 arrive. Therefore, in a manner not totally unlike China’s H-6 efforts, the B-2 continues to be upgraded with new weapons, sensors and computer technology to propel the aircraft into future years. The B-2 bomber, for instance, is receivng advanced new Defensive Managment System sensors designed to locate and help aircraft elude enemy air defenses. The 30-year old stealth bomber is also receing a new 1,000-fold faster computer processor and upgraded variants of the B-61 Mod 12 nuclear bomb.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization