Spike of Chinese “incursions” and presence of H-6K bombers (able to carry Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles) inside the south-western corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) amid escalating tensions in the region.
Thirteen Chinese combat aircraft (including 8x H-6K bombers, 4x J-16 fighters and 1x Y-8 Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft), followed the following day by 15 ones (2x Su-30, 4x J-16, 6x J-10, 2x Y-8 ASW and 1x Y-8 reconnaissance aircraft) entered the southwestern corner of Taiwan’s ADIZ between Saturday Jan. 23 and Sunday Jan. 24, 2021, the island’s defence ministry said.
Taiwan has an ADIZ, created by the United States Armed Forces after World War II, that covers most of Taiwan Strait, part of East China Sea and adjacent airspace. As per other ADIZs around the world, this Air Defense Identification Zone, is not defined in any international treaty and is not regulated by any international body: it is mostly over international airspace (territorial airspace begins only 12 miles from the coastline), hence, an intrusion into an ADIZ is not a violation of sovereign airspace. ADIZs extend well beyond a country’s territory, usually in the vicinity of contested areas, to give the country more time to respond to possibly hostile aircraft.
That being said, while China’s PLA (People Liberation Army) Air Force and Navy aircraft regularly operate in the airspace over the waters between Taiwan (that Beijing claims as its own land) and the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands, in the South China Sea, these missions generally consist of just one or two ISR (Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance) or ASW aircraft. For this reason, the presence of almost 30 aircraft of all types, including as many as 8 H-6K cruise missile carriers is unusual.
Fifteen PLA aircraft (Y-8 ASW*2、SU-30*2、J-16*4、J-10*6、Y-8 RECCE*1) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Jan. 24, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/lJ8ddkMvl5 pic.twitter.com/tQV0SoPuWR
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) January 24, 2021
Thirteen PLA aircraft (Y-8 ASW*1、H-6K*8、J-16*4) entered #Taiwan’s southwest ADIZ on Jan. 23, 2021. Please check our official website for more information: https://t.co/amqJjvHyAj pic.twitter.com/tE1XlHdWmO
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. 🇹🇼 (@MoNDefense) January 23, 2021
The U.S. State Department urged China to stop pressuring Taiwan and reaffirmed its commitment to the island and desire to deepen ties, Reuters reported.
“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defence capability.”
Last year, during visits by senior US officials to Taipei, Chinese aircraft briefly crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which normally serves as an unofficial buffer.
This time, the Pentagon has done something else: on Jan. 23, 2021, a couple of days after Biden’s inauguration, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG) entered the South China Sea (SCS) “to conduct routine operations”.
The TRCSG is on a scheduled deployment to the 7th Fleet AOR (Area Of Responsibility) “to ensure freedom of the seas, build partnerships that foster maritime security, and conduct a wide range of operations”. It consists of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) with Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), Destroyer Squadron 23, and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Russell (DDG 59) and USS John Finn (DDG 113).
“After sailing through these waters throughout my 30-year career, it’s great to be in the South China Sea again, conducting routine operations, promoting freedom of the seas, and reassuring allies and partners,” said Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander, Carrier Strike Group Nine in a U.S. Indo-Pacific release. “With two-thirds of the world’s trade travelling through this very important region, it is vital that we maintain our presence and continue to promote the rules-based order which has allowed us all to prosper. While we miss visiting our allies and partners in the region in person, we’re grateful for all the opportunities we have to operate with them at sea.”
While in the South China Sea, the strike group is conducting maritime security operations, which include flight operations with fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, maritime strike exercises, and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.
The satellite images of the U.S. aircraft carrier entering SCS were online before the official U.S PACOM release acknowledged it:
Satellite image confirms #USSTheodoreRoosevelt entered the #SouthChinaSea via the Bashi Channel on the morning of Jan 23.
Image credit to @lobsterlarryliu via @planetlabs 👍 pic.twitter.com/XDSnlfwWWI
— SCS Probing Initiative (@SCS_PI) January 23, 2021
The simultaneous presence of the Chinese Xian H-6K in the region as the TRSG entered the SCS is particularly interesting, if we consider the role of the PLAAF bomber. The H-6K is a highly modified variant from the original H-6 bomber (itself a Tu-16 derivative), designed for long-range/stand-off maritime or land strike capability with long-range anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. In short, it is capable of attacking U.S. carrier battle groups or other priority targets with up to six YJ-12 ASCM (Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles) and 6/7 KD-20 ALCMs.
The YJ-12 has a range of 400 km, can reach speeds of up to Mach 3, and is capable of performing airborne evasive maneuvers approaching the target.
According to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance:
The YJ-12 poses a number of a number of security concerns for U.S. naval forces in the Pacific and is considered the “most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far.” The danger posed by the YJ-12 comes from its range of 400 km, making it the longest-ranged ACBM ever engineered, and its ability to travel at high rates of speed (up to Mach 3). This makes it difficult for Aegis Combat Systems and SM-2 surface-to-air missiles that protect U.S. carrier strike groups to identify and engage the missile since it can be launched beyond their engagement ranges, which greatly reduces the U.S. Navy’s time to react. Protection against the YJ-12 is even more difficult due to its cork-screw-like turns which allow it to evade final defenses. Deployment of the YJ-12 and the development of related ASCMs also demonstrates China’s desire to field anti-access and area denial capabilities in case of future conflict.
Actually, as reported last year, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force‘s has also developed a further variant of the H-6K, designated H-6N which was specifically designed as a ballistic missile launcher. The most visible difference from the earlier model is the lack of the bomb bay which has been replaced by a semi-recessed area with attachment points for a large weapon. Another difference is the presence of an aerial refueling probe, which was missing on previous versions of the aircraft.
The primary weapon of the H-6N, according to available info, should be the CH-AS-X-13, also known as DF-21D, the air launched version of the DF-21 “Carrier Killer” Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (AShBM), reportedly with a range of 1450 km (780 NM), Mach 6 speed (some sources state even Mach-10) and a 600 kg (about 1300 lbs) payload.
Here’s what The Aviationist’s Stefano D’Urso wrote about the DF-21 when a video showing a Chinese H-6N bomber with what seemed to be an Air Launched Ballistic Missile (ALBM) underneath the fuselage emerged online:
“The first reports about the existence of the DF-21D in 2010 sparked some concerns as Pentagon officials stated that, if the claims about the missile’s capabilities are true, the United States may not have a defense against it, as the maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV) and the high speed could complicate the interception by air defense weapons. This led the U.S. Navy to potentiate the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System aboard ships in the Pacific Ocean while new advanced systems are developed. China reportedly test-fired two AShBM in the South China Sea in late August, one of them being a DF-21D.”
We will monitor the situation in the SCS and report about further developments in the following days.