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Asia-Pacific , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

China Deploys H-6K Bombers to Spratly Atolls; Enhancing Strike Capabilities and Expanding A2AD

May 21st - 2018

In the latest of many recent deployments by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) of military hardware to fortified island outposts in the South China Sea, a number of H-6K heavy bombers have for the first time landed at military facilities on the Spratly Atolls. This came just days after the PLA deployed state of the art HQ-9B surface to air missile batteries and YJ-12 anti ship missiles to its forward outposts, accompanied by J-11B heavy air superiority fighters, and conducted maritime combat exercises with its new J-20 fifth generation fighters. The PLA had also recently flew H-6K bombers escorted by Su-35 fighters over the South China Sea in large scale patrols, while deploying advanced electronic warfare equipment to its forward island bases. These deployments have all been made with the very same intention, to strengthen Chinese anti access area denial (A2AD) capabilities in the region - its ability to deny hostile forces access to the South China Sea. A2AD has become an issue of paramount importance in light of the Western bloc's growing military presence and intervention in the Asia-Pacific region aimed primarily at China. 

The PLA Air Force recently stated regarding the deployment of its bombers to the South China Sea “A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions.” While the primary role of the H-6K is that of a strategic bomber, its deployment to the Spratly Atolls in such a role would do little to enhance the military's A2AD capabilities. Modified variants of the H-6 with a different role, tactical rather than strategic, can potentially serve as an effective means to A2AD when deployed to the region however. With well over 100 H-6 bombers in service, a number of aircraft have been modified for roles other than nuclear delivery which include electronic warfare, long range ship hunting and even deploying ballistic missiles capable of targeting warships - the last currently being tested. The bombers' ability to carry over 12 tons of ordnance, including up to six heavy anti ship cruise missiles, and its combat radius of 3500km, means it poses a significant threat to hostile warships operating anywhere near the vicinity of the Spratly Atolls. Deploying these long range aircraft from forward positions in the South China Sea can do a great deal to widen and strengthen existing A2AD capabilities in the region, and the bombers' heavy armament of anti ship missiles is an excellent complement to the weapons systems already deployed by the PLA to its island outposts.

As well as enhancing anti ship capabilities of the PLA, the H-6's deployment also makes a powerful statement regarding China's claim to sovereignty over the Spratly Atolls, and the bomber is by far the heaviest combat aircraft ever to deploy to Chinese outposts in the region. With the United States and its Western allies currently largely preoccupied with an ever escalating conflict in the Middle East, it is likely that the PLA has taken this as an opportunity to strengthen its defences by making a number of deployments in rapid succession when chances for immediate Western retaliation remain narrow. As a result, China's position as the dominant power in the much of the South China Sea, which the United States and its European allies had long sought to contest, is increasingly undisputed and the expansion of the PLA's A2AD capabilities have made any attempts to deploy force to the region, for freedom of navigation operations or otherwise, increasingly difficult.  

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