On 13th December, the Japanese Ministry of Defence (MOD) revealed that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had flown a package of combat aircraft, which included two Electronic Warfare (EW) platforms through international airspace between the East China Sea Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako on 11th December.
The MOD confirmed that the package of aircraft included a pair of Xian H-6K strategic bombers, and two unidentified fighters, possibly Sukhoi Su-30MK2 or Shenyang J-11 fighters according to a statement from the PLAAF. The EW component of the package comprised a single Shaanxi Y-8 turboprop freighter and Tupolev Tu-154MD turbofan transport. As well as flying through the Miyako Strait located between Okinawa and Miyako, the two EW platforms and H-6Ks, sans the fighters which returned to the Chinese mainland, then flew onwards through the Bashi Channel, a stretch of water between the Philippines and Taiwan’s Orchid island, the MOD continued.
A PLAAF spokesperson stated that the mission was flown to enhance training and to protect Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inclusion of the Y-8 and Tu-154MD is interesting. Although the MOD statement did not specify which Y-8 variant participated in the mission, open sources note that the PLAAF possesses both the Y-8CB and Y-8JB versions: The former is said to be an electronic counter-measures platform, presumably to perform high-powered jamming against hostile radar and/or radio communications, with the latter Y-8JB intended to perform Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) collection, and hence presumably operate in a passive role. The role of the Tu-154MD is more obscure. Various open sources have reported that the aircraft is a synthetic aperture radar platform with others claiming that it is an ELINT collection platform, and there is a possibility that the aircraft performs both roles. If this is the case, it is possible that the two platforms are designed to work with one another, with the Tu-154MD collecting the strategic ELINT picture of relevant RF (Radio Frequency) emitters, and the Y-8JB performing deeper ELINT collection regarding specific signals identified by the Tu-154MD’s ELINT equipment and vice versa.
Alternatively, it is possible that the Tu-154MD may have been collecting imagery intelligence regarding ground-based air defences in parts of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines in proximity to the flights, and the Y-8 platforms collecting ELINT regarding ground-based air surveillance radars in these areas, thus helping to enhance the PLAAF physical and electronic order-of-battle regarding potential opposing forces. The presence of the two H-6K bombers may have helped to measure the electronic and physical reactions of Japan’s ground-based air defences, and it is noteworthy that the Japan Air Self Defence force scrambled an undisclosed number of McDonnell Douglas/Mitsubishi F-15J fighters to help safeguard Japan’s air sovereignty, which the MOD states was not violated. These recent flights indicate that the PLAAF is adopting an increasingly strategic mindset in the East China Sea region, and is strengthening its electronic warfare capabilities, at the same time as sharpening the skills of its aircrew.
Thomas Withington, Toulouse