Sucking on Rations, Chinese Fighter Pilots Flew a 10-Hour Lap Over Disputed Islands

 In China, Air, Forces & Capabilities, Oceans, P5

A flight of six Chinese air force Su-30 fight­ers recent­ly flew from their base in south­ern China all the way to Subi Reef in the South China Sea and back — a dis­tance of around 1,600 miles.

The 10-hour mis­sion was a dra­mat­ic dis­play of the air arm’s abil­i­ty to project power over the dis­put­ed islands of the South China Sea. But the same dis­play also under­scored the Chinese air force’s major weak­ness.

After all, it appears the fight­ers were either unarmed or very light­ly armed. And they seemed to refuel twice from Il-78 tankers — once on the out­bound leg, again while inbound.

The mis­sion might have involved two Il-78s. If so, it con­sumed two-thirds of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s heavy tankers. While the Chinese air arm pos­sess­es a small number of medium tankers based on the H‑6 bomber, these lack range and capac­i­ty com­pared to the three Il-78s. Also, the H‑6’s refu­el­ing system report­ed­ly is incom­pat­i­ble with the Su-30.

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In a way, the PLAAF may have inad­ver­tent­ly demon­strat­ed the limits of its power-pro­jec­tion capa­bil­i­ties. Realistically during wartime, the air force could send at most a couple dozen fight­ers on long mis­sions over the South China Sea. Those fight­ers would be light­ly armed. And the mis­sions would leave no tankers for other oper­a­tions.

The Subi Reef mis­sion was the sub­ject of a highly-pro­duced video fea­turette for Chinese tele­vi­sion. Aviation blog Alert 5 obtained a copy.

In the video, crews from the 6th Air Brigade at Nanning air base — near China’s border with Vietnam — race to their twin-seat, twin-engine Su-30s, around 100 of which China bought from Russia in the early 2000s.

As the crews inspect their fight­ers, it’s appar­ent that some of them are car­ry­ing just one or two air-to-air mis­siles. Others seem to be unarmed.

The fight­ers fly in for­ma­tion over the blue water of the South China Sea. When it’s time to refuel, the Sukhois ren­dezvous with an Il-78 trail­ing a refu­el­ing basket on a hose. For rea­sons that aren’t entire­ly clear, the pro­duc­ers blurred out the Il-78’s fuse­lage.

The fight­er crews con­tin­ue toward Subi Reef, taking turns suck­ing down rations from foil packs. The Su-30s descend to low level before turn­ing around and head­ing home. They hit the tanker one more time before land­ing.

The pay­loads and refu­el­ing plan make sense. Analysts crunched the num­bers and determined that the Australian air force with its seven KC-30 tankers could project just a hand­ful of fully-armed fight­ers the rough­ly thou­sand miles the fight­ers would need to travel in order to play a mean­ing­ful role in a major war with China.

China clear­ly suf­fers sim­i­lar con­straints.

It’s not for no reason that the U.S. mil­i­tary main­tains an exten­sive over­seas base net­work as well as nearly 500 aerial tankers and 11 nuclear-pow­ered air­craft car­ri­ers. Distance is the great destroyer of tactical air power. Fighters oper­at­ing from land bases and with­out seri­ous tank­ing sup­port or a net­work of expe­di­tionary air­fields simply can’t travel very far.

That lim­i­ta­tion has major impli­ca­tions for China’s abil­i­ty to fight for its China Seas claims.

It’s get­ting better for Beijing. The Chinese navy has built two small air­craft car­ri­ers and is work­ing on a third. The air force report­ed­ly is devel­op­ing a tanker ver­sion of the new Y‑20 air­lifter. The People’s Liberation Army has built up a number of island out­posts across the China Seas, some of which can sup­port fight­ers. An out­post on Subi Reef itself includes a lengthy runway.

But the Su-30 mis­sion is a reminder that pro­ject­ing power is hard. And China’s still not very good at it.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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