Last week, Chinese Air Force bombers were said to have conducted a mock attack on the USS Theodore Roosevelt Strike Group in the South China Sea. The aircraft involved were reported to be eight H-6K bombers, four J-16 fighter jets, and one Y-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Of course, the media took the bait and portrayed this act by China as something novel.
But it really isn’t.
These cold war games China is playing accomplish two things. First, they further its long-standing strategic goal of controlling the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. Second, they create a distraction from its culpable negligence in unleashing COVID-19 on the entire planet.
What the Aircraft Tell Us About China and Their Capabilities
First, a couple of notes on this bomber drill to provide some context.
The H-6K bomber is a Communist China-built version of the Russian Tupolev TU-16 Badger which dates back to the 1950s. China has “upgraded” its aircraft with sensors and avionics presumably advancing the 1950s technology. How current the plane is can be answered by considering the fact that its engine was not upgraded with a turbofan engine produced in China, but with the Russian Soloviev D-30-KP2. The origins of this design go back to the 1980s.
The reason the PLA has to use Russian 80s engines is most likely because China lacks a capability in advanced metallurgy. The blades on the turbofans and the internals are made of lightweight and heat resistant alloys that are beyond China’s technical ability. China not only uses Russian-built engines in its mainstay bomber but also in its fighters. It has tried to copy engines from GE and Rolls Royce without marked success. It’s one thing to mock something up for an airshow display, it’s quite another to put it in an airplane and take off with it.
Interestingly enough, Communist China does have four entities, which it calls “centers,” for the production of military turbofans: the AVIC Shenyang Liming Aero-Engine Group, the AVIC Xi’an Aero-Engine Group, the AVIC Chengdu Aero-Engine Group, and the AVIC Guizhou Liyang Aero-Engine Group. Each has produced an engine of some type for media to photograph at airshows and technology displays. Yet, they have virtually no success in equipping PLA aircraft with engines beyond single flying prototypes. It should be obvious that China is sinking tons of money into propaganda ploys regarding its ability to produce its own turbofan engines.
Photographs of these bombers flying in the Taiwan Straits (which is routine) often show them carrying anti-ship cruise missiles under the wing. The H-6K is capable of carrying six of them. These are almost certainly “dummy” models without warheads or even engines in them.
China and the Communist Distrust of the Military
China, like all Communist countries, is extremely distrustful of its own people, even if they are in uniform. China would not trust eight bombers with “war-shot” loads under their wings in proximity to any U.S. ships unless war was actually breaking out. When the USSR was a threat to the U.S., the Soviets would not let their own ballistic missile submarines put to sea without an attack submarine as a protective “escort.” Obviously, Tom Clancy missed this little detail in The Hunt For Red October.
The simple truth is that the USSR very much feared the idea of one of its skippers deciding to unleash his missiles on the U.S. on his own initiative or defect and give his submarine over to a Western country. We need to have no doubt the communists in China have a similar level of paranoia about their own servicemembers acting without orders or defecting.
China Kept a Wide Berth for a Reason
This flight of aircraft also carefully stayed at least 250 miles from the Roosevelt Strike Group. Had they gone inside that 250-mile invisible barrier the Roosevelt CSG would have reacted to those eight bombers as a threat, and launched a squadron of FA-18s and Electronic Attack aircraft to intercept them. That would have considerably changed the propaganda image that China was after.
The news narrative, then, would have been about China making an aggressive and provocative move on the Roosevelt to which our Navy was forced to respond. When the Chinese would have detected a squadron of FA-18s coming at them, they would have been ordered to turn back for the Chinese coast and make like hell for their own airspace. It would have been humiliating. So they knew how far to push the line there.
This is not the first time China has done this sort of thing in the South China Sea.
Not the First Time China Has Played This Game
In May 2018, the guided-missile destroyer Higgins and the Antietam, a guided-missile cruiser, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands, situated between Vietnam and the Philippines. China claims these as their own. According to China (and media outlets all too quick to parrot its propaganda) a “serious incident” resulted from this innocent passage of the two U.S. Navy ships. China is making disputed claims which international courts have refused to uphold over and over again. China claimed the U.S. ships’ passage, “contravened Chinese and relevant international law, seriously infringed upon Chinese sovereignty and harmed strategic mutual trust between the two militaries.” The U.S. Navy’s response was to point out that these islands and their waters are not recognized as belonging to China by anyone but them and that our ships will maintain freedom of navigation on the high seas.
In February of 2019, two guided-missile destroyers, the USS Spruance and USS Preble steamed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. This is a reef destroyed by China to make an artificial island it claims as its territory in the Spratly Islands chain. (Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei all lay legal and historical claims to the island chain as well.) This also provoked China to dramatized pronunciations about the U.S. trying to bully it, yet, they themselves destroyed an ancient reef to build a military airfield and basically seized the islands as their own.
The Hainan Island Incident
One of the two most notable incidents in this new Cold War drama was the Hainan Island Incident. In April 2001, a Chinese pilot flying a J-8 fighter clipped a Navy EP-3E Aries electronic surveillance aircraft 70 miles from the island of Hainan. The badly damaged aircraft made an emergency landing on the Chinese island and the 24-man crew was detained for 10 days.
China “Stalking” the USS Kitty Hawk
The second such incident took place in November of 2006. The carrier USS Kitty Hawk and her escorts had concluded a series of anti-submarine warfare exercises with the Japanese Navy and were near Okinawa when a Chinese Song class diesel submarine surfaced within five miles of them.
The press accounts claimed the slow-moving diesel submarine had been “stalking” the Kitty Hawk and that by surfacing so near the carrier was a signal that the U.S. Navy had been caught slacking. But to the trained eye, those reports were wrong for several reasons.
There isn’t a diesel submarine in existence that can keep up with a Carrier Strike Group and remain quiet — which is the key to a submarine’s survival. We were not at war with China and the Kitty Hawk was traveling in very busy waters for international shipping. With their own satellites, China would have been able to track the carrier, estimate her course and speed and “park” that Song class sub along her expected route.
But why did she surface within five miles of the carrier? Was it to make a point about how close a Chinese sub can get in peacetime to a Navy warship that isn’t actively patrolling for submarines? If so, big deal. A Panamanian flagged oil tanker can pass five miles from a U.S. Carrier too. China might as well surface a submarine 13 miles off Los Angeles and make a point about being able to approach the west coast in peacetime, but so can any other vessel, in peacetime.
But in a cold war, there are rules.
One of those rules is that a submarine on the surface is not a threat. What’s more likely is the Song class submarine was detected by one of the attack submarines that was accompanying the Kitty Hawk — because that’s their job.
Nuclear-power submarines reconnoiter miles ahead of the carrier looking for threats just like a Chinese submarine positioned along its course. It would have maneuvered behind the Song and then given her an active sonar “ping” to let them know they were caught. During the Cold War, a Russian submarine would make a high-speed dive for the deepest water it was capable of reaching with our own sub pursuing it, sometimes for days, even weeks, in a nuclear-powered game of hide-and-seek beneath the waves.
That Chinese sub may have reacted differently so close to the carrier and surfaced intentionally to show that it was not a threat and thus avoid being dogged by an American Carrier Strike Group and its accompanying nuclear submarines for days or even weeks. It’s no sport if the sub is on the surface and refuses to play. Once upon a time when both the Soviet and U.S. sub fleets were primarily comprised of diesel submarines each would dog the other’s submerged submarines until it was forced to surface for lack of oxygen and battery power. This game is not new.
Why China’s Cold War Games Are Still Problematic
China playing at “cold war” with the U.S. is problematic in other ways.
When we played these games with the Soviets, they were unabashedly our enemies. We had very little commercial trade with the USSR. Russians did not visit the U.S. except under very limited circumstances of cultural exchange. And our militaries were squared off in Europe while our respective navies chased and confronted each other all over the world. The aim of the Soviet Union was to liberate the world’s workers for the Socialist cause and we here in the West stood in the way of that.
Our relations with China are very different.
The U.S. imports nearly $400 billion a year in Chinese goods and exports over $100 billion. Some three million Chinese nationals visit the U.S. each year. Except for the South China Sea, our militaries are not aiming guns at each other over any contested borders. While China makes no bones about wanting to be a superpower that surpasses the United States in every way, it does not state its aims in terms of bringing the whole world under the domination of a China-led supremacy as the Russian Communists wanted to do with their “Supreme Soviet.”
China, as a communist country, has all the normal features of this totalitarian political system: a total surveillance state offering its citizens little in terms of individual rights and brutal repression of internal dissent. It even turns genocidal when it comes to its Uyghur minority. Added to this, we may recall that COVID-19 is not the first deadly virus believe to have originated in China, but the fifth. The novel coronavirus has killed 2.24 million people worldwide — so far — and wreaked economic destruction on almost every country in the developed world.
But at some point, we should stop pretending we are not in a cold war with China, especially when China itself seems to think and act as if it is in one with us.
This article was originally published on February 4.
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