On October 7 2001, the U.S. military initiated air operations against Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Fifteen bombers and twenty-five strike aircraft launched fifty cruise missiles against forty planned targets. By the time the first phase of the war ended on December 23, 2001, the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps had collectively flown approximately 6,500 strike sorties and dropped an estimated 17,500 munitions against various targets.
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U.S. Air Force land-based combat aircraft operated from bases such as Ahmed Al Jaber, Ali Al Salem in Kuwait and Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps F-14 Tomcat fighters and F/A-18 fighter-attack combat jets conducted multiple strike sorties from aircraft carriers stationed in the Arabian Gulf and off the coast of Pakistan on a daily basis. These sorties originated from bases and operating areas hundreds to thousands of miles from the target areas in Afghanistan, requiring the creation of an “air bridge” which included approximately 4,700 aerial refueling sorties by U.S. Air Force KC-135s and KC-10s plus carrier-based refueling aircraft such as the now decommissioned S-3 Viking.
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China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observed U.S. military operations in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, NATO operations in the Balkans, and Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom closely, noting the significant role of airpower in modern warfare. These operations “shocked the PLA into the realization that it had to become capable of engaging in high-tech warfare or otherwise face the certainty of falling ever further behind other modern militaries.” This marked a momentous shift in Chinese national military strategy and the subsequent issuance of the “The Military Strategic Guidelines for the New Period” by the Chinese Communist Party and PLA in 1993. The long distance air strike missions during Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom provided vivid examples of the criticality of aerial refueling in air power projection—a powerful reality fully recognized by Chinese military leadership.
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The genesis of the Chinese aerial refueling program dates back to the late 1960s when China initiated production of cloned Tupolev Tu-16K Badger bombers followed by an extended series production build of the platform until the late 1980s. The bomber, redesignated the H-6 Badger, would serve as the developmental platform of the H-6U aerial refueling tanker starting in 1986. The H-6U program, however, did not fit within the 1993 national military revamp as the PLA set out to rapidly modernize its military by reducing its reliant on foreign arms producers, such as Russia, and indigenously producing its own military hardware. Therefore, fewer than twenty H-6U airframes were actually developed in the subsequent years and proved less than optimal in servicing the PLA’s growing number and variants of combat aircraft. These limitations forced the PLA to embark on a supplementary effort to acquire IL-78 Midas tanker aircraft from Russia and Ukraine. After years of negotiation, the Midas tankers not only provided the PLA the means to fuel its fleet of Russian-made combat aircraft but also the aerial refueling technologies which could be applied in the creation of its own indigenous program.
However, the lack of aerial refueling continued to limit the operational power projection of both the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) as noted in a 2014 report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “At the moment, the Chinese do not have a sizeable or modern fleet of tankers and many of their current aircraft are not engineered for aerial refueling, a scenario which limits their reach… China’s current fleet of air refueling aircraft, which consists of approximately twelve 1950s-era H–6U tankers, is too small to support sustained, large-scale, long-distance air combat.”
In an attempt to address this operational limitation and establish a sustainable aerial refueling program of its own, the PLAAF initiated an indigenous aerial refueling program via the Xi’an Y-20 “Kunpeng” (named after an ancient Chinese mythical bird that can fly for thousands of miles) heavy transport aircraft platform with the first Y-20 prototype, successfully making its first flight at Shaanxi Yanliang Aviation Base in January 2013. The ensuing years involved prototype and engine research, development, testing and evaluation.
Then in March 2017, the PLA publicly confirmed the series production of the Y-20. The aircraft’s design chief Tang Chang Hong said that after eight months of operational trials, the PLAAF was pleased with the airlifter. “The Y-20 is a good starting point and will enable us to produce larger and more ‘important’ aircraft projects.” These “more important aircraft projects” likely include airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and aerial refueling variants.
But aerial refueling represents only part of the long-distance, airborne power-projection equation.
Since 2007, the PLAAF has been flight testing its latest comprehensive upgrade of its H-6K Badger bomber to include aerial refueling capability. Since March of 2015, the PLAAF has utilized the H-6 bomber platform to conduct long-range and increasingly complex over-water air combat operations all along its eastern coastline, including the Sea of Japan, the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea. These flights originally concentrated on breaking through the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific via both the Miyako Strait (between Okinawa and Taiwan) and the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the Philippines). In 2016, the PLAAF expanded these flights to include circumnavigating Taiwan and flying “combat air patrols” over disputed features in the South China Sea, including Fiery Cross Reef, Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef and Woody Island. These flights are becoming more complex through the incorporation of at least six different types of supporting aircraft, including intelligence/reconnaissance, early warning, fighter and electronic warfare aircraft. Additionally, many of these flights have taken place via direct interaction with PLA Navy surface action groups, coordination that underscores an increasingly joint Chinese military.
Strategically, these bomber flights are not only meant to coerce and pressure Taiwan and the Tsai administration but also to discourage U.S. armed forces intervention into a potential China-Taiwan conflict. Operationally, these flights provide vital operational training for PLAAF crews on a range of skills that can only be cultivated in a combat-realistic situation, such as pilot endurance flights, varying weather conditions over water, navigational challenges, interaction with foreign aircraft and signals intelligence collection. Aerial refueling, although utilized during these flights by escort fighters on a very limited basis, did not play much of a factor.
With a reported combat range of nearly 1,890 nautical miles (nm), the H-6K can carry six CJ-10 or CJ-20 land-attack cruise missiles with ranges of over 430 and 1,080 nm respectively. Alternatively, the H-6K could carry the YJ-12 anti-shipping missile with a range of 220 nm. Assuming air superiority within the first island chain and east of Taiwan via a combination of fighters and special mission aircraft, the H-6K could easily threaten land and sea-based targets operating inside the second island chain—areas such as Japan, the Philippines, Guam, Palau and northern Australia.
Assuming air superiority within the first island chain and farther east of Taiwan, the combination of Y-20 aerial refueling and the H-6K bombers’ long-range missiles, the H-6K gains the ability to put U.S. and partner armed forces operating outside the second island chain, such as Alaska and Hawaii at risk. Additionally, depending on overflight restrictions, or a lack thereof, strike distances could also range all of Russia, the Middle East and as far west as the Red Sea.
Furthermore, should the PLAAF be able to create and sustain a multiple-hit refueling air bridge of its own—presumably while operating within a weapons-engagement umbrella provided by a combination of air-refuelable, low-observable fighters such as the J-20, J-16, or J-31 and the long-range, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missile capabilities of the PLA Navy’s Type 055 Renhai and Type 052 Luyang III destroyers—these strikes ranges could be extended even farther.
The PLA’s aerial refueling program is rapidly progressing to a formidable and sustainable model. The Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft represents a significant evolutionary step for the Chinese military. Once the Y-20 is fully operational, it will be capable of refueling multiple variants of PLAAF and PLANAF strike and support aircraft which could be combined to form a lethal, long-range airborne land and maritime strike capability. Coupled with the extended endurance and long-range armament of an air-refuelable H-6K Badger bomber, the PLA will not only be able to threaten U.S. and partner land bases and sea-based strike groups operating well beyond the second island chain in the U.S. Pacific Command area of operations but also threaten forces operating within both the U.S. Central Command and U.S. European Command areas of responsibility. This threat presents a formidable challenge to U.S. military and political planners as they consider possible military engagement scenarios against China.