The Pentagon indicates that Beijing continues its quest to develop advanced airpower capabilities, as a US bomber operates a joint sortie with North Asian allies.

Published on 19 October, the annual report covers the broad spectrum of Beijing’s military development, from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force to naval aviation in the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Xian H-6N October 2019

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Xian H-6N is the first H-6 variant to feature an air-to-air refueling probe

“The PLAAF is rapidly catching up to Western air forces,” says the report, entitled Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. “The PLAAF continues to modernise with the delivery of domestically built aircraft and a wide range of UASs.”

The Pentagon estimates that the PLAAF and PLAN Aviation have 1,300 fighters of the fourth-generation standard, while the PLAAF continues to field the fifth-generation Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter.

“The PLAAF is preparing upgrades for the J-20, which may include increasing the number of air-to-air missiles (AAM) the fighter can carry in its low-observable configuration, installing thrust-vectoring engine nozzles, and adding super cruise capability by installing higher-thrust indigenous WS-15 engines,” says the report.

Work also continues with the Shenyang FC-31/J-31 – also designated as J-35. This fighter will eventually be deployed aboard Chinese aircraft carriers, and the Pentagon believes it is still on offer for the export market.

The Pentagon notes that Beijing has placed great emphasis on making the PLAAF more capable of joint operations, as it modernises its bomber fleet with the Xian H-6N strategic bomber and continues work on the H-20 strategic stealth bomber.

Unmanned air vehicles are a major focus. Beijing operates UAVs in several intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. It is also working to improve its fleet of aircraft for air transport and special missions.

“The PRC’s aviation industry continues to advance with deliveries of its domestic Y-20 large transport aircraft and completion of the world’s largest seaplane, the AG600,” says the report.

“These transports will supplement and eventually replace the PRC’s small fleet of strategic airlift assets, which to date, consists of a limited number of Russian-made Il-76 aircraft.”

One challenge Beijing faces is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to hurts its ability to obtain military equipment and maintenance services from either country. This is particularly true in the area of aircraft engines.

Separately, the US Indo-Pacific Command says that Japan, South Korea, and the USA have conducted a “trilateral escort flight” for a US Air Force Boeing B-52 bomber in the region.

The flight – the first the three nations have conducted together – involved Japan Air Self-Defense Force Mitsubishi F-2s, Republic of Korea Air Force Boeing F-15Ks, and USAF Lockheed Martin F-16s.

“This aerial exercise builds on the continued interoperability of our collective forces and demonstrates the strength of the trilateral relationship with our Japan and Republic of Korea allies,” says USAF.

“Our international cooperation is reflective of our shared values and resolve against those who challenge regional stability.”

Amid concerns about China’s growing military threat, the USA has worked to bolster its alliances in the region.