Beijing used the 70th birthday party of communist rule in China to display an impressive array of firepower.
Involving a total of 15,000 personnel, hundreds of vehicles, as well as over 100 aircraft and helicopters, the parade was conducted under extremely tight security in Beijing.
As with previous such events authorities have worked to reduce local emissions during recent weeks. Still, smog hung in the air of Beijing.
From an aviation perspective one highlight, which had been photographed during practice sessions, was the new Xian H-6N. The latest iteration of the Chinese stalwart sees the addition of an air-to-air refuelling probe. Given a sufficient number of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) tankers, this would allow the type, which is focused on anti-shipping missions, to operate across larger areas. The three aircraft in the parade each carried four air-launched cruise missiles – two KD-63s and two CJ-10s – across their six hard points.
Another innovation appears to be the removal of the bomb bay and the creation of a concave belly. Fervent on-line speculation suggests this will allow the H-6N to carry the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile under its centreline.
“If [ballistic missile speculation] is correct then this would be an impressive anti-ship standoff capability for the PLAAF, that would extend the utility of the DF-21D out well beyond the first island chain,” says Malcolm Davis, senior analyst, defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“That would theoretically match the ground-launched DF-26 anti-ship capable [intermediate range ballistic missile], and increase the risk for US aircraft carrier battlegroups to penetrate inside the second island chain…the Chinese are clearly trying to make it costlier for the US to project power into the western pacific, to the point where the US simply chooses not to intervene in a crisis around Taiwan, for example.”
Underlining this point were parade commentators, who highlighted that the vehicle-launched DF-26 ballistic missiles in the parade were optimised to attack ships.
The air display featured five Chengdu J-20s. An image apparently taken during one of the event’s practice sessions, however, showed seven J-20s. It is not clear why two examples were omitted from the final display. There were also other fighters such as the J-10, Shenyang J-11, and J-15 naval fighter. Airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) assets in the flyby included the KJ-2000, KJ-200A, and KJ-500.
A range of helicopters and support aircraft also appeared including six examples of the Harbin Z-20, which is similar to the Sikorsky S-70.
The ground portion of the parade included a number of notable elements, such as a two-man gyrocopter intended for use by special forces.
Beijing also highlighted its unmanned air combat vehicles, with an AVIC Sharp Sword flying wing mounted on a truck, while other trucks bore a pair of black, delta-shaped UAVs that did not appear to have air intakes. Images of the Sharp Sword emerged in 2013 with reports of flight tests. It is not clear what its mission is, but the parade revealed that its designation is GJ-11. In addition, high resolution images of the Sharp Sword in the parade showed a notable lack of detail, suggesting a mockup.
Such systems could play a role in Beijing’s anti-access/aerial denial strategy, which is designed to keep US forces far from its shores in the event of a conflict. Using ballistic missiles against fast moving ships requires an elaborate “kill chain” where forward deployed assets, such as stealthy UAVs, would be needed to pass timely targeting data back to launchers.
There were also 16 CASIC DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicles mounted on trucks. The weapon, launched atop a ballistic missile, would glide into its target after release. Its ability to maneuver mid-flight is deemed to make it invulnerable to missile defences.
The parade also saw the debut of the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile. Deployed from a mobile launcher, the DF-41 is apparently capable of delivering up to 12 multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles at vast ranges. Both the DF-17 and DF-41 are viewed as counters to western missile defence capabilities.