A new photo indicates that China has deployed at least one H-6J missile-carrying bomber to Woody Island in the northern portion of the South China Sea for the first time ever. If confirmed, the forward-deployment of Chinese heavy aviation assets there would be a significant addition to the forces the country already has in the region and could present new challenges for potential opponents in the region, such as the United States.
One of the first mentions of the apparent deployment was on the Chinese Military Aviation blog, which said only that it took place in August 2020. A photo subsequently emerged online showing ground crew attending to an unarmed H-6J apparently soon after it arrived at Woody Island, which is located around 200 miles south of Hainan Island. While it’s not been possible to verify the date of the image, it certainly appears to have been taken at this location.
It's also not clear whether this was the only H-6J to touch down on Woody Island or if it is part of a group of bombers that made the trip. Regardless, actually landing at the island outpost is a significant development that could point to plans for more regular deployments in the future.
Back in May 2018, a People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6K made what looked like a touch-and-go landing at Woody Island. This earlier mission indicated that the base was capable of handling larger aircraft, although there’s no evidence that the twin-jet aircraft actually landed on that occasion.
If true, the introduction now of some kind of bomber presence at Woody Island — even if it’s just irregular visits by small numbers of aircraft — should be seen as part of Beijing’s wider anti-access, area-denial strategy for the South China Sea, which is one of the world’s most important shipping corridors as well as a rich fishing ground and a potential source of energy. Heavy airpower, combined with ground-based air defenses and anti-ship missiles on various island outposts, only gives China increasing options to curtail the ability of foreign militaries, especially the United States, to operate freely in the region.
Although derived from the Cold War-era Soviet Tu-16 Badger, the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) H-6J is one of the most modern bombers in the PLA inventory. It’s a naval version of the PLAAF H-6K, which features an entirely revised airframe, more efficient turbofan engines, and the potential to carry up to six long-range cruise missiles.
Compared with earlier H-6s, the J model can be distinguished by its airliner-style nose, lacking the previous glazing, and enlarged engine air intakes. This naval variant entered service in late 2018 and it can carry up to six YJ-12 heavyweight anti-ship missiles. The YJ-12 is a supersonic weapon powered by a rocket/ramjet engine and capable of a speed of around Mach 2.5 to 3.5. Carrying a 500-pound warhead, some sources assume that it was tailored for use against high-value warships including aircraft carriers.
The apparent appearance of the H-6J also reflects the ongoing militarization of Woody Island. Part of the Paracel Islands chain, a group of around 30 islands and many more 100 reefs, banks, and other maritime features, Woody Island — known to China as Yongxing Island — is already established as a forward operating base for PLA aircraft.
Back in January 2015, the first images appeared of armed PLAN J-11 Flanker fighters operating from a newly reconstructed runway and aviation support facilities. The Flankers provide a defensive umbrella that extends to cover Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands to the north, most of Vietnam to the west, the Philippines in the east, and down towards the Spratly Island archipelago. In addition to the detachments of J-11s, it is also known to host BZK-005H drones.
In addition to supporting aviation operations, Woody Island also provides a port for Chinese naval, coast guard, and fishing vessels, while the location’s military presence extends to a signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility and a radar station covering the northern portion of the South China Sea.
In February 2016, it was confirmed that China was taking steps to further bolster defenses on Woody Island when it deployed a pair of HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries there. Broadly similar to the Russian S-300, the HQ-9 has an active electronically scanned array radar and its missiles reportedly have an engagement range of between 100 and 125 miles.
In June-July 2019, Woody Island was also involved in tests of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles of an undisclosed type as part of a wider exercise. China issued Notices to Airmen (NOTAM) for two areas in the South China Sea, one of them covering an area stretching from the Chinese island of Hainan to the Paracel Island chain, including Woody Island. It seems likely that one or more anti-ship ballistic missiles were launched from the Chinese mainland, apparently testing another option for targeting high-value shipping in the South China Sea.
Beyond just reinforcing the PLA's position around Woody Island itself, deploying bombers there also allows the Chinese military to extend long-range heavy aerial firepower further south, where China has been busily building artificial outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands. This includes at Fiery Cross Reef, which has a 10,000-foot runway also capable of supporting bombers. In May 2018, it was confirmed that China had deployed both HQ-9B SAMs and ground-launched YJ-12B anti-ship missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef.
The reported H-6J deployment itself comes in the middle of a noticeable uptick in military aviation and naval activity in the region, in general, by Chinese and other militaries. Just last week, Chinese Su-30 Flankers conducted a long-range mission to the Spratly Islands.
Taiwanese F-16s armed with live Harpoon missiles also conducted a patrol in the northern end of the South China Sea. This followed reports that Chinese forces will soon conduct an exercise simulating an operation to capture the Taiwan-administered Dongsha Islands in that region.
There has been a clear increase in American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft operating in the area in recent weeks, as well. Some of this coincided with major naval exercises, including a rare event involving two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and another large drill in which Australian and Japanese ships also took part. This is all on top of steady U.S. Air Force bomber sorties in the South China Sea, as well as elsewhere in the Pacific, including flights from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, some of which is clearly intended to be signal to China.
Should tensions here escalate to the point of conflict, Beijing could now be able to project heavy air power across the region, preventing foreign forces from entering. While the deployment of the H-6J to Woody Island remains unconfirmed, it might only be a matter of time before we start to see PLA bombers and heavy missile-carriers operating routinely from bases in the South China Sea.
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Author’s note: Thanks to our friend @RupprechtDeino for first bringing our attention to the reported H-6J deployment.