Russian, Chinese Bombers Land At Each Other’s Airfields After Joint Patrols

Long-range bombers from Russia and China have conducted “joint patrols” over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, with South Korean and Japanese fighter jets being scrambled to intercept them. While combined bomber missions of this kind are by no means unprecedented, today’s exercises included Russian and Chinese aircraft landing on each other’s airfields, for the first time in this type of exercise, in a sign of expanding cooperation.

At least some of the Russian aircraft involved landed at an undisclosed Chinese airbase, reportedly in Zhejiang Province, as evidenced by multiple videos showing Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Tu-95MS Bear-Hs over China. Clearly, the distinctive drone of the bomber’s huge turboprops captured the attention of many observers.

It’s unconfirmed whether the Russian aircraft were refueled at the Chinese base, but that seems likely, and they later returned to their home stations. Chinese aircraft reciprocated, making visits to an airfield in Russia. Regardless, this may well have been the first time ever that Tu-95 bombers have visited China, although Chinese bombers have previously deployed to Russia for exercises in that country.

Meanwhile, an official video from the Russian Ministry of Defense shows the Tu-95MS bombers departing Ukrainka Air Base, in the Amur Oblast of Russia’s Far East, although it’s unclear if this is the same airfield that the PLAAF bombers visited.

As well as the Tu-95MS aircraft, the bomber drills involved People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) H-6Ks. While the designs of both of these aircraft date back to the early years of the Cold War, they have been successively upgraded, and the latest versions are armed with a range of advanced air-launched cruise missiles.

While the Tu-95MS is familiar as one of the key nuclear-capable assets within Russian Long-Range Aviation, the nuclear status of the H-6K is a little less clear. The Pentagon’s latest report on the Chinese military describes the similar, but newer, H-6N variant as Beijing’s “first nuclear-capable air-to-air refuelable bomber.”

A photo of a PLAAF H-6K bomber provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense. JASDF

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Tu-95MS aircraft were in the air for around eight hours and were escorted, for at least some of this time, by VKS Su-30SM and Su-35S Flanker multi-role fighters.

A VKS Su-35S is seen from the cockpit of a Tu-95MS. The fighter jet carries at least two R-73 series (AA-11 Archer) air-to-air missiles. Russian Ministry of Defense screencap

“At some stages of the route the strategic missile carriers were accompanied by foreign fighters,” Russia’s defense ministry added, apparently in reference to the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) fighters, including F-15K Slam Eagles, that were scrambled in response. South Korea’s military said that these jets were launched after two Chinese and six Russian military aircraft entered its air defense zone.

Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said that two PLAAF H-6s “repeatedly entered and left” the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) off the country’s southern and northeast coasts, beginning at around 5:48 AM local time, this morning. The Chinese bombers initially entered from an area 78 miles northwest of Leo Islet, a submerged rock and ocean research center south of the southern island of Jeju, before leaving the KADIZ at 6:13 AM.

The KADIZ is not part of Seoul’s airspace, but South Korea expects foreign aircraft operating here to identify themselves. It’s not clear if the Russian and Chinese aircraft had their transponders on or made efforts to check in with air traffic control authorities, but Russian military aircraft, in particular, frequently ignore these protocols.

At 6:44 AM the PLAAF bombers reentered the KADIZ from an area northeast of the southern port city of Pohang and exited the zone again at 7:07 AM.

Subsequently, according to the JCS account, the two PLAAF bombers re-entered the KADIZ at 12:18 PM after flying from an area 124 miles northeast of Ulleung Island. This time they were accompanied by four Tu-95MS and two Su-35S aircraft from the VKS. These are said to have remained in the KADIZ for 18 minutes before departing, at 12:36 PM.

Tu-95MS Bear-H
A Tu-95MS Bear-H as seen in a screencap from an official Russian Ministry of Defense video released today. Russian Ministry of Defense screencap Russian Ministry of Defense screencap
Another Japanese Ministry of Defense handout from today showing two Tu-95MS bombers. JASDF

“Our military dispatched air force fighter jets ahead of the Chinese and Russian aircraft’s entry of the KADIZ to implement tactical measures in preparation for a potential contingency,” the JCS said in a statement.

At no time did the Russian and Chinese aircraft violate South Korea’s sovereign airspace.

At the same time, it’s important to note that the KADIZ is not recognized by Russia. China, meanwhile, pointed to the fact that the KADIZ does not constitute South Korean territorial airspace and that it is appropriate for other countries to exercise freedom of movement in these areas.

A PLAAF H-6K bomber. JASDF

As well as the ROKAF, fighter jets from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force were scrambled to respond. The Japanese Ministry of Defense said its fighters met the two Chinese bombers as they flew from the East China Sea, passing through the Tsushima Strait, into the Sea of Japan.

A map provided by the Japanese defense ministry also shows that a pair of aircraft — presumed to be PLAAF J-16 Flanker multi-role fighters — escorted the bombers, at least for a time, while they were over the East China Sea. A pair of photos released by the Japanese Ministry of Defense today clearly show J-16s. Meanwhile, another two unidentified Chinese fighters also spent some time accompanying the bombers while they transited the Tsushima Strait.

A map provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense showing the flight paths of the Russian and Chinese bombers, as well as the two presumed PLAAF J-16s (purple) and another two unidentified Chinese fighters (gray). Japanese Ministry of Defense
Although of poor quality, these Japanese Ministry of Defense photos clearly show PLAAF J-16s, which spent some time escorting the bombers. JASDF

According to a report from Reuters, Tokyo said that the H-6s were also joined by two Russian drones of a type that was not disclosed, although there is no further corroboration of this and it’s unclear if Russia even operates an unmanned aerial vehicle with the requisite range to venture this far. Perhaps, after all, these were misidentified Chinese drones. Indeed, we have seen Chinese UAVs in these areas in the past.

Joint exercises by Russian and Chinese military aircraft in the Asia Pacific region have taken place on various other occasions in the past, most recently in May, when Seoul’s JCS confirmed that Russian and Chinese aircraft had entered the KADIZ.

Russian and Chinese aircraft entering the KADIZ have also led to some tense incidents in the past, most notably in 2019, when ROKAF fighters fired hundreds of warning shots toward Russian military aircraft during joint aerial drills with China, although Moscow disputed that this ever happened.

In December 2020 an especially large formation of Russian and Chinese aircraft entered the KADIZ, with two Tu-95MS and four H-6K bombers accompanied by at least 13 other VKS aircraft, including several Su-35S fighters, according to a statement from Seoul’s Ministry of Defense. You can read more about that episode here.

Official footage of joint air patrols by Russian and Chinese aircraft from the drills in December 2020:

There have been other high-profile examples of joint military maneuvers involving Russian and Chinese forces in recent years. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Russian Army took part in the ZAPAD/INTERACTION drills in 2021, with the latter portion of this being conducted on Chinese soil for the first time. According to the latest Pentagon report on China, PLA and Russian forces “underwent theoretical and systems training, weapon swaps, and a culminating exercise to further understanding and cooperation between the two militaries.”

Chinese troops participate in a counter-terrorism military exercise at a training range in Orenburg, Russia, in September 2021. Photo by Mei Shixiong/Xinhua via Getty Images

Aside from this, the degree of Chinese support made available for Russia’s war in Ukraine remains murky. Beijing has consistently maintained an ambiguous position and has not openly acknowledged providing assistance to Russia. However, there have been suggestions that China may well be more deeply involved than it makes out, with recent speculation that flights between the two countries by An-124 heavy transport aircraft could be connected to the movement of military supplies.

While the Russian Ministry of Defense was at pains to point out that the latest air exercise was “not directed against third countries,” the political relevance of such close military cooperation has not been entirely lost.

In recent weeks, Beijing has indicated that it’s willing to work more closely with Moscow on an economic level, with President Xi Jinping declaring he was ready to “forge a closer partnership” with Russia as regards energy. China is already a major customer of Russian oil and gas, and an expansion of this relationship would help address Moscow’s lost revenues due to sanctions over its war in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during a meeting in Beijing, in February 2022. Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Alongside continuing military partnerships, increased cooperation in the energy sector is likely to further sour relations between Beijing and Washington. While existing sanctions on Russia don’t prevent China from buying its oil and gas, President Joe Biden has nonetheless warned Beijing of unspecified consequences if it continues to assist Putin in dodging sanctions.

All in all, signs of increasing proximity between the Russian and Chinese armed forces could hardly come at a worse time for the United States, as it deals, on the one hand with the crisis in Ukraine and, on the other, its own deteriorating relations with Beijing. For South Korea, too, mired at it is in a particularly tense period of relations with North Korea, joint Russian/Chinese bomber patrols off its coast are a very unwelcome distraction.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.