The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) announced on May 18 that it had landed bombers, including the top-of-the-line H-6K, on an outpost in the South China Sea for the first time. Social media posts on the PLAAF’s Weibo account, as well as the state-owned People’s Daily Twitter account, showed a long-range bomber landing and taking off from Woody Island—China’s largest base in the Paracel Islands.
Chinese bombers including the H-6K conduct takeoff and landing training on an island reef at a southern sea area pic.twitter.com/ASY9tGhfAU
— People’s Daily,China (@PDChina) May 18, 2018
AMTI has previously detailed Woody Island’s role as a blueprint for eventual deployments to the Spratly Islands farther south. China has built large hangars at all three of its “Big 3” outposts in the Spratlys (Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs) that can accommodate bombers like the H-6 series (as well as large transport, patrol, and refueling aircraft).
The base H-6 aircraft’s combat radius of nearly 1000 nautical miles means even China’s basic bombers taking off from Woody Island could cover the entire South China Sea. Nearly all of the Philippines falls within the radius of the bombers, including Manila and all five Philippine military bases earmarked for development under the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. An H-6K, with its technical upgrades giving it a combat radius of nearly 1900 nautical miles, would dwarf this radius, putting all of Southeast Asia in range of flights from Woody Island.
Future deployments to the Big 3 in the Spratlys would bring Singapore and much of Indonesia within range of even China’s lower-end bombers, while the H-6Ks could reach northern Australia or U.S. defense facilities on Guam.
This news comes on the heels of other recent deployments of Chinese military platforms in the South China Sea, including Y-8 military transport planes, YJ-12B cruise missiles, and HQ-9B surface-to-air missile systems on each of the Big 3.