H-6K Take-off and Landing Exercise in the South China Sea
The South China Sea island where the H-6K carried out Take-off and Landing is identified as the Yongxing island (Woody Island) by spotting the land features and concrete structures in the video footage released by China.
Multiple landing and take-offs were reportedly carried out as part of the exercise.
The facilities would also present the bombers with extended range fighter escort as permanent structures such as thermo-stabilised hangers, protected ammunition storage facilities and fuel dumps are built on some of these islands that facilitate permanent deployment of fighters.
As far as the strategic military significance of this event is concerned, the utilisation of the island airbase would enhance the operational reach and reduce the reaction time of the bomber in responding to threats to China’s sea-lines of communication, particularly around the highly congested Strait area.
This exercise points to the prospect of the PLAN landing its H-6G variant in the future which would enhance anti-ship support/targeting at a greater distance from the mainland.
No permanent deployment of the bomber is foreseen as the current infrastructure in the islands cannot support it.
China is also beefing up defensive capability on the man-made islands by deploying SAM systems, radars and EW systems. The satellite imagery below shows the presence of a single HQ-9 SAM battery deployed in Yongxing/Woody Island. Recent reports from the US claim the presence of HQ-9 and anti-ship missiles on Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef. However, current imagery does not reveal any such deployments. It is possible that the systems were either removed or concealed inside concrete structures.
Given the nature of the threat to these island bases, the deployment of the JY-26 radar system can be expected in the future.
The militarisation of the South China Sea helps Beijing assert control over the disputed territory. However, in the event of an actual conflict involving the United States, these island bases are vulnerable enough to be taken out of the equation in the initial stage of the battle.