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Analysis: China boosts Jiangxi air defense

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Andrei Chang
Hong Kong (UPI) May 16, 2008
China's air force has substantially reinforced its air defense posture in Jiangxi province in the past year. There are indications that China has completed its second-line air defense operational deployment against Taiwan centered on Fujian and Jiangxi provinces. This has greatly expanded the depth of China's air defense coverage.

The People's Liberation Army Air Force has taken a number of steps to reinforce its air defense capabilities in Jiangxi. First of all, at least two battalions of S300-PMU1 or PMU2 surface-to-air missiles were deployed at Nanchang. In the northern suburbs of Nanchang city, at least two S300 SAM positions have been detected, which are believed to be typical fixed-launch sites rather than those used for mobile SAM launch training.

Secondly, 24 J-11 fighters have been deployed at the Xiangtang military airport, where the PLA Air Force No. 14 Division is stationed. Twenty-four aircraft hangars have been built at this airport, and the original earth-mound aircraft hangars are no longer in use.

The PLA Air Force's J-11 units are normally equipped with 24 J-11 fighters at each regiment, and this means that the No. 14 Division has become a key combat unit on the second front line.

The construction of the above makeshift aircraft hangars is not just symbolic. Rather, this is an indication that these combat units are now the focus of priority buildup. Moreover, new residential buildings have been built for the commanding officers, similar to those at the Luliang Airport in southwestern Yunnan province.

Generally speaking, all the combat units that are equipped with the so-called "front-line support aircraft hangars" are considered key units of the PLA Air Force and given "priority buildup."

In south China, Nanchang is the only city other than Shanghai where two battalions of S-300 SAMs -- surface to-air missiles -- are deployed. Why is this provincial capital under such heavy protection? The air force apparently is guarding against the scenario in which Taiwan's tactical air force may launch deep attacks upon targets in inland China if they managed to break through the S-300 air defense network in coastal Fujian province.

Jiangxi would be the most import region for China's strategic air defense in the event of a confrontation with Taiwan. In other words, Jiangxi is the strategic corridor of China. Although an air defense shield comprising at least four or five S-300 battalions has been established in Fujian, the PLA Air Force is still worried that Taiwan's Air Force F-16s may be able to launch deep attacks upon inland Chinese targets with the help of their outstanding anti-electronic jamming capability and low-air assault power.

The deployment of S-300 SAMs in Nanchang is intended to achieve a number of goals. First, the whole of Jiangxi province is a critical strategic base for second-line combat operations against Taiwan. The PLA Air Force No. 821 Brigade and No. 815 Brigade are stationed at Guangzhou in the south and Leping in northern Jiangxi, respectively. Both are key bases for DF-15 SSMs.

The No. 807 Brigade and No. 811 Brigade stationed at Shitai and Qimen respectively in Anhui province are also very close to the Anhui-Jiangxi border. Thus, the deployment of the highly mobile S-300 SAMs in Nanchang would make it easier for the PLA Air Force to react to attacks by Taiwan's F-16 fighters upon these military bases.

Second, Nanchang would be in the pathway of any Taiwanese fighters intending to launch an assault on the city of Wuhan. Deploying S300 SAMs in Nanchang means putting in place an air defense shield for the key metropolitan areas of central China.

Further to the west of Wuhan is the strategically important Three Gorges Dam, and this is the ultimate reason for the deployment of the S-300 SAMs in Nanchang. In other words, the missiles provide a second-line air defense network to guard against attacks from Taiwanese fighter aircraft.

The likelihood that F-16 fighters would attack the Three Gorges Dam varies with respect to their combat radius, flight altitude and external fuel capacity. F-16 fighters barely have the capacity to undertake such combat missions.

Currently, the S-300 SAMs are mainly aimed at guarding against the U.S. Air Force's B-2A bombers that may fly across this area to attack the Three Gorges Dam. Further to the north, the S-300 SAMs deployed in the Shanghai region could also pose a threat to U.S. B-2A bombers that might launch surprise assaults upon the dam through Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. Under this circumstance, the SAMs deployed around Nanchang obviously would play an important role in providing air protection for the Three Gorges Dam.

The current deployment greatly expands the air force's surveillance coverage of this region. The missiles' 64N6E search radar can search the airspace within a 300-kilometer range. If these radar systems are linked with the S300/64N6E search radars deployed in Fujian, the vast area of Fujian and Jiangxi would be under close surveillance by these radar systems.

In the event of a confrontation, the S-300 SAMs deployed in Nanchang could also engage in coordinated combat operations with the J-11 fighters of the PLA Air Force No. 14 Division stationed at Xiangtang. If a confrontation broke out, more Chinese combat aircraft would be assigned to duty in the possible pathways of Taiwanese fighters in order to enhance fast reaction capability.

The J-11 fighters of the PLA Air Force No. 14 Division are the third-generation fighter unit closest to the Taiwan Strait front. The reaction time of this division would be quicker than the No. 3 Division stationed in Wuhu and the No. 2 Division stationed in Suixi. Moreover, the whole second-line air defense would be greatly reinforced due to the deployment of J-10A fighters at the PLA Air Force No. 2 Division Air Base in Guilin.

(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)

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