China deploys JH-7A for close air bombing in ‘Taiwan scenario’

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The JH-7A strike fighters, belonging to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army [PLA] Air Force, have recently been seen enhancing the capabilities of ground forces. This enhancement was observable during recent cross-service exercises in the southern part of China. 

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These sophisticated strike fighters, operated by the Southern Theatre Command’s aviation brigade, collaborated effectively with the special forces from the army, navy, and air force. Together, they sharpened their skills near aerial fire support, once again demonstrating the impressive versatility of the JH-7 aircraft in various combat situations.

The exercises consisted of detailed red-on-blue war games, where the Red Team, composed of cross-service special forces, found themselves hampered by suppressive fire from the Blue Team while launching a strike on an adversary’s lookout. Consequently, the Red Team called upon the formidable JH-7 strike fighters. Provided with precise coordinates, these tactical assets were quick to locate the Red Team and rigorously engage the opposing Blue Team entities.

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Under EW cover 

Protected by electronic warfare systems, the JH-7s were swiftly able to assess and report any damage following their strikes. The strike planes maintained close communication with the ground-special forces of the Red Team. The instant these aircraft were targeted by the Blue Team’s man-portable surface-to-air missile systems, their ground counterparts alerted them. This quick warning facilitated immediate disengagement via jamming flares. 

After the exercise, the Southern Theatre Command declared an improvement in the close-up aerial fire support capabilities of the aircraft. Consequently, they established a standard procedure to govern their future combat missions. 

These drills hold significant importance, especially given that the Southern Theatre Command oversees potential operations across the Taiwan Strait. In this context, the collaboration between special forces and fighting aircraft is expected to be crucial.

JH-7A is not Su-25 or A-10

Although China doesn’t have manned aircraft specifically designed for close air support like the Russian Su-25 or the American A-10, it employs drones and strike fighters to strengthen its ground forces, much like those nations planning to retire their close air support aircraft without ready replacements. The JH-7, despite not being explicitly designed for this role, is one of the leading contenders within China’s aerial fleet for providing close air support. 

Photo credit: SavunmaSanayiST.com

Enemy-man-portable surface-to-air missile systems pose a substantial threat to such aircraft. The danger stems from their lack of radar signatures, allowing them to assimilate stealthily within infantry formations and leaving little to no warning time when deployed. However, strategic coordination with ground special forces can significantly reduce the risk of these attacks. 

The People’s Liberation Army [PLA] acknowledged the necessity for precision air-to-surface capabilities when projecting the future role of its Air Force. In response, the JH-7 was upgraded to the JH-7A to cater to this requirement. Tang Changhong and Wu Jieqin served as the chief and deputy designers of the JH-7A project, respectively.

About JH-7A

Photo credit: China Military

Boasting a design that is both lighter and stronger than its predecessor, the JH-7, the JH-7A can handle an impressive maximum payload of 9,000 kg. This capability enables the People’s Liberation Army Naval Air Force [PLANAF] to transport four YJ-82 anti-ship missiles – a clear step up from the JH-7’s capacity of two. The JH-7A also exhibits a unique, indigenously developed, helmet-mounted sight [HMS], a feature currently under evaluation that was crafted by the Xi’an Optronics Group. Interestingly, this HMS was modeled on one designed for a helicopter by the same group, resulting in a significant overlap of common components between the two. 

The HMS under trial on the JH-7A is impressively versatile and compatible with both air-to-air and surface-based missiles. It also pairs well with various airborne sensors including radars and electro-optics. This design hierarchy places the sensors as secondary to the HMS, significantly reducing the time needed for weapon tracking and targeting processes. The JH-7A’s cockpit, a combination of new and old, still includes a few single-function dial indicators. However, it now also features a couple of large, multi-function, color liquid crystal displays which can be set to monochrome at the pilot’s discretion. 

Beyond these features, the JH-7A’s avionic advancements are impressive. They include the substitution of the Type 960-2 silencer with the BM/KJ-8605, the replacement of the Type 265A radar altimeter with the fully digitized Type 271 variant, and the introduction of a fly-by-wire flight control system. Furthermore, the outdated JL-10 Type 232H radar was replaced with the more advanced airborne pulse-doppler radar, equipping the JH-7A with the capability to deploy laser-guided bombs and Kh31-P anti-radiation missiles.

Photo credit: China Military

Taiwan scenario

When devising a strategy for an invasion of Taiwan, Chinese strategists may consider two possible scenarios. The first one envisions a traditional siege and amphibious attack, supported by a fleet of ships leading assaults on several of the dozen beaches on Taiwan’s northern and western flanks. These beaches front the Taiwan Strait and have fortified defenses. 

The second strategy, which could be implemented in tandem with the first, leans heavily on an aerial/helicopter assault and special operations. This method brings to mind the German invasion of Norway in April 1940 or, more specifically, the largely airborne German offensive on Crete in May 1941. In the latter attack, the Germans were never able to gain full control of the waters around Crete. However, they established sufficient aerial control to create discomfort for British naval vessels operating in the area and to parachute in the troops they needed, despite these troops being outnumbered by ground defenders. 

Photo credit: Sohu

This approach could also take cues from the British air and sea assault on the Falkland Islands in the spring of 1982. In this second scenario, the aim could be to instantly incapacitate Taiwan’s government and secure critical facilities. The goal here is to swiftly terminate the conflict with the initial attack, making the subsequent landing of additional forces easier and less contested.

Risky assaults

It’s crucial to remember, as underscored by military experts, that such attacks are inherently risky and challenging to execute. In reality, the Taiwanese would possess substantial inherent strengths. In the first wave of attack, only a limited number of forces could land.

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Defensively speaking, if readiness and determination were present, larger forces could be concentrated near the site of attack, unless somehow diverted or immobilized by the aggressor. The focus should then shift to maintaining the established forces through the thousands of tons of supplies required to sustain modern military activities. As yet another limiting factor, consider the weather conditions of the Taiwan Strait. These conditions pose a significant challenge for intricate operations most of the year. Additionally, Taiwan’s terrain doesn’t lend itself well to traditional amphibious assault. 

Furthermore, the Taiwanese have another significant advantage on their side. Over the past decade, the precision of missiles and sensors has significantly increased, yet at a relatively low cost. This advancement gives the defender, equipped with such weaponry, a profound advantage. Being armed with a sufficient number of these advanced missiles and durable or relocatable sensors to detect their targets, less expensive missiles could easily take down large incoming targets such as ships and high-cost aircraft.

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