Saturday, December 4, 2021

‘F-35 Stealth Fighters’ Detected At China Military Base; High-Value American Military Assets On PLA Radar?

Amid rising tensions with the US, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is practicing assaults on “high-value American military assets”.

The EurAsian Times recently reported on how PLA has practiced missile attacks on a mockup of a US Ford-class aircraft carrier. And the latest reports suggest the Chinese have also carried out a similar exercise to “shoot down” the Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters.

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South China Morning Post has confirmed the presence of the mock F-35 fighter jets at the Korla Shooting Range in Xinjiang. Chinese military analysts have reportedly called this Beijing’s deterrence bid against the US and Japan in the backdrop of the Taiwan issue.

The latest edition of the Kanva Military Magazine said four mockups of the F-35 Lightning II jet were spotted at the said shooting range. The report cited satellite imagery to authenticate its claim.

F-35 Lighting II
The F-35 Lighting II

Satellite imagery also suggests the use of a mockup of an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft at the same site. Planet Labs, an American private Earth-imaging company, released images of Boeing E3 Sentry mockups being used by China to test its ballistic missile.

These reports come a few days after China reportedly used American warships as targets amid rising tensions with the United States.

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Upping The Ante

The mockups of F-35 jets could possibly be the targets for the PLA Rocket Force’s DF-16 and DF-21C medium-range ballistic missiles and therefore a message to the US Air Force base in Japan, said Andrei Chang, the editor of the Kanwa magazine.

Chinese military experts have often expressed the possibility of Japan getting dragged into a US-China conflict over Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.

The D-16, a modern Dongfeng class missile with a range of about 800-1000km, can strike both Taiwan and Japan. The DF-21C, on the other hand, is a lethal terminally guided missile with a range of 1700km, putting multiple American bases in Japan at risk.

F-35 mockups
Google Earth image shows F-35 mock-ups in the PLA shooting range. (Image courtesy: Kanwa International Journal)

The F-35 Lightning II jets are one of the most lethal aircraft in the world and one that China has been trying to compete with, by building its own stealth fighter aircraft.

The F-35 boasts all-weather stealth multi-role capabilities that allow it to perform both air superiority and strike missions. It also has in its armor, the ability to perform electronic warfare and surveillance.

The US military recently conducted tests of delivery of nuclear gravity bombs using the fifth-generation F-35.

American AWACS Plane

The satellite imagery shows mockups of two E3 Sentry AWACS aircraft sitting on PLA’s most potent weapon testing complexes in northern China’s Gobi desert. After the E3 images surfaced, The War Zone investigated the duration for which these mockups were present in the testing complex.

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This led to the discovery of a report released by the Centre for a New America Security that was published in February this year.

The report confirmed the presence of one E3 Sentry back then. Based on this report and OSIT based evidence, it could be estimated that one of the E3 mockups has been on the Gobi runway for about a year, while the second one has been introduced this year.

Boeing E-3 Sentry - Wikipedia
Boeing E-3 Sentry (Wikipedia)

The E3 is an AWACS system built to carry out airborne surveillance and control, command and communication functions. It has a look-down radar with 360-degree coverage capability and has a range of more than 320km.

The aircraft is primarily used to track land and sea-based targets. With more aggressive American arrays in the Indo-Pacific region and its free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) position, these air warning systems become especially significant to the Chinese military.

The aircraft is deployed by the US as E-3 AWACS, by the UK as E-3 Sentry AWE and by France as E-3 SDA. With rising animosity between the US-led NATO and China, such mockup target drills assume enhanced geostrategic significance. It could be interpreted as China sending a signal to its Western rivals.

Chinese Psy-Ops? 

Earlier, the Chinese military built mockups of American aircraft carriers and other warships in the Taklamakan desert of the Xinjiang region. It had practiced sinking a US Ford-class carrier using its DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.

Satellite images captured by Maxar Technologies on October 20, 2021, showed the outlines of a Ford-class US aircraft carrier and at least one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, according to the report.

DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile
The DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.

These exercises could be part of China’s psychological operations to intimidate its adversaries in the Indo-Pacific. The American bonhomie and support for Taiwan, which goes against its stated “one-China policy” has become the thorniest issue between the two arch-rivals.

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The US-led AUKUS alliance that is being seen as a military grouping to contain China in the Asia-Pacific seems to have added fuel to fire.

Even though mock-up target drills are no measure of actual weapon system efficacy, it is clear now that China is sending an indirect message that it is ready to take on any military if its own interests are jeopardized.

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