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A number of the PLA’s Y-9 transport aircraft conducted a drill over the South China Sea. Photo: Weibo

Combat ready: Chinese air force puts new Y-9 transport planes through paces in South China Sea drill

Air force exercise tests pilots, equipment and integration of military commands

China’s home-grown Y-9 transport aircraft appears to be combat ready after completing its first long-distance exercise over the South China Sea.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced on its social media account on Saturday that a fleet of the aircraft from the Western Theatre Command flew thousands of kilometres to simulate an airdrop over an island in the contested waters before returning the same day.

The exercise was conducted in mock combat conditions and without weather data or guidance from a command centre, the statement said.

Military observers said the exercise was an attempt to show the PLA’s ability to fend off attacks from the sea and to mobilise different theatre commands in a crisis.

The Y-9 medium-lift transport aircraft can carry up to 25 tonnes of cargo and has a range of around 7,800km.

The aircraft simulated an airdrop before returning to base the same day. Photo: Weibo

Liu Bao, one of the PLA officers who took part in the drill, said the exercise was a complex task for the pilots and the equipment.

Retired PLA colonel Yue Gang said the long-distance drill showed the Y-9 could do airdrops anywhere in the South China Sea.

“It shows the Y-9 is a good tactical transport aircraft to deal with small incidents near these waters and can increase the Chinese military’s flexibility,” he said.

Collin Koh, a research fellow on maritime security from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the deployment of aircraft from the Western Theatre Command on the border with India to the Southern Theatre Command which covers the South China Sea signalled the integration of different PLA units.

“The PLA is gradually improving its ability to not just employ the Southern Theatre Command to execute those missions but also to demonstrate that in the event of an escalation of a crisis or prolonged conflict, it’s possible for the PLA to tap forces from other theatres, even if those theatres are not fully involved,” Koh said.

The exercise was a test of the crew and the equipment, a pilot involved in the drill said. Photo: Weibo

But Koh said it remained to be seen how much backup the Western Theatre Command could really give over the South China Sea.

“In the event of a South China Sea crisis, it’s also not inconceivable to think of a second front brewing along the disputed Sino-Indian border areas, which would certainly tie up the Western Theatre Command and limit its ability to support,” he said.

It was the second time in a week that state media reported Chinese aircraft conducting drills in the South China Sea, where the country has started building islands on a large scale.

China Central Television reported earlier this week that several J-11B fighter jets took off from a military airport in southern China and headed towards the deeper waters of the South China Sea for an air combat drill.

The report also showed one J-11B entering a sealed hanger on Woody Island, China’s main military base in the contested Paracels. According to Washington-based think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, China has substantially stepped up land reclamation, deployed surface-to-air missiles, and test-fired anti-ship cruise missiles on the island in the past few years.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: New cargo planes join South China Sea exercise