The Changing Pattern of China’s Aircraft Incursions Into Taiwan’s ADIZ

The pattern of China’s aerial incursions into Taiwan’s southwestern Air Defense Identification Zone (IZ) has changed since our last two commentaries on these pages in October and November 2021. We saw a two-month pause in the dispatch of KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare and maritime patrol (ASW-MP) aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s IZ.

According to data from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), the last recorded sortie by a KQ-200 ASW-MPA into Taiwan’s IZ occurred on March 1, 2022 as part of an incursion that also included a KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, a Y-8 electronic warfare (EW) aircraft, two J-16 fighter jets, and a Z-9 ASW helicopter. After the two-month hiatus, the KQ-200 reappeared on May 3. Since then, the type has once again been involved in almost daily incursions into Taiwan’s southwest IZ, often alongside surface ships and their ASW helicopters (see here and here).

The complete absence of KQ-200 sorties within Taiwan’s southwestern IZ in the two months from March 1 to May 3 was a drastic change in pattern when compared to the past year, wherein the KQ-200 was the most ubiquitous intruder. In 2021, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) flew a total of 165 KQ-200 sorties into Taiwan’s southwest IZ – an average of 14 sorties per month. This past January and February witnessed 16 and 12 KQ-200 sorties respectively, figures that are very close to the previous year’s average monthly sorties. This shows quite a high operational tempo during the study period, with a sortie every other day. Drawn from a small fleet, the type has demonstrated good operational availability and reliability up until this point.

What, then, explains the absence of the KQ-200 in the past two months?

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On March 6, Vietnam-based maritime analyst Duan Dang revealed in his Substack newsletter, “South China Sea Brief,” that China’s hastily announced military drills in the Gulf of Tonkin approximately halfway between Hainan’s Sanya and the Vietnamese city of Hue from March 4-15 was a pretext for search and rescue (SAR) operations for a PLA Naval Air Force KQ-200 aircraft that had crashed into the South China Sea southwest of Sanya on March 1.

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On March 9, Dang reported in his newsletter that China had dispatched coast guard and research vessels with specialized seabed scanning equipment and submersibles to the “exercise area” and that they were “only moving slowly within small areas, suggesting they were on a searching mission.” He also noted dozens of other naval ships were also continuously patrolling the area.

On March 10, Taiwan’s National Security Bureau submitted a report to the legislature confirming Dang’s account that the aircraft had indeed crashed in the South China Sea in early March.

The PLA has not confirmed the loss of the KQ-200, but according to official Chinese reports funerals were held for at least seven PLA pilots and crew who died when their plane crashed in the South China Sea in early March.

The PLA did not conduct any incursions into Taiwan’s IZ for four days after the crash – the longest break between incursions since a 10-day gap in late July and early August 2021. Moreover, no KQ-200s have been reported intruding into Japan’s IZ in the East China Sea either, with the last known incursion of the type into Japan’s IZ on February 28.

It now seems apparent that the PLA grounded its entire fleet of KQ-200 aircraft in response to the crash. Chinese authorities are known to have taken drastic actions in similar incidents, as we saw in the case of the recent China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash in China and the two deadly Boeing 737–Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia before that. The incident, however, has not affected sorties by other variants based on the Shaanxi Y-8 and -9 airframes, with Taiwan MND data showing continued sorties by the AEW&C, ISR, and ECM variants of the aircraft have (see for example here, here, and here).

China resorted to utilizing ASW-capable helicopters operating from PLAN surface ships to compensate for the grounding of the KQ-200 fleet. Following the crash, the PLA has carried out five sorties using ASW helicopters. The March 15 sortie involved the Z-9 helicopter, which is tasked with anti-submarine warfare mission, while the incursion on March 18 involved an older Ka-28 ASW helicopter. April also saw two sorties involving the Z-9 helicopter in an ASW role (see here and here) and one involving a Ka-28 (see here). It is notable that during many of the recorded incursions, fighter patrols and electronic warfare support have also been present.

The ASW helicopters are recorded operating far from China’s coast, which indicates that they are flying from PLAN ships in the area. China’s rapidly growing fleet of frigates, destroyers, and amphibious assault vessels are all capable of carrying these helicopters. It is also notable that the Z-9 and Ka-28 ASW helicopters were observed operating in the same area as their fixed wing counterpart, the KQ-200 – halfway between Pratas Island and Taiwan proper, over the South China Sea Slope (see here, here and here). This area of operation strongly suggests an anti-submarine focus – the search and prosecution of foreign submarines along the South China Sea Slope or practical training and exercises to the same effect.

The deployment of the ship-borne Z-9 and Ka-28s as part of larger PLA aircraft formations may indicate a higher level of coordination and “jointness” between the PLA Air Force and PLAN envisioned by President Xi Jinping. However, the fact that the PLA was only able to mount five rotary wing ASW sorties during the two-month absence of the KQ-200 compared to the pre-accident monthly average of 14 sorties by KQ-200 aircraft indicates that the grounding of the type likely had serious operational consequences for the PLA.

There are limits to how well PLAN surface ships with their organic ASW helicopters can substitute for the absence of the KQ-200. Generally speaking, it is advisable to deploy a range of capabilities, including fixed-wing ASW aircraft (such as the KQ-200) together with the navy’s active- and passive-sonar equipped surface combatants and their organic rotary-wing ASW assets. The fixed-wing ASW aircraft add distance between the defended assets and possible hostile submarines. Similarly, a fixed-wing ASW platform offers significant on-station time, covers a much larger maritime space, and can deploy a larger number of air-dropped sonobuoys in a larger search area than a ship-borne helicopter could.

From what can be parsed from open sources, the PLA conducts coordinated exercises that involve fixed- and rotary-wing ASW capabilities, as well as sonar-equipped surface ships. The particularly heavy use of aerial ASW assets in search and prosecution of hostile submarines likely draws heavily from the United States’ ASW doctrine.

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As of early May, the KQ-200 is back in its usual “hunting grounds” at the critical maritime choke points. The increased use of ASW helicopters and surface ships alongside the dedicated fixed-wing ASW platform points to an intensified PLA anti-submarine training in and around the Bashi Channel and the Philippine Sea. It will be important for us to continue monitoring developments in the PLA’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities and training, a known capability gap, which is being addressed with growing vigor.