Testing Taiwan’s Defences? China Deploys New J-16D Electronic Warfare Jets Near Contested Strait

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force deployed 13 fighters for flights near the Taiwan Strait on January 24th, which reportedly operated primarily within the mainland’s airspace but entered the extensive Air Defense Identification Zone of Taiwan. Taiwan’s identification zone is one of the largest in the world relative to the size of its landmass, with much more of it covering the mainland than Taiwan itself, and allows Taiwanese forces to consistently monitor PLA assets deployed to China’s southeastern regions. While PLA assets have frequently flown near Taiwan, the latest flight saw two new J-16D electronic warfare aircraft deployed. The J-16D entered service in the PLA in September 2020, and represented an almost entirely unique asset with Australia’s being the only other air force with comparable aircraft since acquiring a small squadron of 12 EA-18G Growlers. Electronic warfare jets are intended to erode enemy air defences preceding assaults by other aircraft or naval units, and particularly against targets relying heavily on ground based air defence such as Taiwan they can serve as effective force multipliers

The small number of fighter units and airfields on Taiwan has led the island to rely very heavily on ground based air defences to provide an asymmetric defence, following a similar trend to Russia and North Korea which also heavily emphasised such defences from the 1990s after their economic declines made parity using combat aircraft unviable. The J-16D is thus considered a potentially ideal asset for war in the Taiwan Strait due to its specialisation in neutralising such defences. The aircraft are expected to deploy up to six anti-radiation missiles designed to home in on enemy radars similarly to the Russian Kh-31P or American AGM-88. These include the CM-103, LD-10 and YJ-91, the third which is thought to be the most widely used anti-radiation missile is expected to be most regularly paired with the J-16D for air defence suppression missions. Its primary armament, however, is its array of jamming pods and AESA radars which will interfere with enemy sensors and attack non-kinetically. 

Beijing and Taipei have been technically in a state of civil war for over 70 years, with both claiming to be the sole legitimate governments of the Chinese nation. Only Beijing is recognised as a legitimate government by the United Nations, however, with all but 15 UN member states officially supporting this position. The deployment of the J-16D provides one example of a broader trend towards continued PLA modernisation creating a balance of power than increasingly does not favour Taipei. Taiwan’s lack of UN or international recognition, making it technically a non-state actor, has made it difficult for it to acquire modern armaments with those provided by the United States being far from state of the art

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