Footage released by the Chinese Ministry of National Defence to mark the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force provided details of the operations of J-16 fighter aircraft in the South China Sea. The footage showed two J-16 fighters under the PLA Southern Theatre Command scramble to intercept an approach towards a PLA exercise area by a foreign military aircraft. When the undisclosed foreign aircraft attempted close-in harassments despite radio communications and warning manoeuvres by the J-16s, the Chinese fighters launched infrared flares within visual range as a more direct warning. The state run Global Times cited military expert Zhang Xuefeng detailed their operation as follows: “The first step is to issue verbal warning through radio communications on the incoming foreign military aircraft, in which the Chinese pilots identified themselves as the PLA Air Force and asked the foreign military aircraft to leave the area. At the same time, the Chinese pilots took warning manoeuvres within visual range, including swaying the wings and displaying weapons carried under the wings. This is a relatively restrained way of displaying force, which is also a professional way widely used across the globe.” “Firing infrared flares from a certain distance is not lethal, but is a clear warning signal. In the end, the foreign military aircraft vacated the area,” he added.
Zhang stressed that the interception reflected the PLA Air Force’s high level of combat readiness as well as the complexity of aerial threats China faced. Challenges faced by the PLA have grown as the United States has continued to prioritise Northeast Asia for deployment of its most capable assets, often at the expense of the Middle East and Europe, which has reflected China’s emergence as its only peer level military competitor. Regarding the J-16 itself, after China became the first foreign client for Soviet Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter in 1990, the new fighter entered service in 2014 as a very heavily enhanced derivative with capabilities in most respects far eclipsing those of the latest Russian Flanker models. Notable advantages include much greater use of composite materials in its airframe, use of an AESA radar, and perhaps most significantly network centric warfare capabilities and weaponry including PL-15 and PL-10 air to air missiles developed for the J-20 stealth fighter. This has made the J-16 among the most capable combat jets operating in the South China Sea, with the aircraft having been produced at approximately to double the rates of Russian models providing the PLA with close to 300 of the aircraft. The J-16 has a comfortably much longer range and greater manoeuvrability than any Western fighter class, although as the capabilities of the J-20 fifth generation fighter have continued to improve rapidly it is increasingly suspected that production could come to an end in the near future to concentrate on the newer aircraft.