Chinese JH-7 Strike Fighters Provide Close Air Support During Exercises: Aviation and Special Forces Coordinate Closely

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force deployed JH-7A strike fighters to provide close air support to ground forces as part of cross service exercises in southern China. Supporting special forces from the army, navy and air force, JH-7s in an aviation brigade under the Southern Theatre Command practiced close range aerial fire support and reportedly demonstrated their versatility in attack roles. In red on blue engagements Red Team cross service special forces were slowed by Blue Team suppressive fire when launching an assault at a hostile vantage point. They subsequently called in Red Team JH-7 strike fighters, and provided coordinates to allow them to quickly locate them and engage opposing Blue Team assets. The JH-7s operated under cover of electronic warfare assets, and were able to quickly report battle damage evaluations after striking. The strike fighters continued to work closely with Red Team special forces on the ground, and when the aircraft were locked onto by blue team man portable surface to air missile systems, the special forces alerted pilots allowing them to release jamming flares and withdraw from the area. The Southern Theatre Command stated that the exercise enhanced the aircraft’s close range aerial fire support capabilities, leading to the formulation of a standardized procedure for future combat operations. 

The recent exercises were particularly significant considering that the Southern Theatre Command is responsible for potential operations in the Taiwan Strait, during which the ability to coordinate operations between special forces and combat aircraft is expected to be particularly valuable. China notably lacks manned aircraft optimised for close air support equivalent to the Russian Su-25 and American A-10, although both countries are set to retire these classes without replacement and like China rely on strike fighters and drones to support ground forces. Although not designed for the role, the JH-7 is one of the best optimised aircraft in China’s fleet for providing close air support. A leading threat to such aircraft remains enemy man portable surface to air missile systems, which have no radar signatures, and can thus be concealed in infantry formations leaving little warning when used to engage. Coordination with special forces on the ground provides one potentially effective means of reducing the danger from such attacks.