Several US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress heavy long-range bombers have flown through the contested East and South China Seas multiple times in August 2018, sending an unmistakable message to potential challengers.
Four flights involving no more than two bombers each time were carried out in the disputed seas as part of US Indo-Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) mission. Two B-52s assigned to the 96th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron (EBS) participated in joint anti-submarine training exercises with two US Navy P-8 Poseidon aircraft on Aug. 1, 2018, in the East China Sea, US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) said in an official statement.
“Ultimately, it increased our readiness to serve as a credible deterrent force and presence within the theater,” Maj. John Radtke, 96th EBS mission planner, explained.
One B-52 bomber out of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam participated in a CBP training mission in the East China Sea on Aug. 22, 2018, PACAF public affairs told Business Insider, adding that two more B-52s with the 96th EBS conducted CBP operations in the South China Sea on Aug. 27, 2018. It is unclear if the bombers flew past Chinese occupied territories in the area, as PACAF refused to provide the information, citing “operational security concerns.”
The flights were initially detected by Aircraft Spots, on online military aircraft tracking site.
The site’s latest flight tracking data suggested that two more B-52s conducted exercises in the South China Sea on Aug. 30, 2018, which would mean that American heavy bombers have been active in the disputed waterway twice in a week. PACAF confirmed in a public statement the Aug. 30, 2018 flight following queries from Business Insider.
“Is the US trying to exert more pressure on China’s trade by sending a B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?” China’s nationalist state-affiliated tabloid Global Times asked in an editorial Aug. 30, 2018.
The CBP flights are “flown in accordance with international law” and are consistent with America’s “long-standing and well-known freedom of navigation policies,” PACAF public affairs said. China has often expressed frustration with the US position on this particular matter.
In early June 2018, a pair of B-52s ripped across the South China Sea, causing the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to accuse the US of “running amok” in the region. China foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at the time, “We will only even more staunchly take all necessary steps to defend the country’s sovereignty and security, to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea region.”
The US Air Force similarly sent B-52s into the South China Sea in late April 2018.
In response to questions about a possible B-52 overflight in the East China Sea in August 2018, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, “We hope that actions taken in this region by any country could help enhance mutual trust and show respect for the legitimate security interests of regional countries. Nothing that undermines mutual trust and regional security and stability shall happen.”
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense has warned repeatedly that China “will firmly defend the sovereign security and territorial integrity of the country.”
News of the recent bomber flights in the East and South China Sea comes just after the Department of Defense released its annual report on Chinese military power. The report specifically noted that Chinese bombers were operating with increased frequency in flashpoint zones in the region.
“The [People’s Liberation Army] has rapidly expanded its overwater bomber operating areas, gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against US and allied targets,” the report explained. “The PLA may continue to extend its operations beyond the first island chain, demonstrating the capability to strike US and allied forces and military bases in the western Pacific Ocean, including Guam.”
The Pentagon has noted that the Chinese air force is pushing to become a “strategic” force capable of power projection.T
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