China’s military reach into remote regions of the contested South China Sea got a big boost this week with operation “Thunderbolt Eagle.”
A Chinese Su-30 fighter jet loaded with rations completed a record-breaking ten-hour armed patrol mission to the region, setting a new benchmark in long-range strike mission options for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
According to The Global Times, an aviation brigade attached to the PLA Southern Theater Command Air Force completed the lengthy patrol mission — dubbed “Thunderbolt Eagle” — to Subi Reef, a South China Sea atoll that China expanded into an artificial island.
The previous PLA Air Force flight duration record for a single sortie by a fighter jet was 8.5 hours.
According to the report, the Su-30 fighter jet refuelled mid-flight with an aerial tanker, and the pilots consumed rations to keep their energy up.
“During a flight, the body reaches a limit at four to five hours, so pilots will relieve stress and fatigue by chatting and eating flight rations, which includes mineral water and chocolate,” pilot Lu Geng said.
Wang Ying, another pilot on the mission, said in the report that the flight was not about breaking the limit or the record, but about “preparing for actual combat.”
Chinese military aviation expert Fu Qianshao told the Global Times that a 10-hour patrol mission is challenging because the fighter jet’s fuel capacity cannot support such a long flight, so aerial refueling is needed, which is technically challenging.
A long-duration flight is also very stressful to the pilots, as they also need to stay on high alert during their mission.
According to National Interest, longer flights naturally increase strike range but also add to dwell time over target areas and make otherwise inaccessible areas within reach. This kind of tactical change is of particular significance for the harder-to-reach places in the South China Sea region.
Air reach to the South China sea in greater numbers could help the PLAAF compensate for its small number of aircraft carriers. Also, basing fighters on islands claimed by China could be seen as a highly provocative decision.
Said Fu: “Fighter jets deployed on the islands can react faster, but maintenance on the islands is more difficult due to high salinity and humidity, and the number of fighter jets would be limited since island bases are relatively small.”
While China did recently launch sea trials for its second domestically built carrier, the Chinese Navy does not have anything close to the carrier-empowered attack options available to US maritime commanders.
But the mission demonstrated that the PLA Air Force’s long-range flight capability and the scope of its patrol operations have greatly expanded, Fu said, noting that large warplanes like H-6 bombers have previously conducted similar missions.