The Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military and security developments warns this week that China is building up a fleet of long-range nuclear-capable bombers and is “likely” training its pilots to attack American targets. The relevant section of the report concerns China’s “overwater bomber operations,” which have rapidly expanded over the past three years. The Pentagon sees Chinese pilots “gaining experience in critical maritime regions and likely training for strikes against U.S. and allied targets.” The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is currently the largest air force in Asia, and the third-largest in the world. Since 2017, new commander Lt. Gen. Ding Laihang has focused on developing a capacity for projecting long-range air power comparable to the U.S. Air Force. “The PLAAF continues to modernize and is closing the gap with the U.S. Air Force across a broad spectrum of capabilities, gradually eroding the United States’ longstanding significant technical advantage,” the Pentagon report cautioned. U.S. analysts are particularly concerned about the latest evolution of China’s H-6 “Badger” bomber, the H-6K, which is capable of launching from Chinese airbases and hitting Guam with standoff precision weapons. The PLAAF is also working on midair refueling techniques and might be able to field nuclear-capable stealth bombers as early as 2025. China’s use of militarized islands in the South China Sea as bases for long-range bomber activity is noted as an area of particular concern. “H-6s could, if deployed to airfields in the Spratly Islands, extend their range through the Balabac Strait into the Celebes Sea or through the Sunda or Malacca Strait to fly into the Indian Ocean,” the report stated. To secure their claims in disputed waters, the Chinese employ a unique naval command that has been given little attention until now, the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The Pentagon judged the PAFMM to be the “only government-sanctioned maritime militia in the world.” The militia plays a “major role in coercive activities to achieve China’s political goals without fighting.” In other words, the maritime militia intimidates civilian vessels from other nations that attempt to access waters claimed by Beijing, with just enough operational separation from the regular military to give the Chinese government political cover. China portrays its militia vessels as fishing boats that just happen to have armored hulls and ammunition storage bays. U.S. defense analysts are concerned that China will not only militarize the South China Sea, but nuclearize it.
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