SCO exercises wrap up with significant advances in China’s air power

Sep 25. Central Asia newswire

By Martin Sieff

SCO exercises wrap up with significant advances in China’s air powerThe 5,000-troop military exercises in Kazakhstan of the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will wrap up Saturday after significantly advancing China’s ability to project its air power and tactical ground-support beyond its own borders.

This year’s “Peace Mission 2010” joint operations, involving thousands of troops from Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, began September 9 in the Matybulak mountain range of Kazakhstan. Defense ministers from the five participating nations attended the maneuvers on Thursday.

Though the annual maneuvers are usually dubbed “anti-terror” exercises, the maneuvers that took place this week far exceeded what are usually regarded as “anti-terrorist operations.” Such operations, for example, might practice scenarios in which Special Forces battle small groups of extremists who might be holding hostages. This year’s exercises appeared to be practice in tactical cooperation for air force ground support operations in full-scale land wars.

According to a report Tuesday from China’s official Xinhua news agency, in Monday’s phase of the maneuvers, six combat aircraft based in China carried out long-distance surprise strikes on designated targets in Kazakhstan.

These maneuvers were the first of their kind ever carried out by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force, Major General Meng Guoping, deputy commander of the Chinese forces taking part in the exercises, told Xinhua.

The exercises, therefore, marked a major advance in China’s capacity to project its air power and tactical ground-support beyond its own borders and against potential targets in Central Asia.

Xinhua identified the participating combat aircraft as four H-6H bombers and two J-10 fighter jets. It said they conducted two simultaneous missions and that they enjoyed the support of air early warning aircraft, or AWACs. Their operational range was also effectively doubled because as part of the exercise, they were refueled by an aerial tanker in Chinese air space before flying into Kazakh air space.

Gen. Meng told Xinhua that the express purpose of the exercise was to help the Chinese Air Force create its first integrated air battle group that could carry out and coordinate early warning, command, long-distance bombing, escort and air-refueling functions.

This will not be welcome news to Russian Defense Ministry planners. Over the past six years and more, Russia has angered China by repeatedly refusing to sell Beijing weapons systems that would allow China to create and operate such forces. Russia wants to remain unchallenged with its own advanced technology artillery and tactical air support systems across the Asian steppe.

Meng also acknowledged that the SCO “Peace Mission 2010” exercises were intended to develop many other capabilities far in excess of any limited “anti-terrorist” roles. He told Xinhua the exercises were also designed to advance the PLA’s expertise in carrying out information, or IT-based operations, field training exercises, coordinated command and control, combined actions and diversified external support.

“Through many years of joint exercises, we have clearly understood that these [SCO] exercises could not only showcase power and deter the ‘three evil forces [of terrorism, separatism and extremism]’, but also serve as an important way to train our armed forces,” Meng told the Chinese news agency.

Western military analysts have tended to systematically discount and underestimate the military significance of the SCO and its annual exercises.

This is in part because the forces involved are so small, and also because the scale of cooperation and integration of its member states is miniscule compared with those of the nations of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance.

However, most military alliances in modern history have involved far less peacetime preparation and military cooperation than the SCO nations have already practiced. And though NATO certainly has more cooperation and coordination, NATO’s overall military forces, even including those of the United States, are far smaller in scale than the combined strength of the Russian and Chinese military in manpower and combat units.

The SCO member states, especially Russia and China, have certainly developed their interoperability and tactical coordination capabilities very slowly and cautiously since the organization was founded on June 15, 2001. But as the Xinhua report documents, and General Meng’s frank and shrewd comments confirm, the alliance and its leading states have been making highly significant and impressive progress, especially in its current maneuvers in the Matybulak mountains.

This year’s SCO military exercises were consistent with the patterns of training, mutual cooperation and interoperability that have been their priority now for six years since the first of the series was held in 2004. No other military alliance based in Asia can match the potential military resources of the SCO nations, especially Russia and China.

Russian analysts claim that NATO, the world’s oldest military cooperation organization and the one with the most active members, has so far shunned SCO feelers to carry out joint or cooperative endeavors, especially in the field of combating drug trafficking. The SCO cannot yet begin to match the technological superiority, weapons systems or vast depth in interoperability of NATO member nations.

But as the “Peace Mission 2010” exercises confirmed, its capabilities are impressive and growing. The SCO is here to stay.