From August 18–25 elements of the Chinese and Russian armed forces conducted an eight-day joint exercise with the stated aim to strengthen “the capability of the two armed forces to jointly fight international terrorism, extremism and separatism.” The exercise, dubbed Peace Mission 2005, was nothing of the sort. The naval power and operation on display were patently unrealistic against a terrorist organization, but quite suitable for operations against a regional naval power. Indeed, the exercise was old fashioned power politics at work, aimed squarely at the governments in Pyongyang and Tokyo, to pressure North Korea to go back to the six party nuclear talks and Japan over its border claim to the Kurils. A recent breakthrough in Beijing in the six-party talks last week may in fact attest to the former.
The eight-day joint exercise was split into three phases and involved nearly 10,000 troops, with approximately 1,800 from Russia. It started in the Russian city of Vladivostok and concluded in Weifang, located in China’s Shandong Province. The first phase involved the respective military forces’ staff officers conducting strategic consultations and battle planning. The second and third operational phases involved a one-day offshore blockade, followed by an amphibious landing with a concurrent airborne assault—both nothing more than elaborate displays of firepower. These were carried out in the seas off Shandong and on the Weifang live-fire range. As it was nominally an exercise by the two senior members of the SCO, observers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan attended, as did observers from Iran, India and Pakistan—countries granted observer status in the SCO this past summer.
As expected from a first-time exercise between countries with only three months of planning, it was stage-managed from start to finish. It was primarily a Chinese firepower demonstration exercise with Russian support, and combined two major, regular training exercises that both China and Russia normally hold separately. Under the auspices of the SCO, China has held a joint counter-terrorist exercise around August with a neighbor since 2003. The Russians were able to give their annual strategic exercise an extra twist by navigating their Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 bombers over a different route. The Russians used four Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and two Tu-95MS on a conventional strike mission to soften up the defenses before the amphibious landing. Using the Tu-95MS is intriguing—it is a cruise missile carrier ill-suited to the conventional bombing role in comparison to the Tu-23M3—but the crews would have had the opportunity to carry out mock cruise missile attacks against possible targets in Northeast Asia. It would be interesting to know if China gave them a rigid flight plan over its airspace so as to not compromise sensitive installations.
The Chinese forces had arrived in the area in late June and began their individual practices in mid-July. Russian troops arrived on August 9 and conducted joint training in three training areas in the Shandong peninsula and its nearby seawaters from August 14–16. The Russians provided the bulk of the high technology and larger items of military equipment. Russian aircraft, in addition to the Tu95MS and Tu22M3, included Il-76 military freighters, an Il-78 aerial refueling tanker, A-50 AEW&C, Su-24M2 strike aircraft, and Su-27SM fighters. Russian naval vessels included the Udaloy-class anti-submarine destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov; the Sovremenney guided-missile destroyer Burny; a large landing ship; a rescue tugboat; and a logistics support vessel. Russian ground combat assets included a company from the 55th Marine Corps Division with their BTR-80 wheeled fighting vehicles, and a reinforced parachute company of the 76th Division of the Airborne Forces with their BMD airborne combat vehicles. The Chinese forces used many of the new items in their inventory including Su-27 fighters, Il-76 freighters, Z-9G armed helicopters, ZTZ-96 main battle tanks, ZLS92 series wheeled light armored fighting vehicles, ZTS63A amphibious tanks, and six of their new ZSL2000 airborne fighting vehicles. The PLAN provided three destroyers: the Type 052 class multi-role destroyer Harbin, the Type 052C air-defense destroyer Guangzhou, and three frigates including a Jianghu-class frigate converted into an inshore fire support vessel.
First and Second Phases
The first phase was a command-and-control exercise that enabled the two staffs to learn and coordinate their actions. The second phase of the exercise, a one-day joint naval fleet operation on August 23, consisted of destroyers, frigates, and anti-submarine vessels conducting anti- submarine and surface vessel operations—activities totally unrelated to anti-terrorism operations but useful against other naval forces. With the PLAAF and Russian Air Force providing air cover in conjunction with the Russian A-50, helicopters prosecuted anti-submarine missions using air dropped torpedoes, and a Chinese submarine and destroyer fired anti-ship missiles. The Burny also fired a Moskit 3M80E Mach 2 anti-ship missile, as used on China’s two Sovremenney class destroyers. Russian air support included TU-22M3, TU-95MS, SU-24M, and SU-27M aircraft.
Phase Three: Combined Airborne and Amphibious Assault
Prepared shore defenses rendered the exercise scenario an amphibious assault. No more than a carefully staged firepower demonstration, the time taken for the vehicles to land and clear the beach of obstacles and head inland was only four minutes. Large landing craft beached 14 minutes later with the second echelon. The assault was reported to have been performed in a force 4 wind with waves 2.3 – 3 meters high. The photos do not bear this out: under such conditions, paratroopers would have been blown all over the landing zone, and engineers in their assault craft and the PLA’s waterborne ZTS63A amphibious tanks supporting them would have been swamped.
The exercise started on August 25 at 11:00 AM. Two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers flew near the drill zone after two-and-a-half-hour flight from Russia to signal the combined amphibious and airborne assault. With an A-50 plane establishing an airborne early warning system, the amphibious forces headed toward the beachhead. At 11:07 AM, four Tu-22M3 Russian long-range bombers, after a four-hour flight from Russia, launched an attack on the enemy airport, and a lone Chinese B-6H bomber approached the zone and fired a new type of “long-range air-to-ground missile” from 6,000m altitude, hitting the target ten km away . It may have been a guided bomb, as ballistics would have given the missile much of its range. Notional enemy fighters, presumably, were not in the air.
At 11:08 AM, 18 strike aircraft in nine waves, including Russian SU-24M and SU-27M fighters and PLAAF Su-27s, attacked missile launchers, shore defenses, and in-depth defensive positions. The firing of unguided rockets against shore defenses by Su-27s in a real conflict is unlikely. There are only a few Su-27 fighters among the PLAAF’s hundreds of attack aircraft, and the former would be required for air supremacy over a beachhead. At 11:17 AM, accompanying destroyers and frigates provided naval gunfire support, including multiple rocket launch fire support from at least one of China’s inshore fire support vessels. The amphibious assault force arrived at 11:25 AM with engineers in over ten assault boats, small aluminum boats with an outboard motor each, and they began to demolish the obstacles on the shoal. After the attacks, the notional enemy forces retreated to the airport and to deep defensive positions.
At 11:30 AM, two Chinese Z-9G helicopters flew at low altitude over the sea and fired rockets to open up a landing field. Five Russian and five Chinese Il-76 transports then dropped 12 Russian BMD and six Chinese ZSL 2000 airborne combat vehicles along with 86 paratroopers, mostly their crews, onto the drop zone. At 11:38 AM, covered by 12 armed helicopters and supported by Chinese ZTZ-63A amphibious tanks, a Russian marine company together with a Chinese amphibious battalion and more than 40 landing vehicles set foot on the beach. The first echelon of rangers captured the forward positions on the beach in two minutes. The beach was seized at 11:42 AM and the Russian and Chinese amphibious APCs began heading off the beach to assault the rugged and muddy mountain paths toward the mountaintop. Ten minutes later the second amphibious wave arrived in three landing craft with a second echelon of 32 armored carriers to secure the consolidated positions.
At 11:50 AM, these amphibious combat vehicles opened fire on their targets with six Hong Jian 8 anti-tank missiles, hitting all their targets. Soon afterward, rockets fired from six helicopters lit up the entire mountaintop. As the second echelon was landing, 18 helicopters transported a special force squadron under air cover to assault the target’s left, deploying troops that immediately launched an attack on the pre-set targets to cut off the enemy’s link to sea. Immediately after the enemy’s air-link and sea-route were cut off, the Sino-Russian joint forces sent rangers to attack the defensive line of the enemy on the mountain under fire cover and quickly made breakthroughs in several spots. The amphibious landing exercise concluded at 12:15 PM, with armored vehicles from the southeast and southwest attacking deep within the enemy region.
This combined assault provided the opportunity for both countries’ forces to establish links with each other and to examine tactics and doctrine. More importantly, it sent the message to the Russian Far East, Japan, and North Korea that Russia was not abandoning the Far East and still had the capability to intervene in the area. China still may not have the means to intervene with heavy strategic forces, but the Russians demonstrated that they still could.
(The material for this article was been gleaned from various articles in China Daily, People’s Daily, PLA Daily, TASS, and Xinhua.)
1. The Chinese B-6H fleet is obsolete; they are Chinese copies of the 1950s vintage Russian Tu-16.