By Bijan Razzaghi
In early July of this year a pair of B-1B Lancer Bombers conducted a freedom of navigation flyby over the South China Sea. The flyby took place shortly after the USS Statham an Arligh Burk Class destroyer conducted a surface freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese recognizes a large part of the South China Sea as its own territory and has recently constructed man made islands that are used as forward operating bases. The B-1B flyby reinforced the US military’s commitment to securing international waters and airspace.
The B-1B flyby over the South China Sea brings a unique capability into the South China Sea that has not been seen before. Previously the United States has only flown P-8 Poseidon and P-3 Orion Maritime Patrol aircraft through airspace over the South China Sea. Unlike those patrol aircraft the B-1B is a heavy strategic bomber capable of engaging ground targets from standoff ranges. The aircraft was delivered to the air force in 1985 has part of the Reagan buildup to counter Russia during the cold war. B-1s are not stealth yet the aircraft’s AN/APG-164 passively electronically scanned array radar along with (MTD) moving target indication can allow the B-1B to identify and engage targets from standoff ranges. These weapons include the AGM-154 JSOW and AGM-158 JASSM. The B-1B can carry of to 75,000 ibs or ordnance and fly at speeds as fast as Mach 1.2. The offensive capability is unmatched by any airborne platform in that region.
The flyby was a major shift as it is the first time that an aircraft with offensive land attack capabilities has operated in the South China Sea since the deployment of carrier battle groups in 1997. The PLAs HQ-9 Air defense system which has similar capabilities to the Russian S-300 has been deployed to the region as well prior to the flyby. The presence of the HQ-9s did not deter the US Air Force to operate in international waters despite the missiles long range. Similar flybys have been conducted over North Korea, and in the East China Sea.