On July 28, the South Sea Fleet led a live-fire exercise in an area of the South China Sea measuring several tens of thousands of square kilometers, along with the other PLA Navy fleets, the Guangzhou Military Region and the Second Artillery Corps; on July 30 and 31, the PLA Navy dispatched a fleet of electronic-warfare aircraft and Xian H-6 twin-engine jet bombers on several missions flying over the Miyako Strait, the waterway between Japan's Miyako Island and Okinawa Island, into the Western Pacific.
The targets of the two military exercises were not announced in the PLA press release. Military affairs websites have suggested that the South China Sea exercise is likely aimed at territory within what China calls the "first island chain" — the term the Chinese military uses to refer to the string of archipelagos extending from the Kuril islands south through Japan and its Ryukyu islands, Taiwan and the Philippines — likely in preparation for a potential scenario in which a US aircraft carrier war fleet break through the first island chain. Although this is a reasonable assumption, in a real combat scenario, relying on anti-ship missiles, conventional submarine-launched missiles and air-launched cruise missiles with a range of just 300 kilometers to take on a carrier fleet means that all the warships, planes and submarines would have to penetrate the carrier fleet's outer defenses and approach its inner defenses to fire their payload. This kind of scenario is hard to imagine playing out in reality, given the naval power of the US.
Reports on the exercise included the following paragraph:
"In the exercise, the [enemy] blue army troops attacked the red army ships with ballistic missiles. Several supersonic anti-ship missiles attacked the red army ships from different directions and different altitudes. The red army early warning system was able to identify the sources of the attacks; however, they were then subject to electronic interference from the blue army. The red army fleet immediately launched anti-electronic interference measures and rapidly locked on targets. Ballistic missiles were then launched from the [Guangzhou-class] Wuhan [Type 052B destroyer] and the [Type 054A Jiangkai II-class] Hengyang [frigate] which intercepted the attacking missiles, leading them to explode in mid-air."
This suggests that one of the most important objectives of this exercise was the interception of supersonic missiles, but both the US McDonnell Douglas Harpoon anti-ship missile currently in use and the stealthy Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) currently under development in the US are both subsonic and in addition to this the US Navy also makes use of a range of guided bombs. This suggests that the exercise is unlikely to have had the US in mind as a potential target.
Another important objective of the exercise was anti-submarine measures. The head of the General Staff Department of the South Sea Fleet said that during the exercise, "submarines fired torpedoes under anti-submarine conditions" and in the footage posted of the exercise, the navy not only fired anti-submarine torpedoes, but anti-submarine helicopters also searched for submarines. There was also footage of a Type 054A frigate firing an anti-submarine missile for the first time. The electrically powered Yu-8 torpedo has been announced to the public on several occasions, but this is the first time that footage of the torpedo being fired has been released. This suggests that whichever nation is the target of the exercise, they have quite an impressive submarine fleet.
A large fleet of Type 022 missile boats also took part in the exercise, as well as the South Sea Fleet's Kilo-class conventionally powered submarine. If these ships, along with ground-to-ship missiles, coast defenses and supersonic anti-ship missiles, were used by one of the enemy "blue army," then it makes it clearer that the exercise was designed with Vietnam in mind, as the Philippines has nowhere near this amount of naval power.
Sino-Vietnamese relations chilled last year during an extended stand-off between Vietnamese and Chinese ships over the deployment of the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil exploration platform to the Paracels, an area of the South China Sea that Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone. The stand-off led to widespread protests throughout Vietnam and the exit of many Chinese companies from the country, until relations normalized again after the Chinese withdrawal of the platform. Tensions continue over territorial disputes between the two nations, as well as several other countries, over sovereignty over reefs and islands in the region.
The exercise involving the fleet of electronic-warfare aircraft and Xian H-6 twin-engine jet bombers flying over the Miyako strait, on the other hand, was clearly carried out with a US carrier fleet in mind. As well as the Shaanxi Y-8J airborne warning and control system (AWACS) and the newer Shaanxi Y-9 electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft, the KJ-200 airborne early warning and control, with its expanded surveillance capabilities, also took part in the exercise.