01 March 2011

China SignPost™ (洞察中国) #27: “The PLA Air Force’s First Overseas Operational Deployment: Analysis of China’s decision to deploy IL-76 transport aircraft to Libya”

Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “The PLA Air Force’s First Overseas Operational Deployment: Analysis of China’s decision to deploy IL-76 transport aircraft to Libya,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 27 (1 March 2011).

China SignPost™ 洞察中国–“Clear, high-impact China analysis.”©

China’s evacuation of its citizens from Libya became a multi-service operation on the afternoon of 28 February 2011, when the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) flew four IL-76 long-range transport aircraft from Diwopu International Airport in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Northwest China). Their destination: Sabha, in east-central Libya. According to China Central Television (CCTV)-7, Beijing’s official military channel, the mission is to rescue Chinese citizens “stranded” in Libya. The PLAAF’s deployment of assets into a theater where the PLA Navy already has theXuzhou missile frigate scheduled to arrive in waters off Libya very shortly sets an historic precedent for deploying military assets to protect Chinese nationals abroad.

The deployment is the longest range PLAAF air deployment yet that we know of. Turkish media report that Chinese SU-27’s refueled in Pakistan and flew via Iran to Turkey in mid-September 2010 for a bilateral air exercise, Anatolian Eagle, in Anatolia. The flight distances involved in the Libya rescue operation are several thousand km further than the 2010 mission and likely involve total distances of between 9,500 and 10,500 km, depending on route and wind and weather conditions. Deploying aircraft from the headquarters location of the Xinjiang Military Region Air Force in Urumqi makes sense, as it offers the shortest flight to Libya. A stylized great circle route (the shortest theoretical flight path) is depicted below. …