A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber flies alongside a Philippine FA-50 fighter over the South China Sea, Feb. 19, 2024.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber flies alongside a Philippine FA-50 fighter over the South China Sea, Feb. 19, 2024. (Philippine air force)

An Air Force B-52H Stratofortress and three Philippine FA-50 fighters flew a joint patrol over the South China Sea this week, a move Chinese state media labeled a political show.

The Philippine air force posted photos and video of Monday’s patrol on social media the next day. It covered an area 90 nautical miles west of Candon, Ilocos Sur province, and 50 nautical miles northwest of Lubang, Mindoro province, the service wrote on Facebook.

“This cooperative activity aims to bolster cooperation between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and their US counterparts,” the post said. “With this activity, the [Philippine air force] underscores its commitment and readiness to support the AFP’s efforts in safeguarding the national territory and sovereign rights, and upholding regional peace and security.”

The B-52, deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on a Bomber Task Force mission, did not land in the country, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported Wednesday.

Air Force officials on Guam referred questions about the patrol to Pacific Air Forces, which did not immediately respond to an email Wednesday.

The FA-50 is a compact, versatile supersonic jet manufactured by South Korean firm KAI and developed with Lockheed Martin. South Korea has sold it overseas to Indonesia, Thailand, Poland, Senegal and Malaysia, according to published reports.

The exercise followed naval drills between the U.S. and Philippines earlier this month and took place during a period of increased tension between Manila and Beijing in the South China Sea.

In recent months, Chinese coast guard and maritime militia have tried unsuccessfully to block Philippine vessels resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre. The grounded World War II-era vessel serves as a territorial outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, a disputed reef in the South China Sea.

The B-52 patrol was closely monitored by Chinese naval and air forces, China’s state-run Global Times newspaper reported Wednesday, quoting the military’s Southern Theater Command.

The newspaper also quoted Fu Qianshao, a Chinese military aviation expert, as saying the patrol was “more of a political show” and “of little (military) significance.”

However, a retired Air Force lieutenant general in an email Wednesday to Stars and Stripes, described the joint patrol as significant.

“I do not recall it happening before,” said Dan Leaf, a former deputy commander of U.S. Pacific Command, now the Indo-Pacific Command. “It is important to remember that the nuclear capabilities of the B-52 are not the key; it has a very impressive sensor suite and has long been used in maritime surveillance training and operations.”

Airmen practiced launching sea mines from a B-52 off the coast of Hawaii last year, said Grant Newsham, a retired Marine colonel and senior researcher with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.

The bombers might also fire anti-ship missiles, he wrote in an email Wednesday.

“They can carry a lot more than a fighter aircraft so you have the possibility of launching ‘salvos’ that makes it harder to defend against,” he said. “Suppose you use two or three B52s at once and approaching from different directions. That makes everything harder for the defender.”

Bombers need protection from a sophisticated enemy such as China, but the Philippine fighters are not the right aircraft to provide it, he said.

“This joint patrol is best regarded as a warning that taking on the Philippines means you might also get the full might of the U.S. military,” Newsham said. “All in all, a political message to both China and the U.S.’ Philippine allies.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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