China's Shiny New Air Bases in the South China Sea

China's Shiny New Air Bases in the South China Sea

A Chinese analysis reveals significant difficulties with new airstrips built on top of reefs.

A colorful graphic insert from the June 2016 Chinese naval magazine Naval and Merchant Ships [舰船知识] offers a troubling glimpse of one possible future for the South China Sea. A map on the graphic accurately displays Beijing’s three new long runways that have been built up since 2014 in the Spratlys, alongside overlapping range arcs for HQ-9 air defense systems (200km), YJ-62 truck launched anti-ship cruise missiles (300km), as well as for J-11 and JH-7 fighter/attack aircraft (1500km). More disquieting still is that there is next to the map an image depicting a burning aircraft carrier, struck by cruise missiles launched from surrounding Chinese frigates, as well as from shore-based launchers. Part of the caption for this colorful graphic suggests that “each of the reefs can offer mutual support to one another effectively enabling control of our country’s South China Sea area” (…各岛礁相互配合可有效达到对我国南海地区的控制).

A somewhat less bellicose (but hardly benign) interpretation was offered by a report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington at about the same time. That report concluded that extensive hangars were being built on all three islets in the South China Sea (Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi), so that the new bases could “soon have hangar space for 24 fighter-jets plus 3-4 larger planes.” Perhaps given the above evidence, it is too late to hope that Beijing would resist fully militarizing the new facilities that it has constructed. On the other hand, the AMTI illustrations did each carry the caveat that the authors had themselves drawn jet silhouettes directly onto the satellite photos so that “aircraft [were] shown for illustrative purposes.” Somewhat surprisingly, so it seems, there has still only been one confirmed visit by a Chinese military aircraft to the reef air bases back in spring 2016 and that was for the purpose of rescuing some ill workers.  The actual Chinese garrison, capabilities and missions for these bases remain a mystery to a large extent.

In that light, this edition of Dragon Eye examines a cover story under the title “The Value of Military Aircraft Based at Yongshu Island” from the June 2016 edition of the Chinese naval magazine Modern Ships [现代舰船], published by the warship building conglomerate China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC). The author develops the evaluation of aircraft basing possibilities at the Fiery Cross [Yongshu Island/永署岛] airstrip based on five logical questions: Are the runways suitable? Is navigation equipment sufficiently advanced? Are climatic conditions appropriate? Is there adequate apron space? Finally, are resources available for maintenance? While noting some advantages provided by the new airstrips, this Chinese analysis is surprisingly candid regarding the related challenges, and concludes ultimately on purely military technical grounds (thus putting diplomatic issues aside) that “a large scale deployment of combat aircraft would actually be unwise.”

As for the dimensions of the runway on Fiery Cross, the analysis notes that the airstrip is larger in some respects than the airfield on Woody Island [永兴岛]. Since that field in the Paracels welcomed a detachment of J-11BH fighters in November 2015 as part of a PLA military exercise, according to this analysis, there is little doubt that the Fiery Cross airfield could host the same kind of fighter aircraft. The piece notes that considerable work remains to be completed on the airfield’s lights, radars and navigation beacons, but states that the airfield will likely still be unusable in heavy weather [恶劣天气].  Indeed, the paper observes that the Spratlys usually witness multiple typhoons each year, such that the “time when Fiery Cross airfield can be used may actually not be very often” [永署岛机场的可用时间并不多] and that even conducting exercises that use the facility could be “very difficult.” With respect to logistics, moreover, the analysis emphasizes the difficulties of maintaining aircraft and weaponry in a “high salt, high humidity, high temperature” environment. Nor does it anticipate that China would wish to station “a few thousand specialists of a maintenance group” [几千人的专业保障团队] with all their “electricity, water and other life issues.”

Due to the numerous constraints listed above, the “Fiery Cross Island is really not suitable for the regular basing of small aircraft squadrons.” Nevertheless, the analysis does highlight that the bases are capable of taking China’s largest aircraft, including the H-6, Il-76, and Y-20 transports, bombers, tankers and special mission aircraft.  According to space and support calculations, this analysis holds that a maximum deployment of aircraft to the Fiery Cross Base might be two Il-76 transports, three H-6 bombers, three medium-sized transports and six fighter aircraft. However, the piece is quite dismissive regarding the possibility of basing bombers at Fiery Cross base, noting such a move would be unnecessary and “not in keeping with the principles of combat.” On the other hand, it is viewed as quite likely that these bases would field both helicopters and unmanned aircraft. A reasonable conclusion offered in this piece seems to be that Fiery Cross should be viewed as playing a supporting role (e.g. refueling) for the purpose of “stretching the combat radius of naval air forces based on Hainan Island.”

The issue of the vulnerability of the reef air bases is not a major theme of the cover article discussed here, but the question does arise a couple of times. Noting that critical seaborne supply to the islands could actually be cut in wartime, the article suggests that “Fiery Cross Island could be paralyzed” [会造成永署岛的瘫痪]. At the conclusion of the article, the author provides one last possibility for a basing configuration for Fiery Cross airstrip: six UAVs, two helicopters, twenty fighters and four transports. However, this force “could not fight for long”  [不能长久作战] largely due to the fact that these fixed facilities are “extremely easy to attack” [非常容易打击]. So it seems that Chinese strategists also realize that these new reef bases might make for good “photo ops” (and the occasional astonishing graphic described in the introduction), but the new facilities actually do not seem to have major combat value.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.  The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Chinese J-10 0A seen at Zhuhai airshow. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Retxham