Intelligence Suggests China May Be Building Military Game Changer On Contested Islands

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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New photos of Chinese operational structures in the South China Sea show that China may be building a high-frequency radar station to expand its field of vision in the region.

Twitter user @rajfortyseven, a self-proclaimed satellite imagery expert, posted satellite images of a Chinese outpost on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands Tuesday.

The satellite images show what appears to be an over-the-horizon (OTH) radar station. This type of radar has the ability to detect targets thousands of kilometers away and can be set up to serve as a Ballistic Missile Early Warning (BMEW) system.

The user who posted the pictures told TheDCNF that the “very large size of the array and the construction of the mesh” suggest that the Chinese are, in fact, building an OTH radar system in the Spratlys. He indicated that the structure the Chinese are building resembles the Veronezh radar system in Russia.

China doesn’t have the same offensive capabilities as the U.S., but China’s defensive anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) game is a force to be reckoned with.

As China already occupies the disputed territories it desires, it needs only a strong defense to prevent U.S. intervention and leverage them away from other claimant states.

On the surface, radar equipment doesn’t appear as threatening as missiles, like the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles China deployed in the Paracels in February, but a quality high-frequency radar system offers the ability to spot enemy offensive weapons long before they actually reach intended targets, giving China time to mount an effective defense.

Earlier this year, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) identified possible high-frequency radar stations on a number of islands in the Spratlys. Radar towers and other relevant equipment were seen on Cuarteron, Mischief, Subi, Fiery Cross, Gaven, Hughes, and Johnson Reef.

The AMTI reported that the deployment of an OTH radar system in the Spratlys would strengthen China’s ability to monitor surface and air traffic around the Malacca Straits and other strategic channels.

China’s OTH radar system on the mainland and its radar stations in the Paracels give it a clear view of the northern part of the South China Sea, but there are blind spots. The radar bases under construction in the Spratlys may be game changers.

Satellite images from July show that China is constructing reinforced military aircraft hangars on three separate reefs in the Spratlys. CSIS’ AMTI reported that each islet will soon be able to hold 24 fighter jets, such as China’s J-11s and Su-30s, as well as up to three or four large aircraft, like the H-6 bombers.

With operational runways, reinforced hangars, combat-capable aircraft, mobile surface-to-air and surface-to-ship missiles, and high-frequency radar systems, all of which are either being built in or may soon be deployed to the Spratlys, China will gain full control of the southern tip of the South China Sea’s strategic triangle.

Already holding the Paracels and rapidly securing the Spratlys, China needs only to leverage the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines to dominate the South China Sea.

China’s vast territorial claims and nine-dashed line in the South China Sea were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12; however, China refuses to acknowledge the authority of the tribunal or accept the ruling.

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