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

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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.

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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.”

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Read more at National Interests

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0 #1 China's Shiny New Air Bases in the South China SeaChristena 2017-09-24 15:03
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