Offshore Activities

China is aggressively building on the reefs and shoals in South China Sea

Prasun K. Sengupta

Of all the reefs and shoals reclaimed as islets by China thus far in the South China Sea, Fiery Cross Reef witnessed the most construction in 2017, with work being conducted on buildings covering 27 acres, or about 110,000 square metres.

AG-600 Amphibian

This included completion of the larger aircraft hangars (enough to accommodate 24 combat aircraft) alongside the runway, work on large underground weapons storage structures to the south of the island, a large communications-related sensor array at the north-east end of the islet, various early-warning radar sites spread around the islet, and eight hardened shelters with retractable roofs for surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles at the southern end. The large underground weapons storage sites have been completed and entirely buried, joining other underground storage structures previously built on the islet, which include water and fuel storage sites.

China has also constructed a high-frequency radar array at the north end of the islet and it comprises a field of upright poles, similar to those built at Cuarteron Reef in 2015. This high-frequency radar is situated next to the large communications array completed earlier last year. In addition, a large radome was recently installed on a building at the southern end, this housing an over-the-horizon early-warning radar. An identical building is now under construction at the northern end, along with two more at Mischief Reef.

Another, smaller dome has been installed on a tower near the shelters on Mischief Reef. A very large antennae array is being installed on a small outpost at the southern side of Mischief Reef for tracking maritime traffic around the feature. China’s three air bases in the Spratly Islands and another on Woody Island in the Paracels group of islands will thus allow PLA Navy (PLAN) combat aircraft to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea.

The same is true of China’s radar coverage for its air-defence identification zone, now made possible by the network of early-warning radars at Fiery Cross, Subi, and Cuarteron Reefs, as well as on Woody Island. China has deployed HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile (LR-SAM) batteries on Woody Island since September 2016 and has on at least one occasion deployed anti-ship cruise missiles to the island. On Mischief Reef, the hangars for 24 combat aircraft have been completed and in early March 2017 construction teams were putting the finishing touches on five larger hangars. A finished radar station now stands in the middle of this reef, and a trio of large towers have been constructed on the south-western corner. Retractable roofs are also being installed on the recently-built missile-launch shelters.

On Subi Reef, construction is complete on hangars for 24 combat aircraft and four larger hangars. The radomes on Subi Reef’s three-tower array are in various stages of completion, along with a completed radar station next to the runway. Subi Reef also sports a high-frequency ‘elephant cage’ radar array for SIGINT at its south-western end. Subi Reef also saw considerable building activity in 2017, with work on buildings covering about 24 acres, or 95,000 square metres. This included buried storage facilities identical to those at Fiery Cross Reef, as well as hangars, missile-launch shelters, and communications facilities.

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