Satellite imagery from April 28 reveals the first image of a military aircraft, a Shaanxi Y-8, deployed to China’s base at Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. This follows Chinese media reports from March 2018 that a Y-8 had landed on the reef to evacuate a fisherman who required medical assistance. The Y-8 was designed as a military transport aircraft, but some variants are used for maritime patrol or signals intelligence. This should be particularly concerning to the Philippines, which has about 100 civilians and a small military garrison on Thitu Island just 12 nautical miles away.
With these deployments, military aircraft have now verifiably landed on all three of China’s airstrips in the Spratly Islands. The first was a “naval patrol aircraft,” possibly a Y-8 or similar plane, which landed at Fiery Cross Reef in April 2016 to evacuate three personnel who had fallen ill. Last month, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published an aerial photo dated January 6 showing two Xian Y-7 military transport aircraft on Mischief Reef. That landing was especially galling for the Philippines because an arbitral tribunal in 2016 ruled that Mischief Reef is a piece of the Philippine continental shelf.
In addition to patrol and transport planes, China has recently deployed other military platforms to the “Big Three” outposts at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs. On April 9, the Wall Street Journal published satellite imagery commissioned by the U.S. government that showed military jamming equipment mounted on three trucks on Mischief Reef in March. The article cited a U.S. official who said the jamming systems were deployed to Fiery Cross Reef as well. AMTI has confirmed the systems were visible in satellite imagery of Mischief from at least mid-February, and were still present as of May 6, although placed under covers.
Then on May 2, CNBC, citing U.S. intelligence sources, reported that China had deployed YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missile systems on each of the reefs as part of military exercises in early April. China constructed missile shelters on the islands in early 2017, but the April deployment was the first confirmed placement of such platforms on the islands. It is unclear whether those missile platforms are still on the islands or were removed following the exercises (they would be difficult to confirm via imagery if kept inside shelters or other buildings).
Most of China’s recent deployments in the Big Three followed a pattern set earlier at Woody Island, its largest outpost and administrative seat in the Paracel Islands. From harbor dredging and runway improvements to hangar and radar construction, upgrades at Woody Island have served as a blueprint for things to come on China’s Spratly holdings to the south. Unsurprisingly, China deployed HQ-9s and anti-ship cruise missiles (YJ-62s) to Woody in 2016. Satellite imagery also captured five Y-8 aircraft on the island in November 2017.
With similar platforms now seen on the Big Three, it is reasonable to look at other recent Woody Island deployments as signs of things to come at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs. China has repeatedly deployed J-10 and J-11 fighter jets to Woody Island. In late October 2017, the Chinese military released images and video of J-11Bs on Woody for exercises. And satellite imagery confirmed earlier deployments of J-11s to the island in April 2016 and March 2017. Considering that China has built identical hangars for combat aircraft at Woody and on each of the Big Three, it is likely that J-10s or J-11s will soon find their way south to the Spratly Islands.
Satellite imagery from April 2016 also captured what are believed to be Harbin Z-8 transport helicopters and a Harbin BZK-005 drone deployed to Woody Island. The BZK-005 is a high altitude, long endurance surveillance drone that is well suited to maritime patrol. Similar deployments to the Spratlys would not be surprising.
The current and expected deployments of air and missile platforms in the Paracels and Spratlys are steadily expanding Chinese power projection capabilities from its outposts.
Tracking Surface Ships
The Big Three host both air and naval bases, and they support an ever-growing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard (CCG), and fishing fleet presence across the southern portion of the South China Sea. Satellite images show that PLAN destroyers, frigates, and other combat ships and CCG patrol vessels regularly visit the artificial islands, along with many auxiliary and logistics vessels. Admittedly, relying on satellite imagery, which captures only those ships that happen to be in port (as opposed to out on patrol) at a specific moment in time, provides a limited picture of naval and coast guard deployments. But the ubiquity of PLAN and CCG ships in images of Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs since the start of 2017 suggests how robust the PLAN and CCG presence at the island bases has become.
AMTI has identified as many PLAN and CCG vessels as possible in imagery taken since January 2017, and has selected representative images of each vessel class, below. For instance, several varieties of the PLAN Type 053 frigate were seen at the Big Three, including what appear to be Type 053H1, Type 053H1G, and Type 053H3 frigates.
The Type 051B Luhai-class destroyer comprises just one ship— the DDG 167 Shenzhen. When it was built in the 1990s, the Shenzhen was the largest surface combatant in the PLAN, though it has been followed by several newer models of destroyer. The PLAN recently overhauled the Shenzhen’s outdated weapons systems to bring it more in line with modern combat needs.
Imagery shows Type 056 Jiangdao-class corvettes visiting the islands, including a shot in June 2017 where two corvettes were tied up at the same dock on Mischief Reef.
Several different Type 072 landing ships, as well as a Type 073A landing ship, have been seen at the Big Three. The larger Type 072 landing ships are capable of transporting and landing tanks, heavy vehicles, and air-cushioned hovercraft in amphibious operations. The medium-sized Type 073A carries smaller tanks or troops for similar operations.
Two AGI signals intelligence gathering ships, a Hai Yang and a Type 815G, were seen in the harbors of the Spratly outposts. The type 815G appears to be the 852 Haiwangxing, which was spotted in 2017 monitoring the U.S.-Australian Talisman Sabre joint exercise.
In addition to several of the same types of ships AMTI has reported on patrol in the Luconia Shoals off the coast of Malaysia, China Coast Guard ships seen at the outposts include several former PLAN Jianghu-class 053H frigates, redubbed Jianghu-1 WFF ships.
Lastly, alongside the combatant and law enforcement vessels, an array of support ships, including tankers, tugboats, and replenishment vessels, as well as a Type 639 oceanographic surveillance ship have been seen.