The structure identified on Bombay Reef in AMTI’s November 20, 2018 report, China Quietly Upgrades a Remote Reef, is likely a fixed communication and surveillance platform known as an “Island-Reef Information System.” According to AMTI’s analysis, China had apparently installed the platform on the Paracel Island archipelago in the South China Sea sometime before July 7, 2018. An “Island Reef Information System” is an “Ocean E-Station,” a component of a larger “Blue Ocean Information Network” that is being developed by the Chinese government to aid in the exploration, exploitation and control of the maritime environment using information technology.

The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) has developed at least two types of “Ocean E-Stations” (海洋 E 站) that are meant to expand the information collection and communication networks created by China’s South China Sea islands and outposts. CETC has promoted the information platforms on social media since last year.  The “Island-Reef Information System” (岛礁信息系统), almost certainly the platform imaged on Bombay Reef, is an unmanned, fixed platform designed for installation on an uninhabited reef in up to 32 feet (10 meters) of water. The “Anchored Floating Platform Information System” (锚泊浮台信息系统) is an Ocean E-Station with virtually identical capabilities that may be deployed in water depths between 200 and 13,000 feet (60 and 4000 meters). The Bombay Reef fixed platform appears to be the first Chinese Ocean E-Station identified by Western media operating in the South China Sea.  However, as many as five floating platforms have already been deployed in the South China Sea, according to CETC representatives and Chinese Maritime Safety Administration (MSA) notices.

Trade brochures provided by CETC indicate the purpose of the Ocean E-Station platforms is to conduct electronic surveillance, provide maritime communications, aid in search-and-rescue, and monitor the ocean environment. The platforms may also act as information nodes to provide power and connectivity for a variety of on-board or off-board systems including, for example, an undersea environmental monitoring system, hydroacoustic array, or other subsurface system.

The fixed platform dimensions are 85 feet long by 56 feet wide and 32 feet tall (26 meters long by 17 meters wide and 10 meters tall). The cylindrical floating platform is 60 feet in diameter and 112 feet tall (18 meters in diameter and 34 meters tall). Half of the floating platform is submerged to provide stability. The platform’s solar panels and wind turbines generate electricity and, using battery storage, provide a consistent 4 kilowatts (kW) of electricity (up to 10kW peak power) in various DC and AC voltages to power on-board and off-board systems. The large radome houses a satellite dish, radar and other antennae. Antennas, sensors, and cameras also occupy the platform perimeter. CETC estimates the lifespan of the systems is 20 years with routine maintenance.

Communication capabilities for both platforms include Ku- or Ka-band satellite communications (SATCOM) (greater than 2 Megabits per second (Mbps)), S-Band SATCOM, and shortwave radio. The platforms can also relay calls from 4G LTE cellular service and provide a link to a text messaging service available through China’s Beidou satellite navigation system. The fixed platforms also offer troposcatter communications (greater than 8 Mbps) if located within 200 miles of another troposcatter station.

Surveillance systems include an air- and surface-search radar as well as an electronic signal monitoring suite. CETC brochures indicate the system can detect frequencies between 1 Gigahertz (GHz) and 18 GHz, and can attain bearings on frequencies between 30 Megahertz (MHz) and 3 GHz. According to information from a CETC subsidiary that makes electronic components for the platforms, the CETC surveillance system can also detect distributed frequency-hopping signals, specifically the U.S. military data link JTIDS (Link-16). The platforms can monitor Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) transmitted by ships and aircraft respectively. Cameras covering both the visible and infrared spectrum provide photoelectric surveillance to the horizon. A number of sensors are also arrayed above and below the water for hydrological and meteorological monitoring.

These two types of Ocean E-Stations are part of a larger CETC program and Chinese government effort to “informationize” the maritime environment. “Informationize” (信息化) is an awkward term in English, but the essence of its meaning in Chinese is to “transform with information.”

As part of its “informationization” initiative to “enhance an understanding of the oceans, exploit the oceans, and exercise comprehensive control of the oceans by means of information technology,” CETC established the Ocean Information Technology Research Institute Co., Ltd. in September 2013.  By 2015, the research institute, also known as the “Hisense Institute,” had launched its pilot project, the “Blue Ocean Information Network,” that included the development of the Ocean E-Stations. In 2016, the Blue Ocean Information Network received an official endorsement under a somewhat obscure provision of the Chinese government’s 13th Five-Year Plan—to promote the development of “intelligent ocean engineering” (智慧海洋工程).

The Ocean E-Station platforms and the communications and surveillance they provide have both civilian and military applications. According to a 2017 CETC press release, the Blue Ocean Information Network is part of a $300 million investment to develop a “civil-military integration marine information industry base.”

Implicit in the effort to informationize the oceans is a belief that having greater surveillance and connectivity will reduce risk for Chinese maritime interests and, potentially, enable greater control over the maritime environment. Persistent surveillance by an array of unmanned sentries might replace periodic patrols by fisheries, coast guard or navy vessels. While the deployment of Ocean E-Stations and China’s efforts to informationize the maritime environment appears to have begun in the South China Sea, these information nodes may well spread to other Chinese seas or even shipping routes in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.

The legal status of these unmanned systems is not entirely clear, especially in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Should these surveillance and communications platforms be considered in the same category as weather or navigational buoys? Alternatively, since they are substantial, fixed- or anchored-platforms not necessarily associated with a high- or low-tide feature, are they more akin to an off-shore oil platform, essentially an unmanned vessel flying a Chinese flag?  CETC’s Ocean Information Technology Research Institute appears to be asking many of the same questions. In September 2018, the institute solicited requests for research proposals to investigate the legal issues surrounding the deployment of “offshore maritime information systems.” The deployment of the Island Reef Information Station Ocean E-Station to Bombay Reef may have opened a new chapter in the international debate over matters of sovereignty, legality and control in the South China Sea.

About Michael Dahm

J. Michael Dahm is a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) where he focuses on foreign technologies. He has over 25 years of experience as a Naval Intelligence Officer with extensive service in the Asia-Pacific region. He served as Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché in Beijing, China from 2012-2015. Mr. Dahm’s perspectives presented through AMTI are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of APL or its sponsors.