The Philippines has begun long-delayed repairs to its crumbling runway at Thitu, or Pag-asa, Island, the largest of its nine outposts in the Spratly Islands and home to upwards of 100 civilians and a small military garrison. Thitu sits just over 12 nautical miles from China’s air and naval base at Subi Reef, and was the site of a tense standoff with a Chinese flotilla last August. Philippine defense officials in April 2017 announced that they would be upgrading facilities at the country’s occupied islands and reefs, but little work was apparent until now. In addition to the runway repairs, a comparison of recent imagery with photos from February 2017 shows minor upgrades to facilities on Thitu and three other outposts in the last year.
Satellite imagery from May 17 shows two barges anchored just off the western edge of the Thitu Island runway, which collapsed into the sea years ago. It appears that a grab dredger, consisting of a crane with a clamshell bucket, is installed on the smaller barge to the west, while the other carries a backhoe. Loose sediment from dredging can be seen in the water around the two barges and freshly-deposited sand is visible along the northern edge of the runway.
This method of dredging is similar to that used by Vietnam at several of its outposts in recent years. While still harmful to the marine environment, it affects surrounding reefs at a smaller scale and is far less environmentally destructive than the suction cutter dredging undertaken by China, which destroyed thousands of acres of reef from late 2013 to early 2017.
The coral reef surrounding Thitu makes it impossible for large ships to approach, as evidenced by the rusting hulk of the BRP Lanao del Norte, which ran aground off the northwest edge of the reef in 2004 and is still present. When repairs to the Thitu runway were previously proposed in 2014, officials said that a channel would need to be dredged to allow larger ships to deliver heavy machinery and construction materials to the island. It is likely that dredging such a channel is still part of the plan this time around.
The airstrip at Thitu Island was originally constructed in the 1970s and was the first runway in the Spratly Islands. It is officially 1,300 meters long, but the real figure is closer to 1,200 due to the collapse of the western end. That, along with the poor condition of the runway surface, makes landings and takeoffs difficult for Philippine C-130s like the one that carried Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., then chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to the island in May 2015:
In addition to the start of work on the runway, other upgrades are visible around Thitu. At least seven new buildings have been constructed in the last year, with four near the residential area on the eastern side of the island, one near the administrative facilities at its center, another along the northern shore, and one at the western end next to the island’s basketball court, which has received a fresh coat of paint. Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in November that the country had started building a new beach ramp to more easily bring in supplies, but that site cannot be seen in the May 17 imagery due to cloud cover and no new ramp was visible as recently as February.
In addition to the upgrades on Thitu, AMTI before-and-after imagery shows minor upgrades at: Commodore, or Rizal, Reef; Nanshan, or Lawak, Island; and Loaita Cay, also called Panata Island.
A new round-roofed shelter has been constructed on the eastern side of the small Philippine outpost on Commodore Reef, visible in imagery from May 1.
An empty field on Nanshan Island has been converted into a helipad as of February 20, 2018.
On Loaita Cay, a small sandbar, an additional hexagonal shelter has joined the modest outpost, visible in this image from May 17, 2018. The Philippines mostly administers Loaita Cay from nearby Loaita, or Kota, Island to the southeast.
The location of this outpost, which the Philippines calls Panata Island, is often misreported as being on Lankiam Cay, to the east of Loaita Island. While reports suggest Lankiam was once a small sandy cay, it appears to have been washed away, leaving only a submerged reef and a small, shifting sand bar. If there was ever a Filipino facility there, it was moved to Loaita Cay and took the name “Panata Island” with it.
The Philippines’ other five Spratly outposts, at Loaita Island, Northeast Cay, West York Island, Flat Island, and Second Thomas Shoal (where the purposely grounded BRP Sierra Madre serves as a permanent facility) show no visible upgrades in the last year.