BEIJING is set to militarise its illegal presence in the Spratly Islands, with satellite photos revealing reinforced hangars designed to house combat jets on several artificial outposts.
The images, released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, show military infrastracutre being built on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs.
Key among the work are a slew of new hangars and several sets of a mysterious hexagonal structure paired with three towers.
The report states each island will soon be capable of housing 24 fighter jets along with three or four larger aircraft, such as those with surveillance, bomber or tanker roles.
This means Beijing will be able to stage a force of some 70 combat aircraft from the three
artificial islands in the South China Sea’s Spratley Islands, declared illegal last month by an international arbitration court in The Hague
The satellite imagery that has emerged. Picture: CSIS./AMTI
Put in perspective, the three runways will now give the remote outposts firepower roughly the equivalent of a United States supercarrier. The US Pacific Fleet’s USS Ronald Reagan can carry a total of 100 aircraft, but roughy a quarter are helicopters.
The Royal Australian Air Force has a total of 78 combat jets.
CSIS reports that, apart from a brief visit to Fiery Cross Reef by a military transport earlier in the year, “there is no evidence that Beijing has deployed military aircraft to these outposts”. It adds, hower, that the appearance of the hangars “indicates that this is likely to change”.
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The revelation comes as China’s media reports increased activity among its combat jets over the South China Sea, including its nuclear-capable H-6K bombers.
A Beijing spokesman also announced a the weekend that it would begin regular combat air patrols over the South China Sea and is considering imposing a ‘air defence identification zone’ over all of the contested waterway.
Overnight, the US Strategic Command announced that three of its B-2 Spirit stealth bombers had been deployed to Guam to supplement the recently upgraded deterrence force there. Most of the 1950s vintage B-52 bombers have been withdrawn, with 1980-era swing-wing B-1B Lancers taking their place.
More satellite images that surfaced, showing China’s plans. Picture: CSIS./AMTI
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
The AMTI/CSIS report says its analysis of the construction work shows a standardised design of military hangar hardened to resist damage.
The smallest are suitable for China’s most advanced fighter jets, the J-11 and Su-30. A second, larger hangar type is big enough to protect even giant KJ200 Airborn Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and Il-76 transport planes.
This could give the island fortresses the ability to sustain ongoing operations to deny access by the Philippines and Malaysia to the resource-rich waters, and rebuff any attempt to protect their interests.
Even the United States would have to make a concerted effort — involving the diversion of more of its shrinking carrier fleet — before it could counter such a force.
The report identifies the construction of unidentified new ‘hexagonal structures’ attached to three towers. Their purpose remains unknown.
If, however, they represent a new form of radar, this could pose problems for the United States. It’s plans for any future conflict with a major power, such as China, relies heavily upon the invisibility of its stealth aircraft.
Beijing has previously been accused of adding military-grade radars and anti-aircraft missiles to some its contested islands. Previously it had insisted these were being developed for civilian purposes only.
Reuters reports a US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, has said it was unlikely the hangers would be used for civilian purposes. The official added that the Chinese move was seen as skirting around the line rather than crossing it. A real cause for concern, he said, was if China actually moved in military aircraft and started using the reef as a forward operating base.