China's "Aircraft Carriers" on the Cheap
The last year has seen some unusual construction going on in the South China Sea. China has been building small islands from existing reefs with the purpose of placing military bases—including airfields—on them.
These new islands will give China additional military presence in the region, and reinforce Beijing’s claims on a region rich in fisheries and potentially wealthy in natural gas. The islands are in effect permanent aircraft carriers—on station 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
In military terminology, China’s island outposts are part of a “kill chain,” the web of sensors on manned and unmanned aircraft, spy satellites, surface ships and submarines stretching all the way back to Beijing.
In the event of a war, China’s kill chain could locate, identify and track enemy ships—especially big ones like aircraft carriers—and proceed to sink them.
But Beijing’s island bases are much more vulnerable than a moving carrier.
In the event of an actual shooting war, these tiny island outposts wouldn’t likely survive for more than a few hours.
They’re permanent and quite useful in peacetime, and temporarily dangerous—and extremely short-lived—in wartime.
Take, for example, Fiery Cross Reef.
China’s most advanced military construction in the South China Sea is taking place Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Reef in China.
In addition to Fiery Cross, Beijing has reportedly been building airfields on three other reefs—Cuarteron Reef, Johnson South Reef and Woody Island.
Fiery Cross was roughly 90 meters long by 90 meters wide—seemingly insignificant, but strategically located in roughly the middle of the South China Sea. Roughly 740 miles from China, it’s far closer to Vietnam, The Philippines and Malaysia than it is to China.
Earlier this year, The Philippines sounded the alarm about a major expansion at the reef. According to IHS Jane’s 360, dredging has turned the reef into an island “between 200 and 300 meters wide” and roughly 100,000 square meters large.
All of this happened in just three short months.
In return, China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua called The Philippines a “crying baby,” and commented that Manila’s attempts to push for international arbitration over the disputed island “farcical.”
The agency accused the United States of egging on its allies in their territorial disputes with China, a paranoid world view that suggests Washington is behind everything and smaller countries don’t have desires of their own.
China’s People’s Liberation Army has occupied the reef since 1988, when it constructed a small fort consisting of garrison troops, a dock, helipad and a few anti-aircraft guns on concrete blockhouses.
In 2011, the PLA designed Fiery Cross as a “main command headquarters.” By then, the outpost evolved to look like a real base, and even included greenhouses where troops grew fresh vegetables.
Today, the island is large enough to construct a 3,000-meter-long airstrip, complete with runway and apron. Such a runway can accommodate most PLA Navy aircraft.
But there’s more to an air base than a runway. The island needs hangars, maintenance facilities, a barracks, fuel storage tanks and ammunition bunkers. It sounds like a lot of space, but the U.S. Navy gets by with the relatively meager room inside its aircraft carriers.
China is also adding an artificial harbor to Fiery Cross capable of supporting tankers, resupply vessels and navy ships, complete with a “roll-on, roll-off” dock for moving ground vehicles onto the island.
China has two main reasons for expanding its island bases. First, Beijing has claimed virtually the entire South China Sea. But the PLA doesn’t have the resources or proximity to adequately patrol it—the islands help.
The airfields will likely host drones tasked with conducting maritime surveillance. Fiery Cross doesn’t lend itself to a large garrison, and using drones cuts down on manpower requirements.
Drones such as the Pterodactyl UAV, a design in the same class as the U.S. Predator, or even the Tian Yi—a design similar to the U.S. Global Hawk—have the range to regularly monitor China’s claims in the region.
But the situation would be very different in the event of a war. China’s reefs are tiny and few in number—and nowhere close to being self-sufficient.
The other problem with islands and reefs is that they don’t move, and their locations are exceedingly obvious. Knowing an island’s coordinates means you know where to find it—and where to bomb—forever. This is particularly acute in the age of long-range precision-guided weapons.
The USS Michigan, an Ohio-class cruise missile submarine serving with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is capable of obliterating the air base on Fiery Cross in minutes.
A wave of just 10 Tomahawk-D cruise missiles would rain down 1,660 cluster bomblets on the island, destroying aircraft, radars, control towers, fuel depots, maintenance vehicles and munitions depots.
The USS Michigan carries 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
China could station air-defense systems such as the HongQing-9—similar to the American Patriot missile—on the island. It could line up such missiles from one end to the other. And for all the good those missiles would do … an amphibious force of U.S. Marines could simply come and take them.
The bottom line is that these bases, as important as they may be, are just too vulnerable to attack. They will be disposable in wartime, with their lifespan measured in days, if not hours.
But Beijing’s new air bases are useful in peacetime, monitoring the South China Sea and keeping an eye on China’s unhappy neighbors. They’re also potentially useful in a major war, where they could contribute to the sinking of a major ship such as an American aircraft carrier.
So expect these tiny bases to figure heavily in China’s future actions in the region. But modern technology means it’s highly unlikely Beijing will build more than a handful.