Mark Collins – The Dragon’s Wings and the South China Sea, and Much More

Things just get more and more difficult (dangerous?)–at Defense One’s “D-Brief“:

China lands airplane on fake island…

In a provocative first, Beijing landed a plane on one of its fake islands in the South China Sea. “Military flights will inevitably follow,” Reuters writes, after China “confirmed that a test flight by a civilian plane landed on an artificial island built in the Spratlys, the first time Beijing has used a runway in the area. Vietnam, which said the plane landed on Jan. 2, launched a formal diplomatic protest; Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said Manila was planning to do the same. Both have claims to the area that overlap with China.”

About those runways: “Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) long and is one of three China was constructing on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago. The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport craft as well as China’s best jet fighters, giving them a presence deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia that they have lacked until now.” (ICYMIhere’s a U.S. Navy video of the islandsfrom last year.)

The State Department reax: China’s move “raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” said spokesman John Kirby.

What’s China’s likely next step? “Once they’ve tested it with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power — Su-27s and Su-33s — and they will station them there permanently,” said one defense analyst. More here.

China just commissioned a new high-tech spy ship, at least its fourth over a decade-plus, writes David Axe for The Daily Beast. “The Type 815 surveillance vessel Neptune, featuring sensitive electronic listening devices, could help Beijing further improve its already impressive ability to gather intelligence on its rivals, in particular the U.S. Navy.”

The specs: “Like her sister vessels—one older ship dating to 1999, two newer ones that entered service in 2009 and mid-2015, plus at least one more Type 815 still under construction—Neptune is roughly 400 feet long. The ship boasts several large domes arranged along the superstructure that apparently house antennae for intercepting radar and radio signals broadcast by the military forces of potential enemies. China’s intelligence analysts at sea and on land can then interpret the signals in order to determine the capabilities of other countries’ ships, planes, and military hardware.”

The early takeaway: “The Chinese spy ships’ activities wouldn’t be so offensive to Washington if Beijing weren’t itself so sensitive about the activities of America’s own spy ships—of which the United States has slightly more than China does—in waters near China.” Read the rest, here.

And Beijing just built its own “Wild Weasel” jet to knock out surface-to-air missile batteries, Popular Science reports. “The J-16D is a J-16/Su-30 multi-role fighter optimized for ‘Wild Weasel’ missions. Starting in the Vietnam War, Wild Weasels are fighters designed to take on surface-to-air missile batteries in a SEAD (Supression of Enemy Air Defense) role. Armed with anti-radiation missiles (which lock on and target radars by their electronic emissions) and electronic intelligence and electronic warfare jammers, they are designed to engage and suppress defenses, opening the way for traditional air attacks.” Find a handy diagram of the aircraft and a bit more, here.

Does the U.S. Navy have enough ships to counter an increasingly assertive Chinese Navy? The fact is the service and its Pacific Fleet component have fewer ships now than in the mid-’90s: 182 for the fleet compared to 192 two decades ago, and 272 Navy ships today versus nearly 340 in 1998, the Associated Press reports.

But that’s just fine with its commander, Adm. Scott Swift. AP: “Swift said he would rather have the Navy he has today — and its advanced technology — than the Navy of two decades ago. He pointed to the USS Benfold, a guided missile destroyer upgraded with new ballistic missile defenses, as well as three new stealth destroyers, the DDG-1000, in the pipeline, as examples.”

On the Chinese side: “China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol craft, according to the Pentagon’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy report released in August. China’s coast guard and other maritime law enforcement fleet, meanwhile, has upward of 200 ships — more than the combined fleets of neighbors with competing claims to tiny islands in the East and South China Seas.” More on the “great power” naval dynamics at play in the Pacific, here

Earlier:

US to Test China’s South China Sea Claims: How Much? Part 2

Aerial Challenges for US Forces (China, Russia)

Making the Case For the Eagle’s Carriers vs the Dragon: NOT

Mark Collins, a prolific Ottawa blogger, is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute; he tweets @Mark3Ds

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