China’s Artificial Islands Are Bigger (And a Bigger Deal) Than You Think

September 21, 2016

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Surely you have heard the news — China has been dredging up coral reefs and creating artificial islands in the South China Sea with the purpose of enforcing their claims to “indisputable sovereignty” of their “Nine Dash Line”, and has defiantly continued to do so in the face of legal condemnation by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration.  While the reactions of the United States and other nations to China’s island-building campaign have been vocal, some U.S. analysts and experts have been largely dismissive of the new islands’ potential effects on the regional balance of power.  A recent RAND study stated:

[T]hese facilities could host a handful of SAMs and fighter aircraft…[but] they are unlikely to be a significant factor in high-intensity military operations against U.S. forces beyond the first hours of a conflict.

Another analyst declared as a myth the possibility of that these new bases could alter the balance of power, stating that, “In the age of precision strike, any and almost all fixed targets can be destroyed with ease.”  But the potential combination of China’s premier anti-ship and anti-air capabilities — along with the sheer, breathtaking scale of China’s island-building — call for serious consideration of the faux islands’ potential impact to U.S. diplomacy and contingency planning, as well as the need to take all possible measures to prevent their full militarization.

Going Big in the Spratly Islands: China’s New Airfields Point Major Commitment of Forces

While the Chinese government has consistently claimed that its land reclamation projects are intended for non-military purposes, and Chinese President Xi has pledged that China does not intend to militarize them, recent imagery shows large-scale construction of airfields and base facilities.  The most significant base-building has been concentrated at what I term the “big three”: Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reef. All three of these new islands will have approximately 10,000 foot runways, deep water harbors, and enough reinforced hangars to house 24 fighters as well as bombers, tankers, and airborne early warning aircraft.  Just as significant are the other airfield support facilities China appears to be constructing.  As an example, a rough comparison of the size of Fiery Cross’s airfield areas with those of a mainland Chinese fighter base (Suixi Air Base, see Figure 1) shows that this facility is probably being constructed to support a unit the size of a Chinese fighter regiment (of note, China is in the process of converting their air units to multi-aircraft-type brigades, but this analysis of scale should hold for now).  One can see on all three major islands the presence of 400-meter running tracks along with tennis and basketball courts, as well as block after block of what will likely be barracks, headquarters, workshops, and warehouses. China is even openly discussing plans to construct mobile nuclear power plants to provide electrical power to the islands. With more than 24 hangars under construction on each of the “big three” bases, this would allow all of a typical Chinese regiment’s fighters to be maintained indoors on each island. These do not seem intended as small airfields for occasional visiting aircraft. They look like major fighter bases in the making.

Figure 1: Fiery Cross Reef (upper) compared to Suixi Air Base (lower) — home to a regiment of PLAAF Flanker fighters. (same approximate scale).

One might think that China, surely, does not plan to base aircraft on these islands with the intent of using them to counter a U.S. intervention. After all, “a squadron of Su-27s flying out of Fiery Cross Reef ‘base’ would most likely be smoking wrecks within hours of the start of any South China Sea conflict.”  But if that is not the intent, then why build three?  Even before building the islands, China could easily have overwhelmed its regional competitors with naval surface action groups, an aircraft carrier, and land-based aircraft.  If China had built just one island base with dozens of aircraft, it would have enjoyed an even greater overmatch against local rivals.  But instead, China built three islands, each with facilities that appear large enough to host a fighter regiment (or brigade) and support aircraft.  To put that in perspective, three such air regiments on the three islands would add up to a fighter division, a formation consisting of about 17,000 personnel, and a commitment indicating that China perhaps has a larger foe in mind.

Shields Up: A Deployment of China’s A2/AD systems Could Happen Overnight.

If China is building the “big three” to be able to deter or counter a U.S. regional intervention, its plans would likely include deployment of the “counter-intervention” (China’s term) anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) system-of-systems that has already raised much concern in the United States.  Given recent deployments to Woody Island (China’s outpost in the Paracel Islands) of HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs, see Figure 2), YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), and J-11 fighters, one could expect such deployments to the “big three” as well, perhaps joined by the precision-strike ballistic surface-to-surface (SSM) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) of the PLA Rocket Forces (known formerly as the 2nd Artillery Corps).  A look at the resulting effective range arcs (see Figure 3) shows that in a stroke, China would have an interlocking and mutually-supporting SAM umbrella over most of the Spratlys, as well as ASCM coverage over the heart of the South China Sea.  Also, where the U.S. military could previously have been able to operate out of austere southern Philippines airfields beyond conventional ballistic or ground-launched cruise missile range, China would now be able to strike, with either DF-21C land-attack ballistic missiles or CJ-10 cruise missiles, U.S. and allied facilities and airfields throughout the Philippines and even to Singapore.

Figure 2: HQ-9 SAM battery deployed to Woody Island. Note the extensive newly-built land area and structures in the northeastern part of the island.
Figure 3: Range arcs depicting potential coverage of HQ-9 SAMs, YJ-62 ASCMs, and DF-21 ballistic missiles from China’s larger South China Sea island bases.

Areas of the Sulu and Celebes seas that would have been sanctuaries for U.S. aircraft carriers, beyond the range of DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), could now be within range of ASBMs launched from the island bases.  This development would further challenge the ability of U.S. aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings to operate at unrefueled striking range (about 500 nautical miles) with reasonable levels of risk in a Spratlys campaign.

The picture would become even worse were China to build and militarize a similar island base at Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012 and which has seen increased activity of late.  China’s A2/AD coverage would then encompass almost the entirety of the claimed area of the Nine Dash Line.

As a final note, since all of the premier Chinese A2/AD are road-mobile, a major deployment of them could happen almost overnight — all of the “big three” islands have deep water harbors that appear able to accommodate large roll-on/roll-off transports, a single one of which could likely transport the necessary personnel, trucks and transporters.

A Fool’s Errand? Island airbases in the Age of Precision Strike

Could the Chinese be seriously expecting these island bases to survive for long in the face of a U.S. intervention?  Consider three things:

  1. China is making a serious commitment in the form of the “big three.”
  2. China has been keeping notes on the U.S. military for the last few decades. Its forces and leaders are familiar with U.S. capabilities.
  3. Those who lead the Peoples’ Liberation Army are not fools. They will take measures to ensure their bases have a chance of surviving in combat long enough to matter.

Regarding the first point above, you must understand just how big these islands are and what that says about China’s commitment.  In reading about China’s reclamation campaign, a typical refrain is how many thousands of acres have been built up.  But consider some comparisons: Fiery Cross is hardly a little runway perched on a reef. As shown above, its facilities are roughly the size of a typical mainland fighter base and it has a sizable harbor.  Subi Reef is almost 50 percent larger again in area, and contains a massive enclosed deep-water harbor over two miles wide.  A visual comparison of Subi Reef with Pearl Harbor (Figure 4) shows what a huge installation the Chinese have created from scratch.

Figure 4: Subi Reef (upper left), main portion of Pearl Harbor’s naval base (lower right, same approximate scale).

Then, consider Mischief Reef.  Compared to the other regional claimants’ islands and land reclamation projects, Mischief Reef dwarfs them.  All of the other claimant nations’ biggest facilities combined would fit comfortably into half of Mischief’s huge lagoon.  As another point of comparison, Mischief Reef’s land perimeter is nearly the size of the perimeter of the District of Columbia.  China is clearly placing a massive bet on their new island bases.

Figure 5: Mischief Reef with the airfields of the other Spratly Island regional claimants: Thitu Island (Philippines), Spratly Island (Vietnam), Swallow Reef (Malaysia) and Itu Aba (Taiwan) (upper left), District of Columbia (lower right, same approximate scale).

Assuming we take for granted that China has been paying attention to America’s precision strike capabilities (and they have), what actions might China be planning to ensure the effectiveness of its island bases in a high-intensity conflict? First, consider again that all of the high-end counter-intervention weapons systems discussed above are mobile systems. If they were to be perched on small outcrops of sand that fact might not matter much, but on islands the size of Subi or Mischief Reef, they would no longer be fixed targets patiently waiting in place for systematic destruction by standoff weapons. Mischief Reef’s land area is over eight miles around. If you were to drive around it at freeway speed it would take almost ten minutes.  A lot of real estate would have passed by your window in that time, all of which China could use to spread out mobile systems to the point that an attacker could not expect to be able to just blanket the island with high explosives (at least the non-nuclear kind) and expect to destroy them. (Imagine as well the targeting headache that the presence of an operating nuclear power plant could add to the mix.)  Even if U.S. aircraft were able to operate with impunity overhead in the face of dozens of Chinese fighters and advanced SAMs, success would not be assured: During previous U.S. experiences hunting mobile missiles with near-unchallenged air supremacy (the 1991 Gulf War), “on the 42 occasions…when orbiting strikers visually sighted mobile TELs, in only eight instances were they able to acquire the targets sufficiently well to release ordinance.”

In fact, the ability of mobile A2/AD systems to blend into a complex background has caused some analysts to assess that they may hold the upper hand against precision strike platforms in some cases:

Trucks can hide in forests or among buildings…large numbers of Quonset-hut-like structures, opaque to radar, could provide occasional concealment but would almost always be unoccupied and thus inefficient to attack. Other decoys are easy and cheap…a private Russian firm has developed entire inflatable decoy S-300 antiaircraft missile batteries…Finally, high-value ground targets can protect themselves with short-range terminal defenses, including radar-controlled guns.

And what, after all, might we be seeing under construction on the larger islands right now? We are seeing  “unknown hexagonal structures” that could potentially be towers to mount guns or short range missiles.  They are being built to grace each corner of the islands (fields of fire?). Each individual hexagonal cell is about the same size and shape of the anti-aircraft guns which are already emplaced at China’s smaller outpost at Gaven Reef. This could indicate that each corner of the larger islands will end up equipped with point defenses consisting of groups of five or six guns or short-range missile launchers (see Figure 6).  Using massed short range anti-aircraft fire against incoming cruise missiles would echo the defensive tactics used to shoot down incoming kamikazes during World War II.  In essence, the threat is comparable: small, explosive-laden aircraft flown in from seaward at subsonic speeds with a highly committed pilot.

Figure 6: Notional IADs system with short range hybrid anti-aircraft batteries, under development by NORINCO, a Chinese defense supplier.

It may also be worth considering that China’s island bases are being built from scratch in the era of precision strike and are therefore able to have appropriate countermeasures “baked in” from the start.  As examples, recent analyst recommendations from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment to reduce the lethality of salvos of precision guided munitions include the following:

  1. Operating from base “clusters” to “induce enemies to dilute their strikes over more targets and…increase their defense capacity by taking advantage of mutually supporting air and missile defenses located within each cluster.” (See the mutually overlapping coverage shown above.)
  2. Increasing base resiliency by dispersing critical facilities and hardening potential high value targets, forcing adversaries to use more penetrating weapons. (See the reinforced hangars above as well as what may be acres of spread-out underground fuel tanks shown in Figure 7.)
  3. Shifting toward short-to-medium range air and missile defenses to increase the density of air and missile defenses and create more advantageous cost exchanges. (For example, trading point-defense anti-aircraft shells for million-dollar TLAMs and JASSMs.)
Fig. 7: Hardened underground fuel tanks under construction on Subi Reef?

No Easy Answers

With enough combat power brought to bear, China’s new island bases would be vulnerable to being overwhelmed. This sort of A2/AD problem set is one which is being addressed through efforts such as the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), and third offset strategy.  The question, really, is how much more effort and risk will be required once the islands are fully armed, and how long will it take to neutralize them during the crucial first salvos of a high-intensity conflict?  It seems unlikely that the effort would be as trivial as may have been thought.

To ensure America’s continued ability to live up to its treaty commitments and uphold the maritime rule of law in the South China Sea with acceptable cost, action is necessary.  First, the United States must make clear its expectation that China will abide by its promises not to conduct large-scale militarization of its South China Sea outposts, while conducting stepped-up Freedom of Navigation Operations to reinforce the real-world implications of the comprehensive Hague ruling against China.  Perhaps some bottom depth surveys inside Subi and Mischief Reefs’ lagoons are in order to determine their post-dredging depths — after all, they are international waters.Second, the United States must dramatically accelerate implementation of the joint access-enabling operational and strategic concepts discussed above as well as the development of related weapons systems, and be seen to do so.  Last, as construction of the “big three” approaches completion, the United States should watch carefully for any indications that a significant A2/AD force deployment is about to take place, and have a full-spectrum whole-of-government pre-planned response ready to stop it.  U.S. military and political leaders should determine in the next few months exactly how far they are willing to go to prevent large-scale arming of the islands. Will it be diplomatic protestations alone, or is Washington willing to conduct something like a Cuban Missile Crisis-style quarantine? There are likely a range of options in between that perhaps have not been fully explored by policymakers.

Some China-watchers have said that China plays Go (a game of position), while America tends to be a poker player — daring its opponents to call its bets.  By staking out its bold new positions in the South China Sea, China’s goal may be to up the ante to a point where the United States is faced with a tough choice: put a pile of chips on the table and risk huge losses or fold up its cards and go home.  The United States should do what it takes now to ensure that the game doesn’t get to that point.


Thomas Shugart is a Senior Military Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Danny Yu, CC

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17 thoughts on “China’s Artificial Islands Are Bigger (And a Bigger Deal) Than You Think

  1. Amusing to see the bipolar coordinated challenges to Obama by Russia and China, double teaming our ‘measured responses’, entirely verbal, and by now much like the boy who called ‘wolf”. Even the ‘red carpet’ was pulled from under him. Unfortunately, his experience as a ‘social worker’ did not prepare him for dealing with playground bullies. From personal experience I know that Russians, except on defense, will withdraw when threatened by major force. China is much the same, historically a defensive power, the Great Wall is its iconic symbol. But when there is no resistance, they will take what they can get. Weak American executive is the problem.

  2. Everyone continually overestimates the viability of Chinese and Russian conventional combat capabilities. If we are wondering if a carrier with a speed of over 35 knots and protected by three Aegis systems is survivable those islands are just chopped liver. The runway will obviously be cratered first. Every single point EM emissions source will be targeted from hundreds of miles away and they certainly will be eating cruise missiles. A B-2 will fly overhead and drop a guided bunker busting bomb on those underground fuel storage facilities. You could drop three S-500 batteries, each far less capable than an Aegis system but far more capable than anything China can field, on each island and they would still not survive. Much ado about nothing.

    1. Think if war was that easy?

      Do you actually believe that it is that easy, just to “Fly a B-2 and drop a bomb”?

      Do you understand how hard it is for a any nation to attack fortified Island like this, protected with Fighter Regiments, AWACS, Air Defense ?

      1. By the same token, plopping a runway, a fighter regiment, and some SAM batteries on a coral atoll and some landfill doesn’t make an impregnable fortress. Islands are logistical sinkholes, and while the aerial comparisons with continental airbases looks impressive, as a sustainable combat base, these are woefully small outposts. Those claiming a carrier group is undefendable against Chinese missiles can hardly argue that an atoll — which doesn’t move — can beat off sustained attacks. (And if you think these islands can’t sink, look up what earthquakes do to landfill.

        The aircraft shot down during ALLIED FORCE in 1999 was an F-117 shot down by an SA-6, not a B-2 shot down by a MANPAD. And in spite (or perhaps because) of their not having the latest equipment, Serbian air defenses were very, very good tactically. Shooting down the F-117 took advantage of U.S. tactical errors the Serbs had weeks of observation to figure out, just like the F-16 they shot down during DENY FLIGHT a few years before. They also had far more space within which to maneuver their air defense equipment. Not a valid comparison.

        1. No, it does not make them an impregnable fortress, and no one have said that what i know of, its mostly people that say it takes a few minutes and then this Islands are gone, and if people believe that they have no knowledge about war.

          All areas that are defended by an well organized integrated air defense takes time to kill, you cant take them out with Cruise Missile, Tomahawk or JASSM are meaningless, they are to easy to detect and shoot down when they closing in on an Island, Fighters and Air Defense would have an field trip.

          An attacking force must take out the SAM first, and the supporting fighters that are under the SAM umbrella, its not just to fly in and shoot down 24 J-11, they are protected with SAM that can engage enemy fighters from long range, to shoot them down will cost fighters, how many is just an guess, but many, and then you need to kill the SAM, fly SEAD missions, then DEAD, after that is done you can sink this Islands.

          All this take time, and resources, and its cost vs cost, whats worth and what is not worth, and in the mean time Submarines, ASBM, Long Range Bombers and land based coastal artillery can engage the naval fleets, under the protection from this bases long range air defense.

        2. If it was a F-117A or a B-2 depends on who you talk to. Same with the missile. Some say it was a shoulder fired missile while others claim truck mounted.

          Anyway F-117A is also a stealth fighter. B-2 is not much better in survivability. Surely China has better SAMs than the Serbian army had in 1999.

          USA has avoided confronting China. Even FONOPS (senator McCain calls them CON-OPS) sailed within 12 nautical miles from the furthest feature claimed by China. A very small challenge China opted to disregard. Recent bomber flights were above South Korea, not Korea.

          1. Ahh…bury the conspiracy theories! Both the USAF and the Serbs will tell you it was an F-117 shot down by an SA-6. As do the parts recovered from wreckage and preserved in a Serbian museum.

            Like most other new technologies, radar stealth has a pretty steep improvement curve over the first couple of generations. The technology that produced the F-117 is significantly different than that in the B-2, and the results are different.

            Hard to say about Chinese SAMs. Quite a few are reverse engineered from Russian or Western designs, but fall well short in equivalent performance.

            Running an effective IADS is also much more than button pushing — training and tactics count for quite a bit. Hence why simply piling SAM batteries, radars, and fighters on a coral atoll may or may not be effective. A small island confers no ability to defend in depth, beyond what’s conveyed by effective missile range. Most long-range missile batteries can only handle 6-8 engagements simultaneously. Most tactical missiles can only handle one or two. Absent much room to spread out (I’m talking miles, not yards), saturation attacks — not one or two missiles, but 50 — becomes a serious problem. While reloading is much quicker than it used to be, it’s not instantaneous. Small land area and (it being landfill) a high water table means munitions storage is problematic, too.

            Islands are fragile.

      2. Yes it would be that easy, They fly out of Guam, launch a couple cruise missiles, the islands are destroyed and that’s that.

        Or any of our ships carrying cruise missiles could do the same.

        The notion these island pose any threat to military operations during an actual conflict, is laughable

        1. They’re not quite meaningless. They’re good for harassing the regional neighbors and transients, short of war. If it came to an actual dustup, they’re pickets…they’ll provide some initial intel on naval movements, maybe get a shot or two in, and either die or hunker down and avoid attracting attention. But definitely not talking Truk or Rabaul.

        2. “launch a couple cruise missiles”

          Cruise missiles vs well defended integrated air defense is, meaningless, they are detected far away and they will be engaged by fighters and by SAM, NO militarily in the world would send Cruise Missiles against an small Island with an fully integrated air defense.

          People that believe that have no knowledge about Cruise Missiles or SAM.

          1. Sorry to burst your bubble, but what exactly do you think cruise missiles are for?

            More importantly have you even paid attention to how they have been utilized in conflicts in the last 30 years?

            Attacking a target like this is a core mission

            “Cruise missiles can be used to penetrate enemy air defense networks at low altitudes. They are highly accurate, highly maneuverable and can be used to attack a target from any direction . Among the other stated advantages of cruise missiles are that they are often difficult to detect and track”

            Why do you think everyone USA, Russia, China, etc. continue to use cruise missiles and continue to develop new capabilities?

  3. Those islands in SCS are sitting ducks when war breaks out. However, when war is only a possibility, these islands are strategic assets to gain control of the area. It’s like having three aircraft carriers right next to your door. This tactic is regularly employed by the US Navy. One aircraft carrier, two aircraft carries, three aircraft carriers and the invasion starts. For the interest of the world, US war with China in the SCS is very unlikely . Of course, China will lose the fight. But a fail state the size of China would certainly drag the world to the stone age. The failed American policy in the middle east which created global terrorism and the flood of refuges is a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg when China loses to the US. China is a growing power, it needs it’s strategic area of operation to protect it’s interests. The US has the option of a responsible power that respects this fact or it can be a destructive hegemony and destroy China dragging the world down with it.

  4. Good analysis. Comparison of likes with known likes reminds what Mcnamara did in WW2. Before bombing runs on unknown Japanese cities, he made a comparison of them with comparable US cities. This made it easier for planners to decide on resource allocation.

    However, China most likely has other plans for island bases. These islands are indefensible. They stand absolutely no chance of survival against a US attack. Land based systems cannot improve their survivability. They look more like baits. If they house nuclear plants, attacking them becomes a war crime. In retaliation, China will attack Okinawa, Guam and/or Hawaii. China has already showcased a DF missile named “Guam killer”. China has been fearlessly upping the ante well prepared for escalation if needed. During the Cold War, there was no close third. The US and the SU were a league of their own. China was nowhere to be seen. A war between NATO and the SU would have either devastated the world or forced them to call off midway still giving each of them sufficient clout to fend off a third power. This is not the case today. Nuclear warhead numbers have drastically reduced. China is a close third in overall destructive capabilities. A war between NATO and Russia will result in China ruling the world. A war between USA and China means Putin rules the world. Due to this changed circumstances (from Cold War), no nuclear power will go to ballistic. Cuban missile crisis and Indian Ocean missile crisis would not be repeated.

    A war in South China Sea will not end with the conclusion of clashes. Hostilities will remain as China will attack ships passing through it sporadically disrupting traffic, increasing insurance and freight cost. It is a low cost A2/AD strategy. Escalation will be costly for both parties. Unable to sustain their economies, ASEAN democratic countries will cave in (or suffer ruling party change driven by economic woes).

  5. The Chinese and the PLA are not, and never have been fools.

    So the first safe assumption beyond braggadocio should be that if China values this extension of power it is meaningful and significant.

    Second, these manmade islands are being reinforced and are the size of Diego Garcia. The hangars at Guam, Diego and similar are designed for weather, not weapons, Japan depending on base has limited reinforcement of hangars. Additionally, I can’t remember ever seeing anti-air on a US base not in Korea.

    So should China NOT decide to wait for us to pull the pin, they threaten all of the Philipine temporary basing, if any exists when Dutarte finishes. Guam is at high risk of first strike. And people who put faith in “stealth” haven’t been watching developments in long-wave radar or X-band satellite launches.

  6. Thank you for the comparative display of size – I think your’s is the first article to point this out.

    So these islands are tough nuts to crack – not like still aircraft carriers which are small, but like small cities which are big. Also nicely made point – with mobile systems you have to expend alot of pricey ordinance to be sure you take out your target. It would seem smart that their next project would be an Island wide art installation – all of them identical to SAM and DF-21 launch vehicles. So our super cool and expensive PGM is no more effective than area bombing with the Norden bombsight.

    The only thing I see as still a problem is their SAM coverage does not overlap as much as needed, so they can still be plinked off one at a time. But at a much slower rate WHILE our bases and allies are being pounded at the same time.

    So after the start of hostilities, within a week we could have heavy damage to most of our bases in the area, and they would have only partial damage to some of theirs. BUT, we would then have to travel farther to rearm/repair – while they still hold their bases.

    Yep, this could be a winning strategy for China. I didn’t believe it before, but I do now.

    I think it’s time to reactivate the Iowa class, specificly for island shoal and seafloor mapping. I think those 16″ guns just offshore might give them something to think about. Loaded up with point defense, it’s the tripline that could give them a bloody nose first.

  7. None of the comments mentioned how they think China would use her 50,000 little blue men. This is a serious omission. Just what can they do with 5,000 large militarized fishing vessels? These aren’t 12′ aluminum dinghies. That’s 5,000 potential mine layers, torpedo launchers, troop transporters, man pad platforms, EW platforms, net laying, +???

    Remember this flash mob tactics is a new force to be reckoned with. One where we don’t have a good record of countering.