Beyond “Conventional Wisdom”: Evaluating the PLA’s South China Sea Bases in Operational Context

March 17, 2020

Imagine entering a dark room. You can neither see nor hear, but your adversary can see and hear everything. Your opponent lives in the room and knows its every contour. For you, there are only a few ways in … or out. You may believe that you have the edge in technology and training. Allies and partners offer their support. But in the confines of the room, you cannot determine where to point your weapons and you are unable to communicate with your friends. In the dark, your foe watches and waits, preparing to pick off your team one-by-one from unexpected directions. If you reveal your position, or call for help, those in the shadows will hear.

This is the nightmare that U.S. military planners face in the South China Sea.

China’s Spratly Island outposts’ offer Beijing decisive information superiority against any challenger in the South China Sea. Their primary purpose is not military power projection and the deployment of weapons, but information power. The Chinese bases’ main contribution is to facilitate substantial command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnais­sance capabilities in the South China Sea. International legal opinion notwithstanding, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) behaves as if the militarized island-reefs are within Chinese territory. The outposts have developed into hardened military bases that have given the Chinese de facto control of what Beijing regards as its waters. Similar to military bases found on the mainland, the South China Sea outposts are integrated into a larger Chinese joint force system-of-systems that supports evolving PLA strategies.



Greg Poling recently argued in War on the Rocks that “The Conventional Wisdom on China’s Island Bases Is Dangerously Wrong.” He asserted that China’s outposts possess game-changing military capabilities that support Chinese presence in the South China Sea — capabilities that are often dismissed by U.S. decision-makers who believe the bases will be easily neutralized in a conflict. In response, Olli Pekka Suorsa provided a counter-argument that “The Conventional Wisdom Still Stands,” and the U.S. military does indeed have the capability to roll back Chinese military capabilities with relatively little effort. While Poling’s article more accurately captured the scope of the challenges involved in targeting the Chinese outposts, both authors have probably underestimated the operational obstacles the bases create for any challenger to Chinese dominance in the South China Sea.

Western assessments of the Chinese artificial islands typically mirror the American way of war —focusing almost exclusively on the outposts’ capacity to deliver kinetic weapons — as if strike capabilities represent the foundations of Chinese operational concepts. They do not. Rather, any net assessment of military capabilities must be informed by the dynamics of PLA strategy, China’s potential adversaries, and South China Sea geography at the operational level of war. Whatever advantages the island-reef bases offer the PLA and Chinese coast guard in terms of logistics and sustained presence, Chinese operations will be limited by the range at which the PLA can control information — its ability to sense the battlespace and command its military forces.

Informationized Warfare Operational Concepts

The PLA’s overarching focus on achieving information superiority as a tactical, operational, and strategic requirement cannot be overstated. Chinese “informationized warfare” (信息化作战) and its information-centric operational concepts are largely misunderstood and underappreciated in the West. Put simply, if the industrial age ushered in mechanized warfare, the Chinese believe that the information age has led to informationized warfare. “Information power” (信息力) is the operational expression of informationized warfare and is the first among what the PLA refer to as the “basic elements of campaign power.” Information power, according to the Chinese, is more important than what the U.S. military holds at the center of its operational concepts — the industrial-age warfare elements of firepower and maneuver. Firepower and maneuver, especially long-range precision-strike capabilities, are certainly important to Chinese operational design. However, the PLA believes that strength in these areas is simply not as critical to operational success as achieving information superiority.

Information power — a military’s ability to achieve and sustain battlespace information superiority — is an operational-level concept that manifests as what one sees or hears in the cockpit, on the bridge of a ship, or in a command center. It is not about hacking social media, influencing populations, or higher-level information operations focused on manipulating the narrative surrounding a conflict. The concept of information power is about battlespace awareness and the ability to preserve information for one’s own weapon systems while simultaneously denying battlespace information to one’s adversary. Chinese concepts are more analogous to the former U.S. command and control warfare doctrine than to present-day U.S. doctrine for “Joint Operations in the Information Environment.”

While often reviled by China-watchers as cliché, the analogy that China is playing the game of Go, or Weiqi, while the United States is playing chess is nevertheless an apt analogy for how both sides conceptualize military strategy. The objective of Weiqi (围棋) is to surround one’s opponent, leading to decisive engagements to remove the other player’s pieces and ultimately win by occupying more space on the board. To a large degree, this reflects the Chinese approach in the South China Sea — constraining adversaries in literal and virtual space, “occupying space on the board,” and setting the conditions to eliminate foreign forces quickly and decisively if necessary.

The U.S. military approach is much more like chess, a game of maneuver and attrition that seeks capitulation by neutralizing a critical center of gravity behind enemy lines (e.g., the king). In the South China Sea, China seeks to seize the operational initiative at the outset, denying the United States and its allies battlespace information in order to prevent American forces from maneuvering across the board and employing firepower against what the PLA perceives as its operational center of gravity — its purposefully robust command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnais­sance system-of-systems. Ultimately, this raises questions about whether U.S. firepower and maneuver strategies will prevail against a Chinese strategy that starves American systems of battlespace information. Meanwhile, redundant and resilient capabilities support PLA long-range weapons with a seemingly uninterrupted flow of intelligence and battlespace information.

“Active Defense” is Not Defensive

The Chinese are not in a defensive crouch waiting to be attacked in the South China Sea. PLA informationized warfare strategies and operational concepts comport with the Chinese concept of “active defense” — being strategically defensive while operationally offensive.

U.S. military planners have unilaterally labeled Chinese military capabilities as “anti-access/area denial” capabilities. This label has produced a myth that the PLA actually has a defensive “anti-access/area denial” strategy or a “counter-intervention” strategy. Certainly, China has plans to employ substantial military capabilities to thwart a U.S. military intervention. However, the Chinese military, like its U.S. counterpart, prefers to seize the operational initiative and execute offensive operations. The PLA will always seek to avoid falling into defensive reactions. The American focus on overcoming anti-access/area denial capabilities shifts attention away from Beijing’s strategies that are designed to rapidly achieve offensive objectives such as seizing territory, punishing a regional adversary, or securing resources. U.S. counter-strategies may address defensive capabilities, but do not directly counter Chinese offensive strategies and the reasons why the United States might intervene in the first place. Moreover, U.S. strategies seemingly seek to defeat PLA anti-access/area denial weapons systems but do not necessarily address what the PLA sees as its own operational center-of-gravity — its information power.

Chinese informationized warfare theory advanced since the early 2000s clearly identifies friendly and enemy information-related systems-of-systems as critical operational centers of gravity. See, for example, a recent Chinese language article from the PLA Daily newspaper, “体系作战如何破网’点穴” (“How to Destroy Network ‘Critical Nodes’ in System-of-Systems Operations”). The PLA’s requirement for diverse and redundant communications and reconnais­sance to prevail in a high-end confrontation against an enemy’s system-of-systems is reflected in the clearly evident, but often overlooked, redundant and resilient information power capabilities present on the PLA’s South China Sea outposts.

A review of open-source material and commercial satellite imagery reveals significant communications capabilities on China’s artificial island-reefs that include undersea fiber-optic cable, multi-band satellite communications, high-frequency broadband arrays, troposcatter communications, and more. ISR capabilities are similarly redundant and diverse, and include frequency-diverse radar systems, electronic intelligence systems, and half a dozen microwave over-the-horizon radars (similar to the Russian Monolit-B) that can detect surface targets hundreds of miles beyond the horizon. That is to say nothing of the potential for relocatable systems, such as electronic warfare systems, ISR aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, or unmanned systems that may eventually operate from the island-reefs. All of the information power capabilities on China’s South China Sea outposts will work together prior to and throughout military opera­tions to deny an adversary access to information while preserving the PLA’s own access to information.

Networked communications capabilities present on the Chinese outposts extend information control to non-military or irregular forces in the South China Sea. Chinese coast guard ships and craft that may not enjoy sophisticated military communications and datalinks can be networked into a broad-area surveillance grid using line-of-sight radios. The PLA’s maritime militia are Chinese civilian fishermen enlisted to provide rear-area security, act as lookouts against foreign military forces, or act with plausible deniability against a rival nation’s fishermen. The island-reefs can now command and control the maritime militia through the use of rudimentary voice communications or even 4G (and soon probably 5G) cell-phone service from each of the island’s 160-foot communications towers.

In military terms, the information power capabilities evident on China’s South China Sea outposts represent the terrestrial segment of a joint force system-of-systems that integrates space-, air-, sea-, and land-based reconnaissance and communications. Should an adversary not be deterred by this information overmatch, these capabilities may be further integrated with significant long-range strike capabilities emanating from the outposts themselves, the Chinese mainland, surface ships, submarines, or an operational Chinese aircraft carrier. The mere threat of targeting and strikes may drive enemy ships and aircraft into emission control status — switching off radars and communications to avoid electronic detection — further denying the PLA’s adversaries battlespace information.

The South China Sea outposts fulfill all the requirements for what the PLA calls an “offensive campaign against coral island-reefs” (对珊瑚岛礁进攻战役), and there is every possibility that they were built expressly for this purpose. This operation was outlined in the 2006 Chinese Academy of Military Sciences’ Science of Campaigns, some seven years before construction of the artificial islands began. The objectives for this campaign included recapturing an “enemy occupied” island-reef, promoting national territorial sovereignty, and defending maritime rights and interests. The seminal Academy of Military Sciences text describes the island-reef campaign as occurring in a complex battlespace distant from the Chinese mainland, exacerbating challenges in air cover, communications, intelligence and logistics. The offensive island-reef campaign outline recommends the PLA establish a “comprehensive intelligence and reconnaissance system-of-systems” (完善的情报侦察体系); establish a single, integrated communications network among ships, aircraft, island-reefs, and the mainland; and produce accurate forecasts of hydrological and meteorological conditions. While a direct assault on any foreign-held Spratly island could be launched from a PLA Navy amphibious ship, the Chinese island-reefs provide all of the underlying information power capabilities and logistics outlined in the campaign doctrine.

Setting aside the potential of strike fighters or attack helicopters operating from outpost airfields, it is worth noting that the combined firepower of all the major island-reefs — Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef — does not appear to equal the potential firepower of a single Type-055 (Renhai) cruiser, with its 112 vertical-launch-system (VLS) cells. One might conclude that the outpost-based surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles are there simply as defenses for the Spratly Island area, given that any number of Type-055 cruisers, Type-052D destroyers, or other combatants could be deployed throughout the South China Sea to launch strikes. PLA Navy surface action groups, for their part, would likely patrol in relative silence, making them difficult for an adversary to target since they could receive battlespace awareness generated by or passing through installations on the Chinese island-reefs.

The South China Sea outposts are not necessarily the forward edge of layered Chinese defenses when considering PLA “active defense,” and an offensive campaign against advancing adversaries like the U.S. Navy or Air Force. Some have speculated that the South China Sea outposts’ long runways may be used to extend the range of Chinese bombers. A more likely use of the limited aircraft parking space on the island-reefs would be for ISR aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. The KJ-500 airborne early warning aircraft, Y-9JB electronic intelligence aircraft, or Y-9Q anti-submarine warfare/maritime patrol aircraft could launch from the island-reefs and immediately be within air-defense sanctuaries generated by the outposts’ defensive fighters and surface-to-air missiles. Outpost-based aircraft would also enjoy several hours of additional on-station time in the South China Sea compared to mainland-based aircraft. These aircraft would create radar coverage and an airborne communications layer using datalinks and line-of-sight comms, pumping real-time intelligence hundreds of miles beyond the surface horizon to forward-deployed PLA Navy combatants with deep weapons magazines. The graphic below depicts the potential radar or electronic intelligence coverage for a single aircraft like the KJ-500 flying at 25,000 feet over the Spratly Islands.

Figure 1: South China Sea Airborne Detection Ranges

Source: Graphic created by the author.

Employing the island-reefs as airfields where carrier-borne aircraft could divert in an emergency may also prove significant in the coming years. Even during peacetime steaming, operating aircraft from a ship is a challenging endeavor. There are any number of reasons why aircraft might not be able to return aboard the carrier, ranging from bad weather to mechanical failures to combat damage. Even proficient U.S. Navy air wings understand that operating out of range of a friendly land-based airfield is a very risky proposition. Assuming a 400 nm range from an aircraft carrier to a divert airfield, the Chinese outposts may allow PLA Navy carrier operations throughout most of the South China Sea in the near future. The new Chinese-built runway at Dara Sakor, Cambodia likely demonstrates that foreign-based PLA fighters are not necessary if an aircraft carrier can generate strike-fighter coverage in the shadow of a friendly nation with a suitable divert airfield. Also, until Chinese carriers are built with catapults to support large carrier-based airborne control and reconnais­sance aircraft like the KJ-600, Chinese carrier operations will necessarily rely on land-based aircraft for this role. Beyond how the PLA bases are influencing China’s South China Sea neighbors today, policy makers should consider the geopolitical implications when a Chinese aircraft carrier patrols at the southern end of China’s “nine-dash line” or in the Gulf of Thailand. While a PLA Navy aircraft carrier might operate anywhere in the shaded area in the graphic below, the combat range of carrier based aircraft extends several hundred miles beyond those limits.

Figure 2: Likely Chinese Aircraft Carrier Operating Area

Source: Graphic created by the author

PLA’s Defensive Capabilities in the South China Sea

A quintessentially offensive force like the U.S. military has adopted a view that the purpose of defensive actions is essentially to create more favorable conditions for offensive actions, a precept not lost on the PLA. Chinese “anti-access/area denial” weapons and capabilities are very real, but again, the PLA does not have a defensive strategy as much as defensive capabilities that will ultimately set conditions for offensive action. There are nevertheless several Chinese defensive capabilities worth mentioning as they relate to PLA information power and offensive operations in the South China Sea.

American stealth capabilities may not offer the salvation from Chinese South China Sea defenses that some have suggested. Following the erroneous B-2 attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1999, the Chinese spent the next twenty years focused on defeating U.S. stealth technology. Counter-stealth was one of the required capabilities in the PLA’s “three attacks, three defenses” (三打三防) concept that emerged in the early-2000s. The Chinese have developed a number of counter-stealth radars employing lower-frequencies where conventional stealth technology is not necessarily effective. Whether such radars can generate a firing solution against a low-observable aircraft is an open question, but it’s worth noting that the Chinese claim that their counter-stealth radar technology does work and may challenge what has been assumed to be a significant U.S. technological advantage.

The Pentagon also should not take undersea dominance for granted, especially in the South China Sea. For the moment, even the Chinese agree that the U.S. Navy enjoys a significant advantage in submarine technology. But in the constrained operating environment of the South China Sea and surrounding seas, the PLA would likely compensate for their shortcomings with more time and space to conduct anti-submarine warfare operations. The Chinese outposts, in addition to deployed PLA ships and aircraft, essentially give China de facto air and surface superiority, at least at the outset of any South China Sea conflict. Those superiorities will allow for unimpeded surface ship operations and flights of PLA Navy fixed-wing anti-submarine warfare aircraft like the Y-9Q. Facing PLA Navy surface ship sonar, helicopter dipping sonar and broad-area searches by Y-9Q submarine hunters, how long can U.S. submarines evade detection and still deliver kinetic effects in the confines of the South China Sea?

The seven Chinese-occupied island-reefs should not be assessed as individual, stand-alone bases, but as an integrated South China Sea system-of-systems. As a result, the suggestion that the Chinese island-reef outposts are vulnerable because of a lack of survivable, redundant systems misses the point. The Chinese bases collectively present a hard target, as Poling accurately stated in his article.

Chinese construction in the South China Sea seems to reflect the adage that there is a certain “quality in quantity.” According to commercial satellite imagery, across the seven Chinese island reefs, there are 33 major satellite dishes, dozens of smaller-aperture dishes, over 50 high-frequency communications antennas, and over 30 radars for air and surface search. This is to say nothing of mobile or relocatable ISR, communications or weapons systems that could be deployed virtually anywhere across the combined five square miles of artificial islands. Approximately 250,000 square feet of underground storage is available on each major outpost to protect weapons systems and munitions. Rough measurements indicate that each major island-reef could store more than 65 million gallons of fuel in buried tanks to support weeks of un-resupplied operations. For all the discussion of cratering runways on the South China Sea outposts, few seem to consider what may be relatively modest operational requirements. That is, if the PLA’s requirement is to have a single 5,000-foot runway available for combat in the South China Sea, they have built three 10,000-foot runways that may provide necessary operational resilience in the face of attacks. 

Framing Future Analysis

In any operational-level conflict, the PLA intends to engage its opponents in a herculean struggle for battlespace information superiority. While strike capabilities are integral to PLA informationized warfare, the South China Sea outposts demonstrate the strategy’s emphasis on information control. The island-reefs primarily act as “information hard-points,” harboring and enabling significant communications and reconnaissance capabilities as well as counters to adversary information control. Future analysis of the South China Sea should consider more than just the viability of U.S. offensive strikes against static Chinese defenses. Counting up weapons and targets is a convenient shorthand to assess materiel power, but such an approach does not address the merits of China’s information-centric strategy.

The analysis in this article does not offer a comprehensive net assessment of American and Chinese offensive and defensive capabilities in the South China Sea. A reader should not take away any assertion that PLA capabilities in the South China Sea are insurmountable, or that the Chinese threat is “ten feet tall.” Both the Chinese and U.S. militaries have profound strengths as well as critical vulnerabilities. Whether the PLA’s information-centric operational concepts can win out over American concepts centered on firepower and maneuver is worthy of debate.

The capabilities that the PLA is developing in the South China Sea reveal China’s informationized strategy and offensive operational concepts — operational concepts that the 2018 National Defense Strategy calls on the U.S. military to both understand and counter by developing operational concepts of its own. Mao’s defensive “People’s War” is a relic of the past. The fundamental tenants of informationized warfare, Chinese military offensive operational concepts, and how the PLA’s growing capabilities may be applied in context should be taken into careful consideration as the Chinese begin to extend their military reach beyond the South China Sea.



J. Michael Dahm is a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. Mr. Dahm’s perspectives presented through War on the Rocks are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of APL or its sponsors.

Image: China Military Online