MELBOURNE, Australia – China has continued to build up its air and naval forces in its southernmost province on the edge of the South China Sea, with deployments of more early-warning and anti-submarine aircraft over the past year and the construction of what appears to be a drydock large enough for aircraft carriers on the island of Hainan.
Satellite photos taken of the airbases at Lingshui and Qionghai on the southeastern and eastern coasts of Hainan on Jan. 12 show that there are eight and six large aircraft on the respective aprons, although the resolution of the photos was insufficient to identify the aircraft types.
Lingshui is currently a base for the KJ-500 airborne early-warning aircraft and other reconnaissance platforms of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with Defense News first revealing the presence of such aircraft at the base in 2017.
A high-resolution photo of the base taken on Dec. 3, 2020, and provided to Defense News by earth imaging company Planet Labs showed five KJ-500 airborne early-warning planes and three other, unidentified aircraft based on the Y-9 type, although it is unclear if the latter were regular airlifters or specialized intelligence gathering aircraft.
Meanwhile, Qionghai is the base of a regiment of KQ-200 long-range, anti-submarine and maritime-patrol aircraft belonging to the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet or SSF. The airport was primarily a civilian facility, although an extension to the apron was started in 2016 while the airport was being built. It eventually became home to the KQ-200s.
The KJ-500 and KQ-200 are derivatives of the Shaanxi Y-9 turboprop airlifter. They were readily identifiable due to their distinctive dorsal radar rotodome and rear fuselage-mounted magnetic anomaly detection boom, respectively.
Satellite imagery first captured seven of the anti-submarine aircraft on the ground in July 2020, although Chinese state media published photos of KQ-200s of the SSF at an unidentified airfield, which Defense News has geolocated to Qionghai, earlier in February last year.
Defense News had earlier reported on the deployment of the first KJ-500s to the SSF at Lingshui in March 2017, followed two months later by noting KQ-200s were also at the base, which has also hosted detachments of BZK-005 unmanned aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
In addition to deploying new aircraft, China has also been upgrading the infrastructure at PLAN facilities in Hainan. An airbase in Hainan’s main city of Sanya is being refurbished with the construction of a new apron, at least eleven new hangars and resurfacing of other taxiways being built in a construction blitz that started in January 2020.
The base is likely to continue its current role of hosting helicopters, light transport and unmanned aircraft, with its mile-long runway too short to safely operate larger aircraft without significant lengthening. Any attempt at such an undertaking would however be complicated by the urban sprawl surrounding the base one three sides and the ocean on the other.
Meanwhile, construction of what is believed to be a new dry dock large enough for an aircraft carrier is continuing apace. A high-resolution satellite photo taken on Dec. 3 and provided to Defense News by Planet Labs shows the facility being built will have a large graving dock approximately 1,150 feet long and a smaller one measuring about 700 feet.
Construction of the new facility began in 2016, and if confirmed to be a naval dry dock, will be long enough to support China’s aircraft carriers as well as destroyer and cruiser fleets.
The new facility is being built at the PLAN’s massive Yulin naval complex east of Sanya, which already boasts berthing facilities for the entire range of PLAN vessels, including its aircraft carriers, conventional and nuclear-powered submarines.
The PLAN has already deployed both of its commissioned aircraft carriers to Yulin, along with the first ship of the new Type 075 landing helicopter dock, which is currently undergoing sea trials and has not been officially commissioned into the PLAN.
The Type 075 was captured on satellite photos taken over Yulin in November and late December 2020 and published by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This is in addition to the second Type 055 cruiser to be commissioned in to the PLAN being noted at Hainan at about the same time, with claims that this ship will be assigned to the SSF.
The extended deployment of the Type 075, together with the expansion of the helicopter base at Sanya, suggests that the PLAN is set to continue assigning the majority its newest and most capable amphibious ships to the SSF.
The additional aircraft deployed to Lingshui and Qionghai will strengthen China’s air and maritime domain awareness of the waters and airspace over the South China Sea and the disputed islands and features that dot the waters. At the same time, the construction of additional airfield infrastructure and possible dry dock facilities large enough to support a carrier could enable a carrier to be based and maintained on Hainan.
Taken together, these steps will considerably beef up the SSF’s capabilities in the region, and will serve to reinforce China’s already massive power imbalance against the other claimants to the disputed islands and features in the South China Sea.
China is claiming ownership of the entire Spratly and Paracel island groups that lie within these waters. Beijing has reclaimed land around several of the reefs and features it occupies and built military facilities, including airbases, structures and harbors, on these artificial islands.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.