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Satellite images show increases in China air operations from new island bases

Fiery Cross Reef
FPI / July 22, 2021

Despite a pledge by supreme leader Xi Jinping not to militarize South China Sea islands, China has stepped up military activity at its island bases in the sea, satellite imagery shows.

China has deployed electronic warning and surveillance aircraft and helicopters on two disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite images obtained by The Washington Times show deployments in May and June of PLA KJ-500 airborne warning and control aircraft to Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Other satellite photos showed the stationing of a Y-9 transport aircraft and Z-8 helicopter to Subi Reef in June and this month.

The Spratlys are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, but they have been dominated since 2018 by China and its bases.

Last year, KQ-200 anti-submarine warfare aircraft were deployed on Fiery Cross Reef.

Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi reefs are part of a triangle of South China Sea military bases that China equipped with advanced missiles in 2018 after Xi had pledged not to militarize the islands.

“The bases can house all types of warplanes and bombers and contain docking facilities capable of handling most Chinese warships,” security correspondent Bill Gertz noted in a Washington Times report.

Satellite imagery of the military aircraft was obtained by J. Michael Dahm, a former Navy intelligence officer currently with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, known as APL.

“The most significant change in military posture in 2021 is the appearance of Chinese special mission aircraft and helicopters at Subi and Mischief Reefs, indicating the PLA may have commenced routine air operations from those airfields,” Dahm said.

The APL report, published in March, provides the first public details of Chinese missile emplacements based on open-source information.

The missiles are part of what the report called a PLA war plan to “gain and maintain information control in a military conflict.”

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