Home » Aviation » New Possible Chinese Radar Installation on South China Sea Artificial Island Could Put U.S., Allied Stealth Aircraft at Risk


New Possible Chinese Radar Installation on South China Sea Artificial Island Could Put U.S., Allied Stealth Aircraft at Risk

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

This post has been updated to include additional comments from the Department of Defense.

A possible new Chinese radar installation in the South China Sea could put American and allied stealth aircraft at risk as part of a wider detection network similar to U.S. efforts to find Russian bombers in the Cold War.

Late January satellite imagery from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and DigitalGlobe show the installation of what’s likely a high frequency radar installation the Chinese disputed holding of Cuarteron Reef near the Philippines.

The imagery from DigitalGlobe shows a field on the island with 65 foot-tall poles in a field on reclaimed land on the reef – China’s southern most holding in the region – that are similar to other maritime HF radars, Greg Poling, head of the center’s Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative told USNI News on Monday.

“Why would you have 20-meter poles spread across this features if it’s not high frequency radar? ” Poling said.
“Maybe a giant tarp?”

It’s unclear from the imagery if the site on Cuarteron is operational but the Department of Defense issued a statement to USNI News late Monday that lines up with some of CSIS’ conclusions.

“‎Commercial imagery indicates that China is constructing a new radar system on Cuarteron Reef a disputed feature in the South China Sea. This is part of a growing body of evidence that China continues to take unilateral actions which are increasing tensions in the region and are counterproductive to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” DoD spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban told USNI News late on Monday. ‎
“We discourage all claimants from unilateral actions. We encourage them to clarify their territorial and maritime claims in accordance with international law and request they commit to resolving their disputes through the use of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms, such as arbitration.”

The Washington Post first reported the installation early Monday afternoon

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

Bryan Clark, a maritime analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), said that while a high frequency radar on the island could have some law enforcement value – like similar radars the U.S. uses to detect drug runners in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean — it’s likely an HF radar on Cuarteron has a secondary military use to detect stealth aircraft.

Similar U.S. and Russian radars can detect surface targets at ranges well over the horizon – 80 to 200 miles. However Chinese and Russian versions could also notice the presence of low observable aircraft, Clark said.

“If I’m China, this is what I want to install so I can monitor maritime and aviation contacts,” he said.
“It’s got a nice dual use. It can find other aircraft that would be hard to find with traditional early warning radar frequencies.”

China has already installed similar radars on its coastline that are used to detect the presence of stealth aircraft.

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

A Jan. 24, 2016 image of Cuarteron Reef in the South China Sea with what is likely a high frequency radar array. CSIS, DigitalGlobe Image used with permission.

A possible HF array on Cuarteron could feed what its detects back to mainland China through data links to provide information to radars capable of better targeting stealth aircraft less real estate to scan and then route that data to anti-air warfare missile systems.

The setup “gives you some indications and warning that there are stealth aircraft in the area,” Clark said.

In particular, U.S. stealth aircraft – like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber and Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter – are optimized against the high end of the radar spectrum.

Higher frequency radars – on their own — can tell when a low observable or stealth aircraft is in its range but do not have the fidelity to lock weapons. However — as reported by USNI News in 2014 — Russia and China both are perfecting lower band radar that could successfully target low observable aircraft working in conjunction with an HF early warning system. The radars could also provide information to Chinese fighters a general idea where to intercept an adversary.

In addition to the U.S., Australia and Japan are in the process of acquiring F-35s.

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant joint strike fighter conducts a touch and go landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68). US Navy Photo

An F-35C Lightning II carrier variant joint strike fighter conducts a touch and go landing aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN-68). US Navy Photo

The U.S. used a similar idea when it create the Distant Early Warning line to detect Russian bombers starting in the late 1950s.

“It’s the same idea as the DEW Line,” Clark said of an HF array on Cuarteron.
“You could look at this as extending the range of their early warning radars.”

Chris Carlson, a retired U.S. Navy captain and analyst told USNI News that the installation on Cuarteron was much smaller than other similar mainland arrays and its unclear how well the secondary function of the radars would work at the size seen in the images released on Monday.

Additionally, given the location near the Philippines, the alleged HF installation on Cuarteron could also monitor U.S. aircraft movements in the country at long range — all in a package with which China can claim for civilian law enforcement uses, Clark said.

“They can say this is for fishery enforcement and maritime domain awareness and that’s what China will probably claim,” he said.

Beijing has repeatedly said the new installations on the reef, also home to a lighthouse completed in October, are to provide “better public services and goods for the international community,” according to a Monday press briefing with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying.

Last week satellite imagery of Woody Island in the Paracel chain near Vietnam revealed more than 30 mobile anti-air warfare missiles had been placed on the island – raising questions on China’s peaceful intent in the region.

Beijing implicitly defended the move of the HQ-9 system to Woody Island – confirmed last week by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

“The Chinese side is entitled to safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” Hua said later in her Monday briefing.
“China’s deployment of limited defense facilities on its own territory is its exercise of self-defense right to which a sovereign state is entitled under international law. It has nothing to do with militarization. It is something that comes naturally, and is completely justified and lawful. The U.S. should view that correctly instead of making an issue of that with deliberate sensationalization [sic].”

  • Marjus

    This was inevitable. Diplomacy failed to stop China’s island building and now the military must deal with the repercussions. More is to come, more SAMs, anti-ship missile batteries, more ships, more radars, aircraft of all sort etc… The only bright side is that we know were everything is, what it is, when it is on, when it is off, what is it radiating, can it be jammed, can it be hacked. What is taking off, what is steaming, etc… Where are the power-sources, how do they operate, can they be shut down remotely, does it require frogmen, some sort of exotic attack/weapon etc… In wartime I have ZERO concerns for China’s islands, but in peacetime our forces in the area will be highly visible and operating akin under the barrel of a gun. I also don’t like letting China gather so much open intelligence in force composition, deployment routine, operational tactics, signature collection, signals gathering etc… The less they know the better. Another bright side is the Chinese gain a false confidence that these sand castles and their toys actually mean something and that they can be alerted or aware of what we’re doing in terms of a real conflict. When in reality they can all go dark within 30 minutes of each other and the Chinese will be left staring at blank screens as the bombers and missiles fly in. But still, not something to feel too good about. On some level we failed here.

    • Curtis Conway

      No Proactive Presence of Naval forces let it start without direct and discerning observation, then no engagement let it go on for years. Now we capitulate to the definition of ‘sovereignty in contested space’. Where is the foreign diplomatic corps in this matter? If the ASEAN States set up an International Maritime Operations Center (IMOC) and the Chinese did not participate with its new facilities, it would be definitive proof of their intent down the road.

      • Ctrot

        There should have been live fire naval exercises held within visual range of those islands, which would still be (and still is) in international waters, when construction began.

    • johnb33

      Wouldn’t one typhoon be the end to all these “Islands”? Or perhaps a tsunami?

      • John B. Morgen

        Yes because most of the structures would be gone, if not badly damaged. These reef-sand islands are not [meant] to have humans living on them because the break-water line is too low, and would not be able in protect the structures or humans. The Chinese have made a mistake in judgement by taking over and building on these small reef islands.

        • johnb33

          I wonder if we know how to “make some waves”?

          • John B. Morgen

            It’s quite simple, just find a major fault line or a trench near the target; then drill a hole into the ocean bottom, and then place a nuclear bomb inside the hole. Detonate the bomb; thus, we have a local tsunami which will destroyed the Chinese island structures or severely damaged them. That is how we (“make some waves.”)

  • Hugh

    Firstly this goes well beyond self defence of the Chinese mainland. It now gives military threats to all countries around the South China Sea. And why? China as a peaceful mega-trading nation could have achieved everything without resorting to weapons.

    Secondly they are also buying up everything in other countries from farms to mines to railways to ports etc. Are they out for a widespread 21st Century colonisation?

    Thirdly I’ve heard most wars start with non-democratic nations steeped in nationalism.

    • Richard

      A lot of the sea traffic going through the South China sea, actually goes to China itself. China has the right to protect its oil imports from the Middle East and imports/exports going through the region. If some other country is not going to launch a stealth attack on other countries, then they should not be concerned about Chinese, or Vietnamese installations on these islands.

      Also, the US, Japan and EU have also been buying up assets in other countries for decades. This is just normal international investments. China doing the same thing is just normal business activity.

      • muzzleloader

        That is a very naïve sentiment. China’s buildup has nothing to do with protecting oil imports from the middle east. They have a navy for that if that was even an issue. As far as Viet Nam, they are not the ones militarizing the South China sea. Maritime traffic has been peacefully plying the SCS since the end of WW2 without the Chicoms having a huge military presence. China is a regional bully whose goal is dominance of the entire pacific rim.

        • Richard

          It is Vietnam that is militarily occupying the largest number of islands in the South China Sea. China has the right to protect its oil supplies, trading traffic and links within the South China Sea.

          From China’s perspective, they cannot rely on other countries to protect its oil imports from the Middle East, against any interference by the foreign bully.

          With China maintaining the peace in its own backyard, all the future trade traffic within the South China Sea will be further safeguarded, against interference by the foreign bully from thousands of miles away.

          • Sigint

            Right, like Vietnam is really going to attack China? They are not Jihadis therefore not suicidal.

          • Secundius

            I would think that ANY American that Fought the Vietamese in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. Would Disagree with you on that SCORE…

      • Sigint

        EXCEPT THE ISLANDS ARE NOT THEIRS.

        • PolicyWonk

          You’re right.

          Except the Chinese have already stated that they don’t care. Even if they decided to go to the international court, they made it clear that if the court doesn’t rule in their favor they’ll disregard its findings anyway.

    • Sigint

      No need to attack the U.S. as they have bought up every strategic resource and company we have already. As of late, GE appliances will be going to China as well as the Chicage Stock Exchange. Better start learning Mandarin. As for the HF radar, a flock of active ECM carrying drones can make them useless or a nuisance by triggering daily attack warnings.

  • jack anderson

    We capitulated the region so I am sure these are merely ATC installations for the safety of all.!

  • johnb33

    Why in the world are we paying so much money for stealth if it can be detected?

    • sferrin

      This requires a long answer. The short of it is stealth isn’t black or white. It’s not as though if an F-22 can be detected when parked next to a radar that means it can be detected on the other side of the planet. Also this article is chock full of “ifs” and “possiblys”, “theoretically” etc.

      • johnb33

        Thank you for that answer. I appreciate it. I also was thinking today that the F 35 will most likely he able to “spoof” their location with this inaccurate low frequency radar. Which of you can be acurate only to about 10,000 feet, it may be able to throw it off with some advance “chaff” type device.

        • johnb33

          Plus these installations just provide a reason to expand our amphibious capabilities. We have been upgrading them lately. Small reclaimed islands have a big disadvantage of not being able to defend from onslaught from the sea from our marine divisions. The USMC is our most hardened, most advance large fighting force that we have. If we start to have ships fired on or planes shot down, the marines would take the islands and have bases even closer to mainland China.

  • publius_maximus_III

    Confucius say he who leads from his behind, gets his azz in sling.

  • John B. Morgen

    We’d should be doing the same by building and deploying modified drilling rigs, without the drilling equipment. These structures will be armed, and equipped with radars, etc. These structures will also be self-propelled, but large enough to be a good size small reef island.

    • Secundius

      Agreed, Modern “Flakturme”, Arsenal Towers or Arsenal Castles. Virtually Impossible to Destroy by Conventional Means…

  • Frank

    Those islands are military outposts. As the Chinese Navy expands to encompass the entire South China Sea, those islands will provide the necessary support. Once the Chinese establishes control then they will proceed with natural resource (gas, oil, etc) exploitation. Shipping lanes will be constrained so as not to impinge upon Chinese interests. America, and its allies, has lost and the Chinese have won, they always win, they are a homogeneous society that have stood the test of time. Maybe we should sell our country to the Chinese. If Trump is elected …?

  • Bill Kuhn

    “Higher frequency radars – on their own — can tell when a low observable or stealth aircraft is in its range but do not have the fidelity to lock weapons. However — as reported by USNI News in 2014 — Russia and China both are perfecting lower band radar that could successfully target low observable aircraft working in conjunction with an HF early warning system. The radars could also provide information to Chinese fighters a general idea where to intercept an adversary.”

    And thus goes the major selling point and major combat capability of the F-35 if they actually were worth a crap. The US will be saddled with useless F-35s as the major first line fighter for decades.

    Stealth was great when it was useful.

  • OleSalt_1

    The Chinese has now raised its stakes and has deployed fighter jets to the island-reefs. China knows that there is nothing the US or the other claimants can do, and will take advantage of the situation. Unless something more vigorous is done, South China Sea will be China’s Lake.

  • PolicyWonk

    High frequency radars have the resolution to enable fine-grain targeting, and these are (as the article points out) what our aircraft are designed to counter. However, low-frequency radar can detect even low-observable aircraft, and we’ve known for at least a decade that the Russians and Chinese were working on radars that could detect low-observable aircraft (and ships, etc.).

    Advances in computing power is likely to make these new radars a working reality, which is why a number of analysts complained that the USAF went all-in for stealth, where the Navy at least continued to develop its EW capabilities, with the EA-18G Growler.

    Its starting to look like history is repeating itself: we may soon find ourselves going much heavier in EW than we are in low-observables, because the advantage is literally fading away.

  • Sigint

    If they do not control these devices to notch out oher heavily used communications frequencies, they will cause disruption and hazards like the Russian Woodpecker radar did a couple of decades ago.

  • sferrin

    It’s a shame this wasn’t obvious a year ago. Oh wait, it was. Washington was just cluelessly asleep at the wheel as usual.

  • John B. Morgen

    The next major armed conflict will be with China, and the conflict will be over the South China Sea’s international status; about rather or not China has sovereign control over the region’s maritime traffic.This is why the United States must reform SEATO, and established naval/air bases, build floating forts and deployed them in and around the South China Sea. In addition, the United States needs to rebuild its armed forces by repealing the tax restrictions, and required national service; without any loopholes from serving. In sum, China is forcing the international community into a new Cold War, but this time it is going to be in the Pacific….

  • herecomesrusty

    Are these steps being taken by China to evict the U.S base from Taiwan before invading it?

    These islands would be disposable then to get Taiwan?

  • idahoguy101

    How vulnerable is any artificial island in the South China Sea to a typhoon? Just how erodible is it? How many feet is this artificial island above sea level?