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Analysis: Can China Enforce a South China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone?

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Map showing the location of Chinese bases in Hainan and reclaimed islands and infrastructure in the South China Sea.

Map showing the location of Chinese bases in Hainan and reclaimed islands and infrastructure in the South China Sea.

Is China about to declare an Air-Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea? And how effectively would it be able to enforce such a zone?

The idea that China would declare a South China Sea ADIZ is not new, having been around since China declared one over part of the East China Sea in 2013. However, the very unfavourable ruling by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea Permanent Court of Arbitration on overlapping claims between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea that invalidated most of China’s claims have again stoked worries that China will now declare one in retaliation, with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin saying such a move could be an option if Beijing felt threatened.

That then leads to the question of how effectively China will be able to police a new ADIZ. It has been reported that China has quietly stopped seeking to actively enforce the East China Sea ADIZ, with a March 2016 report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission suggesting that a lack of coordination between China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and People’s Liberation Army Navy – Air Force (PLANAF) has led to radar coverage gaps and an inability to effectively police the ADIZ.

China has taken steps to remediate the coordination issue, however, with the reported formation of a Joint Operations Command Center for the East China Sea in early 2015. Moreover, the issue of PLAAF-PLANAF coordination is less likely to arise for a South China Sea ADIZ, with the entire region primarily coming under the jurisdiction of the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet (SSF).

In addition to its naval vessels, the SSF also has two PLANAF Naval Aviation Divisions under its command. Like the rest of the PLA, the PLANAF has undergone a drastic modernization starting from the middle of the past decade, and the SSF’s 8th and 9th Aviation Divisions having swapped their elderly J-6, J-7 and J-8 fighters for the newer and more capable Xi’an JH-7A fighter-bomber and Shenyang J-11B fighter.

Both of the SSF’s aviation divisions are made up of three naval aviation regiments, which in the case of the South Sea Fleet, comprises two combat regiments of approximately 24 aircraft per regiment based on Hainan island, at the northern end of the South China Sea. If China were to declare a South China Sea ADIZ, the responsibility to patrol and enforce the ADIZ is almost certain to fall primarily on the shoulders of those four regiments.

Xi’an JH-7

PLANAF Xi’an JH-7A fighter-bombers belonging to the PLAN’s 27th Aviation Regiment, 9th Naval Aviation Division normally based at Ledong in Hainan. Chinese Ministry of Defense Photo

PLANAF Xi’an JH-7A fighter-bombers belonging to the PLAN’s 27th Aviation Regiment, 9th Naval Aviation Division normally based at Ledong in Hainan. Chinese Ministry of Defense Photo

The JH-7 is a twin-seat, twin engine design that entered service with the PLA in the 1990s. Designed primarily as a maritime strike platform armed primarily with the YJ-82 anti-ship missile and free-fall bombs, the first examples used the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines imported from the United Kingdom. Later examples used a license-built copy known as the Xi’an WS-9.

The Chinese introduced an improved variant designated the JH-7A into service in 2004, adding precision strike capability to the type with a new generation of guided bombs and targeting pods. Both the JH-7 and JH-7A are fitted with indigenous multimode radars and have limited air-to-air capability, but the type is perfectly capable of ADIZ enforcement. This was demonstrated on 15 September 2015, when the Pentagon said a JH-7 carried out an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 over the Yellow Sea.

The SSF’s 9th Aviation Division, 27th Aviation Regiment currently operates JH-7As at Ledong in south-western Hainan. The unit’s aircraft took part in the Haiyang Shiyou 981 standoff against Vietnam in 2014, most likely providing reconnaissance and overwatch against Vietnamese attempts to reach an oil rig then operating in waters disputed by both countries.

The base at Ledong has also been substantially hardened over the past decade and a half, with satellite photos from 2002 showing construction of an underground aircraft storage facility tunnelled into a nearby mountain. Subsequent satellite imagery showed that this was operational some time prior to 2008.

Shenyang J-11B

PLANAF Shenyang J-11BH interceptor, believed to be assigned to the 25th Aviation Regiment, 9th Naval Aviation Division taking off during a deployment exercise to Woody Island. Chinese Ministry of Defense Photo

PLANAF Shenyang J-11BH interceptor, believed to be assigned to the 25th Aviation Regiment, 9th Naval Aviation Division taking off during a deployment exercise to Woody Island. Chinese Ministry of Defense Photo

The SSF’s three remaining air combat regiments operate the Shenyang J-11B Flanker. The J-11B is an unlicensed Chinese-built version of the Sukhoi Su-27 using Chinese avionics, and beginning from around 2010, the Liming WS-10 Taihang engine. China acquired 76 Su-27SK/UBKs delivered between 1991 and 2009, in addition to building around 100 examples under licence known as the J-11A.

Development of the J-11B began as early as 2002, with the Chinese keen to incorporate various indigenous modifications and upgrades to the airframe with improved manufacturing methods as well as Chinese radar, avionics suites and weaponry such as the PL-8 and PL-12 air-to-air missiles.

It was also hoped to include the more powerful WS-10 into suite of local modifications, but well-documented issues with the WS-10 and China’s indigenous engine program derailed that, and the initial batches of J-11Bs were built instead with the Russian AL-31 engines that power the Su-27.

From 2010, a navalized version of the J-11B, known as the J-11BH, was put into service with PLANAF aviation regiments. The first PLAN regiment to convert the new type was be the 8th Naval Aviation Division’s 22nd Regiment at Jialaishi in northern Hainan, with photos of J-11BHs and twin-seat J-11BSHs appearing around the 2012 timeframe. The 22nd Aviation Regiment was the unit involved in the controversial intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon multi-mission aircraft off Hainan in August 2014, where it was reported that the J-11 performed a barrel roll over the P-8.

The 24th Aviation Regiment is the 8th Naval Aviation Division’s other air combat regiment, also reported to be based at Jialaishi. The regiment turned in its obsolete J-7EHs (improved Chinese-built MiG-21 Fishbeds) for J-11BH/BSHs around 2013-2014, about the same time as the last Hainan-based PLANAF combat regiment.

This was the Lingshui-based 9th Naval Aviation Division’s 25th Regiment, which previously operated the J-8 Finback interceptor, and whose claim to fame is being the unit involved in the collision with a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries II Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering aircraft in 2001 which resulted in the damaged EP-3 force-landing at Lingshui and the loss of one of the PLAN’s J-8s and its pilot.

Lingshui is currently undergoing refurbishment that began sometime in late 2014 or early 2015, with satellite photos indicating that at the very least, would involve the lengthening of the runway, expansion of apron space and the construction of weather shelters for based aircraft. The work also includes substantial land clearing around the base, which could point to the possibility that a network of hardened aircraft shelters may eventually be built on site.

The J-11B would be a formidable asset with which to patrol and enforce a South China Sea ADIZ. Capable of carrying up to 10 air-to-air missiles and with an internal fuel capacity of almost 10 tons, it is almost an ideal platform for a mission that requires a fighter with the persistence and endurance to undertake long missions far from home.

The PLANAF has deployed its Hainan-based J-11s to the airport at Woody Island in the Paracels, and it is not unthinkable that they will eventually regularly operate from there as well as the reclaimed airfields on Fiery Cross, Subi or Mischief Reefs, providing the PLAN with the ability to deny access to the region.

Early Warning network

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.

China’s massive and controversial land-reclamation and construction program has included the construction of radar facilities at most disputed South China Sea locations on which it has built. As the accompanying map shows, the radars are located a long way away from China, with the Cuarteron Reef radar facility, which is believed to contain both high-frequency air search and regular multi-mode radars, located approximately 675 miles from Hainan. When fully operational, those radars are expected to provide an air picture of the South China Sea unmatched by any of its claimants.

Additional radar coverage is provided by rotational deployments of PLANAF Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft to Hainan, with Shaanxi KJ-200 AEW aircraft regularly observed on the ground at Lingshui. Together, these radars will be able to provide China with an early warning capability unmatched by rival claimants, and will certainly complicate even U.S. air and naval freedom of navigation operations.

The KJ-200s were seen during the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou 981 standoff, operating alongside a handful Shaanxi Y-8J/X maritime patrol aircraft. These aircraft normally belong to the 2nd Naval Aviation Division based at Laiyang or Tuchengzi with the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet, but appear to be semi-permanently attached to the SSF.

Taken together, these developments would appear to indicate that, should China declare a South China Sea ADIZ, it is well on its way to being able to properly police and enforce it, unlike the case with its East China Sea equivalent. As noted by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the development of new runways and air-defense capabilities appear to be part of a long-term anti-access strategy by China which “would see it establish effective control over the sea and airspace throughout the South China Sea.

  • Eric Arllen

    “Can China Enforce a South China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone?”

    A more apt question is, “Does America have the stones and resolve to oppose a South China Sea Air-Defense Identification Zone?”

    And the answer, very obviously, is, “What a stupid question! Under Obama, absolutely not.”

  • Los Los

    Where did you get that??? As far as I know, Japan’s ADIZ covers a large area of Chinese territorial waters, and is made up of almost entirely, international waters.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    …or, the U.S. could stay the Heck out of the SCS, as we have NO Interest there DIRECTLY Effecting OUR National Security, FON has NOT been cut off, & ALL we are doing is proving ourselves to be the all time “Patsies” for Asian nations, who in other times absolutely HATE us…

    Works for me…

  • old guy

    Next move Mindanao

    • Joe Freeman

      Correct. Just as the Japanese did (along with Pearl Harbor) in 1941.

      Except this time, if they are given time it will be accompanied by nuclear strikes on Guam Pearl Harbor and the West coast (at least) of the US.

      And we continue to trade with a nation led by a pack of ghouls who think that harvesting organs from live political prisoners is an efficient use of resources.

      Talk about cooperating in our eventual destruction.

      • old guy

        Current Prez B.O. has proven that weakness is an invite to aggression.

        • Joe Freeman

          There’s no doubt that you are correct. Korea was a classic case of this. The country had virtually disarmed under Truman and his psychotic SecDef. Additionally the State Department stated that “Korea is not one of our vital interests” Result: An invasion by NK supported by China and with arms and a nuclear umbrella from Russia.

          Vietnam. A mistake to enter. Once entered, the fear that China would enter as in Korea provided a staging area and safe haven as well as a partial supply route for arms from China and Russia. Once the safe haven was removed, the NV came to the table. But too late for South Vietnam and the US, the will to continue was gone.

          NATO: NATO has never presented a serious and credible deterrant to an invasion from Russia. The theory was that enough of a holding action could be made to allow the US to ship massive amounts of men and material into Europe to recover what was lost. The war would have been fought on NATO countries territory. The NATO countries spent generations recovering from WWII. The eUROPEAN nato countries as a result are vulnerable to russia BECAUSE THEY HAVE NOT DEVELOPED A MILITARY AND A SET OF DEFENSES that would stop the russians at their borders and throw them back into russia where the war would then be prosecuted on Russian soil after the full arrival of the Americans. The Russians understand this quite well and take full advantage of it.

          Obama’s pivot to asia triggered a frenzy of Chinese military buildup including artificial islands in the China Sea. The correct response would have been to send ships with pumps and hoses and was away the sand as fast as it was dredged and put in place at the request of the nations who claimed the island/reef. Supported by sufficient force to protect them from any mistakes the Chinese cared to make. This was not done, and most of our putative Asian allies are dubious, beginning to change sides, and recognize a huge loss of face on the part of Obama and the US.

          The failure of the Obama administration to support the fighters under its guidance with either direct air support or adequate weaponry to prevent the Russians from gaining a port and a toehold in syria with area denial weapons, the failure to join the 375,000 personnel offered by the Saudi Sunni coalition proved fatal in Syria. The Russians learned another lesson regarding Obama’s and the US reluctance to gamble and if necessary to fight to support a position it had taken. This begs the question of whether it was a wise position to have taken in the first place.

          So I agree with what you say pretty much without reservation.

          • old guy

            WOW! Great analysis. I knew ADM Arleigh Burke and he told the following story:
            After Nixon got in he assembled a group of senior staff to determine what was wrong with our, “Rules of Engagement”. The first thing cited was that we were trying to stop supply flow down the Ho Chi Min trail. Burke said that it might be better if we cut off the flow of Chinese materiel into Haiphong harbor. After much discussuion about angering the Chinese, it was decided that it was the only course of action. Burke was asked to prepare a plan to mine and place ships outside the harbor, shutting it off. This was at 1100 hrs. He said he would have it to them by 1400 hrs. Astounded, they asked how he could prepare it that fast? He replied,”That’s how long it will take me to find it on my desk, where its been for 5 years.”

          • Joe Freeman

            That’s a great story….

            The sad thing is: It could have worked. The war could have been won. The VC were decimated by Tet. . but the politicians lost their nerve. .

            What a waste. But it’s in the past, and hopefully Mattis’ will be listed to by Congress and Trump.

  • Joe Freeman

    The US stood by fat dumb and happy while the Japanese fortified chains of islands in the Pacific in the first third of the 20th century. It took a lot of ships and lives to batter through these islands to finally get at the Japanese homeland and end their idea of empire.

    why the US and its allies will now stand around in the first third of the 21st century and watch the Chinese do basically the same thing, for the same set of reasons is beyond my comprehension.

    It is beyond stupid. Either end it now at a relatively low cost, or try to end it later and perhaps fail at an unaffordable cost.

    What is wrong with US decision making?

    • triplewitching

      OK then, I am now ready to hear your ‘relatively low cost’ way to stop China from building bases on artificial islands. Will you arrest their construction crews ? Will you make their ships leave by force ? These things would be acts of war. Would war with the world’s second largest economy and our number one trading partner EVER be ‘relatively low cost’ in the year 2016 ? ?? These guys are not building something ‘Guam’ sized, these ‘islands’ are really tiny. Just how hard would it really be to capture them in an actual war, if it came to some kind of WW2 like situation ? China is not our enemy, just an economic competitor. Does building a small island on a disputed reef really justify a war of aggression on our part ? I fail to see how such an action is in the US’s best interest. OK, suppose we fight an actual war with China, and we win. Are we really gonna occupy these reef islands indefinitely, and police this whole area forever ? Are we going to give these things to allied nations who claim ownership that can’t really defend them ? This is really a good example of a situation where a world legal framework like the UN, if it had the power, could settle this kind of dispute without shots fired. Its a shame we made the organization without the legal authority to settle international disputes like this one.

      • Joe Freeman

        Thank you for your insightful and thoughtful reply. You make some excellent points, particularly about the formation of the U.N. without the authority and means to enforce its decisions. Let me speak to that first.
        The UN was formed after WWII. Even at that time the world was split between two blocs and philosophies–that of the USSR and its affiliates, and the West. There was no way that either side would submit, or trust an ultimate authority, and no way that either side would allow or support the formation of a “super enforcement” body that would limit its activities. This was particularly true of the uSSR under Stalin which was bent on world domination. Hence the formation of the Security Council in which each member had veto power. This compromise effectively crippled the UN in many situations where it might have been useful in avoiding or limiting conflicts.

        As to the current situation with China: History has a way of repeating itself. After the Japanese destruction of the Russian Pacific Fleet at Tsushima Straits in 1905, the Japanese Empire began to expand into what essentially was a power vacuum. Nations have a way of doing that. In Japan’s case, it needed the resources particularly iron coal and oil that it did not possess. It moved into Manchuria and China to begin acquiring these resources. It continued to expand its fleet, a blue water navy which was composed of very modern tech. And it decided that Asia was for Asians, most particularly Japanese Asians (the Japanese did not regard other Asians as particularly civilized or significant as witnessed by their behavior at places like Nanking) .
        Most significantly, Japan began to build rings of fortified island bases in the Pacific in an ever expanding ring. These bases had two purposes: Defense of the Japanese homeland, and control of the Western Pacific and the trade routes from the Aleutians down to Indonesia which was rich in oil.
        The Japanese knew that ultimately there would be a confrontation between them, and the only two nations with significant seapower (Great Britain and the United States) if they continued their expansion into Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
        America at this time was isolationist. It had its own problems with the depression. Cuts to the military had reduced its ability to fight a war, and it had no interest in foreign wars. As a result the Japanese continued their expansion.
        These island bases contained troops in fortified positions, and air fields which constituted unsinkable aircraft carriers and were basing points for their air force and naval air units.
        As Japanese expansion continued, and atrocities such as Nanking occurred, the US imposed economic sanctions and e on Japan. The most serious embargo, and the trigger for the inevitable conflict came when the US embargoed oil shipments to Japan, leaving it with around a 3-4 month supply of oil .
        Pearl Harbor was the result. The next three years of island hopping campaigns and battering our way through the rings of fortified islands were brutal. Losses in personnel and ships were very high; so high that rather than incur up to 1/2 million casualties in the invasion of the Japanese home islands the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan.
        All of which COULD have been avoided, had Britain and the US stopped Japan in the late 1920s with a war that would would primarily consisted of the destruction of the Japanese navy and a blockade of the home islands until they withdrew from China and Manchuria.
        Which brings us to the current situation. Each of these relatively small islands is being fortified with AD/2D missile batteries. Each is receiving troops and advanced military aircraft. Each is a stepping stone to the Philippines. Each has the potential to disrupt the sea lanes from the Indian Ocean, from Indonesia and throughout the Western Pacific. Each forms a defense point for China’s 9 dash line which the World Court has already ruled is arbitrary and meaningless. Each would have to be reduced at significant cost in order to penetrate to the Chinese mainland in the event of hostilities.
        You should understand that the philosophy of the LEADERS of China is best exemplified by the harvesting of organs from live political prisoners. The prisoners do not survive the harvesting since it leaves them short of hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys etc.
        You should also understand that China has already used a significant amount of force against neighboring smaller nations with a claim to the reefs it fortified as well as fishermen and oil exploration crews from other nations in the South and East China Sea.
        What SHOULD have been done was for the US and its allies to have moved in as the reefs were being built and stop the process in its tracks. And yes, a certain amount of force would have had to have been used, and yes, a naval engagement may have been necessary. China at the time could not have won such a naval engagement.
        China STILL could not win such a naval engagement. However, it is working as hard as it can and as fast as it can to build up its navy and missile defenses in an ever expanding ring so that the cost becomes progressively higher in stopping it.
        There was no reason that China needed to begin the process in the first place other than to begin to establish hegemony over Asia.
        The parallels to the Japanese expansion in the 1920s and 1930s are startling clear.

  • liso esplay

    What is wrong with a country wanting to sefeguard their front yard? Russia claims the Baltic Sea all the way out to the N. Atlantic and the US claims all the Gulf Of Mexico and the Caribbean.