The Chinese Navy, formally known as the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy), conducted a live-fire exercise several days ago over the South China Sea utilizing a newly expanded naval base.
Harbin Z-9 helicopters took off from a base at Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan and fired anti-ship missiles at simulated targets. The Z-9, a license-built variant of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin, is a standard shipboard helicopter the PLAN flies. The exercise itself sends a signal, but the base from which the helicopters took off is crucial. The base has been massively improved over the past year.
The South China Sea is a strategically important and hotly contested region. China claims virtually all of it and has been strengthening its navy’s bases in the region. The airbase is not the only facility that could make a difference in the balance of power in the region. China is also working to strengthen the aircraft carrier base a few miles along the coast.
New satellite images show steady progress building a new dry dock at the base, which will be large enough for China’s new Type-003 supercarrier. Construction of the dock started in 2016 and now appears close to completion. As with any new structure only observed in satellite imagery, there is a degree of uncertainty in assessing its purpose. But at this stage, it appears to be a massive dry dock under construction.
Having a dry dock on Hainan will greatly strengthen the naval presence in the region. It indicates that aircraft carriers will be permanently based on the island. A pier nearby that has already been used by carriers currently has a brand new Type-075 assault carrier parked alongside. This pier can accommodate two full-size carriers.
China is building a fleet of aircraft carriers and the largest to date, the Type-003, is currently under construction in Shanghai. The Type-003 will be significantly larger than the first two carriers, which were based on the Russian Kuznetsov-class design. The Chinese used a ski-jump like the Kuznetsov, but the third ship is expected to have an electromagnetic catapult similar to the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) on the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class aircraft carriers.
EMALs will enable the launch of heavier aircraft, such as the Xi’an KJ-600 carrier-based early warning aircraft. This is similar to the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. China is also expected to use new classes of fighter and uncrewed combat air vehicles (UCAVs).
As for the airbase, its new facilities may be directly related to basing aircraft carriers in Sanya. Long-range uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) have also been observed at the base.
Looks like PLAN is expanding its airbase at Sanya, Hainan. pic.twitter.com/6yspz1XNqu
— Duan Dang (@duandang) December 17, 2020
The new facilities must be viewed in the context of the existing naval bases on Hainan. Assets include nuclear submarines, conventional submarines and a large surface fleet, meaning the new facilities are part of a shift toward the South China Sea. The PLAN’s Southern Fleet increasingly seems to get the best vessels. With an aircraft carrier, or two, permanently stationed there, China’s military grip ion the South China Sea will only get stronger.
A version of this post originally appeared on Naval News. It’s been republished here with permission.