The PRC’s New Garrisons in the South China Sea: A U.S. Perspective

The following article originally featured on Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis on November 30, 2016 and is republished with permission. 

By Paul S. Giarra

Some international observers minimize the importance of military facilities and operational capabilities on the People’s Republic of China’s various claimed features, rocks, and islands in the South China Sea. They should reconsider.

Each location in isolation is not that potent. However, in the aggregate, this island base network poses a more resilient capability (geographically dispersed cluster bases) which, at the very least, would require a significant effort to neutralize, detracting significantly from other priority missions.

PRC military aircraft and missile batteries spreading throughout the South China Sea serve a number of important functions, all to the disadvantage of the United States and its allies and those who have a stake in freedom of the seas, the rule of law, and their own territorial claims.

First, they fortify the PRC’s maritime approaches.

Second, they militarize the PRC’s political claims, making it much more difficult to challenge them legally.

Third, they make it operationally much more difficult and risky to dislodge the PRC from these positions.

Fourth, these individual military capabilities are part of a larger fixed and mobile PRC military network, not only throughout the South China Sea, but on the Chinese mainland.

Fifth, the PRC now has four large People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airfields in the South China Sea, and these extend dramatically the operational range of PLA land-based aircraft, which can recover on these fields, refuel, and swap crews in shuttle missions which change the military equation considerably.

Sixth, these maritime facilities push out the limits of the PLA’s maritime footprint. This helps the PRC achieve a goal of establishing maritime control throughout the first island chain by magnifying the PLA’s anti-access (A2) and area-denial (AD) capabilities and bringing a considerably larger portion of the PRC’s maritime approaches under PLA firing arcs. Planners will have to take into account future deployments of DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, for instance, and the likelihood of an extension of PRC seabed acoustic sensors like the U.S. SOSUS system, tracing the contours of China’s Nine Dash Line territorial claims.

What happens when advanced systems are deployed to these island outposts?

As one example, it was only a matter of time before Russia announced the transfer of the S-400 Triumf (NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler) advanced air defense system to the PRC, following on the earlier transfer of the less-capable but still potent S-300. Given its extremely long range and effective electronic warfare capabilities, the S-400 is a game-changing system which challenges current military capabilities at the operational level of war.

Depending upon where in the PRC it is deployed, and which variant is transferred, its very long range would extend over Taiwan and the Senkaku (Daioyutai/Daioyu) islands. If Russia provides the S-400 with the longest range — 250 miles — in essence this would have the effect of turning a defensive system into an offensive system, and extend the PRC’s A2/AD umbrella over the territory of other regional states and the high seas.

Effective air defense systems like the S-400 are consequential because of the cost equation involved. Surface-to-air missile systems are much less expensive than the manned (and unmanned) aircraft they are designed to target or deter. The very long range of the S-400 multiplies the advantage. Without effective countermeasures, aircraft would be held away from China’s coasts, giving teeth, for instance, to the PRC’s assertion that surveillance missions in the PRC’s EEZ are not allowed.

Modern air forces expect to have to fool, suppress, pick their way through, or go around good integrated air defense systems, and countermeasures and tactics for doing so are well developed. In a move-countermove air warfare competition, the Russian transfer of the S-400 to the PRC would make doing so much more difficult (although not impossible).

Of course, one must wonder what the Russians are thinking in their defense technology relationship with PRC as all of this unfolds. Moscow is clearly aware that, while the PRC is expanding to seaward to challenge East Asia’s maritime and littoral states, Beijing’s list of revanchist claims must have motivated PLA leaders to consider plans for northward expansion as well.

Seventh, as Beijing consolidates political, economic, and military control over the South China Sea, one obvious purpose in mind will be to establish secure bastions there for the new Chinese SSBN force. Doing so would be consistent with what we saw the Soviets do when pressed by U.S. and allied ASW forces as envisioned by U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (1978-82) Adm. Thomas Hayward’s Maritime Strategy, subsequently made famous by U.S. Secretary of the Navy (1981-87) John Lehman.

Unfortunately, these aggressive PRC developments illustrate the old maxim that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. While the PRC’s construction on its collection of artificial islands must consist of dual-use infrastructure at this point, the military purpose behind the PRC’s new South China Sea bases is transparent. It would have been much easier to prevent the building of these facilities than it will be to dislodge them. The U.S. and the Allies learned this lesson, to Japan’s disadvantage, at Guadalcanal during World War II, where Japan and the United States fought desperately for six months to prevent Japan from building an airfield and dominating the lines of communication from the United States to Australia and New Zealand.

The PRC’s island building also reminds how unforeseen developments can have dramatic cascading consequences. At Guadalcanal, before the almost casual Japanese decision to build an airstrip at the location of what became immortalized as Henderson Field, the two sides had no specific intention to fight in the region, or to lose almost 50 ships in the ensuing naval battles. Japan’s Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto focused the Imperial Japanese Navy on Guadalcanal (previously an Imperial Army operation), because that was where the U.S. fleet and Marines were. Building airstrips and importing missile batteries has that sort of galvanizing effect, and in the case of Guadalcanal it preserved the Coral Sea strategy — keeping open the sea lanes between Australia and the United States — which remains a key pillar of U.S. and Australian national security strategy to this day.

What the PRC has been doing on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, it can do on various other claimed features and rocks in the South China Sea. In fact, Beijing is doing what the United States and its allies — in a strategically logical world — should also be doing: expanding operational perimeters; distributing significant firepower along operational peripheries; and combining the psychological and legal elements of modern warfare in an integrated campaign.

Paul Giarra, a former U.S. naval aviator and strategic planner, is the President of Global Strategies & Transformation, a Washington, DC, area strategic planning consultancy. He has an extensive background as a national security analyst on Japan, China, East Asia, and NATO futures.

Featured Image: Cuarteron Reef, November 15, 2014 (CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

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