Last week, satellite imagery showed that multiple missile launchers had been deployed in the People’s Liberation Army’s Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. Observers believe the launchers are for launching anti-ship ballistic missiles, Defense News reports. It looks like a Chinese response to the U.S. decision to strike Syria last month.
Much attention of the recent U.S. missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat Airbase has been on the extent of damage wrought on Syria, and the signal that the Trump administration could have been intending to send to other adversaries such as North Korea. But little has been said about a potential challenge to China’s air defense systems deployed in South and East China Seas.
The 59 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles (TLAMs), fired by a pair of U.S. Navy destroyers southwest of Cyprus, traversed through the engagement zone of Russia’s S-300FM, sea-based of S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries defending the strategic port of Tartus, which is leased to the Russians by Damascus for military use.
The S-300FM uses the 48N6 missile that has a range of 150 km. Shayrat airbase, located about 120 km from Tartus, would have fallen well within the protective umbrella of the S-300FM. Yet the SAM batteries did not intercept the TLAMs.
To date, there has been no official word explaining this non-reaction. But Russia likely could not launch missiles to intercept TLAMs because it had deployed only one S-300 system in Tartus port last year, and to date; there has been no indication of more S-300 systems in Tartus port. An Ukroboronservice assessment outlines the specifications of the S-300 as follows: Multiple target tracking capability under 12 targets; multiple target engagement capability under 6 targets; multiple missile guidance capability under 12 targets; and allowance of ready-to-launch missiles under 48 missiles. The U.S. fired 59 TLAMs, which perhaps would have overwhelmed the S-300.
Over the last two decades, thanks to Russian technologies combined with its own efforts, including industrial espionage, China has gradually enhanced the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to challenge U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region. A key strategy the Chinese have adopted is what has been popularly called the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, with the aim of keeping out U.S. military intervention in its immediate areas of concern, including the disputed waters in the region.
To implement an A2/AD strategy, long-range air defense has become one of the primary sectors the Chinese military has been working on. Without its own indigenous long-range SAM system, one of the first things Beijing sought from Russia is the S-300 system. The Chinese HQ-9 system, in turn, drew insights from the Russian S-300. And like the Russians, besides the mobile land-based variant the Chinese also derived a navalized counterpart, the HHQ-9 (additional H prefix in front of HQ refers to Hai, or sea in Chinese), which is an analogue to the S-300FM. But it has become obvious that the Chinese are not settling on just the S-300/HQ-9 varieties and are keen to further develop their long-range SAM capabilities to strengthen A2/AD.
In late March, the U.S. Congressional Research Service published a report which concurred also with the views of many U.S. Navy senior leaders, including the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and the service’s director of air warfare, Rear Admiral DeWolfe Miller. The argument was that the anti-access bubbles revolving around Beijing’s arsenal of DF-21D or DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile systems and supersonic anti-ship missile systems are not impenetrable “iron domes.”
In 2013, China announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. However, the expanse of the zone – about 1,000 km from the coast – poses a challenge for the PLA in fully enforcing it using its interceptors, especially given the high costs of scrambling jets regularly and maintaining standing air patrols. As such, the Chinese must rely on air defense missiles such as the S-300 and HQ-9 as a cost-effective measure alongside air patrols.
In the South China Sea, meanwhile, China continues to expand and build military facilities on those features it occupies within the disputed waters. Last month, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported that on the “major construction of military and dual-use infrastructure on the ‘Big 3’ – Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross Reefs – is wrapping up, with the naval, air, radar, and defensive facilities that AMTI has tracked for nearly two years largely complete. Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time.” The buildings on those “Big 3” artificial islands have retractable roofs, making them suitable launch points for medium- to long-range SAM systems like the HQ-9. While there is no evidence thus far pointing to similar deployments to those artificial islands, Beijing has maintained HQ-9 batteries on Woody Island for more than 2 years.
This month, the PLA Navy commissioned four new Type-052D Luyang III-class destroyers to join China’s South Sea fleet, whose area of responsibility is the South China Sea. Another two Type-052D destroyers have been on sea trials for the East Sea fleet which covers the East China Sea. As a second variant of the “Chinese Aegis” series–and an improvement to the earlier Type-052C Luyang II-class, the Type-052D is by far the newest destroyer in active PLA Navy service pending the entry of the even larger, and more capable Type-055. The Type-052D has a 64-cell vertical launch system for various types of defensive and offensive missiles such as the HHQ-9, which also equips the Type-052C. The existing fleet of Type-052C/D destroyers armed with HHQ-9 SAM would fulfill the air defense aspect of its A2/AD strategy in the South China Sea, complementing the fighter jets and will most plausibly in the future be augmented by mobile, land-based HQ-9 systems that the PLA could deploy to the artificial islands.
Perhaps, therefore, the Syria missile strike should also have been watched with keen interest by China. If the TLAMs could somehow evade the Russian S-300 SAM umbrella and hit their intended targets, would the same threat not apply to the PLA’s dispositions in the East and South China Seas? The question is whether the Chinese HQ-9, which some Russian experts believe to be slightly inferior to the S-300, would be able to effectively deter and defend against perceived foreign military activities in those disputed waters.
As a final thought: the reason why the Chinese were so uptight about the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea could well be attributed to the very platform used: TLAM-equipped Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers that have demonstrated in the recent Syria missile strike to be potentially dangerous to China’s A2/AD strategy in the disputed waters. If anything, the Syria missile strike will most likely compel the PLA to review and adapt new air defense tactics bearing in mind this challenge. Maybe, anti-ship missile launchers in Yulin Naval Base are one of China’s responses.
Ngo Minh Tri is a managing editor of the Thanh Nien newspaper in Vietnam.