A few days ago the Chinese Navy, formally known as the PLAN (People’s Liberation army Navy), conducted a live fire exercise over the South China Sea. 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 of the PLAN. The exercise itself sends a signal, but more critical is the base where they took off. That has been massively improved over the past year.
The South China Sea (SCS) is a strategically important, and hotly contested, area of water. China claims virtually all of it and has been strengthening its navy’s bases in the region. The airbase is not the only facility which could make a difference to the balance of power there. The aircraft carrier base a few miles along the coast is also being strengthened.
New satellite images show steady progress building a new dry dock there. It will large enough for China’s new Type-003 super carrier.
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. However we are as confident as we can be at this stage that this is indeed a massive dry dock.
Having a dry dock on Hainan will greatly strengthen the naval presence there. It indicates that aircraft carriers will be permanently based on the island. Nearby, a pier which has already been used by carriers, currently has a brand new Type-075 assault carrier parked alongside. This 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. They used a ski-jump like the Kuznetsov, but the third ship is expected to have an electromagnetic catapult similar to the U.S. Navy’s Ford class. In U.S. Navy terminology these are known as EMALS (Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System).
EMALs will allow heavier aircraft to be launched, such as the Xi’an KJ-600 carrier-based early warning aircraft. This is similar to the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. New classes of fighter and uncrewed combat air vehicles (UCAVs) are also expected.
Returning to the airbase, its new facilities may be directly related to the basing of aircraft carriers there. Long range uncrewed air vehicles (UAVs) have also been observed there.
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. So 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.