US Carriers in the South China Sea Met by Deployment of Fighters to Island Strip
Chinese flankers to Paracels in the South China Sea
As the USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group sails into the South China Sea, evidence has emerged that China has deployed fighter jets to an airstrip on a disputed island there. Satellite imagery from July 15 shows at least four aircraft present. This move comes two days after U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo declared that “Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful.” It is also set against a large U.S.-led naval exercise and rising tensions across the region generally.
The planes are believed to be the Chinese-made J-11B variant of the famous Flanker aircraft. These are broadly equivalent to the F-15 Eagle used by the U.S. Air Force. China builds a range of versions of the Russian family of fighter aircraft, originally known as the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker. While the exact variant is hard to discern from the satellite imagery, there is no doubt that these are Flankers.
The Flankers are on the airstrip at Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Although de-facto occupied by China, it is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, and is one of many islands in the area that are disputed. China beefed up the facilities in recent years and has deployed fighters and bombers there previously.
The aircraft were initially spotted by open-source intelligence analysts using low-resolution commercial satellite imagery. Twitter user Duan Deng posted an image Thursday. Now high-resolution satellite imagery from Airbus confirms the situation.
The timing of the deployment could relate to a number of external factors. It may related directly to Pompeo’s statement. It is also a day after a U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson, performed a freedom of navigation operation in the area and a week after a major international naval exercise involving two U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. Either way it may be intended to send a message, or even as a hedge against military action. Of course it could be coincidental.
The U.S. Navy exercise involves both the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) and the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76). The carriers were joined by a full complement of escort ships and Japanese Navy vessels. The two carriers are larger and more operationally ready than China’s own aircraft carriers. But the Chinese Navy is gaining ships and experience at an incredible rate. The USS Ronald Reagan carrier battle group returned to the South China Sea on Friday.
The combat capability of four Flankers, in isolation, is modest when compared to a U.S. Navy carrier strike group. But their deployment does send a message, regardless of the motive.