Friday, June 1, 2012

New PLAAF base near disputed islands has camouflaged taxiways/HAS

Overview of the base. Numbers indicate exploded view of the area is available below. Click for high-res imagery.


First off, a spotter's badge goes to Greg Waldron (@asiajetwatch) over at Flightglobal for spotting and tweeting about this article from the Taipei Times about a new People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) base located at the northern coast of China's Fujian Province.

Sufficiently intrigued, I used clues in the Taipei Times article to locate the base, and found it using Google Earth at the (approximate) coordinates of 26°56'36N 120°04'35E. It was not difficult to spot; a big bald patch carved out of undulating forest north of the town of XiaPu (霞浦) along the northern coast of Fujian Province, roughly 360m above sea level. Google Earth has 3 historical images of the base, dated 18 March 2009, 1st May 2010 and 31st May 2011. The 2009 image shows most of the structures already in place, and the 2010 and 2011 images mostly showed progress on the dispersal/hardened areas of the base (more below).


1. Composite image of fighter aprons. Click for high-res imagery.

The runway is oriented approximately in an East/West direction (110°/290°) and measures roughly 2,400m (7,867 ft) long from threshold to threshold and 50m wide. The facilities for the base are located to the north of the runway, with 74 parking spaces for fighter-sized aircraft on the apron, divided (from west to east) into 3 groups of 26, 24 and 24 spaces which would work out to be the size of a typical PLAAF Fighter Division. The above composite image of the 3 fighter aprons, courtesy of Google Earth and dated 31st May 2011, shows 4 Chengdu J-10 fighters parked on the eastern apron, indicating that the base is already operational. I have not seen any Su-27s/J-11s as cited by the Taipei Times, and a quick look in the surrounding area revealed no signs of S-300PMU2/HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles or launch sites, although I may be missing something here. If so, please drop me a line via the comments section of this post.

2. QRA aprons at the western (left) and eastern (right) ends of the base. Click for high-res imagery.

In addition to the spacious apron, there are two Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aprons for four aircraft at each end of the base as seen in the image above. Surprisingly these are out in the open with no protection even from the elements, although shelters (hardened or unhardened) could easily be built at a later date. A large hangar (see main image), presumably for engineering work on the based aircraft, is also present.

3. Large aircraft apron (left of image) and unused apron space. Click for high-res imagery.

There is also a large apron space in between the western and central fighter apron. Judging from the lines on this area (see above image), the section on the left is set aside for large aircraft. The taxiway leading from the runway to this apron is also much wider than the other taxiways (38m/125ft at it's narrowest) which would appear to confirm the expected purpose of this apron. This could mean that the base is expected to house "force multiplier" support aircraft used to enhance the capabilities of the fighters at the base, such as the locally-built KJ-200/2000 Airborne Early Warning aircraft, as well as Xi'an H-6 tankers.


4. Aircraft Dispersal area. Note the camouflaged taxiways. Click for high-res imagery.

Definitely the most interesting aspect of the new base would be it's hardened and camouflaged dispersal area(s). There are two such areas; a fairly large dispersal with two entrances/exits north of the western/large aircraft apron and another smaller one north of the western apron. The larger of the two dispersals (pictured above) contains 15 Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) with each appearing capable of holding one fighter jet-sized aircraft inside, while the smaller dispersal, which is located to the east of the large dispersal area, holds five similar HAS.

Close up of a HAS and camouflaged taxiway. Click for high-res imagery.

What really threw me when I first saw this base was the camouflage the Chinese have applied to the dispersal areas. Each HAS is well camouflaged, with foliage atop each shelter. And to top it off, every inch of taxiway in the dispersal areas has been finished in a camouflage scheme of dark and light blotches. While it is safe to say every Chinese airbase operating combat aircraft contains dispersals (see here) and/or HAS (see here), and camouflaged taxiways have been observed before (see here), seeing the entire taxiway being camouflaged in this manner is certainly an eye-opener for me.


According to the Taipei Times article, this new base is seemingly "designed to bolster China’s claim to sovereignty over islets in the East China Sea". Given that the base is 70km (1 mile = 1.6km) from Taiwan's nearest frontline islands, 230km from Taiwan and 360km from the disputed Senkakus/Diaoyutai islands, that sentence would seem pretty much on the money to me. This base is obviously designed as a frontline base, with the number of aircraft it was designed to support, and the effort taken to hardening and camouflaging parts of the base. What does surprise me, however, is the comparatively small number of HAS on the base, given that only 25% of the base's aircraft strength is able to take advantage of the hardened facilities.

Taiwanese military sources the Taipei Times spoke to estimate that PLAAF fighters taking off from the new base could reach the Senkakus/Diaoyutai within 12 minutes, improving China’s response time for various contingencies in the East China Sea, most especially over the contested islets and the Chunxiao oil fields (春曉氣田), which are also the object of a dispute between the China, Japan and Taiwan. Up to now, the Japan Air self-Defense Force (JASDF) has frequently intercepted Chinese Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft over the Senkakus/Diaoyutai, as well as conducting their own patrols with P-3 Orions with no interference from Chinese fighters. However, the presence of this base may soon see that change, which will serve to further ratchet up an already tense situation.

An interesting aside is that there is what appears to be a tunnel running underneath the base, running north to south with the north entrance just next to the smaller dispersal area. It appears to be for a public road, and not for any nefarious military purposes connected to the base.

NOTE: I was initially struck by the seemingly undulating nature of the imagery of the base. One can only surmise that the area's relief had been mapped before the satellite photos were taken, and when the satellite image of the area was made, the fact that the Chinese would have levelled the area to construct the base had not been taken into account and hence the base seems to have been built on undulating terrain when viewed in Google Earth. Checking the relief in Google Earth along the runway alone would yield heights of 340m to 410m above sea level, so the above speculation would make sense.

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