On August 4, China’s Global Times reported that SU-30MKK Flanker fighter jets belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) had conducted a 10-hour patrol over the South China Sea, breaking the air force’s previous record of 8.5 hours.
Although the report suggested only one SU-30 had made the 10-hour flight, an online video showed five to six fighter jets had been involved in the mission.
The fighter aircraft departed from an air base in southern China and were refueled twice by Ilyushin-78 aerial refueling tankers. The Global Times described the operation as “technically and mentally” challenging for the pilots, noting that they had “consumed rations to keep their energy levels up.”
The mission came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Over the past few months, both countries have increased the tempo of naval exercises and air patrols in the South China Sea. On July 13, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea to be unlawful and accused Beijing of bullying the Southeast Asian claimants.
While the video was designed to demonstrate China’s growing power projection capabilities, one expert noted that it may have inadvertently revealed the PLAAF’s weaknesses. The Flankers were either lightly armed or unarmed, and the use of two Il-78s would have consumed two-thirds of the air force’s heavy tanker fleet. It suggests that in a conflict over the South China Sea the PLAAF would not be able to send large numbers of aircraft into the battle space and sustain them.
While the Global Times would only say that the fighter jets had been dispatched to the “most remote islands and reefs” in the South China Sea, the video clearly showed the aircraft flying over Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Subi Reef is one of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys and hosts a 3,300 meter-long runway. Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef also support long runways.
The mission begs an important question: Why didn’t the SU-30s land and refuel on Subi Reef? Surely one of the main purposes of the artificial islands is to enable China to project air power into the South China Sea to assert its territorial and jurisdictional claims, including the possibility of establishing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the Spratlys?
In the past, China has deployed fighter jets to Woody Island in the Paracels (including eight aircraft in July). In January 2016, two commercial aircraft landed on Fiery Cross Reef soon after the runway had become operational. And over the past two years, the PLA has flown transport planes and maritime patrol aircraft to the artificial islands, including most recently in April. PLA Navy (PLAN) warships, China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels, and Chinese-flagged survey ships are also frequent visitors to the man-made islands.
Yet, as far as we know, no PLAAF fighter aircraft has ever landed on Mischief, Subi, or Fiery Cross Reefs. Given the United States’ interest in publicizing China’s military activities in the South China Sea — both countries have accused each other of militarizing the dispute — it seems implausible that the Pentagon has evidence of fighter jet deployments to the Spratlys but hasn’t released the imagery.
Let’s assume then that no Chinese fighter aircraft has ever landed on any of the three artificial islands. Given the vast costs of reclaiming the seven features and then building military infrastructure on them － including fuel and ammunition depots, hangars, and radar and communications equipment － why hasn’t the PLAAF ever flown combat jets to the artificial islands?
There are three possible reasons.
The first is political: China does not want to inflame tensions with the Southeast Asian claimants by deploying combat jets to its artificial islands. Given that over the past few months China has doubled down on its claims and provocatively sent survey ships and CCG vessels into the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, this seems unlikely. As China seems unperturbed by the reputational damage its activities in the South China Sea have caused since the beginning of this year we can probably rule out this possibility.
The second is aircraft maintenance issues. Operating fighter aircraft at sea poses problems due to salt in the sea spray and high humidity, both of which can cause metal corrosion. However, U.S. aircraft carriers deal with this issue all the time and in any case China has constructed large hangars on its artificial islands, some of which are probably air conditioned. Besides, a few days’ deployment to Fiery, Subi, or Mischief Reef would not impose much wear and tear on PLAAF fighter jets, which could quickly be washed down with fresh water.
The third possible reason, if true, poses a more serious problem for Chinese defense planners: that the structural integrity of the facilities on the artificial islands, including the airstrips, is suboptimal and the PLAAF is therefore wary of using them.
Reclamation work at Subi Reef began in early 2014, but before the dredging was even completed construction had already started on the runways and support facilities. The runway on Subi was completed by mid-2016. The usual industry practice would have been to allow the reclaimed land to settle for months or even years before beginning construction. To do otherwise leads to the possibility of subsidence. Japan’s Kansai Airport, also constructed on an artificial island, has suffered from this problem since it opened in 1994, despite extensive remedial engineering work.
Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.
If the airstrips on the three atolls are sinking or cracked it would not be readily apparent from satellite imagery. Aircraft could use them, especially slower turboprop aircraft such as the military transport planes and maritime patrol aircraft that landed on Fiery Cross Reef in March and April. But for fast combat jets the integrity of the runway surface needs to be much higher. The image-conscious and risk-averse PLA would be keen to avoid the public relations debacle that would accompany a mishap involving one of its fighters as it took off or landed on one of the three reefs.
If indeed there are structural problems with the runways and associated facilities on China’s man-made islands it calls into question their strategic utility for the Chinese air force and any ambitions Beijing may harbor to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.