Taiwan and Its Radar Capabilities Key to the South China Sea as US-China Conflict Heightens


The United States and China are butting heads with increasing force in the South China Sea. The United States has opposed China’s unlawful claims in the area with freedom of navigation operations and training exercises in the area, and has denounced China’s August 2020 missile tests as blatant provocation. A look at how the South China Sea has become such a hot spot.

Missile Launches Reveal China’s Intentions

On August 26, 2020, the Chinese military test fired four ballistic missiles into the South China Sea. Observers perceived this as a demonstration of China’s resolve to stand strong against US challenges to its announced interests in the area.

The very next day, the US Department of Defense issued a statement saying, “Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability. . . . The PRC’s actions stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarize the South China Sea.” Then, on September 9, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called China’s pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea “unlawful.” The posturing continued after the United States Under Secretary of State arrived in Taiwan on September 17, when China sent a total of 35 aircraft, including bombers and fighters, across the median line into Taiwanese airspace over the next two days.

The tensions between the two superpowers are escalating, and if this military posturing and wrangling continue, an accidental armed confrontation cannot be ruled out. Why has the South China Sea become such a hotspot of conflict? In short, it is because the United States has decided that the issue of Chinese control of it has become an issue of homeland security.

To better understand why, first it is important to examine the missiles tested. According to a report in the South China Morning Post dated August 26, 2020, “China launched two missiles, including an ‘aircraft-carrier killer,’ into the South China Sea on Wednesday morning, a source close to the Chinese military said. . . . One of the missiles, a DF-26B, was launched from the northwestern province of Qinghai, while the other, a DF-21D, lifted off from Zhejiang province in the east.” The source went on to say that “the missile launch was aimed at improving China’s ability to deny other forces access to the South China Sea, a disputed region.”

“Guam Killers” and “Carrier Killers”

Both the DF-26B and DF-21D are fired from mobile launchers. The DF-26B has a range up to 4,000 kilometers, and can hit land targets with nuclear or nonnuclear warheads. Its range has earned it the nickname “Guam Killer” because it can reach US military bases in Guam. It has not been directly confirmed as an antiship missile, but some sources have identified it as such. The DF-21D has a medium range of about 1,800 kilometers, and is called a “carrier killer” because of its ability to hit targets at sea and counter Aegis Combat Systems defenses.

Ballistic missiles are usually intended to strike fixed targets, but antiship missiles are equipped with sensors in their warheads that search out ships to strike them on the move. No Western powers currently possess this type of ballistic weapon.

The DF-26B has roughly twice the range of the DF-21D and has a different configuration from the more specialized antiship missile, but as an article in the Global Times, the English edition of China’s People’s Daily, pointed out, they both can strike around the South China Sea area. Using them together in a “saturated attack” allows China to completely deny the United States’ carrier attack groups access to the South China Sea.

Restraints on American Military Action

The United States has run multiple freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China Sea over the years, ostensibly to maintain international access throughout the region. There were two held in 2015, three in 2016, five in 2018, seven in 2019, and as of August 27 seven in 2020.

Other maneuvers, unconnected to FONOPs, have included a joint flight operation between the Theodore Roosevelt strike group and the Nimitz strike group near the Philippines in April 2020, and in July the Ronald Reagan group and Nimitz group carried out operations in the South China Sea. At the same time, a B-52H bomber was deployed on an unusual exercise over the region.

In an August 28 editorial, the Global Times also characterized the missile tests as a means of deterring its powerful rival in the region, noting that if America “increases its military activities in the South China Sea that target China, the PLA must carry out forceful counter-deployment and exercises to dilute US pressure.”

So, what importance does the South China Sea have in terms of the United States’ security strategy? In August, the US Congress released a report, “U.S.-China Strategic Competition in South and East China Seas,” warning that “Chinese bases in the SCS and forces operating from them could also help create a bastion (i.e., a defended operating sanctuary) in the SCS for China’s emerging sea-based strategic deterrent force of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs).”

US Fears of a South China Sea “Bastion”

SSBNs can carry ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. The Congressional report places particular importance on China’s development of nuclear-powered submarines, probably because they will introduce the issue of nuclear armament into the South China Sea.

China is reportedly developing a heavy stealth bomber with a range of over 8,500 kilometers, the H-20, but as of August 2020 it does not have any bombers that can reach the mainland United States. Clearly, Washington does not see Chinese bombers as a direct threat yet.

Nor does it worry as much about intercontinental ballistic missiles. There are two standard methods of launching ICBMs. The first is from large underground silos, and the other is from mobile platforms, like trucks or train cars. No matter the launch style, though, the current state of sensing technology and reconnaissance satellites means that launch locations can be easily identified in peacetime, so ICBM launchers become primary targets for enemy missile attacks, offering a window for deterrence.

A JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile at a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, celebrating China’s seventieth anniversary. (© Kyōdō)
A JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile at a military parade in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, celebrating China’s seventieth anniversary. (© Kyōdō)

However, SSBNs armed with submarine-launched ballistic missiles are able to avoid enemy first-strike deterrence by staying submerged, and so offer assured counterstrike capabilities. China currently operates six Jin-class SSBNs. Each one can equip a maximum of 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs. China’s next generation Type 096 SSBN will be equipped with a new style of SLBM, the JL-3, and was apparently scheduled to begin construction in early 2020.

The JL-2 has a range of over 7,400 kilometers, but according to the Pentagon’s 2020 report on China’s military power, “The current range limitations of the JL-2 will require the Jin class SSBNs to operate in areas north and east of Hawaii if China seeks to target the east coast of the United States.” Since it seems impossible for a Chinese nuclear sub to operate near Hawaii without the United States intercepting it, it is currently difficult for China to target the US mainland with SLBMs.

Chinese Missile Development a Danger

However, the JL-3 SLBM, in testing since November 2018, will change the status quo. The JL-3 has a range of 12,000‒14,000 kilometers, and the Type 096 will be able to carry 24 of them. The 2020 report goes on to say, “As China fields newer, more capable, and longer ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the United States from littoral waters.”

The future deployment of the Type 096 equipped with JL-3 missiles clearly represents a direct threat to the United States, and puts a powerful deterrent card in China’s hand, with the ability to hit the US mainland.

Where exactly are these “littoral waters” that will allow China to target the United States? The seas bordering China can be largely divided into three: the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. The Yellow Sea has an average depth of only around 50 meters. The East China Sea barely exceeds 200 meters in depth. If a Jin-class submarine wants to leave China’s coastal waters across the Yellow or East China seas into the open Pacific, it would have to pass Japan’s Satsunan or Ryūkyū Islands, which are strung out like a wall between those seas and the Pacific, and are under constant observation by the US military’s latest P-8A patrol aircraft out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force also patrols with P-3C sub hunters from its Naha base. This means that neither of those seas can serve as a base to deploy missile-armed submarines.

A Chinese submarine docks at Yulin Harbor on China’s Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea.
Chinese submarines docked at Yulin Harbor on China’s Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea.

Why China Wants to Claim the South China Sea

The South China Sea, however, has stretches ranging in depth from 2,000 to 4,000 meters. This is most likely why the Jin-class missile submarines equipped with China’s SLBM are based out of Yulin Harbor on Hainan Island.

If China could keep foreign submarines, ships, and sub hunters out of this territory, it could become an ideal sanctuary for its nuclear submarines. China is outfitting small islands and newly built artificial islands with runways, radar, anti-aircraft equipment, ports, and other facilities in moves wholly consistent with securing the South China Sea as a nuclear submarine sanctuary.

While JL-2 missiles launched from the South China Sea cannot reach the US mainland, Japan and Guam are certainly within range. If the Chinese can secure the region as a nuclear submarine sanctuary, there is a very strong possibility that they will also deploy their upcoming Type 096 submarines armed with JL-3 missiles there, thus threatening the US West Coast.

So, China’s accelerated development of the 096/JL-3 projects, taken alongside its accelerated claiming of the South China Sea as a submarine sanctuary, can be understood as taking aim at the US mainland, while US FONOPs can be interpreted as an effort to undermine the South China Sea sanctuary project.

This increasingly fierce struggle between the United States and China over the South China Sea, then, is an issue of homeland security for the United States, and one of increasing strategic nuclear strike capabilities for China. These are issues from which neither power can easily back down.

What, then, will the United States do if, in the near future, China is able to complete the 096 submarine and arm it with JL-3 missiles, and the United States and its allies fail in preventing China from securing its South China Sea submarine sanctuary? This is where Taiwan becomes so important.

Taiwan’s Massive Radar Installation

There is a massive structure on the top of 2,500-meter Mount Leshan in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, that is visible to commercial satellites. Code named the Anpang Project, the facility houses a world-class early-warning solid state phased array radar antenna, built for $1.2 billion and completed in 2012 for Taiwan’s Air Force.

The giant radar facility atop Mount Leshan in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan. The triangular structure housing the main antenna is roughly 30 meters on a side.
The giant radar facility atop Mount Leshan in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan. The triangular structure housing the main antenna is roughly 30 meters on a side.

It is one of the most sophisticated radar systems in the world, and incorporates components of the AN/FPS-115 Precision Acquisition Vehicle Entry Phased Array Warning System strategic early warning radar system whose transfer to Taiwan was approved by the US military in 2000. According to Department of Defense documents, it grants Taiwan air and missile defense capabilities. What is particularly interesting is the possibility of a data uplink to share the intelligence it gathers with the United States.

PAVE PAWS was developed by the United States in the 1970s and 1980s primarily as an SLBM countermeasure system, and allows tracking of multiple targets while maintaining surveillance capabilities, according to the Air Force Space Command.

The radar can detect a missile launch from 5,000 kilometers away, and can detect and track projectiles in motion at great detail even around 2,000 kilometers away. A circumference of 2,000 kilometers from Mount Leshan covers almost the entire South China Sea, so it is extremely interesting to consider whether its acquisition and tracking information will be shared with the United States in real time.

If it could acquire a submarine-launched ballistic missile aimed at the United States from the South China Sea, it could offer the United States a chance to intercept the missile with its own countermeasures, and counterstrike using its strategic nuclear missile arsenal.

However, if Taiwan’s massive radar installation does not work, or the data is not shared in real time with US forces, their ability to intercept or counterattack could be greatly reduced.

For the United States, then, Taiwan’s early warning radar system is likely going to be an essential eye on the South China Sea, and probably will be something that the United States will defend. Indeed, the United States could come to consider Taiwan’s military radar part of its own first line of defense; without Taiwan it may find itself unable to mount effective deterrence against China.

Rapidly Strengthening Military Ties

The Donald Trump administration is carrying out proactive arms sales to Taiwan to strengthen its military. For example, on August 20, 2019, the United States announced that it would be exporting 66 state-of-the-art F-16 C/D Block 70 fighters and related equipment to Taiwan. Then, on August 28, 2020, Taiwan opened Asia’s first F-16 maintenance, repair, and overhaul center.

At the MRO center’s inauguration ceremony, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said, “The inauguration of this F-16 maintenance center today will help strengthen our air force combat capabilities, and is also an important milestone in developing our national defense industries, spurring the internationalization of Taiwan’s aerospace industries.” This indicates that Taiwan intends to use the center to maintain not only Taiwan’s own F-16s, but also those of other countries.

If other Asian nations deploying F-16s use Taiwan’s MRO center, it could lead to subtle changes in relations between Taiwan and some nations with which it does not currently enjoy diplomatic ties.

As military links between the United States and Taiwan strengthen rapidly, provocations like Chinese aircraft intruding on Taiwan’s airspace have begun sparking more tense incidents between the United States and China. While the confrontations remain low-key for now, it would not be at all surprising if an accidental encounter led to a more serious clash, and it is very likely such an engagement would involve the South China Sea.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Fighter planes taking off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz during joint exercise with the Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea on July 5, 2020. © Kyōdō News Images/Zuma Press.)

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