May 26, 2018

Philippine Island Runway Repairs & China Weapon Systems on Woody Island

MAY 25, 2018  |  AMTI BRIEF

AMTI Double Feature: Philippine Island Runway Repairs & China Weapon Systems on Woody Island

AMTI published new imagery on two separate features this week, both presented here for your weekend reading.

Feature 1:

Philippines Launches Spratly Runway Repairs

May 25, 2018

The Philippines has begun long-delayed repairs to its crumbling runway at Thitu, or Pag-asa, Island, the largest of its nine outposts in the Spratly Islands and home to upwards of 100 civilians and a small military garrison. Thitu sits just over 12 nautical miles from China’s air and naval base at Subi Reef, and was the site of a tense standoff with a Chinese flotilla last August. Philippine defense officials in April 2017 announced that they would be upgrading facilities at the country’s occupied islands and reefs, but little work was apparent until now. In addition to the runway repairs, a comparison of recent imagery with photos from February 2017 shows minor upgrades to facilities on Thitu and three other outposts in the last year.

Satellite imagery from May 17 shows two barges anchored just off the western edge of the Thitu Island runway, which collapsed into the sea years ago. It appears that a grab dredger, consisting of a crane with a clamshell bucket, is installed on the smaller barge to the west, while the other carries a backhoe. Loose sediment from dredging can be seen in the water around the two barges and freshly-deposited sand is visible along the northern edge of the runway.

This method of dredging is similar to that used by Vietnam at several of its outposts in recent years. While still harmful to the marine environment, it affects surrounding reefs at a smaller scale and is far less environmentally destructive than the suction cutter dredging undertaken by China, which destroyed thousands of acres of reef from late 2013 to early 2017.

According to 2014 reports, when repairs were previously mooted, the repair process would involve two steps. First, dredgers would clear a small harbor on Thitu near the runway. The coral reef surrounding Thitu makes it impossible for large ships to approach, as evidenced by the rusting hulk of the BRP Lanao del Norte, a Philippine Navy ship that ran aground in 2004 while trying to dock. Once dredgers have cleared a harbor and an approach, larger ships carrying the heavy machinery necessary to repair the runway would be able to dock and begin the second step, focused on the runway.

The airstrip at Thitu Island was originally constructed in the 1970s and was the first runway in the Spratly Islands. It is officially 1,300 meters long, but the real figure is closer to 1,200 due to the collapse of the western end. That, along with the poor condition of the runway surface, makes landings and takeoffs difficult for Philippine C-130s, as seen in video taken from the one that carried Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., then chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to the island in May 2015.

In addition to the start of work on the runway, other upgrades are visible around Thitu. At least seven new buildings have been constructed in the last year, with four near the residential area on the eastern side of the island, one near the administrative facilities at its center, another along the northern shore, and one at the western end next to the island’s basketball court, which has received a fresh coat of paint. Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in November that the country had started building a new beach ramp to more easily bring in supplies, but that site cannot be seen in the May 17 imagery due to cloud cover and no new ramp was visible as recently as February.

In addition to the upgrades on Thitu, AMTI before-and-after imagery shows minor upgrades at: Commodore, or Rizal, Reef; Nanshan, or Lawak, Island; and Loaita Cay, also called Panata Island.

A new round-roofed shelter has been constructed on the eastern side of the small Philippine outpost on Commodore Reef, visible in imagery from May 1.

An empty field on Nanshan Island has been converted into a helipad as of February 20, 2018.

On Loaita Cay, a small sandbar, an additional hexagonal shelter has joined the modest outpost, visible in this image from May 17, 2018. The Philippines mostly administers Loaita Cay from nearby Loaita, or Kota, Island to the southeast.

The location of this outpost, which the Philippines calls Panata Island, is often misreported as being on Lankiam Cay, to the east of Loaita Island. While it reports suggest Lankiam was once a small sandy cay, it appears to have been washed away, leaving only a submerged reef and a small, shifting sand bar. If there was ever a Filipino facility there, it was moved to Loaita Cay and took the name “Panata Island” with it.

The Philippines’ other five Spratly outposts, at Loaita Island, Northeast Cay, West York Island, Flat Island, and Second Thomas Shoal (where the purposely grounded BRP Sierra Madre serves as a permanent facility) show no visible upgrades in the last year.


 

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Feature 2:
Exercises Bring New Weapons to the Paracels

May 24, 2018

Satellite imagery from May 12 shows the deployment of several new weapons systems to China’s base on Woody Island in the Paracels. These new military platforms, under blue and red covers in the imagery, have been placed down the beach from the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile systems, under brown covers, that China originally deployed to the island in early 2016.

Since they are covered, it is difficult to definitively identify the new platforms, but they likely include truck-mounted surface-to-air or anti-ship cruise missiles and accompanying radars. The platforms were likely placed on the island as part of military drills that took place on May 9, though other satellite imagery published by Fox News has shown that they were still present as of May 20. This suggests that the platforms could be there to stay, just as the HQ-9s that were originally sent to Woody as part of an exercise have remained for more than two years.

Looking more closely, it appears that there are 20 new vehicles in total on the island’s northern beach. Those under the red covers are wired together in two distinct groups. The group farthest west appears to consist of two larger vehicles (perhaps anti-air or anti-ship missiles systems on transporter erector launchers (TELs), though they seem to be shorter than the HQ-9s to the east), two smaller vehicles (perhaps a different missile system), and a large radar truck. The group in the middle consists of another radar truck and two of the smaller vehicles. The blue covers likely consist of various support vehicles.

Aside from these new deployments on the north shore of the island, China has also deployed what appears to be two trucks and four covered vehicles on the east side of Woody Island. These are smaller than the platforms under the red covers on the north, and they don’t appear to be wired together in any way. They are roughly the same size as the jamming platforms China deployed to Mischief Reef in the Spratlys earlier this year, but it is difficult to know for sure what is under the tarps.

In addition to these new platforms, China also deployed J-11 combat aircraft to the island as part of its military exercises. One J-11 is parked near the end of the island’s runway in the May 12 photo while more are likely inside of the hangars built along the airstrip. J-11s have been deployed to Woody Island on several occasions in the past, including as recently as October 2017.

Woody Island is the military and administrative hub of China’s activities the Paracel Islands, and military upgrades and deployments there often serve as a blueprint for future developments at China’s bases in the Spratly Islands to the south.

 

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The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers

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