February 17, 2016

Chinese SAM missiles on Woody island beach, Not A Game Changer

In mid February 2016, a satellite image (at "A." below was publicised which revealed Chinese surface-to-air (SAM) missiles on Woody Island, in the disputed Paracel Island group, in the South China Sea. The SAMs are apparently HQ-9 surface-to-air (SAMs) (exact variant unknown) with a published range of about 125 miles (200 kms) but probably less. 

These missiles, which may be only on Woody temporarily, only augment several J-11 interceptor aircraft that have been based at Woody's airport for months and Chinese warships (armed with SAMs) which have plied the Paracels for years.

A. The satellite image "A." of the HQ-9 missiles in question (above). They may be on the north of Woody Island near the anti-aircraft-artillery "AAA" site marked on the satellite view "B." (below). 

These missiles and radars are sitting on trucks on a Woody Island beach. This would only be a temporary siting due to the wear-and-tear of sand, sun and salt on the missile casings, trucks and delicate radars. This may suggest that these missiles have been revealed by China, Taiwan and the US for political reasons coinciding with Obama's-ASEAN Sunnyland's meeting (mid Feb 2016) and to a far lesser extent Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s visit to Beijing

B. Woody Island South China Sea. China calls it Yongxing Island. (This satellite image courtesy Digital Globe via defencetalk(dot)net)

Woody Island towards top. Chinese miltary aircraft from China's Hainan Island can land at the growing air base on Woody Island.

Freedom of Navigation Operattions (FONOPs) overflights of militarised Chinese South China Sea islands by US (P-8s, P-3s, B-52s) and Australian (P-3s) will become more tense.

However there has been a threat a threat to overflights for a long time from Chinese air warfare capable destroyers (with long range HHQ-9A SAMs) and frigates  (with HQ-7 SAMs).

A newer threat to overflights has come from late model Chinese Shenyang J-11 BH/BHS fighters based at Woody Island since November 2015. The J-11s carry air-to-air missiles that could shoot down overflying aircraft. The missiles, like the J-11 jets might only be rotated through Woody Island during times politically advantageous to China and just before FONOPs overflights. Still, even temporary threats from these anti-aircraft weapons constitute a threat. Mistakes can be made. Near misses and collisions, particularly from J-11 jets, can occur.

Woody Island already sits in a highly congested strategic area bristling with weapons. So a staged show of missiles on a beach is only an additional threat, not a game changer.



Anonymous said...

The J-11 and HQ-9 deployments are to be expected from a tactical perspective. China is deploying nuclear submarines and other naval assets in Sanya on Hainan. Woody island acts like an early warning picket and further protects the Eastern approach. Woody island is also a gatekeeper to the SCS entrance.

I seriously doubt the HQ-9 slant range is 200km. The 2 stage missile only weights 2+ tons with a warhead of 180kg. Now compared to the Russian 9M83ME on the S-300V, a 2 stage missile with a slant range of ~150km. The 9M83ME weights nearly 3,5 tons. Its 1st stage alone weights 2+ tons. No wonder, the 9M83ME accelerates to Mach 10 when the HQ-9 maxes out at Mach 4+. One cannot cheat the laws of physics so I do not see how the HQ-9 can go out to 200km with any usable kinetic energy left.

The HQ-9 only has 6 engagement channels, that is only 1/2 the number of engagement channels on the export S-300PMU and S-300VM (the Russian domestic variants about double this capability). So this AESA clone of the Patriot seems to be subpar. This is probably why Chian puts out 2 HQ-9 batteries on Woody island.

Anonymous said...


Unlike the Spratleys the Paracels are only contested by VN, althrough VN cannot do much besides sending angry letters.

In the last few years, US and other countries sent their recon/SIGINT/MPA on stations near Yulin Naval Base, where the PLAN boomers are stationed. Rumors that the future CSG will also be stationed there.

Several the Japanese/Australian/USN P3 Orions were refueled at Da Nang Air Base, before heading home.

Da Nang Port is also the only port of call for the USN in the recent years.

Strategic SAMs in the Paracels makes the calculation harder for China's competitors.

Vietnamese mil-forums are currently saying, that the Iskanders are being shipped to VN and that their crews have returned from training. Rumors those Iskanders will be stationed in the Da Nagn sector.

Furthermore the Da Nang Air Base is next in line to receive newer jets - again presumely Su-34s in heavy escort-jamming configuration - as support for the older Su-22s.

It will be interesting to see whether China deploys the HQ-9 to the Spratleys. That will definitely leads to answers from the Malays and Viets. The Pinoys will probably also accelerate their plans for their own ASM/SAM.

Anonymous said...

The Paracels were the set piece of a naval battle between Vietnam and China. Vietnam will most likely protest, only if they are mere words.

USN logistics vessels have made port calls in Cam Ranh where Vietnam has a maintenance contract I believe with the USN but foreign surface combatants are so far limited to Danang.

Vietnam from open sources is looking at SU-34 with the Khibinyi EA&W suite and SU-30SM. The SU-34 is probably to replace the SU-22 while the SU-30SM covers the need to replace MIG-21. From a tactical point, Vietnam should near term re-deploy the SU-30 and SA-300PMU regiments from Saigon to Danang pending purchases of SU-34 and S-400.

Josh said...

@Anonymous: Iskander has been supplied to Vietnam? I can't find a source for that.


Anonymous said...

Without the US support Vietnam cannot do much about Woody Island or what the Chinese are doing with it, such as landing of J-11s and now installing surface to air missiles. Sending angry letters don't do much except to calm down the angry Vietnamese protesters.

The current regime in Vietnam is in a bit of a bind, since the Chinese took over the control for Woody Island (called Phu Lam Island in Vietnamese" during the Battle of the Paracel Islands with South Vietnam in 1974, one year before the US decided to withdraw and the consequential and fall of South Vietnam. North Vietnam and China were good friends and fought the war together against South Vietnam and the US. South Vietnam requested support from the US before and during the battle but lost badly since the US refused to intervene, since this was during the negotiation period for the US to get out of Vietnam. May be there were some kind of understanding among the parties involved (except South Vietnam) for the Chinese takeover the islands.

That was then, one could say that the US just wanted to get out, so the policy is crystal clear. But now the US policy for the region is opaque. Except for some drivebys with boats and flybys with various planes and lots of hollow words, the signals/messages are not clear at all. In fact, it's as clear as mud.

As Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia has said "China does not respect weakness". So, to get somewhere with China, the US would need to shore up the backbone and send much stronger messages which should be backed up with firm actions.
During the meantime, China's policy is straight forward. It's powerful and nobody, including the US, seems to have any strong nerve to stand up against its plan to takeover the entire area.

Woody island is one of the first island along the strings of islands and artificial islands from the Paracels to the Spratlys. The strategy is to build fixed forward bases for their aircrafts (and ships), since the only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is not quite ready to venture out too far from the protective shore. It would be too risky since it would be a sitting duck for anti-ship missiles from ships, planes and submarines. These islands would serve as anchored aircraft carriers. For pilots, it would be much easier to land on these fixed runways rather on than a bobbing ship.

Of course, China would need to have air defence systems to protect her airplanes and the runways, so it's quite logical for China to install those HQ-9 missiles, just for defensive purposes. Guess what's going to happen if the US (forget about the protest, or angry letters, from those small countries in the region)does not step its foot down. Surprise...more satellite pictures showing the appearance of J-11s and more HQ-9 missiles for their protection on Fiery Cross and other artificial islands. Again, for defensive purposes only.

Perhaps, we should bring in Japan and Australia in this discussion as well as influential actors in this theatre.

By the way, those runways, jet figheters, and HQ-9 launchers are considered fixed and easy targets (the launchers are mobile, but it would not be difficult to locate them on such a small and bare island, currently they are on the beach for everyone to see). If the war in the region broke out, they would be the first items to be wiped out.


Anonymous said...

In peace time, words do matter. One could goes one step further by steering key infrastructure projects to Japanese or US for example. In 2015 Vietnam ran a $35B trade deficit with China. For a $200+B GDP, that is not sustainable in any case and something needs to be done on the balance sheet.

SU-30 in Danang will put Woody island within range while staying outside the HQ9 coverage, since Vietnam operates the long range Kh-59 ASM. Re-deploying the S-300PMU also to Danang will provide protection to Danang as well as extend SAM coverage to nearly all the Crescent group within the Paracel archipelago. Both are defensive moves but they send a message. Both are necessary with the militarization of the Paracels.

Russia and Vietnam do enjoy a long standing special military relationship. A dilemma here for Vietnam is Russia lacks a mature AIP for the next batch of submarines even though a stretched Kilo design for AIP exists since 1990.

Anonymous said...

@ Josh:

The Vietnamese MoD doesn't make press conferences on procurements. But following the official press releases and forums gives hints on developments & upcoming deals & programs. Here is the usual pattern in the last 15 years:

- Russian/Isreali/Dutch MIC official says: VN is a potential customers for system X bla bla...

- Press releases from Foreign MoD & Vn MoD on some conferences/meetings to enhance cooperation bla bla...

- Forum-rumors /chatter about a Vietnamese delegation inspecting the production-site of system X.

- A few weeks/months later: Photos of Vietnamese personnel on leave near in foreign cities, where a [Insert Supplier Country] Armed Forces unit also operates system X, pop up on Viet forums/facebook sites.

- 12 - 24 months later grainy pics of support-equipment, maintaince-tools, shelter/garages pop up on the net.

The Vietnamese top brass decides when official statements/Press releases are made or not. Sometimes we only get pics 2/4 years of entering service.

In case of the Su-30s and Kilo SSK - right from the start. A little hard to hide anyway.

In case of the T-72B3 & T-90S in the tank-battalions near the Cambodian border or all the missile-programs no pics so far - except for the old SCUDs & RPG & Switchblades.

Even SIPRI is now scouting the Viet forums for information on deals.

Anonymous said...

Some comments about your remark: "The staged show of missiles on the beach is no game changer".

Perhaps, it could be so, under conventional thinking, since there are so much assets floating around in the area that those HQ-9 missiles would not add much to the arsenal within the local theatre.

But, it could be part of a long-term strategy, the so-called "spreading of an oil drop" strategy. Let's start with: put a flag on a reef, then fill it up with sands, build a lighthouse (to help international navigation - good deed) and some runway on it, deepen the harbour, land some civilian airplanes, then J-11s, then add some ground-to-air missiles on the beach. If there are no violent protest, then China will just let the oil drop spread a bit further. What to add next? build a new base for subs and move some of the subs from Sanya there?

Some suspicious minds would not get surprised if the launchers and missiles are all fake, since China did not seem to care about the corrosive effect of salt. They were put on display out in the open sky for the benefit of passing satellites. This staged show is just a show of force (like in a parade) to scare off people, or to impress politicians. It's a game that people play.

This staged show could be put on (with fake or real stuff), just to get some attention/ reaction, especially from the US and key actors in the area. Then after listening to their concerns, China would voluntarily withdraw the missiles from the beach (just like the withdrawal of the artillery pieces in the Spratlys, and the oil rig), to show that China is a considerate neighbour, and to gain some favour/credibility?

With respect to the point that China needs to build up Woody as a protection of their Sanya base from potential attack from the eastern side, I would say that this is a hollow argument. It might look good on a map to give an impression of China solid foothold in the contested area. However, with modern missiles and sophisticated delivery platforms, there would be no need to come close to Sanya to fire missiles from the eastern side. Modern cruise missiles like the Tomahawks can be delivered by airplanes and surface ships from many locations: Okinawa, Clark, Guam, or Diego Garcia bases, etc. from thousands of km away. Modern Scud-typed missiles can easily reach Sanya from the Vietnam shores (less than 300km away). Of course, there are many submarines, from various nations, with modern missiles for ground targets, lurking around in the area, may be just outside the territorial limit. They could even come close enough to launch a torpedo.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Sidney [at 19/2/16 6:37 AM]

I think missiles are just a small part of the picture. Any major naval base including Sanya will benefit from surrounding smaller bases.

As I've written in the article China can also use Woody as part of a network of island/reefs for MPA, helicopters, UAVs, SSK extenders and SeaWeb undersea sensor junctions.

I think isolated islands, like Woody, are about all directions offense and defence, which doesn't rule out east.



Anonymous said...

During the cold war, USN carrier strike groups are always screened with ships acting like radar picket stations hundreds of nautical miles out. Even for a Tomahawk, a 300km away picket station gives 19 minutes of warning to the main base. In fact during the 1991 Desert Storm, the 1st air offensive of the campaign started with taking out the radars Saddam put out in the desert to give early warning.
Any radar is limited by the radar horizon so for low flying objects you always need plenty of picket stations around, they can be islands like Woody or they can be ships like the type 052D in a multi layered defense. The only case when you do not need picket stations are when you have a 2km high mountain nearby so you lug a big radar on top or you put a JLENS like the US did in DC or Singapore and hope it does not fly away.
A real SAM site can be easily detected the moment the Chinese turns on its Big Bird equivalent surveillance radar or its Grave Stone equivalent acquisition radar. Big Bird has a range of ~500-600km so you likely can measure its tell tale radiation sweeps even from the Philippines.

Peter Coates said...

Thanks KQN [20/2/16 12:42 AM]

China will have to learn a great deal about carrier group operations. This is with very high stealth Western aircraft, missile and submarine threats to Chinese carriers and escorts.

Airships and barrage balloons have generally fallen short of expectations since 1914 but the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) just may be a success https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JLENS#Deployment .

Perhaps very high altitude JLENs and UAVs may be the key innovation that looks down on and detects attacking stealth aircraft.

Links are always good on less known subjects. I located one for Big Bird at http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Acquisition-GCI.html#mozTocId420074 .

Ever mature specialised Radar and greater LEO satellite numbers (with radar and other sensors) may also become a greater problem for stealth attacks.



Peter Coates said...


I've done a bit of research on Radars against stealth and come up with http://www.nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/revealed-can-chinas-radars-track-americas-stealth-f-22-15261

"a radar operating at a lower-frequency band such as parts of the S or L band—like civilian air traffic control (ATC) radars—are almost certainly able to detect and track tactical fighter-sized stealth aircraft."


"Typically, however, those lower-frequency radars do not provide what Pentagon officials call a “weapons quality” track needed to guide a missile onto a target."

see more at http://www.nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/revealed-can-chinas-radars-track-americas-stealth-f-22-15261



Anonymous said...


I agree high altitude JLENS or UAV AWACs flying at 30km are likely the best way to detect any stealth configuration including the B2.

Stealth only means low observability and the degrees of stealth shaping varies with each direction. So another approach to detect stealth is to deploy a large number of radars so they can paint a stealth object from many directions, and then to fuse the datas coming from all those radars, including IRST, etc. When you deploy multiple radars in many locations, it also complicates the job of electronic jammers.

I read the national interests' articles. The Russians have been working on this problem diligently for some years and their latest solution, the AESA Nebo-M shows how. From the excellent site http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-Nebo-M-Annex.html. In this sensor fused approach, they first detect in the 1m wavelength a stealth plane with the RLM-M complex. Once they know roughly where the stealth object is, they steer the RLM-D and RLM-S complexes to refine and develop a tracking solution which is then forwarded to the S-400/S-300V4/S-300PMU2. The existence of Nebo-M, and we can predict it will be improved over the years (signal procesing is essentially maths, and Russia produces top notch mathematicians), leads me to believe that a 6th generation aircraft will likely be much bigger. The RLM-M complex cannot detect a B2. Apparently Northrop Grumman believes that as well (partly because they develop the B2 and coming LRS-B).

Peter Coates said...

Hi KQN [21/2/16 8:44 AM]

Thankks for that. The need for a large number of radars working together is expensive and very high tech. This means that of "enemies" only Russia and China may afford it.

But as they are very large countries with dispersed assets and many borders that makes the radar coverage mission that much harder.

The US other NATO or Japan using anti-radar missiles in the early strikes can do wonders for such interdependent radars.

A systemic problem with Air Power Australia is it assumes Russian/Chinese radars and Flankers will be manned by highly experienced-reliable crews and the network will work flawlessly together on the first day.