Electronic Warfare Comes to the South China Sea (and Why it Matters)

US EA-18g Growler electronic attack aircraft

US EA-18g Growler electronic attack aircraft

“An information technology-based war at sea is sudden, cruel and short…” was how the Chinese military characterized a peer-to-peer naval conflict at sea in a public statement at the beginning of the month during PLAN naval exercises. The exercises, occurring in the East China Sea, were designed to increase the PLAN’s “assault intensity, precision, stability and speed of troops amid heavy electromagnetic influences” or in other words, electronic warfare. China and the United States are preparing and force posturing to contest the electromagnetic spectrum in the South China Sea and further north in the East China Sea.

One of the defining characteristics of China’s actions in the South China Sea has been the construction of radar installations across the majority of its artificial features in the region.According to CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a variety of radar installations have been constructed on Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef. The purpose of these installations will vary and some will have dual uses—for instance a few of the radars on Fiery Cross and Subi Reef will be used to facilitate air operations from the runways housed on those features—but together, the facilities will significantly expand the real-time domain awareness and ISR capabilities of the PLA over a large portion of the South China Sea.

Publically, radar facilities appear to be less escalatory than anti-air missile batteries, artillery or even runways in terms of the infrastructure installed on the artificial features. They do somewhat support China’s officially stated intention of using the features for search and rescue. But the reality is that they’re of enormous use to the PLA and a pressing concern for other nations operating in the region.

These dispersed radar systems extend the PLA’s ISR capabilities throughout the South China Sea, and in combination with China’s growing military and intelligence satellite network, will likely allow better real-time tracking of vessels and other military assets in the region. It should be noted that it also appears that satellite uplink equipment is also being constructed on many of the features. What this allows is a more sophisticated and reliable over-the-horizon targeting capability for China’s growing arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles, extending a more credible threat envelope of A2/AD coverage to moving targets—like aircraft carrier strike groups.

The coordination of Chinese maritime assets in the South China Sea, such as naval militia, will also benefit from this increased domain awareness. These assets are being widely used by the Central Government in both the East and South China Sea. When combined with recent reports that China has begun to install satellite uplinks to its growing Beidou-GPS system throughout its fishing fleet—and very likely throughout its maritime militia—the ability for Beijing to make sure that these ‘white hulls’ are where they need to be at the most opportune time seems to be increasing.

These facilities might also allow the PLA to conduct active jamming of other electronic sensors and radars in the region. China already has a history of this activity in the South China Sea, with reports last year that attempts were being made to jam the on-board equipment and disrupt the GPS uplinks of American RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance aircraft.

If an action/reaction dynamic has also started in terms of investment and research into more advanced EW techniques and technologies, it may have also begun on the tactical level in the South China Sea. This was perhaps most obvious with the deployment of four US Navy EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft to the Philippines in June earlier this year. The stated reason for their deployment was for “bilateral training missions,” but the Growlers were likely also conducting reconnaissance and SIGNT operations in the South China Sea.

Growlers also have the capability to jam radars like those being installed on China’s artificial features. It’s plausible that we’ll see a scenario developing that has US EW assets focusing on China’s radar infrastructure across the South China Sea, with the PLA’s burgeoning electronic attack and defence capability attempting to defend these new electronic capabilities. More EW capabilities could be poured into the region in an effort to control or disrupt domain awareness, a critical aspect of coordinating military forces across the region for both sides. Increased EW capabilities may also be a less obvious and less aggressive way for US forces to support Southeast Asian allies in the region.

These types of operations will grow in the future, particularly as the PLA’s radar infrastructure comes more fully online and, as it appears, Chinese air force assets begin to operate more fully in the region. The electronic spectrum, largely out of sight of the public eye, is becoming an area of a growing action/reaction dynamic between China and the United States in the South China Sea. This contest, if it grows and persists, will only add to the underlying tensions and risks of escalation in the South China Sea.

Source: National Interest “Electronic Warfare Comes to the South China Sea (and Why it Matters)”

Note: This is National Interest’s essay I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the report’ views.


11 Comments on “Electronic Warfare Comes to the South China Sea (and Why it Matters)”

  1. F104 says:

    Sorry but the Chinese won’t be knocking these babies off anytime soon. We will see you in the skies of the South China Sea


    • Fre Okin says:

      All F35 variants are vulnerable to be taken out if no F22’s are around to protect them. If US only want to engage in saber rattling, China will have a very good opportunity to learn the weakness of F35C once they show up in the SCS without F22’s.

      Fearing this possibility, at most F35C’s will only fly Far Away from Hainan, probably at the southern tip of the SCS near Cambodia or to the east of Luzon island. China will not be impressed.

      If F22’s escort F35’s, this will also mean Growlers, tankers will be in the vicinity and China will make sure they won’t get close. In other words without a real war time scenario, F35’s will not dare to fly solo in the South China Sea anywhere near Hainan or the artificialislands for fear her weakness will be exposed.


      • Steve says:

        The Question now is should China engineer Huangyan Island and prepared for war against the US. I don’t think the timing is right and not worth the costs. This island is an important gateway to the Pacific Ocean and deter US from establishing military bases in the Philippines close to Huangyan island.


        • Fre Okin says:

          I think it is foolish to turn Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island into another artificial island. China already have the blueprint for the Mobile Floating Platform. China should make a Mobile Floating Platform to anchor on the multiple rocks in Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island, strengthen the rocks, enlarge them so the MFP can be anchored permanently, bristling with radars and UUV’s, a platform for her fighter jets to land and takeoff, ASW helicopters base there. Designed with intel gathering but capable of offensive missile placement if needed. This will be a prototype for further MFP deployment all over the SCS, even close to Okinawa, especially off Oura Bay near Henoko to monitor US base construction as well as JSDF jets taking off to patrol Diaoyu/Senkaku. Freedom of Navigation near Okinawa, nothing the Japanese can do about it.


          • Steve says:

            I agree, but to set up base with a mega multiple floating platform alongside Huangyan island is similar to engineering the shoal and that is crossing the red line of US/PH. Losing the mega platform is more costly than engineering the Huangyan island. Should deploy the platform outside the PH 200 eez within China’s nine dash line.

            These multiple platforms require solar wind energy to produce electricity and maintenance.


            • Fre Okin says:

              MFP is Freedom Of Navigation, like aircraft carriers, temporarily moored in Scarborough Shoal/Huangyan Island. What can US do? Dare to attack a Chinese sovereign property doing FON?

              MFP could be nuclear powered, much like Chinese nuclear powered submarines with unlimited range. Let them try to attack and cause a nuclear accident right where they fish. The political/economic cost will be immense and of course the Chinese will cause serious damage to US as well. So the threat of nuclear leak poisoning the fishes is a great fear factor to discourage US from attacking a nuclear powered MFP so near to the Philippines. Fear Sell!


    • Steve says:

      Nice landing, nice take off, these are what pilots supposed to do. U cannot fly a plane without take off and landing. Unfortunately, this plane is still a lemon in the sky. Ur Indian airforce should buy some of these lemons, its good for your curry.


    • Joseph says:

      ‘Babies’ is an accurate description for F-35. All babies need suckling mums. And the F-35 ‘Baby’ need suckling aerial tankers to operate. So even if the enemy is unable to shoot them down, they can shoot down the tankers. I feel sorry to those tankers crew.
      Of course the Chinese will not be knocking these ‘babies’ down. They’re just youtube phantoms. I am looking forward to see the real F-35s on the SCS sky. American loves photo fanfare, doesn’t it? Sadly it will not happen. So far the American only dares to commit only some expendable spy planes, and some four cheap outdated F/A-18s Growler junks. We didn’t even see the evidence that these Growler junks ever flew in the SCS. Too costly? Before talking big, the American should look over their government purse. They are lucky if their government does not cut their social security payments.


  2. Joseph says:

    Whoa, how do the National Interest guys know so much about Chinese electronic warfare on the artificial islands? Do they have spy on the islands? Or they just try to make justification for deploying the Growler junks on the Phillipines? Even if what’s in the article is accurate, considering what the Chinese could do to that RQ-4 Global Hawk, what could these outdated Growlers do? They are not even fibre-optics, which means that with such equipment, the Growlers are sitting ducks even in their airfields in the Philippines. A complete misjudgement and another waste of much needed budget which definitely needs justification.
    The American should learn from the Chinese. At least the Chinese fishing fleets still bring home fish harvests. Those Growlers could not even catch a sea bird to bring home. What a wasteful journey.


  3. Steve says:

    As soon as China militarise a number of the engineered islands and install those mega floating platforms, it would be much easier to control the SCS with greater facilities.


  4. Fre Okin says:

    A HEMP or NHEMP with Chinese ships guarding the artificial islands may be part of the strategy to knock off US missiles or jets heading towards the Spratlys or Hainan. They have to sail in international waters, off the Philippines in 200 NM EEZ or somewhere in middle of South China Sea, anywhere US missiles, jets are expected to fly towards the artificial islands or Hainan.

    They should be far enough from the Chinese islands so as not to harm her own military assets. They will be parked near expected flight path of bombers from Guam as well. There is simply not enough time for US to shoot the missile down. This will be a copy of the modus operandi US fear could happen if the North Koreans fire off an EMP missile near US coast, her ship sailing in international waters.

    US jets, missiles may be hardened but there is no guarantee they can handle a Nuclear HEMP tactical nukes fired into the stratosphere and exploded above them. It could even be a neutron bomb variant which can kill pilots. Freedom of navigation in international air space.

    So it is not just the electromagnetic war to jam and counter jam. It is an electromagnetic war to fry the electronics of US jets and missiles to disable them.



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