Thursday, December 24, 2009

The PLA Air Force Over the Horizon Radar Brigade

Over the last year, there has been substantial interest in China’s development of an anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). When deployed, its strategic goal would likely be to influence Taiwan’s domestic polity and manipulate the cost-benefit calculus of U.S. policymakers.

The ballistic missile program itself – the DF-21D – has been the primary focus. However, the cueing and surveillance architecture that would support an ASBM capability remains somewhat of a mystery. An integrated sensor network would be needed for initial situational awareness of maritime activity in the Western Pacific Ocean and to cue an ASBM before launch. A key element is believed to be a skywave over the horizon (OTH) radar. In November 2008, Sean O'Connor posted a great analysis of the OTH radar system and its role in an ASBM program on his IMINT & Analysis website, including the Google Earth image above. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang (Naval War College and RAND), Mark Stokes (Project 2049 Institute), Eric Hagt and Matthew Durnin (China Security), and Tony Capaccio (Bloomberg) also have addressed the OTH radar cueing issue. However, limited information exists on specific capabilities and how an OTH radar system would fit in to a broader architecture.

One interesting insight is its subordination. A Chinese blogger posted an article in November 2007 that highlighted a PLA Air Force (PLAAF) “Skywave Brigade” (天波旅). The post first appeared on the Wangchao bulletin board website and has been reposted hundreds of times since then. The author asserts that the brigade operates China’s first strategic early warning system in over 20 years, when a brigade operated a missile early warning system in the area of Xuanhua, north of Beijing. The missile early warning radar has been dismantled. The author, careful to avoid censors, uses Pinyin abbreviations for locations of the transmitter and receiver and names of the commander and political commissar of the PLAAF radar brigade. He/she also notes a requirement for additional sites in Fujian and presumably other locations along the east coast for measuring the ionosphere.

Taiwan Link research confirms much of the Chinese author’s analysis. A relatively new PLA Air Force radar brigade – the 95980 Unit – operates the OTH radar system. The PLAAF “Skywave Brigade" is situated in the southern edge of Xiangfan [襄樊], Hubei province, or specifically in Yingpan Village in the Xiangcheng District. On Google Earth, a guarded underground facility can be seen to the east of the village. While not confirmed, the mountain complex could house the OTH surveillance and warning system.

The PLAAF radar brigade has at least six subordinate elements (fendui). Two are near Xiangfan: the 52nd Element in the Zaoyang Municipal District and the 53rd in Nanzhang County. The blog poster notes that the OTH transmitter is in “ZY” and receiver is in “NZ.” The OTH receiver array that Sean O’Connor discovered on Google Earth indeed is in Nanzhang county. The coastal sites subordinate to the OTH brigade are:

-- 61st Element based near Xitangqiao Village [西塘桥镇];

-- 64th Element located near Fuqing [福清],

-- 66th Element near Jinjiang [晋江], Fujian province Sanshan Village [三山]; and

-- 67th Element near Wenlin City Shitang Village [石塘镇].

Most likely subordinate to the Guangzhou Military Region Air Force (GMRAF), the radar brigade's priority probably is air activity. Maritime tracks that the system generates could be filtered off to PLA Navy watch centers for tagging and correlation. More analysis would have to be done to figure out the command and control and service coordination arrangements.



Anonymous said...

This is great analysis. Keep it up!

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