In mid-November, two People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock ships traveled through the waters between Taiwan and Yonaguni, Japan, temporarily lingering off Hualien, Taiwan. Japanese media speculated that the PLAN ships not only took part in regular “joint combat readiness patrols” in the eastern waters of Taiwan, but also simulated a landing exercise (Sankei Shimbun, November 24, 2021). In another recent development, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has built models shaped like American aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for target practice in the inland Xinjiang region (USNI News, November 7, 2021). Although these episodes appear unconnected, they are actually related, and have significant implications for regional security.
A Growing Naval Presence
In recent years, the Type 071 landing dock has sailed east of the first island chain only a few times, almost exclusively as part of the annual “far-seas joint training formation.” Instances include patrols by the Changbaishan (Hull Number 989) of the 174th Formation in 2019 and 161st Formation in 2020, and the Wuzhishan (Hull Number 987) of the 175th Formation last year, all of which belong to the Southern Theater Command ( Sino Weibo, February 26, 2021; Sina Military News, February 20, 2020).
The PLA not only travels through the first and second island chains, but also into the Central Pacific for its annual joint far seas training exercises (China Brief, May 7, 2021). However, the PLA’s purpose for including Type 071 amphibious ships in exercises was unclear until last year when CCTV reporters visited the 175th Formation’s command group. Video footage of the commanding officers’ armbands, chest badges, and combat uniforms, indicate that the command group formation has apparently incorporated elements from the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and Strategic Support Force (SSF) (Sino Weibo, March 1, 2021). It is also notable that the 175th formation is part of realistic military training, including at a test range in northwest China’s Taklamakan desert.
In late October, USNI News reported that the PLA had built models shaped like American aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers for target practice in the Xinjiang region (USNI News, November 7, 2021). Satellite photos from U.S. space technology company, Maxar Technologies, displayed the exact locations of the models in Ruoqiang County, Xinjiang. At first glance, the photos show sites that appear dusty and remote, but in reality, the locations are accessible to nearby transportation with National Highway 315 only four kilometers away. According to follow-up reports from USNI, the Minfeng County target area on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert and the Hotan City target area are under air control from Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), but have not been made public by satellite photos.
The PLA has long maintained target practice areas for ballistic missiles in inland deserts. A decade ago, some netizens shared a photo in an Argentine military forum that displayed a white 200 meter-long platform, which is similar in size to the flight deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier located 6 kilometers southeast of the Dingxin Test and Training Base in the Badain Jaran Desert (Sohu, September 2011). In 2017, reports confirmed that the PLA had constructed models of U.S. bases in Japan with Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Patriot air defense missile positions, and simulated bomb-proof aircraft shelters in the Kumtag Desert, which is 535 kilometers west of the Dingxin Test and Training Base (War on the Rocks, February 6, 2107; Stars and Stripes, March 21, 2017).
Surprisingly, the satellite photos released by USNI reveal that the mockups are scaled down models and not fixed platforms. As a result, they can be moved via rail to accompany fixed models of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. The anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has always faced challenges in developing the capability to target moving ships. The PLA has carried out similar “actual combat” simulations in the desert range. The so-called actual combat means that an ASBM can correctly identify an aircraft carrier in a carrier battle group and hit that model under steering avoidance movements.
Preparing for Naval Warfare in the Desert
The real questions are why has the PLA built a shooting range for ASBMs in the desert, and do these missiles have the ability to kill aircraft carriers? Prior to 2010, Chinese academic journals produced substantial research on radar backscatter coefficient in desert and marine environments (CNKI, 2004). Notably, most of this research resulted from the “State High-Tech Research and Development Program,” or the “863 Program.” In various studies, Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAS) found that the radar backscatter of evenly distributed small particles of dry sand in the inland desert is similar to that of a smooth open water surface.
As for the ability of DF-21D or DF-26 missiles to destroy aircraft carriers, PLA tests and statements concerning the U.S. military provide some insight. In April 2017, mobile phone footage posted online showed missile wreckage that was discovered near Dorbod Banner in Inner Mongolia. The wreckage was clearly printed with the words “E/ADF-26B,” and is suspected to be the latest model of the DF-26 missile. French military observer Henri Kenhmann determined that the wreckage were the first and second propulsion rockets of the DF-26B (East Pendulum, May 8, 2017).The missile was likely destined for the Minfeng County target area in southwestern Xinjiang, which is within range, about 3,700 kilometers away.
USNI News noted that the Ruoqiang County target area was constructed between March and April 2019 and was demolished in December. However, local flight announcements, indicate the area may have been used as early as March 18 of that year. Thereafter, the airspace around the target area was cleared one to two times a month until December, which indicates that it was frequently in use.
After the desert tests, the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration issued notice “HN0078” declaring that military training activities would take place in waters southeast of Hainan Island from August 24–29, 2020 (Sina, August 22, 2020). Air navigation notices were also issued in restricted waters. In late August 2020, a video showing the trajectory of a ballistic missile in the coastal area of Zhejiang circulated on China’s Weibo (Twitter, August 26, 2020; August 25, 2020). At the same time, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that a DF-26 had been launched from Qinghai in to the South China Sea as well as a DF-21D from Zhejiang province (SCMP, August 26, 2020). Three months later, in an interview at the Halifax International Security Forum, Admiral Philip Davidson, then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, confirmed that the PLA’s tests of DF-21D and DF-26 ASBM had been successful (National Defense Magazine, November 21, 2020).
The PLA tests ASBMs on “Ships in the Desert” in order to circumvent monitoring and ballistic analysis by the U.S. military Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems stationed in South Korea, Japan’s land-based J/FPS-5 active electronically scanned array radar, Taiwan’s Leshan long-range warning radar, and Arleigh Burke-class missile defense detachments in the destroyers in the East and South China Seas. Another advantage for the PLA is that it can unhurriedly conduct dynamic actual combat tests in inland areas. Following successful inland, tests, ASBM are tested in the South China Sea , which has a deterrent effect on neighboring countries.
In this context; why has the Type 071 landing dock recently appeared in the East China Sea? The ship’s overall length and width are second only to the PLA’s aircraft carriers and Type 901 supply ship, so it may be used to simulate aircraft carriers in order to implement the “kill chain” verification outside the first island chain. During these exercises, the SSF carries out Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) of the Rocket Forces’ simulated open sea strikes. Both the Sovremenny-class, 052C and 052D missile destroyer formations traversing the eastern waters between Taiwan and Yonaguni in early September, or the two Type 071 landing docks off Hualien in December, were likely involved in “kill chain” verification” in the eastern waters of Taiwan.
The SSF operates key systems including satellites, high-frequency ground-wave radars, sky-wave over-the-horizon radars, submerged buoys of a depth of 400 meters, and intellectualized submarine cables. Although the eastern sea area has the Central Mountain Range as a natural barrier and the average warning radars and high-frequency ground-wave radar cannot scan out for surface ships, sky-wave over-the-horizon radars, submerged buoys, and submarine cables in conjunction with the early warning aircraft KJ-500 and signals intelligence aircraft Y-9JB can still provide Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR).
The real purpose of the PLA’s land-based testing and development of ASBMs is to implement its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy to counter advantages of the U.S. carrier strike groups within the Second Island Chains and to reverse the U.S. sea power dominance in the Central Pacific.
However, following the principle of PLA manufacturing that “one breakthrough at one point brings about universal use for all types,” shortly after mass production of the DF-21D began, a longer-range version of DF-26 immediately appeared. Observation of the DF-15B with its “bionic vehicle with flaps” design confirm that it could potentially have the ability for use as an ASBM(Facebook, April 10, 2021).
The Type 071 landing dock that recently lingered off Hualien, Taiwan clearly belongs to the Eastern Theater Command, and was likely involved in “kill chain verification” for the PLA’s ASBMs (Sankei Shimbun, November 24, 2021). Therefore, the navies of Taiwan, Japan, or Australia, which often cruise the second island Chain, with ships equivalent in size or bigger than the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, will not only face sea skimming anti-ship missiles, but also need to defend against threats from much higher up. Finally, these developments will surely impact the U.S. military’s calculus as it weighs the risk of naval operations in the Western Pacific.
Lu Li-Shih is a former instructor at the Taiwanese Naval Academy and a former captain of the Ching Chiang-class patrol corvette. He received master degrees in both journalism and business administration. Currently he is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science, Soochow University, focusing on PLA Military Modernization and theater missile defense (TMD).