Military Capabilities

China's first runway in Spratlys under construction

17 April 2015

Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows changes to Fiery Cross Reef observed between February and March 2015. Noteworthy is the beginning of airfield installation in March, and the relocation of some dredging activity out of the harbour. (© CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS) 1569026

Key Points

  • Satellite imagery shows that China has begun building a runway on reclaimed parts of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands
  • The imagery, provided by Airbus Defence and Space, also shows China building islands on Subi Reef that if linked up would provide enough land for another airstrip

China has begun to build its first airstrip in the Spratly Islands, according to IHS Jane’s analysis of Airbus Defence and Space satellite imagery taken in March.

The 23 March images show a paved section of runway 503 m by 53 m on the northeastern side of Fiery Cross Reef, which China began to turn into an island in late 2014. Paving and ground preparation of other sections of the runway has also begun further along the island. In addition, workers have paved about 400 m by 20 m of apron.

Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows runway construction underway at Fiery Cross Reef. (© CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS) 1569027 Airbus Defence and Space imagery shows runway construction underway at Fiery Cross Reef. (© CNES 2015, Distribution Airbus DS / Spot Image / IHS) 1569027

Other imagery taken in March also shows China could be building a second airstrip-capable island on Subi Reef.

China’s island building at Fiery Cross Reef has created a landmass that is capable of housing a runway about 3,000 m long. This would be well within the parameters of existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways on mainland China, which vary in length from about 2,700 m to 4,000 m at most.

The runway at Woody Island in the Paracel Islands was about 2,300 m before upgrade work started there in 2014; satellite imagery suggests China is also expanding that to be about 3,000 m long.

The 23 March imagery of Fiery Cross Reef also shows further dredging on the new island’s southwestern side, close to the extant platform that China originally built on the reef. The imagery also shows floating cranes consolidating the integrity of new island’s harbour by placing concrete blocks on the interior walls; an exterior sea wall has also been extended, presumably to provide better protection for ships in port.

Airbus imagery taken of Subi Reef – also in the Spratlys – on 6 February and 5 March shows land reclamation on this site too. The 6 February image shows three islands being created. By 5 March, at least nine dredgers are creating larger landmasses on the reef that if joined together could create enough land for another 3,000 m-long airstrip.

While Fiery Cross Reef is to the west of the Spratly Islands archipelago, Subi Reef is on the north side of the island group and is only 25 km from Thitu/Pagasa island, which is occupied by the Philippines and has a civilian population.

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