EXPLORING CHINA’S UNMANNED OCEAN NETWORK


PUBLISHED: JUNE 16, 2020 amti.csis

China has deployed a network of sensors and communications capabilities between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands in the northern South China Sea. These capabilities are part of a “Blue Ocean Information Network” (蓝海信息网络) developed by China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned company, to aid in the exploration and control of the maritime environment using information technology. The network constructed in the northern South China Sea between early 2016 and 2019 is referred to as a demonstration system. However, future plans for the Blue Ocean Information Network involve expanding the sensor and communications network to the rest of the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and other ocean areas far from Chinese territory. While the Blue Ocean Information Network is largely cast as an environmental monitoring and communications system, the military utility of its sensing and communications functions makes its development important to monitor.

The most visible elements of this network are two types of “Ocean E-Stations” dubbed “floating integrated information platforms” (IIFP) (浮台信息系统) and “island reef-based integrated information systems” (IRBIS) (岛礁信息系统). AMTI previously identified one of the latter systems after it was deployed to Bombay Reef in the Paracels in mid-2018.

Floating platform FT3004 between Hainan and the Paracel Islands, February 7, 2019
Fixed platform at Bombay Reef, April 28, 2020

(Left) One of CETC’s floating Ocean E-Stations between Hainan and the Paracel Islands, February 7, 2019. (Right) A reef-based E-Station at Bombay Reef, April 28, 2020.

Chinese Fixed and Floating Platform Deployment

As of June 2020, CETC has deployed five floating platforms around Hainan and one fixed platform at Bombay Reef. An additional fixed platform remains at the company’s fabrication site on the coast of Hainan. CETC’s nearby headquarters also contains one atypical fixed platform, likely a prototype used for research and development.

AMTI determined the deployment dates for each E-Station using satellite imagery from Planet and Maxar. By tracking when each platform departed CETC’s fabrication facility and then arrived at these locations, AMTI was able to confirm which is at each site. In March 2016, CETC deployed the first prototype floating platform, FT3001, 10 nautical miles off the east coast of Hainan. By early 2017, four floating platforms, FT3002 through FT3005, were under construction at CETC’s fabrication site. Each platform was lifted into the water by a floating crane before being towed away for installation. Maxar imagery from April 4, 2018 captured this process for FT3004.

CETC fabrication site, April 4, 2018

CETC fabrication site, April 4, 2018

By late 2017, CETC was also constructing two of the reef-based fixed platforms. One was deployed to Bombay Reef in April 2018. The other remains at the fabrication site as of June 2, 2020.

CETC fabrication site, June 2, 2020

CETC has demonstrated that the anchored, floating platforms can be relocated in as little as a week. In March 2019, it redeployed FT3002 from south of Hainan to the western end of the Qiongzhou Strait which separates the island from the Chinese mainland. CETC posted a picture of the platform on social media to praise the efforts of the crew that relocated it. Three months later, CETC moved FT3003 to the other end of the strait, 30 nautical miles east of FT3002. Together the platforms can now monitor all maritime traffic entering the Qiongzhou Strait.

E-Station Capabilities

In early-2016, around the time it deployed its prototype platform, CETC began filing for several Chinese patents related to a floating “information monitoring system” and at least one U.S. patent for a “floating observation system.” The CETC patent applications describe the floating platforms and many of their subsystems in detail. The 112-foot floating platforms consist of an upper and lower deck. When deployed, half of the anchored platform is submerged for stability. Power is provided by solar panels arrayed on top of the upper deck. A gas-powered generator may provide back-up power when necessary. Wind and wave energy are also offered as clean power options, according to the system description.

Both the floating and fixed platforms are intended to host a number of different sensors and act as a communications conduit for the information that they collect. The patents for the floating platforms make only general references to integrating “observation devices” that may collect environmental data on things such as currents, air pressure, temperature, and salinity. There is no specific mention of underwater monitoring systems like sonar or hydrophones which could be supported by the floating platforms, but there is a note that “other kinds of observation devices and auxiliary devices suitable for water area observation can be further installed.”

The patent applications indicate that much of the floating platform’s communications functionality and some of its sensing capabilities are housed within the radome on its upper deck. Communications capabilities outlined include a Ku-band satellite antenna, an L-band satellite antenna, radio antenna, and cellular communications antenna. Sensing systems include an Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) antenna and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) antenna as well as a small air- and surface-search radar. According to CETC brochures for the Ocean E-Stations, the radar is somewhat limited by the surface horizon and power. Larger ships and aircraft may apparently be detected as far as the radar’s line-of-sight. The radar has an advertised detection range of 30 nautical miles against smaller aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles with a radar cross-section of at least 20 square feet.

The fixed platforms appear to possess some capabilities that their floating counterparts do not. One notable addition is the presence of troposcatter antennas, visible on the north side of the platform in photographs and satellite imagery.

Fixed platform at Bombay Reef, April 28, 2020

Troposcatter systems enable over-the-horizon communications by scattering microwave signals off water molecules and dust in the atmosphere. Troposcatter communication links can exceed 200 nautical miles. The antennas at Bombay Reef appear to be pointed toward Chinese facilities at Woody Island, 46 nautical miles away. Troposcatter communication links are exceptionally difficult to detect, jam, or intercept compared to satellite communications or other types of radio communication.

Blue Ocean Information Network Demonstration System

CETC communications describe the floating and fixed integrated information platforms as being part of a Blue Ocean Information Network which may include other components like ocean buoys, fixed and relocatable underwater sensors to include sonar and hydrophones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned surface vehicles (USVs). The platforms deployed thus far appear to be part of a “demonstration system” intended as a proof-of-concept for the network.

An article describing the demonstration system, “Architecture of Marine Environmental Parallel Monitoring System Based on the Blue Ocean Information Network,” (基于蓝海信息网络的海洋环境平行监测体系建模研究) appeared in the March 2020 Chinese Academy of Science’s Journal of Automation. The article’s authors are from the Chinese Academy of Science, the CETC Ocean Information Corp., and the PLA Navy Research Institute. According to the journal article, state-owned CETC financed the construction of the Blue Ocean Information Network demonstration system, which it deployed between Hainan’s Lingshui county and the Paracel Islands. A graphic depicting the demonstration system shows it extending from Lingshui on the left to Woody Island in the Paracels on the right, with a wide variety of sensing and communications capabilities deployed in between. In addition to the fixed and floating platforms, the graphic shows buoys, wave gliders, USVs, UAVs, underwater vertical sonar arrays, underwater acoustic communications systems, and a fixed underwater array originating from Woody Island. Chinese weather and earth observation satellites are also indicated as contributing to the demonstration system, along with communications satellites such as Chinasat-11.

Beyond the fixed and floating platforms, AMTI cannot independently verify that these capabilities have been deployed as part of the demonstration system. There is some indication that the system detailed in the journal article represents an end-goal rather than current reality. For example, the graphic shows a fixed reef-based platform on North Reef in the Paracel Islands. But satellite imagery indicates that, as of June 2020, no E-Station has been deployed there. It may be that the fixed platform still at the CETC fabrication site on Hainan will be sent to North Reef, or that the platform intended for that feature was instead installed on Bombay Reef for unknown reasons.

The article also identifies a Blue Ocean Information Network “data processing center.” This likely refers to the CETC Ocean Research Institute (aka the CETC Ocean Information Technology Research Institute, 中电科海洋信息技术研究院有). This institute is reportedly located in the Clearwater Bay Industrial Park in Lingshui. And satellite imagery shows a facility in Clearwater Bay with what appears to be a shore-based fixed information platform with solar panels and a radome similar to the island reef-based integrated information platforms.

Fixed platform at CETC Ocean Campus, June 2, 2020

Implications of the Network

The floating and fixed platforms and other components of China’s Blue Ocean Information Network raise several concerns in the South China Sea and beyond. While CETC has largely cast the network as an environmental monitoring and communications system, the platforms and other systems clearly have military utility.  Environmental data, especially detailed, persistent hydrographic data, will allow naval forces to better understand how active and passive sonar systems will operate in underwater environments. Beyond that, an April 2019 PLA Daily article indicated the platforms would be used to “defend islands and reefs in the South China Sea.” All of the articles AMTI found discussing the Blue Ocean Information Network did so in terms of civil-military cooperation and safeguarding China’s national strategic maritime interests.

The ability to rapidly relocate platforms and sensors during a crisis may afford Chinese authorities information advantages in a crisis. This could include persistent monitoring of contested waters or a disputed island. An obvious military application might be to use the platforms and deployable underwater systems to close gaps in radar, sonar, or communications coverage in a military confrontation. The floating platforms also offer unique capabilities for crisis response. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, they could be installed along a coastline to provide air and surface radar coverage as well as cellular communications to affected communities.

The potential deployment of E-Stations and other components of the Blue Ocean Information Network farther afield would raise security, political, and legal questions, especially in disputed areas. How would other states respond if China placed a fixed platform on an uninhabited reef outside the Paracels, ostensibly for environmental research? Scarborough Shoal would be an especially provocative location, and a deployment there would likely spark a new crisis in both Sino-Philippine and Sino-U.S. relations. In addition, coastal states are legally entitled to regulate marine scientific research in their exclusive economic zones and to refuse permission to anchor platforms to their continental shelves. That means deployments in contested waters of the South and East China Seas would be sure to provoke outcries, and potentially at-sea confrontations, with neighboring states.

Representatives of CETC have written about expanding the Blue Ocean Information Network well beyond the scope of the current demonstration system, and even outside of Chinese waters. For example, in a June 2019 special edition of the Chinese journal Electronic Science & Technology, CETC officials presented three goals for a future Blue Ocean Information Network:

2025 – Complete construction of the Blue Ocean Information Network in “key maritime areas of [Chinese] jurisdiction” and begin “Belt and Road” marine network construction. This would “meet the urgent needs of military and civilian authorities for the acquisition of information in China’s jurisdictional maritime areas.”

2035 – Build out the “Belt and Road” marine network to fully support the construction of China’s Maritime Silk Road.

2050 – Expand construction to the “oceanic polar information network” and lead development of the “global ocean information industry.”

It remains to be seen how much of CETC’s ambitions can be realized. As of June, satellite imagery reveals no additional floating or fixed platforms being constructed at its fabrication site on Hainan. But the development of this network, and potentially others like it, bears watching. The Blue Ocean Information Network demonstration system in the South China Sea is the most visible and ambitious project of its kind, using information technology to advance China’s goal of becoming a great maritime power.

This feature was prepared with assistance from J. Michael Dahm

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