China is apparently operating some of its Y-8FQ ASW (Anti-submarine Warfare) aircraft from a 3,100 meter (10,000 foot) airstrip on the Fiery Cross (Yongshu) Reef airbase. This base was completed in 2016 by dredging up enough sand to create a 271 hectare (677 acre) artificial island. Before that, there were two tiny “islands” that were rocky outcroppings only exposed at low tide. Those rocks were the part of the reef that was a hazard and one of the ships that sank there is the 19th century was the Fiery Cross. The reef was most frequently visited by Vietnamese fishermen because the closest land, 600 kilometers away, was Vietnam. Rarely did Chinese fishermen visit because China was over a thousand kilometers away. China made a claim to the area in the 1930s, when Vietnam was a French colony and China was at war with Japan. In the 1970s China used force (some brief naval skirmishes) to force Vietnam out of the area. The Chinese claim is not recognized by international treaties, which China has signed, specifying who owns what offshore.
Fiery Cross Reef is within the Spratly Islands. China describes the Fiery Cross facility as a naval rescue station but most of the time military aircraft are operating from the airbase. As many as 500 military personnel are stationed on Fiery Cross but the normal garrison is about half that. The base now has air-search radar and anti-aircraft weapons. There are also docks large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier and storage areas for water and fuel. While some rainwater can be captured, most of it to be shipped in. Vegetables have been successfully grown in the sandy soil, but that requires freshwater. All supplies have to be regularly shipped in from mainland China. A special fleet of transports has been built to supply the growing number of South China Sea bases.
The Spratlys are a group of some 100 islets, atolls, and reefs that total only about five square kilometers (1,200 acres) of land, but sprawl across some 410,000 square kilometers of the South China Sea. Set amid some of the world's most productive fishing grounds, the islands are believed to have enormous oil and gas reserves. Several nations have overlapping claims on the group. About 45 of the islands are currently occupied by small numbers of military personnel. China claims them all but long occupied only eight while Vietnam has occupied or marked 25, the Philippines 8, Malaysia 6, and Taiwan one. In 2014 China began its sand dredging operation to turn three reefs into artificial islands. Fiery Cross is the largest of these, so far.
The Fiery Cross airbase, which occupies most of the island, has twelve reinforced concrete hangars for combat aircraft and four larger hangars for aircraft like the Y-8, which is similar to the American C-130 and used for a wide variety of special tasks, like EW (Electronic Warfare), ELINT (Electronic Intelligence Collection), AWACS (aerial warning and control), AEW (early warning) and ASW (anti-submarine warfare). Most of the 150 Y-8s (and slightly longer Y-9s) are still used as transports but over the years at least a third of the Y-8s have been converted to other uses.
In 2017 China stationed four new Y-8Qs, the most advanced model of its ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, in the south (Hainan Island). This is where China stations warships and naval aircraft that operate throughout the South China Sea. This ASW version of the Y-8 was first seen in the air while being tested in 2010. By 2013 it was identified as the Y-8X (also known as the Gaoxin-6). A more advanced model, the Y-8FQ was eventually put into service in the north by the Northern Fleet. In 2015 the Y-8Q was first spotted, again in the north. This first sighting in the south was during early 2017. Four Y-8Qs were operating out of a Hainan Island naval base and were assigned to the Southern Fleet. The Chinese Navy has two fleets. The northern one operates from bases in the East China Sea (between China and Korea), while the southern fleet deals with areas off the south China coast, the South China Sea and adjacent areas. Because of the importance of the sea routes via the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf to the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the Southern Fleet has been growing in size and importance relative to the Northern Fleet.
The Y-8Q/FQ is China’s answer to the American P-3C maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft. Both aircraft are similar in shape and equipment. While outfitted in a similar fashion it is still unclear how close the Y-8Q is to the P-3C in capability. The first flight of a fully equipped Gaoxin-6 took place in 2012, and apparently the design was being rushed into service.
China is playing catchup here, as the U.S. has been using such anti-submarine aircraft since the 1950s. While Chinese espionage efforts may have obtained details of most American anti-submarine aircraft equipment, there’s no way to steal decades of experience. Another problem China will have is that when their anti-sub aircraft are actually put to use tracking American and other (especially Japanese and South Korean) submarines, this will take place in international waters where the Y-8Q can be followed and monitored by American intelligence collection aircraft and ships.
The Y-8Q is a four-engine turboprop aircraft that weighs sixty-one tons, has a thirty-eight meter (124.7 foot) wingspan, and a cruising speed of six-hundred and sixty kilometers an hour. The Y-8 is based on the Russian An-12 and U.S. C-130. There is also a larger version, the seventy-seven ton Y-9, which is believed to be a Chinese attempt to build an aircraft with similar characteristics to the American C-130J, and at least one of this version has been seen equipped for ASW work.
The American P-3 is based on the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954. Only 170 Electras were built but there nearly four times as many P-3s. A few Electras and over 200 P-3s are still in service. This is far more than the few dozen Chinese Y-8Qs. Currently, there are about two-hundred P-8s, P-3s and smaller anti-submarine aircraft in the western Pacific and, except for a few Chinese and Russian ASW aircraft, most are operated by nations that don’t get along well with China. Until the Y-8Q shows up in large numbers, China will be at a major disadvantage in this department. Chinese subs were under constant surveillance by foreign anti-submarine aircraft while China was restricted to comparatively slow warships with equipment for finding and attacking subs. China has even fewer helicopters equipped to anti-submarine work.
China is trying to even the odds in the South China Sea by building three SURTASS (Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System) ships that use a LFA (Low-Frequency Active) sonar for detecting submarines in coastal waters and on the high seas, especially very quiet nuclear or non-nuclear subs. SURTASS was originally developed by the U.S. to complement the much more expensive SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) networks. SOSUS was a Cold War era system that was largely abandoned after the Cold War ended in 1991. Now SOSUS is back. China began installing underwater passive sonar systems in its coastal waters back in 2011. This enables China to monitor submarines operating off its coasts and, presumably, in the South China Sea. South Korea did the same in 2011 when it announced that it was installing underwater submarine sensors off its coasts and this was completed in 2013. The South Korean effort was in response to North Korea using a small submarine to torpedo a South Korea patrol ship in 2010. China simply wants to keep foreign warships as far away as possible, even if it means trying to force them out of international waters. Adding some Y-8Q aircraft to the South China Sea effort helps, especially in a crisis situation when China suspects foreign subs are threatening Chinese control of the South China Sea.
Like the P-3C, the Y-8Q carries radars and other sensors, as well as a few tons of sonobuoys, depth charges, and torpedoes. The sixty-one ton P-3 has a 32.5 meter (one-hundred foot) wingspan and can stay in the air about ten hours per sortie. Cruise speed is 590 kilometers an hour. The Y-8Q has less endurance than the P-3 and its crews have far less experience.
The P-3C is being replaced by the P-8 Poseidon, which entered service in 2013 and is based on the widely used Boeing 737 airliner. Although the Boeing 737 based P-8A is a two-engine jet, compared to the four-engine turboprop P-3, it is a far more capable plane. The P-8A has 23 percent more floor space than the P-3 and is larger (38 meter/118 foot wingspan, versus 32.25 meter/100 foot) and heavier (83 tons versus 61). Most other characteristics are the same. Both can stay in the air for about 10 hours per sortie. Speed is different. Cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour, versus 590 for the P-3. This makes it possible for the P-8A to get to a patrol area faster, which is a major advantage when chasing down subs first spotted by distant sonar arrays or satellites. However, the P-3 can carry more weapons (9 tons versus 5.6). This is less of a factor as the weapons (torpedoes, missiles, mines, sonobuoys) are lighter and more effective today and that trend continues. Both carry the same size crew of 10-11 pilots and equipment operators. Both aircraft carry search radar and various other sensors.
The 737 has, like the P-3, been equipped with hardpoints on the wings for torpedoes or missiles. The B737 is a more modern design and has been used successfully since the 1960s by commercial aviation. Navy aviators are confident that it will be as reliable as the P-3.
The Y-8/9 is based on an older Russian aircraft design, the An-12. This Chinese copy of the An-12 never caught on big as a transport and that was one reason so many were converted to other specialized tasks.
China has been building the Y-8 since the early 1980s. The basic fifty-four ton propeller-driven Y-8 can, like the similar American C-130H, carry twenty tons. China only built about 150 Y-8s since the 1980s and sold some to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Sudan. Meanwhile, more uses are being found for the Y-8. One was converted to a medical evacuation aircraft, able to carry thirty-nine casualties on stretchers and fifteen able to sit, plus medical personnel.
Many of the older An-12s are still flying. But Russia has grounded all its An-12s more frequently because of old-age related reliability problems. The Russian answer to the American C-130, the sixty-one ton An-12, entered service in 1959 (two years after the C-130), but production ceased in 1973 after 1,280 were built. Chinese production of the Y-8 continued to the present. The seventy ton C-130 remains in production and over 2,400 have been built.
The Chinese Y-8s are well maintained and constantly updated with new equipment. China is apparently increasing production and finding, even more, uses for this sixty year old design, as well as producing an upgraded model, the Y-9.