While the US Army does not apparently expect or seek a particular conflict with a powerful near-peer nation like China, the service is acutely aware of the rapid pace of Beijing’s military modernization and aggressive activities.
One more center of that activity that clearly raises the stakes for Taiwan’s future — a democratic island nation the US has vowed to protect — has been recently noted in new satellite imagery.
According to a military expert quoted by Taiwan News, these images show a sprawling helicopter base being built in China’s Fujian Province that could only have one purpose — to threaten Taiwan.
Ho Cheng-hui was cited by the Taiwan news website pourquoi.tw as saying the base had not been previously reported, at least not publicly.
He added it could be regarded as a product of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “desperate desire to resolve the Taiwan issue and expand the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) combat power.”
Ho suggested the base was yet another challenge to the existing international order and is intended to disrupt the US’ first island chain defenses and “even directly challenge the US military.”
He said the site could accommodate many military aircraft, as well, the report said.
The fear is that the PLA could be setting up an “air assault brigade” of helicopters to carry troops that could reach Taiwan within one hour.
The satellite imagery is based on the work of a self-described open-source intelligence analyst on Twitter who goes by the handle @detresfa.
On Thursday (March 11) he posted posted two satellite maps that he described as a “new heliport” in Zhangpu County, Fujian Province, the report said.
In a black and white photo, an oblong apron and runway can be clearly seen, covering what he estimates is 1,700 meters as well as an area for administrative buildings.
A color, close-up photo appears to show 10 helipads, a runway and at least three helicopters already positioned on the tarmac, the report said. He estimates the runway is 600 meters in length and counts 27 hangars for aircraft.
The open-source intelligence analyst told Taiwan News that based on his observations work on the facility started in July 2019, which consisted of clearing vegetation and earth moving.
He suggested that given its strategic location it could enhance both army and navy operations and allow for easier surveillance of the Taiwan Strait, the report said.
He added that it could also support UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) operations, though no drones had been observed. Judging by the fact the runway, apron and helipads are already paved and painted, he believes the base is “nearing completion.”
His satellite imagery sources include the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2, Airbus Earth observation and Google Earth. On Google Earth there is what appears to be a large construction site.
However, because satellite images on Google Earth are one to three years old, what is currently visible on the platform does not necessarily reflect the current situation on the ground, the report said.
A free version of Sentinel-2 reveals the outline of the airstrip, apron, helipads and administrative area.
The site (located at 24°02’41.5″N 117°50’55.0″E) places it approximately 183 kilometers from Penghu and 386 kilometers from Taiwan’s Dongsha Islands (Pratas Islands), the report said.
Military expert Ho said that in addition to the base’s helicopters, the estimated runway length would be sufficient for fighter aircraft to take off and patrol the waters and airspace off southwest Taiwan and the Dongsha Islands.
“These all constitute a threat and provide pressure,” Ho said.