• China has a significant military presence in the South China Sea that is supported by “unprecedented" levels of signals intelligence activity, says David Stupples, professor of electronic and radio systems, City, University of London. Graphic Credit: David Rosenberg, Middlebury College (www.southchinasea.org).
     China has a significant military presence in the South China Sea that is supported by “unprecedented" levels of signals intelligence activity, says David Stupples, professor of electronic and radio systems, City, University of London. Graphic Credit: David Rosenberg, Middlebury College (www.southchinasea.org).

China Advances Signals Intelligence

August 13, 2018
Posted by Kimberly Underwood
E-mail About the Author

Expert warns of the increasing SIGINT activity by the East Asian nation.


For the last decade, “informatization” of its national civilian and military infrastructure has been a top priority for the People’s Republic of China. The country’s efforts to become a global power in information and communications technology include a focus on signals intelligence. Out of its $150 billion total defense budget, the country is spending an estimated $15 billion on signals intelligence, said David Stupples, professor of electronic and radio systems, City, University of London, at an August 9 Association of Old Crows (AOC) online event.

Not surprisingly, China has the most extensive signals intelligence (SIGINT) capability of any country in the Indo-Pacific region. With increasing tensions in the South China Sea, China’s significant military presence is supported by “unprecedented levels of SIGINT activity,” Stupples noted. The professor ventures that, in particular, China is preparing a major SIGINT facility on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to “give Beijing an unprecedented reconnaissance overview” of the South China Sea region.  

In addition, China operates several dozen SIGINT ground stations in-country “and elsewhere,” to monitor signals from Russia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India and Southeast Asia, as well as signals from U.S. military units operating in the region. China also is constructing satellite ground stations in Argentina and Chile to process large amounts of data, Stupples said.

A large SIGINT facility with satellite communications (SATCOM) intercept facilities located on Hainan Island—just south of China’s mainland—primarily monitors area U.S. naval activities, as well as international communications satellites, Stupples said. For the Indian Ocean region, the country has increased SIGNINT activity through investments in the port and land-based facilities, establishing considerable SIGINT capability, he emphasized.

“Additionally, the Chinese have developed a series of SIGINT collection surface vessels that monitor U.S. military operations and exercises in Far Eastern seas, and subsurface SIGINT collection vessels and sensors to monitor sea lanes, specifically the Silk Road,” Stupples shared.

Of most concern, however, is China’s integrated maritime SIGINT system, Stupples said. “Data collected from acoustic sensing buoys, surface SIGINT vessels, satellites and ‘underwater gliders’ is streamed to intelligence centers in the Paracel Islands,” he stated. Moreover, to keep an eye on Guam, China has installed acoustic sensors in the Mariana Trench and on Yap Island for reconnaissance on U.S. surface and subsurface naval activity.  

As for trying to get SIGINT access to the United States, “historically, China’s challenge has been the lack of direct access to satellite downlinks into the [region],” Stupples said. The professor ventured that in the late 1990’s Cuba began providing China with access to major SIGINT sites at Bejucal, just west of Havana, run by Cuba’s Directorate of Military Intelligence. “Defectors claim Havana also operates covert SIGINT sites from its Washington-based Interests Section and from its diplomatic facility at the United Nations,” he added.

Furthermore, China is advancing its aircraft-based SIGINT. It has 30 electronic warfare planes, including eleven aircraft used for electronics intelligence, as well as a growing number of airborne early warning and control planes. “These aircraft are being put to work in the South China Sea and off the coasts,” Stupples said.

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