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DB – DIGITAL BATTLESPACE ADECS 2018: Chinese SIGINT capabilities sound alarm bells

31st January 2018 – 12:01 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Singapore RSS
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) facilities on Woody Island in the Spratlys is set to become a major SIGINT facility for its operations in the South China Sea, according to analysts.

In addition, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) monitors US Naval activity in the South China Sea from a SIGINT facility on Hainan Island

Professor David Stupples, director of electronic warfare systems research at City, University of London, addressed the topic of Chinese SIGINT capabilities at the ADECS 2018 conference in Singapore on 30 January.

The picture that Stupples painted is one of extremely heavy investment by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in this field, and a rather gloomy one for China’s neighbours.

He said, ‘[Human] resources are estimated to be around 200,000 (included military EW) with an estimated budget to be around $10-15 billion.’

If the upper end of this figure were accepted, that would mean China spends $15 billion of an overall $150 billion defence budget on SIGINT.

Stupples highlighted, ‘The PRC maintains, by far, the most extensive SIGINT capability of any nation in the Asia-Pacific region.’

Several dozen SIGINT ground stations are operated throughout China and around the world to monitor signals from India, Japan, Russia, Southeast Asia, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as US military units in the region.

The professor pointed out that ‘tensions in the South China Sea have demanded a significant PRC military presence supported by unprecedented levels of SIGINT activity…driven by China’s need for economic growth, security and to become the dominant world power.’

Perhaps of the most concern is an integrated maritime SIGINT system combining data collected from acoustic sensing buoys, surface SIGINT vessels, satellites and underwater gliders to intelligence centres in the Paracel Islands.

There are also widespread reports that China is monitoring US naval activity near Guam through acoustic sensors in the Mariana Trench and on the island of Yap. Such work is typically being done under the heading of ‘scientific research’.

Regarding a string of port and shore facilities along the rim of the Indian Ocean, Stupples reported, ‘It is confirmed that within these facilities China has established significant SIGINT capability.’

China’s efforts are heavily focused on the space domain too, with space-borne ELINT and COMINT systems plus photo-reconnaissance, imaging and communications satellites.

The Shijian-16 is a new series of low-earth orbit satellites to provide SIGINT across Asia, for example. Inclined to 75° to the Equator, these can intercept signals from naval formations. A second in the series was launched in June 2016.

The Yaogan series, meanwhile, are high-resolution optical and radar reconnaissance satellites that hunt in threes. They gather information derived from ship and aircraft radar and electromagnetic signatures.

The most recent, Yaogan-30, launched in May 2016, is a trio of high-revisit tactical imaging/ELINT satellites 120° apart to effect reasonably effective SIGINT coverage.

A planned constellation of three sets of triple satellites will allow the PLA to pass over an area 19 times per day in vertical-imaging mode, or 54 times a day in off-vertical SIGINT mode. Stupples suggested, ‘There will be almost continuous coverage of key areas of the globe.’

This is one reason why China is presently constructing new satellite ground stations in Argentina and Chile to help cope with the copious volumes of data being sent down from Chinese satellites.

Gaofen-4, launched in December 2015, is China’s most powerful geostationary earth observation satellite, its resolution of <50m is sufficient to catch the wake of an aircraft carrier. The satellite’s uninterrupted coverage of an area 7,000km² provides instant coverage of others’ military activity and it can task SIGINT satellites to take a closer look.

China made a great stride in being able to access downlinks from US satellites in the 1990s when Havana invited China to create a SIGINT facility at Bejucal, west of Havana. There are reports from defectors that Cuba also operates covert SIGINT sites in Washington DC and its UN office.

In conclusion, Stupples highlighted five threads in China’s intelligence strategy: industrial espionage (computer network exploitation, CNE) to leapfrog competitors and approach parity with the US; intense technical intelligence reconnaissance to understand others’ military capabilities; reconnaissance malware to penetrate critical infrastructure and identify weaknesses; fully integrating CNE to generate a comprehensive SIGINT picture in target nations; and using all of the above to achieve complete information dominance in Asia-Pacific.

From the overwhelming evidence provided by Stupples, there is no doubt that China’s SIGINT capability is the second best in the world, with only the US ahead of it.

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