Chinese Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Systems

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Thomas R. McCabe, USAFR, Retired

The best weapons in the world are useless unless aimed accurately, which requires a sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) system to detect and track targets, preferably in as close to real time as possible. Even more important, at the strategic level, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) views war between modern states as a conflict between systems of systems,1 which means weapons and targeting require an accurate and comprehensive view of those enemy systems to target them. China has been building a wide variety of ISR systems to provide its forces with such capabilities, including systems that we must expect will be available for military use even if nominally civilian. (China has said its policy of military-civil fusion will include the outer space and maritime domains; so, we must assume that all the surveillance resources PRC civilian agencies have will be integrated into crisis/wartime military ISR.2) These systems include the following:

Satellites. China has developed and deployed constellations of dual-use and military satellite reconnaissance systems, especially the Yaogan (“China remote-sensing satellite”) systems, with both electro-optical imagery reconnaissance satellites and synthetic aperture radar satellites.3 Many of the Yaogan satellites are also reported to be electronic intelligence satellites,4 intended to track and locate foreign warships by their optical and electronic signatures, and these systems and constellations have grown steadily more sophisticated over time.5 Further, China has deployed the Gaofen 4 imagery satellite, which boasts a very high resolution but low rate of imagery—72 images every 24 hours6 reportedly intended to track American aircraft carriers,7 in geosynchronous orbit,8 and may be reinforcing this with the recently launched Gaofen 13.9 In addition, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has started to deploy a series of nominally civilian satellites (reportedly called the Hainan satellite constellation system) to maintain a real-time watch on the South China Sea (SCS), a system that is supposed to include six optical satellites, two hyperspectral satellites, and two radar satellites.10 China has also announced the intention to launch large constellations of optical microsatellites.11

Signals intelligence (SIGINT) sites, ships, and aircraft. China evidently has an extensive and sophisticated SIGINT capability (one estimate from 2018 was that Beijing was spending a tenth of China’s military budget on SIGINT12) and is reportedly heavily dependent on these systems for tracking American ships. For example, in December 2013, the USS Cowpens, operating under emission control—EmCon—conditions, with all its electronic transmitters turned off, sailed within 12 miles of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning before being spotted visually. The Chinese reacted with near hysteria.13

Radars. China has deployed over-the-horizon (OTH) radars, which operate on radio frequencies that either reflect off the ionosphere (sky wave) or follow the surface of the earth (surface wave) and are not limited to line-of-sight like higher-frequency radars.14 Observers report that China had at least five OTH radars in 2010 (four surface-wave OTH sites along the coast and one OTH-Backscatter site inland)15 and has presumably added more since then. China also claims to be developing a ship-based version of these radars.16 An additional major part of the Chinese sensor system are the radars China is deploying as part of their integrated air defense system. In addition to longer-range air search radars, this includes the radars for surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems deployed along the coast. These SAM systems likely include long-range Russian-made SAMs (including SA-20s and S-400s/SA-21s,17 with the 40N6 missile, developed as part of the Russian S-400 system and tested to a range of up to 250 miles18) and the Chinese-built HQ-9 system (Chinese-built version of the Russian SA-10) with missiles having a range of up to 125 miles.19 While radars have a variety of limitations (especially line-of-sight and reduced range at lower altitudes due to the curvature of the earth), we must assume that the radars of these system reach at least as far as the maximum ranges of their missiles.

Unmanned Air Systems. China is making an extensive effort in ISR unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Military systems include at least two reported analogs to the American high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) Global Hawk—the Divine Eagle, which entered production before 2018,20 and the Xianglong/Soaring Dragon, which first deployed in 201821—and several systems for the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAS role. The most widely reported MALE systems are the Yilong/Wing-loong and the BZK-005, roughly similar to (or larger than) the American Predator,22 and the CH-5, roughly equivalent to the American Reaper.23 The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has also recently revealed the DR-8, a supposedly supersonic UAS reportedly intended to be used for searching for aircraft carriers.24 In addition, the Chinese are deploying nominally civilian drone fleets, such as the one being deployed by the Ministry of Natural Resources for surveillance of oceanic areas, especially the SCS,25 that we must expect to be at the disposal of the Chinese military if and when needed. Finally, China has tested a large, unmanned airship26 and has been at least testing aerostats,27 both of which can be used as sensor platforms.

ISR aircraft. While China has historically deployed a modest force of ISR aircraft,28 it has recently started to mass produce the KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) and PLAAF, with 14 deployed as of 2019.29 In addition, China has about 24 earlier KJ-200 AEW&C aircraft.30 China is also reported to be developing a new AEW&C aircraft, the KJ-3000.31

Ships. We should expect the PRC to use its maritime militia (84 full-time large vessels in 2019),32 coast guard (225 vessels larger than 500 tons in early 2019),33 fishing fleet (187,200 “marine fishing vessels” in 2018),34 and sea traffic as potential surveillance assets to detect and track movements of hostile surface warships. In addition, we should expect the PLAN to deploy “tattletales,” ships trailing American and allied warships and task groups.

Antisubmarine warfare sensors. China is working on a variety of sensors that can be used to track and detect hostile submarines and ships. These include military passive sound-detection arrays on adjacent sea bottoms,35 nominally civilian acoustic listening systems on the deep-sea bottom near Guam and Yap Islands in the Philippine Sea,36 and hundreds of anchored buoys throughout the western Pacific. Additionally, in 2017, Beijing announced plans for a massive dual-use military-civilian sensor system for adjacent seas (the “Underwater Great Wall”),37 projected for completion in 2022.38 Further, by October 2018, China had deployed nine surface-towed array sonar systems (SURTASS) ships.39 In addition, China is reportedly working on other potential submarine detection methods, including lasers from satellites and wake detection.40

External—especially Russian—assistance. Russia considers China to be a strategic ally against the United States41 and is helping China deploy a missile attack warning system, which evidently includes missile warning radars and satellites.42 Russia could potentially also provide other intelligence support to China. Of particular significance would be data from Russian systems supposedly capable of tracking American aircraft carriers.43

Data is, of course, useless by itself; it must be processed into usable intelligence. After doing this China then faces the formidable and most likely enormous challenge of integrating the intelligence from the various platforms, systems, and undoubtedly different military and civilian organizational stovepipes into a coherent and comprehensive picture of the Chinese mainland, the lands and seas bordering it, and whatever other areas Beijing considers necessary. China will then need to extract military or security-relevant intelligence from undoubtedly enormous amounts of what must be considered background clutter. This is likely to be an early priority for application of artificial intelligence. This task will be made even more complicated by the fact that it is a dynamic and constantly changing picture. Then this picture must be provided to the command, control, communications, computer, cyber, ISR (C5ISR) system for the Chinese command structure to use for making decisions. And all this in a dictatorship obsessed with information control and a dual military-political command system (commander and Communist Party political commissar)44 in their units. Finally, China faces the daunting challenge of making this structure survivable in wartime. The United States has wrestled with these problems for decades, with mixed success. China clearly has its work cut out for it.

Lt Col Thomas R. McCabe, USAFR, Retired

Colonel McCabe (BA, West Chester State College; MA, Georgetown University; MS in Strategic Intelligence, Defense Intelligence College), is a retired lieutenant colonel from the US Air Force Reserve, a retired career military analyst for the US Department of Defense, and a lifelong student of China. His writings on China have appeared in Air & Space Power Journal, the Air Force Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, the Mitchell Papers, the Mitchell Institute Forum, and Air University’s Wild Blue Yonder. This article reuses some information previously published in those sources. Reused with permission. This article represents only his work and should not be regarded as reflecting the position of any agency of the United States government.


1 See: Edmund J. Burke, Kristen Gunness, Cortez A. Cooper III, and Mark Cozad, People’s Liberation Army Operational Concepts (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2020); and Jeffrey Engstron, Systems Confrontation and System Destruction Warfare (Santa Monica: RAND, 2018).

2 See Greg Levesque, “Military-Civil Fusion: Beijing’s “Guns AND Butter” Strategy to Become a Technological Superpower,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief Special Issue: Military-Civil Fusion 19, no. 18 (8 October 2019),

3 Information on the Yaogan satellite program is derived from the following sources: Eric Hagt and Mathew Durnin, “Space, China’s Tactical Frontier,” Journal of Strategic Studies 34, no. 5 (October 2011): 731–61; Dwayne Day, “Staring Into the Eyes of the Dragon,” Space Review, 14 November 2011,; Ian Easton and Mark Stokes, “China’s Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) Satellite Developments,” Project 2049 Institute, 23 February 2011,; Gosnold, “The Chinese maritime surveillance system,”, 20 September 2016,; and “Surprise Chinese launch of the Yaogan Weixing-31-01 mission,” NASA, 10 April 2018,

4 Easton and Mark Stokes, “China’s Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) Satellite Developments.”

5 “Surprise Chinese launch of the Yaogan Weixing-31-01 mission,” NASA

6 Steve Trimble, “Chinese Space-Based Trackers May Add Carrier-Targeting Capability,” Aviation Week and Space Technology [Hereafter Aviation Week], 27 October 2020,

7 Wendell Minnick, “New Chinese spy satellites focus on US carriers – Wendell Minnick,” China Speaker’s Bureau, 9 October 2015,

8 Feng Li, et al., “Super-Resolution for GaoFen-4 Remote Sensing Images,” IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters 15, no. 1 (January 2018), .

9 Trimble, “Chinese Space-Based Trackers May Add Carrier-Targeting Capability.”

10 Liu Zhen, “Beijing deploys drones for South China Sea surveillance,” South China Morning Post, 10 September 2019,

11 Richard D. Fisher, “China Plans Giant Constellations of Tiny Satellites,” Aviation Week, 2 January 2018,

12 Kimberly Underwood, “China Advances Signals Intelligence,” Signal, 13 August 2018,

13 Michael Fabey, Crashback: The Power Clash Between the U.S. and China in the Pacific (New York: Scribners, 2017), 139–42.

14 However, they have a variety of other limitations. See: “Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar [OTH-B],” Federation of American Scientists, n.d.,

15 Jan van Tol, Mark Gunzinger, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Jim Thomas, “AirSea Battle: A Point of Departure Operational Concept,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2010, h, ttps://

16 Stephen Chen, “Chinese navy’s new ‘compact’ radar will allow it to keep watch over an area the size of India,” South China Morning Post, 9 January 2019,

17 For the SA-20, see: Dmitry Solovyov, “China buys air defense systems from Russia,” Reuters, 2 April 2010, For the S-400/SA-21, see: Dave Majumdar, “Russia’s Dangerous S-400 Air Defense System is Headed to China (And Maybe Turkey),” The Buzz (blog), 3 Apr 2018, .

18 Tamir Eshel, “Russia to Introduce Prometheus, a Successor to S-400 in 2020,” Defense Update, 1 January 2018,

19 Richard Fisher and Carlo Kopp, “Game Changers,” Aviation Week Defense Technology International, December 2009, 32.

20 “Huge unmanned aerial vehicle spotted at Chinese production facility,” Defense Blog, 5 January 2018, https://defe–

21 Kristin Huang, “The drones that have become part of China’s military strategy,” South China Morning Post, 26 August 2018,

22 For Wing Loong, see: “Wing Loong Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV),” Air Force Technology, n.d., For the BZK-005, see: “The Drone Index: Harbin BZK-005,” 21st Century Asian Arms Race, 16 May 2017,

23 Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Is China at the forefront of drone technology,?” ChinaPower Newsletter, June 2018,

24 David Axe, “China Is Building Supersonic Drones to Spy on Navy Aircraft Carriers,” The Buzz (blog), 26 September 2019,

25 Liu Zhen, “Beijing deploys drones for South China Sea surveillance.”

26 Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer, “China Tests Its Largest Airship,” Popular Science, 26 October 2015,

27 Joseph Trevithick, “China’s New Surveillance Blimp In The South China Sea Is Likely Just The Beginning,” War Zone, 2 December 2019,

28 Andrew Erickson, “Chinese Air-and Space-Based ISR,” in China’s Surface Fleet Trajectory, US Naval War College China Maritime Studies #11,, ed. Timothy Walton and Bryan McGrath (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2014), 90–94,

29 Rick Joe, “China’s Military Advancements in the 2010s: Air and Ground,” The Diplomat, 5 February 2020,

30 Joe, “China’s Military Advancements in the 2010s.”

31 “KJ-3000 AEW&C based on Y-20 to detect stealth fighters,” China Arms, February 2020,

32 David Axe, “U.S. Navy Nightmare: The Chinese Fleet Doesn’t Have 300 Ships, It Has 650,” The Buzz (blog), 30 January 2019,

33 Axe, “U.S. Navy Nightmare.”

34 Andrew Erickson, “Numbers Matter: China’s Three ‘Navies’ Each Have the World’s Most Ships,” The National Interest, 26 February 2018,

35 Lyle Goldstein and Shannon Knight, “Wired for Sound in the ‘Near Seas’,” Naval Institute Proceedings, April 2014,

36 Stephen Chen, “Acoustic sensors in waters near US military base in Western Pacific are ‘standard practice’ for monitoring submarine traffic, US analyst says,” South China Morning Post, 22 January 2018,

37 Catherine Wong, “‘Underwater Great Wall’: Chinese firm proposes building network of submarine detectors to boost nation’s defence,” South China Morning Post, 19 May 2016,

38 Catherine Wong, “China plans undersea observation system ‘for science and national security’,” South China Morning Post, 29 May 2017,

39 Rick Joe, “Chinese Anti-Submarine Warfare: Aviation Platforms, Strategy, and Doctrine,” The Diplomat, 16 October 2018,

40 For research on laser tracking from satellites, see: Stephen Chen, “Will China’s new laser satellite become the ‘Death Star’ for submarines?,” South China Morning Post, 1 October 2018, For wake detection, see: Wei Kou et al, “Evaluation of wake detection probability of underwater vehicle by IR,” International Symposium on Optoelectronic Technology and Application 2016, 2016,

41 Alexander Gabuev, “Why Russia and China Are Strengthening Security Ties; Is the U.S. Driving Them Closer Together?,” Foreign Affairs, 24 September 2018,

42 “Chinese Missile Early Warning System-with Russian Help-May be Nearing Completion,” Defense World, 25 June 2020,

43 Sputnik, “Russia’s Advanced New Surveillance Satellites to Keep an Eye on US Carriers,” Space Daily, 2 Aug 2016,

44 John Grady, “Political Commissars on Chinese Warships Play Crucial Role in Interactions With Foreign Vessels,” US Naval Institute News, 3 July 2020,



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