The Chinese navy has just commissioned a new high-tech spy ship—at least its fourth since 1999.
The Type 815 surveillance vessel Neptune, featuring sensitive electronic listening devices, could help Beijing further improve its already impressive ability to gather intelligence on its rivals, in particular the U.S. Navy.
China’s state media announced the Neptune’s Dec. 26 commissioning two days after the ceremony, which reportedly took place at an undisclosed naval base on the South China Sea. Neptune “is able to conduct continuous all-weather reconnaissance of various targets within a certain range,” explained PLA Daily, the official publication of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
Like her sister vessels—one older ship dating to 1999, two newer ones that entered service in 2009 and mid-2015, plus at least one more Type 815 still under construction—Neptune is roughly 400 feet long. The ship boasts several large domes arranged along the superstructure that apparently house antennae for intercepting radar and radio signals broadcast by the military forces of potential enemies. China’s intelligence analysts at sea and on land can then interpret the signals in order to determine the capabilities of other countries’ ships, planes, and military hardware.
It’s vital work for an aspiring global power. And China has deployed its growing fleet of spy ships far and wide in recent years, paying particular attention to its geographically closest rival, Japan, and its most powerful potential enemy, the United States.
In mid-November, a Japanese air force P-3 reconnaissance plane reportedly spotted a Type 815 vessel snooping near the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea, midway between Japan and China. Tokyo administers the Senkakus, but Beijing also claims them under a different name, the Diaoyus. In recent years, both countries have sent patrol ships into the mineral-rich waters surrounding the islands, resulting in some tense moments at sea.
Arguably more provocatively, in July 2014 Beijing sent a Type 815 to the waters off Hawaii, where more than 50 warships from the United States and other countries had assembled for the biennial RIMPAC exercise, the world’s biggest naval war game. The Pentagon had invited four Chinese vessels to play a small role in RIMPAC, but it had not invited the Type 815.
The U.S. Navy’s exercise planners took care to keep the invited Chinese ships on the periphery of the war game, where they couldn’t directly observe the tactics and equipment of American and allied vessels. It was the Americans’ way of playing nice with the Chinese without also giving up military secrets. But the uninvited Chinese spy ship was bound by no rules or sense of decorum and apparently got close enough to the exercise’s main events to gather useful intelligence.
Still, every country has the right to sail the open seas, even near other countries’ war games and within their “Exclusive Economic Zones,” which extend 200 miles from a country’s coast and delineate the territory where a government has the sole right to fish and drill for oil.
“The Chinese navy AGI ship’s presence is in accordance with international law regarding freedom of navigation,” U.S. Navy spokesman Capt. Darryn James told the U.S. Naval Institute Press’s news website, using the military’s three-letter code for a spy vessel. Barred from ejecting the Type 815, U.S. forces could only monitor the spy ship as she monitored them.
Unspecified Chinese ships—most likely Type 815s—also spied on the 2012 RIMPAC, the Pentagon reported in the 2013 edition (PDF) of its annual report on Beijing’s military. If U.S. planners had hoped that inviting the Chinese to the next edition of the biennial exercise in 2014 would dissuade Beijing from also sending a spy ship to the war game, the Americans would be sorely disappointed. The Chinese navy both accepted the 2014 invitation and deployed a Type 815 to Hawaii.
The Chinese spy ships’ activities wouldn’t be so offensive to Washington if Beijing weren’t itself so sensitive about the activities of America’s own spy ships—of which the United States has slightly more than China does—in waters near China. Military Sealift Command, the quasi-civilian branch of the U.S. Navy, operates five surveillance vessels that are roughly similar to the Type 815s in size and capability. In 2009, Chinese trawlers tailed the American surveillance ship Impeccable while she was sailing in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea. The trawler crews, apparently acting on Beijing’s orders, repeatedly crossed in front of Impeccable at close range in order to block her path.
The U.S. Navy dispatched a heavily armed destroyer to escort Impeccable and prevent further harassment. Notably, Chinese Type 815s deployed into the U.S. and Japanese Exclusive Economic Zones in the years following the Impeccable incident, an act of hypocrisy that the Pentagon pointed out in its 2013 China report. “While the United States considers the PLA navy activities in its EEZ to be lawful, the activity undercuts China’s decades-old position that similar foreign military activities in China’s EEZ are unlawful.”
Now, with more Type 815s joining China’s fleet, Beijing’s naval spying missions could become more frequent, potentially more intrusive, and—more likely than not—even more irritating to the U.S. government.