China has reportedly constructed a massive extreme low frequency, or ELF, antenna array size New York City, as well as a smaller system and associated computing and signal transmission facilities at various locations throughout the country. Officially, the entire system, known as Project Wireless Electromagnetic Method or Project WEM, will support the Chinese resource extraction industry and provide early warning of potential earthquakes. However, there is significant evidence that its primary function may actually be to provide long-distance communication with Chinese submarines, a critical ability to support its growing number of nuclear-armed ballistic missile boats.
The South China Morning Post
provided the update on Project WEM on December 31, 2018. The antenna arrays and other websites have been more than ten years underway, the program being an important part of China's 11 Five Year Plan, which started in 2006. But China has been particularly secretive about the project and has not officially stated the location of the main array. Available information points for the majority of Project WEM are located within the country's central Huazhong region, according to Post.
ELF radio waves have a proven ability to penetrate deeply under water and soil. This means, in principle, that a huge antenna array can be useful in detecting underground natural resources such as precious metals or fossil fuels. Mining companies are already using ground penetrating radar and laser imaging systems for similar purposes.
It may also be possible to use such a system to monitor motion below the surface of the earth. This can in turn give rise to early signs of impending earthquakes that are not uncommon in many areas of the country. The deadliest known earthquake of all time occurred in China in the 16th century and killed between 820,000 and 830,000 people based on the Ming Dynasty records.
There is very real scholarship on ELF's application in both these civilian roles, and Chinese researchers have published work on these topics. Project WEM's funding also came through public budgets for civilian projects, according to Post.
But at the same time, there is significant information to suggest that any civilian use may be of secondary importance to the Chinese government. The ability of the ELF radio waves to penetrate hundreds of water water has long made them attractive as a way of communicating with submerged submarines.
By comparison, very low frequencies, or VLF waves, can only make it down to approx. 100 feet below water at best. This means that submarines must come relatively close to the surface or use a towed antenna to use these types of communication systems. There is a risk that it may give away from their position and make them vulnerable to resistant anti-submarine forces.
One of the great benefits of modern submarines, especially nuclear-fired types and both with advanced, non-nuclear air-independent propulsion systems, is their ability to remain largely hidden underwater for extended periods of time. This gives them inherently deterrent properties. It also makes them well-suited to concealing intelligence or, in the case of weapons armed with conventional land attacks or nuclear capabilities, to ask themselves to position themselves for short or no termination during a crisis.
So it is not necessarily surprising that China's 724 Research Institute, part of the state-of-the-art China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC), has been responsible for communications and other electronics for People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). for the project WEM construction. Lu Jianxun, the project's chief researcher, is also publicly involved in advanced communication work for PLAN, the Post reported.
CSIC President Hu Wenmin visited the site in May 2017. He expressed his appreciation for the construction of the WEM project and made statements and requirements for follow-up development of the project and technical application in related areas, "a subsequent statement by the company is read.
The Post Also released a translated map showing the various components of the Project WEM system, as it said came from PLAN. Besides the large selection in central China, it is also allegedly near the county's South China coastline, which will set it relatively close to the country's largest submarine base on Hainan Island.
"Although I am involved in the project, I have no idea where it is. It must be up and running by now," said Chen Xiaobin, a researcher at the Geology Institute, China Earthquake Administration. Postwhich indicates a level of security around the project that seems excessive for its stated civilian goals. "This facility will have important military uses if a war breaks out."
Unfortunately, ELF systems are notoriously inefficient and require large locations in very specific positions to provide some reasonable communication capability. They are also limited in the amount of information they can carry and how quickly they can send it out, only sending slow text messages. Since submarines do not have room for their own ELF transmitters, these one-way alerts often only tell the boat's crew to get safely into position to receive actual instructions.
Only three other countries – the US, Russia and India – have or have had ELF submarine communications sites. The US Navy closed the last of its arrays in 2004, officially because they were outdated in the face of improvements to very low frequencies or VLF communication systems. Navy's fleet of 16 E-6B Mercury strategic communications aircraft along with terrestrial VLF stations currently provide the US military's key means of communicating with deployed submarines.
The US military still uses VLF waves to transmit so-called "Emergency Action Messages", a key part of the nuclear strike process that you can read more about here. The Defense's advanced research project agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's top research and development arm has also explored the potential for further improved laser and space-based communication possibilities.
But for China, which has the largest single submarine power on the planet, it is important to be able to communicate with these boats without having to surface or almost surface. China had previously built a super low frequency or SLF series in 2009 and subsequently demonstrated an initial ability to communicate with submerged submarines over long distances.
The ELF offers an extra way to at least warn everyone both deep under the sea that there are new orders or other information they need to receive. It also provides extreme communication with long-distance communication, which will be valuable for PLAN as it continues to work to grow from a regional strength to a global one.
More importantly, Project WEM can be decisive for the Chinese government's development of its foreclosure capability with the nuclear weapon submarine launch ballistic missile (SLBM). In this case, the ability of the ballistic missile submarines or SSBN to remain underwater for long periods is important to protect them from detection and attack and to ensure that they are able to perform their mission, if necessary.
At present, the Chinese military has no place near the nuclear command and control infrastructure that the United States does in the air and on the ground. One or more large ELF arrays would be a cost effective means of extending the short-term communication capabilities with respect to the country's size and scale SSBN power.
In 2018, information emerged pointing out that China's submarine-based nuclear deterrent is far more mature than publicly understood. In November 2018, one of PLAN's Type 094 JinThe Classical Atomic Missile Submarines reportedly completed the first test flight of the JL-3 submarine launched ballistic missile, which has an estimated area of close to 5,600 miles. The existing JL-2 can only hit targets about 4,350 miles away.
That same month, satellite images appeared to show that the PLAN has four operational Type 094s and may have two further under construction. China has not publicly confirmed how many Jin– class boats that it has or expects to produce.
"China's four operational Jin-class SSBN's represents China's first credible, offshore nuclear deterrent, "said the US military in its 2018 annual report on China Military Power." China's next generation Type 096 SSBN allegedly armed With the subsequent JL-3 SLBM, it is likely to start building in the early 2020s. "
For any extended Chinese submarine-based nuclear deterrent power to be credible, it will increasingly require adequate communication and command and control architecture to follow. The timeline of Project WEM, which began the same year as the first Type 094 appeared in the public satellite imagery, is well in line with the kind of development one would expect to see. Placing the main radio in Central China also makes it harder for opponents to target it during a crisis.
It should be seen whether China continues to use ELF communication in the long run or ultimately abandon what the United States has done for other opportunities. But Project WEM, the country is willing to make significant investments in technology now to improve its ability to communicate with and control its large and growing submarine forces.
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