The military tussle between two arch-rivals in the region i.e. India and China never seem to ebb. From the icy heights of Ladakh, where the two nations have been engaged in a prolonged military stand-off, the two are also involved in naval tussle thousands of kilometres away – among the deep blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Amidst reports of India testing the ballistic missile Agni-V in the Bay of Bengal next week, it has been reported that China has sent a spy vessel, Yuan Wang 5, into the Indian Ocean.
This is the same vessel which was sent to the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in August, earlier this year. According to the Indian Navy, the Chinese vessel has been spotted in the Sunda Strait of Indonesia. This 20 thousand-ton vessel is equipped with a large antenna, advanced sensors and other electronic equipment. It is operated by a crew of more than 400 members.
With a declared range of 5 thousand kilometres, the Agni-V has the capability to hit deep into China. That is why this ballistic missile has created a lot of panic in China.
According to the maritime rules, all countries are allowed to navigate their ships in international waters. That is why this spy ship of China cannot be stopped by India. This ship is part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Strategic Support Force and its primary task is to track and support satellites and ballistic missiles. Chinese ships often come to the Indian Ocean to collect data and make oceanographic maps.
Recently India had issued a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), first for 10-11 November 2022, and then 23-24 November 2022, for carrying out the test of a long-range ballistic missile (an advanced version of Agni missile), was forced to postpone it after it emerged that Yuan Wang 6 was sailing in the Indian Ocean Region off the coast of Singapore. Yuan Wang 5, at the time, was sailing near Lombok Strait, Indonesia.
These decisions, officials say, are not based on a “false alarm”, but should be read in the light of the impact these ships can pose to the Indian security apparatus considering the fact that they have been used by China to monitor, map and relay details of China’s manned and unmanned space missions in the past and in recent times.
While the Yuan Wang 5 was commissioned in September 2007, Yuan Wang 6 started sailing in April 2008. Apart from 5 and 6, the PLA Navy also operates Yuan Wang 7, the most advanced of these tracking ships, which was commissioned in July 2016. Yuan Wang 6—which was built by the Marine Design & Research Institute of China (MARIC), among China’s oldest and largest shipbuilding research institutes – uses and produces onboard electricity to an extent that it can power a city of 3 lakh people, the population of Aizawl, Mizoram, for multiple days.
While China terms these ships as research ships that carry out scientific experiments, all the Yuan Wangs have been fitted with C- and S-band mono-pulse tracking radar (that tracks radio signal to provide direction and location), cinetheodolite laser ranging and tracking systems, velocimetry systems, computer system to track and control spacecraft, execute different level of communication through HF, ULF, UHF, and SATCOM communications. These technologies enable Yuan Wang ships to complete missions that include monitoring and tracking advanced space vehicles including rockets, spacecraft, launch vehicles, satellites, and aircraft in real time.
According to officials, the control technology, including the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System, used in the Yuan Wangs are modelled on US and Soviet systems, which means that many of these ships have very advanced technology, of the same level as used by the U.S. defence agencies.
Experts believe that Yuan Wang 5 and 6 have more advanced technologies than their predecessors, including onboard optical fibre cables networked to share resources and quickly transmit data to other assets such as mission centres in real-time. The antennas in Yuan Wang-6, officials say, can transmit signals within a 400,000 km radius of the Earth.
Yuan Wang-5 was officially handed over to the Satellite Maritime Tracking and Control (SMTC) based in Jiangyin on 29th September 2007. It is equipped with a whole range of space tracking and communications systems, including an S-band and C-band tracking and control system, and a C-band pulse radar. The ship is capable of tracking space launch vehicles, satellites, manned spacecraft, and other types of spacecraft, as well as real-time voice/image communication and data exchange with the land-based control centre.
The ship was joined by Yuan Wang-6 on 12 April 2008, primarily to provide support to China’s Project 921 manned spaceflight. According to Chinese media reports, one of the visible differences between Yuan Wang-6 and Yuan Wang-5 is that the former has a control hall occupying two decks.
Under the existing laws that govern the right of passage through seas and oceans, India or for that matter, any other country, does not have much option to deter such mobile spy centres from snooping into their activities as these ships operate in areas which are outside India’s exclusive zone. India has as of now, only one similar ship, INS Dhruv, on active duty.
China’s PLA Navy (PLAN) is the largest naval force in the world with a fleet of almost 355 warships. Apart from this, it has established its logistics base in Cambodia, Seychelles and Mauritius as well as in the countries of East Africa.
-The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda